swords plowsharesFirst Sunday of Advent – December 2, 2019

Isaiah 2:1-5

Each week during Advent, we will explore the Scriptures of this holy season of anticipation from four different perspectives to see what each can teach us about the coming of the Christ into the world. Those four perspectives will come from the prophet Isaiah, John the Baptist, Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the angel who appeared to Joseph. Today, we begin the hear the beloved words of the prophet Isaiah.

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Chances are, the context for this morning’s text was what is called the Syro-Ephraimitic war, when “the northern kingdom of Israel and the Aramaean kingdom of Damascus tried to force Judah into an unwise alliance in opposition to the Assyrian Empire. When these foes finally laid siege to Jerusalem, King Ahaz turned to the prophet Isaiah for advice and assurance.” (1)

Isaiah’s response is telling, surprising even, for he does not prophesy of a time when God’s people will decisively win the war, vanquishing their enemies and all who oppress them, nor does he simply describe the suffering of his people as divine retribution. Instead, even in the midst of of the carnage, fear, disorder, and suffering warfare brings, Isaiah promises on behalf of God a day of perfect peace, when God will reign, and God will usher in a permanent era of justice where God alone will be the arbitrator between the nations, such that there is no need for humans to fashion and store up for ourselves the weapons of war, instead rendering those weapons into the tools of agriculture so that God’s people may be fed.

It is a beautiful image, one we seem to be only able to hold briefly as a dream that fades from memory with the morning light. And then we regard the world around us, a world so broken, so unjust, where despots tyrannize their own subjects and the endgame to assure peace between the nations is mutually assured destruction. We gather together in this Advent season of anticipation, yearning for the peace that only God can bring through the coming of the newborn Prince of Peace in our midst, and we sing hopeful songs full of yearning like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” and it is all seems so beautiful and so possible,

That is, until we exit worship and we reenter the world, and our song changes to the old Aerosmith hit “Dream On,” as in Dream on, Isaiah. Dream on.

Because Advent is a season of anticipation, it is also a season of awareness, a season that reminds us of, not only the first advent of our Lord in a stable in Bethlehem, but of the second advent of our Lord that will come in the fullness of time when Christ returns to finish his redemptive work on earth. As such, we find ourselves always looking, always anticipating, always trying to catch God’s ever-present yet elusive, flickering signs of peace in our midst, in this world, in our time. The challenge for us as Christian disciples is to always be aware, catching those flickers of light in the midst of a world filled with darkness.

Thirty years ago this autumn, I was a freshman in college, and I can remember gathering around the television in the dormitory of one of the students who had a television in his room and watching the Berlin Wall come down, watching ordinary people like you and me with their hammers, standing atop that old monument to war and division, and how on that night, anything and everything seemed possible. “Peace is breaking out everywhere,” one classmate said.

And yet I can remember four autumns ago, standing on the ground in South Korea, peering across the heavily-guarded desolation that is the thirty-eighth parallel, staring at a handful of North Koreans laboring in the fields beside long-unfinished houses, beneath the persistent gaze of South Korean soldiers in their brick, razor-wire lined watchtowers, and how palpable the possibility of war still feels in that bitterly divided land.

I remember the lay leader I once had in a congregation I served, a Marine and veteran of the pacific theatre in World War II, a man named J.T. who was speaking to a senior high Sunday school class one morning when a student asked him what everyone in the room was wondering: “Did you ever kill anyone?”

J.T. thought for a moment before telling them how afraid he was as the Japanese soldier ran towards him, and how all he could think of in that moment was home and seeing the face of the beautiful young woman he had married in the days before his deployment, who he so desperately wished to see again.

I remember day-long Saturday session of premarital counseling I did for a young couple, both sailors, in those terrifying weeks after September 11, and how each could only think about making sure the other received their death benefit if the unthinkable, yet increasingly possible happened. 

And yet, I remember the young Air Force officer in that same congregation, a man who joined to fly, only to learn he had just missed the maximum age requirement, and yet who still serves today. I remember how he once led a Sunday school class for young adults on social issues, how he had chosen the topic of war. He opened the lesson telling us his job was “to break things and kill people” and yet ended his lesson by telling us how his nightly prayer was for God to help him bring to bear a world were he never needed to do what he was trained to do.   

Flickers, flickers of light in the darkness that the darkness cannot overcome. 

Reading Isaiah’s prophesy, the word that increasingly jumps out at me is the verb “beat.” It may be the most realistic, most honest word in today’s text. The sword does not willingly acquiesce to becoming a plowshare. Likewise, the spear does not willingly render itself into a pruning hook. The work of the blacksmith with his hammer is hot and hard, persistent and repetitive: bang, bang, bang.

