Isaiah 2:1-5 ~ Advent I, December 1, 2013
Blessed Advent to you all, my friends.
With the singing of these beautiful hymns, reflecting themes of hopeful watching and waiting, the lighting of the first candle on our Advent wreath just a few moments ago, and the changes within our sanctuary, we truly know that the season of Advent has begun.
The blue paraments that now adorn our pulpit, and lectern and the beautiful new banners, gifts from another congregation, and the quilt depicting the coming of the angel to Mary all provide visual cues that alert us to the fact that we have entered this holy season. But not all is happy and holy, is it? Did you hear the Old Testament reading?
During Advent this year, all the Old Testament texts are pregnant with hope and expectation, and come from the prophet whose writings are often used to prepare for the coming of Christmas. But it’s not an easy pregnancy. These texts are chosen for the poetic way that this prophet spoke about the house of God that would one day come, bringing with it deliverance for the people of God. They are used for the ways they invite us into imagining a future where fully God reigns, where the world is transformed, where suffering is stripped away, where unity and peace will be more than a dream but instead are a reality. Where all peoples are part of the peaceable kingdom.
Because these readings from Isaiah contain some of the most vivid imagery we have, I thought that for these four weeks of Advent, I would preach a sermon series, “The Things Isaiah Saw.” Together, let’s discover the link between these precious texts written by the prophet centuries before the coming of Christ, and our lives today.
What do we know about the prophets, like Isaiah? We know that they were not popular in their own time. We also know that prophets rose up during times of great distress and tribulation and lament. They all have one particular thing in common. Their central message went something like this: things are bad, they are really bad, and they are going to get worse (hence the unpopularity business). But, they continue, take heart. Repent! Because something is coming that will astound you; God has heard your pleas, and be assured, there will be a grand reversal, the likes of which you cannot even imagine. God will bring this about, and although there will be judgment, there will also be great vindication for God’s faithful ones, and what will follow is going to knock your socks off. There will be salvation in a kingdom that is beyond anything you can imagine. So, wait for it. Look for it. Prepare for it.
Just before the text we have before us this morning, in the first chapter of the book, Isaiah has just described the reality of what he observed around him. And it was bad. It was really, really bad. What did Isaiah see? He saw violence and devastation, destroyed cities; he saw officials selling their constituents out and taking bribes; he saw the people living unfaithfully; Isaiah saw treachery and he saw people trampling on the poor and vulnerable. He saw wickedness, children corrupted by the evil all around them. He witnessed rebels and sinners intent on destroying what God had built up. Yet he declares that “Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness.” (1:27)
Then comes today’s reading and Isaiah moves to a different vision – one that comes out of the future. He describes a glorious vision of what he saw coming for Judah and Jerusalem. And what were the things Isaiah saw? He saw God’s house established as the highest of mountains – a position of dominance and authority; and he saw all peoples, all nations streaming to it (even enemy nations, no longer at war). God will judge between them, and they shall war no more.
God shall teach all these people the ways of the LORD, Isaiah prophesizes. They will learn from the great teacher and judge how to live in God’s ways, so that they could “walk in his paths” – that is, so that they could be transformed into righteous ones, doing godlike work for the future glorious kingdom of God. And “they shall beat swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Killing fields will be transformed into life-giving gardens of plenty. Can you see it?
What an image! Can you see the hammer of the blacksmith or the metal worker or a soldier or a king coming down on the sword and spear, pounding again and again, beating the tool of warfare into an implements used to plow the field and harvest good food?
If I could have found one and managed to get it in here this morning, I would have set an old plow up, right in front of the altar, right in front of the table of the Lord. Because I think the visual might help us to see and imagine what this text is saying to us today. And we need to see and hear what this word of God is saying for us today.
Instead, you’ll find an image of a plow like the one Isaiah spoke of right there on the front of your bulletin. Imagine this farming implement, this tool for planting the life-giving grain and vegetables and fruit that are so necessary for life and for strong bodies, and imagine that it was once a weapon of war, once used for cutting off life. Imagine it has been transformed. I wonder, where have you seen killing fields transformed into life-giving gardens of plenty?
In contemplating this question, Barbara Lundblad, a Lutheran pastor, author and teacher, relates this image: Can you see Christian and Muslim women all dressed in white? In 2003, the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, organized by social worker Leymah Gbowee, started praying and singing for peace in the fish markets of their towns and cities, places that were for years torn apart by a horrible, tragic, devastating civil war. They organized nonviolent protests. And at one point, they lay down on the ground, side by side, on their bellies near the main highway in Monrovia, Liberia, where everyone could see them. It was a huge embarrassment to Liberian President Charles Taylor. They protested until he finally agreed to attend peace talks in Ghana. When those talks faltered, the women came to Ghana. Can you see them? They linked arms around the government building until the talks started up again. The tragic civil war in Liberia finally came to an end. Things aren’t perfect in Liberia, but they are not at war any more. Can you see the women dancing in the streets?
Can you see the young black woman holding on to her seat on the bus? Today is the anniversary of the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, an action that spurred a boycott. Things didn’t turn around right away, but Rosa Parks became an icon for social change and the end of segregation and beginning of a new reality for civil rights in this country. Can you see her later working with the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. bringing a new kind of freedom for many Americans? Things aren’t perfect yet. Racial tensions still exist and devastate communities. But laws were changed, lives and visions for a future were transformed, and the doors of opportunity were opened through the peaceful protest of Parks and so many others like her.
“They shall beat swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Killing fields will be transformed into life-giving gardens of plenty. Can you see it?
This summer, several churches in Talbot County, Grace among them, participated in the Migrant Worker Ministries, providing basic provisions for migrant workers in the area. Because of the outpouring of generosity of members of Grace, one Monday in August, two cars pulled right up alongside the church, right here on Hanson Street, where they were filled to the brim with necessary supplies and clothing and other items which were then delivered to the residents of three different migrant worker camps just up the road. Many of the residents there are alien workers. Many are working here to provide for families in countries devastated by poverty and drug wars.
There I literally witnessed tears of joy from men who live and work in harsh conditions, far from home, toiling in poverty for meager wages and no benefits. “They shall beat swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword again nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Killing fields of poverty transformed into life-giving gardens of plenty through the generosity of strangers. Can you see it?
In the text, Isaiah admonishes the people to come and to learn God’s way. It is more than an invitation, it is a summons to walk in the Lord’s light and glory, to follow God’s instruction, to eventually cross the bridge of truth and justice for all people, and arrive at a place of peace. Isaiah tells us that people will be transformed by this teaching. It won’t be easy; it will take courage and obedience and justice – and patience! But this text offers affirmation that history will one day reach its goal – and the full reign of God will come. And God’s kingdom requires radical transformation of existing conditions.
At the beginning of the journey there is yearning, but take heart; expect the unexpected, where tanks for warring are transformed into tractors; where minefields designed for destruction are transformed into soccer fields; where stories of a future, where hope burns for justice, and peace and plenty will be appreciated by all peoples.
As we prepare this Advent for the coming of Christ, may we find in this living Word of God a word that speaks to us today, calling us to beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, and urging us to transform killing fields into life-giving fields of peace and plenty, through repentance, through courageous love and action, and through hope-filled expectation at the coming of Emmanuel, the final judge and ransom of the world. Amen.