December 3, 2017

Series: December 2017

Category: Advent - Peace

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Isaiah 2:1-5

2 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.

3   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.

4 He shall judge between the nations,

  and shall arbitrate for many peoples;

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,

  and their spears into pruning-hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

  neither shall they learn war any more.



I must not have been at the church long—I’m speaking of my last congregation—because it was the first time I had seen this particular member read Scripture in worship. Not long into the reading, his voice began to break up.  At first I wasn’t sure, then it became clear he was crying.  He composed himself, finished, and the service went on.  Later when I expressed some concern to some elders to get a sense of how I might approach him, someone replied casually, “Oh that’s Jim, that always happens when he reads Scripture.”  It was at once funny and poignant.  God’s word, or these words about God, routinely moved this man to tears.

The word of God also truly informed his everyday life. Jim was deeply kind in a matter of fact kind of way.  For years he gave a ride to a couple in the church who did not drive.  Living in the city, they mostly had no need of driving.  After the couple had their first child, Jim showed up at their place on the first Sunday they were to return to church with a new car.  When they commented on it, he responded, “Well, I figured now that you had a child, I needed a 4-door so we could get the car seat in and out more easily.”  The sole reason he bought that car was to make their Sunday mornings easier.  That’s who Jim was.  If that’s not enough to convince you of his character, he was clerk of Session for something like 20 years.  Saint.

I thought of Jim this week when preparing because it’s difficult for me to make it through today’s Scripture reading from Isaiah without tears. I am glad it was left to the lector.  We begin this season of Advent telling ourselves of the promise about the one who will,

…judge between the nations,

  and shall arbitrate for many peoples;

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,

  and their spears into pruning-hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

  neither shall they learn war any more (Is. 2:4).

 Christianity connects the prophecy to the birth of Christ, generations of waiting through exile and unjust rule rewarded with the arrival of one who would turn everything.

The imagery of Isaiah touches me deeply, of the swords into plowshares, and perhaps most of all the notion of not learning war anymore. I have lost, and am desperate to find again, a reference to a history book written by a Quaker, that drawing upon that spiritual tradition of a commitment to peace, chronicles history not by the wars that have been fought but by other markers of time and human achievements. I had never thought about it, but it was true. When I was taught, my history textbooks largely divided up time into periods between wars. The purpose of the Quaker book was not to write wars out of our history, but to recognize that measuring human existence solely by episodes of violence sends a confusing and dangerous message that wars are what is necessary to drive humanity forward.  

          The Quaker commitment to nonviolence isn’t only about international conflict. Derived from the notion that the sacred, the divine, the light, resides in all beings, this is meant to pervade our personal interactions as well. It requires ongoing attention and tending, for the capacity for violence also lies within us and can come up in an instant. Just last Sunday afternoon, I was driving my family to get a Christmas tree and I cut off someone on the road. It was by accident. I had been suffering from a stiff neck, so I didn’t look over my shoulder properly. It was totally my fault. The guy laid on his horn—understandable—drove around me aggressively—I get it—but then proceeded to look back at me yelling as he drove off. For whatever reason, either due to my committed devotional life or because my son was in the backseat (and my mother!), I didn’t get hooked. I just gave him a shrug and lip synched, “sorry.” I remember thinking, “At that moment, after I had already done it, what did he want me to do?” He was so angry.

I was taken aback, in part, and you’ll laugh at this, because he was driving a Toyota Prius. “You’re not supposed to be angry,” I thought, “you’re driving a Prius. You’re trying to drive more gently upon the earth! You gas tank is too small for such rage! Your battery is charged with love! After all, your car is just two letters from spelling pious!” (I have hybrid car envy.) This rage is in us all, at least I know it can be in me. Isaiah poetically names what is also in us, a yearning for a different way, a way of peace. At this time of year, do we not especially dream of peace, and hopefully practice it, turning swords into plowshares where we can?

          Scholars remind us there is even more going on with Isaiah’s prophecy.  As one commentary puts it, this prophecy foretells a “major economic shift.” The commentator reminds us, “Swords and spears are relatively cheap today, but in antiquity their production diverted significant resources. The relatively simple mechanical transformation of swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks—any blacksmith could do it—represents the diversion of tools of destruction to tools that provide food.”[1] I can’t help but think of North Korea, and wonder what that county would look like if resources devoted to its vast military arsenal were diverted to feed and employ its starving people.

          And we are should not think ourselves immune from needing this message. According to multiple sources, we spend more than the next 8 nations on arming ourselves, a third of all such spending on the planet, though we are about 5% of the global population.[2] Now, some will say that is because we are the protector of so many others. Some who know their Bible will remind us of the passage in Joel that offers the opposite sentiment of Isaiah as the people are told, “Beat your ploughshares into swords, and your pruning-hooks into spears,” indicating that there seems to have been moments for war (Joel 3:10). I struggle with that one, for I can’t square it with the witness of Jesus, but the Bible doesn’t spare us from having to wrestle with contradiction, paradox or the complexity of human life.

          Isaiah ultimately isn’t wagging his finger at us, or even telling us directly what to do. He is telling us what to hope for, no, what to hold out for. That’s not what a good prophet does. A prophet speaks the truth and tells of what’s to come. That’s how Isaiah begins the passage, “In days to come…” (v.2). This passage is not a scolding; it’s a promise. This season is a promise. While many of us view this time of year as leading up to Christmas, the birth of Jesus, many of the prescribed New Testament readings for Advent speak of Christ’s return to the world.

That seems impossible to many Christians, just as the prospect of beating swords into plowshares seems impossible, but Advent is not the time to hold out for what seems possible. They wouldn’t call it faith were it easy to believe. This is the season when we practice dreaming again, what could be, aligning our dreams with Gods, and promising no matter how long it takes, we will wait, actively, in faith. It is fitting, then, that we begin Advent on a Communion Sunday because part of what of what we are doing in the celebration of the Eucharist is keeping vigil. Many of you have kept vigil before, through the dark of night, by the side of the sick or dying. We are keeping vigil connecting the dying night before Christ was taken from us to the day Christ will come back. We are keeping vigil through the pain and suffering, the tearing apart and the tearing down, until the healing and renewal and building up can take place. We are keeping vigil in a world that sometimes seems unimaginable, holding out for a world that we can only imagine. This vigil has been kept for over 2,000 years, and think of what it has outlasted, wars, unjust rulers, untold amounts of suffering enough to make the plagues themselves quiver, and yet those keeping the vigil have endured. We will endure this too, for we hold fast to the truth that in the days to come, one is coming who will turn the world again. Amen.      

 [1] The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 6, 68.

[2] https://www.cnbc.com/2017/05/02/how-us-defense-spending-stacks-up-against-the-rest-of-the-world.html; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/02/09/this-remarkable-chart-shows-how-u-s-defense-spending-dwarfs-the-rest-of-the-world/?utm_term=.40a06645d118; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/04/30/does-the-united-states-really-have-five-percent-of-worlds-population-and-one-quarter-of-the-worlds-prisoners/?utm_term=.9bbea611ae50