Excerpted from How Will We Welcome the Prince of Peace? An Advent Guide for Lectionary Year A from the NC Council of Churches.
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!
Isaiah 2:1-5 ___________________________________________________________________________________
These readings for the First Sunday of Advent, especially Isaiah and Matthew, provide ample fodder to talk about war and peace. It should be easy for me to write something about beating a sword into a plowshare or a spear into a pruning hook. In fact, I’ve preached that sermon a few times already this year… no problem to do it again, except for one thing.
I carry a sword. It’s mostly a sword of self-defense, although sometimes I have wielded it offensively. I’m not particularly fond of it, but I find it necessary and in some respects comforting. Not comfortable, mind you, but comforting because I need it and it’s comforting to know that I have it. People who carry swords get a little uncomfortable when Isaiah starts talking about plowshares. If I can’t protect my turf, what’s the point of having a plow? So, while I’d really like to rise to the occasion, what I must write about are our swords and our spears, where we hide them and when we use them.
As it turns out, war isn’t just between nations, fought in some far-off place like Assyria or Babylon, Iraq or Afghanistan. War isn’t just waged with bullets and bombs calculated by experts who spend months practicing for the opportunity to use a rocket launcher. War is also personal. Weapons don’t have to make the NRA’s top ten most desirable list to deal death. We create weapons all the time. Our words; our lack of words. Think about how much damage silence can do. What about absence? War isn’t always caused by being there; sometimes it’s about not being there. Think of the Church’s absence and silence during slavery, during the Holocaust, during the last election (just a little politicizing). Think of our own silences, our own refusal to stand up for what is economically right because it could impact our portfolio, or socially just because it could jeopardize our jobs, or faithfully true because the church has no business meddling in that stuff. Silence is definitely a weapon. Absence is a great military tactic. We use these more effectively than we launch offensives. What other weapons do we have that keep us under the tutelage of war, that make us pupils of this art?
Waging war doesn’t come easily whether it’s nation-state against nation-state, hand-to-hand combat, or verbal haranguing. We must learn it – Isaiah says as much. We must study it extensively; practice it rigorously. The world and our lives would look different if we dropped that class. One of the more prominent features of this vision for peace from Isaiah is that everyone needs to learn about peace. The directional flow of this instruction makes all the difference in the world – first we must gather in God’s presence on equal terms, no one nation more just than another, no one person more righteous than another and we learn – we all learn from God – we all study peace. Under God’s instruction no one nation gets to tell another nation what peace looks like; no single individual gets to tell another individual what justice looks like. Each of us takes our cue from God, but we have to show up for class. We must make ourselves open to the presence of God in our lives. We must gaze always on the faithful, loving embrace of the only one who can be trusted to carry a sword because God is the only one who knows how and when to use it. In the certainty of that gaze we can learn to plow rather than fight, prune rather than kill. None of us have the luxury to stop evaluating our ways in light of God’s ways.
If war is hard to learn, peace will not be any easier. Peace is serious business. We can’t pick it up like a hobby. We have to practice it and, like any acquired skill, we have to use it over and over and over again to get really good at it. I used to know the periodic table from beginning to end, but I don’t even know what the first five elements are anymore. I don’t use chemistry; I haven’t used it since the first week of my freshmen year of college when I went to two lectures, one lab, and the drop-add office in that order. Why do we think it would be any easier for us to retain the lessons of peace – if, indeed, we had ever learned them in the first place – if we don’t continue to study them and practice them? We shouldn’t expect to retain it. We can’t. We don’t.
When we come into God’s presence and review the grand tapestry of God’s mercy throughout history, we can’t help but notice its totality: no trouble is beyond the reach of God’s mercy, no quarrel is beyond God’s reconciliation, no abandonment renders us so helpless that God cannot help. What would our lives look like if we studied those truths more fervently than we study office politics, corporate networking, or weapons of mass destruction? For starters, it would mean we don’t need a sword. Most of our swords are for self-protection anyway, and even when they aren’t we still convince ourselves they are. Most of us keep our swords carefully out of sight because we have no intention of using them unless there’s no alternative. But what if we actually believed in the possibility of God’s mercy, that no trouble, no quarrel, no abandonment is beyond God’s reach? With God reaching out to enfold us, right along with all the ones from whom we believe our swords will protect us, we will find that we don’t need our swords.
The Prince of Peace whose advent we announce this week carries no sword, no spear. How can this one come into our midst unprotected when we’ve all got something hidden that we can use to protect ourselves or harm others? Where do we keep our swords hidden? And how do we know when to use them? Most of life is lived in this wide gray area of ambiguity and uncertainty. Sometimes there’s a sliver of pure right or absolute wrong on the outer edges, places where we convince ourselves we might need a sword. So we keep one handy, just in case. But there has only been one who stood with certainty in the place of no ambiguity, the only place where a sword can rightly be put to use. And the one who stood in that place told his followers – and we are they – put away the swords.
You know the story when they came for Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. They came out to arrest him with swords and clubs as if he were a bandit; and one of his disciples took a sword and struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear. But Jesus touched his ear and healed it. And he said, “No more of this.”
No more of this. Amen.