In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis argues that humans could not have concocted a notion of God, and especially a God of love and justice, were that God not real. Given how cold and dangerous, evil and unjust the universe can be, how could we conceive of the kind of we in whom we believe if that God did not exist? By the same token, I wonder how, given the human propensity to war with each other, how we could have ever dreamt of a world of peace were it not God’s dream as well. Without it being one of God’s ultimate goals for humankind on earth, how could have ever dared even whisper the words “peace on earth?”

And yet, our God gets a vote in all of our human mess, all of our human drama, all of our human propensity to do the very worst to each other, and our God tells us of God’s future, God’s dream of a world of peace. Ours is the redemptive God who sees possibilities where we only see problems, and this is the God who comes to us, to our world, and to our lives in Bethlehem at Christmas. The question, then, is do we wish to ask God to bless what we are doing, or be coworkers with God to do, to help bring to bear, what God is already blessing?

Each week, we gather together, and we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” Yet how often do we pause to consider what that kingdom looks like, and how we would live our everyday lives if God’s will were truly done in our lives and situations? For if we continue our Lord’s prayer, it is no coincidence that that it is only after we have submitted ourselves — our lives and our world to the will of the God of peace that we dare speak into the holy silence with united voices the words “…on earth as it is in heaven.”

As early as the early nineteenth century, scientists began developing what we know today as mustard gas, a vesicant, a sever blister-causing agent that was used, first in World War I and then in conflicts around the world as recently as 2016 by ISIS against the Syrian Army. During World War I, a British nurse treating victims of mustard agent commented “They cannot be bandaged or touched. We cover them with a tent of propped-up sheets. Gas burns must be agonizing because usually the other cases do not complain, even with the worst wounds, but gas cases are invariably beyond endurance and they cannot help crying out.”

And yet, in 1942, scientists working with mustard agent (it is not actually a gas), developed from it the world’s first chemotherapy drug. Called mustine, they were able to use the chemical to treat Hodgkin’s lymphoma, other types of lymphoma, and leukemia. (2)

A flash of light in the darkness.

After World War II, military surplus armored fighting vehicles were sometimes converted to agricultural tractors. The technology used to direct missiles is the GPS we use today in our cars to find our way around. At the Consumer Electronics Show in 2018, Sweden’s Yevo labs unveiled wireless earbuds that are created from the metal of illegal handguns. (3)

Flashes of light in the darkness of this world.

At St. Louis University in Missouri, there is a small Jesuit chapel that is lit with light fixtures made of disused twentieth-century cannon shells. Now emptied of their lethal contents, they now hold light by which people pray. In laying down our weapons, we bear witness to the promise of even greater transformations in generations to come.”

tylerI mentioned earlier the classic Aerosmith song “Dream On,” and writing this sermon I realized that this is a more fitting metaphor for God’s dream of peace, justice, and shalom than I first thought. The song is not dismissive, simply telling the dreamer to “dream on” in the pejorative sense. Instead, the actual lyric is “dream on, dream on, dream on, dream until your dreams come true.” For God, the dream is before us in this morning’s text: swords beaten into plowshares, spears beaten into pruning hooks, rendered by the strong arms of God and God’s people around the world, wielding the hammer that is the good news and all of the wonderful things we can and will and we can do as Holy Spirit-empowered witnesses to who Isaiah in chapter nine will call the “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

It is included in the words on the reredos in our sanctuary, that witness to all who gather for peace on earth and goodwill to all. It is a crazy prophetic dream, but it is God’s crazy, prophetic dream, a dream for you, a dream for me, a dream for Christ’s church, a dream for generations yet unborn, and because it is God’s dream being brought to bear in the life, death, and resurrection of God’s only Son, it cannot, and will not fail.

And just maybe, if God dares to dream of a realm of peace in our midst, a dream that comes in flashes of light, one bang of the hammer at a time, then perhaps, just perhaps, there is hope for peace in our lives, in our hearts, and our minds, even our households, even in our churches, as the Prince of Peace abides with us, even here, even now, hammering alongside us, bring it all to bear. Bang, bang, bang.

Dream on, people of the light. Dream until God’s dream comes true.

Gloria In Excelsis Deo. 

  1. Bartlett, David L.. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) . Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition. 
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mustard_gas#History
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swords_to_ploughshares
  4. Bartlett, David L.. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) . Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.