Walking in the Light
Dr. Keith Wagner
A neighbor of mine has some construction going on at his house. I thought perhaps he might be building a bomb shelter or adding a sun room. I happened to run into him one day last week and so I asked him what he was building. It turns out he is adding an apartment to his home for his brother-in-law. He is in his late 50’s and has Downs Syndrome.
I must admit I was pleasantly surprised. To expand your home in order to accommodate a person with a special need is a real commitment. It is truly n action, or an example of “walking in the light,” according to Isaiah the prophet.
Isaiah told the Israelites that God had ordained them to practice justice and righteousness. Primarily that meant they were to be neighborly toward everyone in the community. He said previously in chapter 1 (vs. 17) “learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” As people of faith this was their calling, to be agents of compassion for others and advocates for the underdogs in society.
Walking in the light is not just believing in God, it is using our resources to reach out to any who have need. During the Christmas season we have many opportunities to give resources to those who are less fortunate. Many refer to it as the “season of giving.” Isaiah, however doesn’t make this a seasonal event. For him it is an all year-around process, faith in action, a constant expectation of God’s people.
On our way home from Tennessee last week we came upon a car that was slowing traffic. It was an old, beat up jalopy with all colors of paint. It had a big sign on the roof which read, “Jesus is coming soon.” My wife and I laughed since we both thought if Jesus was coming in that car he would never get here. Nevertheless, the presence of the religious fanatic on the interstate reminded me that, yes, we are in the season of Advent. Advent means “to come,” and for the church it is the season of the “coming of the Lord.”
What exactly is coming? By celebrating Christmas we once again celebrate the birth of Christ, the intervention of God’s love in the world, the reign of peace over God’s world. Isaiah told of a coming age when all nations would cease to be at war and everyone would turn to God as the supreme being of us all. This would be a time when everyone would “walk in the light of the Lord.” Isaiah gives us a vision of the ideal society, a time not yet realized put a time that will come, a time of peace and harmony.
Unfortunately, driving an old car with a bumper sticker that says, “Honk, if you love Jesus” and a sign that reads, “Jesus is coming soon,” will not make it happen. There is nothing wrong with being zealous for the faith for we are called to live with the confidence that God will prevail and to live our lives “as if” there is still hope for the world. Isaiah challenges us to practice our spirituality by being good neighbors. In other words to be people of faith demands us to be responsible in our communities.
What Isaiah asks of us is best illustrated by his words, “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” Here he is saying that we are to turn our weapons into agricultural tools. Can you imagine sending farm equipment to Afghanistan instead of tanks and bombs? No one can, since it is human nature to defend ourselves.
Isaiah, however pleaded with the people of his day to give peace a chance. Instead of “swords,” there should be “plowshares.” For me, swords mean all forms of defense; the walls and fences that we build, the turf whereby we establish boundaries, all forms of oppression, and even abusive language which can cause psychological abuse. These are to be transformed into “plowshares.” By that I believe he meant the cultivation, or “tilling” of the soil. This is the practice of preparing the earth where things can be planted and ultimately grow.
A young girl, named Jane was only seven years old when she visited a shabby street in a nearby town, and seeing ragged children there, announced that she wanted to build a big house so poor children would have a place to play. When she was a young adult, Jane and a friend visited Toynbee Hall in London where they saw educated people helping the poor by living with them.
Jane and her friend returned to Chicago, restored an old mansion, and moved in. There they cared for children of working mothers and held sewing and cooking classes. Older boys and girls had clubs at the mansion. An art gallery and public music, reading, and craft rooms were created too. Her dream finally had come true.
But, Jane didn’t stop there. She spoke up for people who couldn’t speak for themselves. She was eventually awarded an honorary degree from Yale. President Theodore Roosevelt dubbed her “America’s most useful citizen,” and she was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for Peace. In spite of her world wide fame, Jane Adams remained a resident of Hull House for the rest of her life. She died there in the heart of the slum she had come to call home. From (God’s Little Lessons on Life for Women, Honor Books)
Only a few people are awarded the Nobel Peace prize every year but there are no doubt thousands of other people like Jane who have taken the call to help one’s neighbor as a life-long commitment. When will we ever learn that turning our swords into plowshares is the only way to realize a truly peaceful society. Because the world is so filled with conflict and people who can’t get along with their neighbor the idea of a peaceful society may only seem like a pipe dream. Nonetheless, Isaiah said this is our calling and besides, is there really any other way to be at peace with ourselves or obtain “inner peace” than through the practice of neighborly love?
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Just as the people of Isaiah’s day dreamed of an ideal world, one without wars and needless suffering, we too dream of a world where “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
First we have learned that we “walk in the light” by proclaiming the coming of the Lord, believing in world peace, and secondly we have learned that we “walk in the light” by helping our neighbors. Isaiah also said we should “walk in the light,” by learning; “that he may teach us his ways, and that we may walk in his paths.” To walk in the light of the Lord is to be instructed by God, to be taught, to be exposed to the great messages of our faith history like the words of the prophet, Isaiah. These messages according to Isaiah, are heard “on the mountains.”
As you know, Lin and I always go to the Smokey Mountains for Thanksgiving. We make this annual pilgrimage to prepare ourselves for the upcoming weeks of holiday craziness. It is a stressful time and we have found that a few days in the mountains at the beginning of Advent re-energizes us and gives us just the break we need. More than anything we appreciate the peace and tranquillity we experience while living high in the mountains away from civilization. It is very peaceful and there are always lessons.
One thing the mountains do for me is humble me. I am always amazed at how small I feel in relation to God’s greatness. The experience always sets the stage for the opportunity to learn something new. One evening we had a huge storm and when I went down the mountain the next morning to get a newspaper, there was a tree across the road. I realized in that moment that a single tree across the road could prevent all the residents from leaving the area. Later in the day we went down the mountain again, only this time the tree was gone. Someone had come with a saw and carted it away. The tree was just a few hundred yards away but we never heard the noise of a chain saw. Apparently someone had come with a hand saw, removed the tree and then disappeared. I thought to myself, what a neighborly thing to do; not only to remove the tree from the mountain road but to do it quietly.
I believe this is what Isaiah wants us to do by turning our swords into plowshares. We are to strive to be good neighbors and at the same time use peaceful means to build a sense of community. We all want world peace, but are we working hard enough to obtain peace by using methods of non-violence? Are we teaching our children to be negotiators and mediators? Are we using plowshares instead of swords? This is a different paradigm than we are accustomed to. True peace, according to Isaiah, seems only obtainable by being persons whose goal is peace and by striving for peace, only by peaceful means. Rather than ask, “is it possible?” perhaps we should ask, “am I trying hard enough?”
––Copyright, 2001, Dr. Keith Wagner. Used by permission.