December 2, 2007—First Sunday in Advent
The World is About to Turn: Turning from Violence to Peace
Isaiah 2: 1-5; Swords to Plowshares
As we begin Advent, we embrace the hope of the season that the world is about to turn. That the coming of Jesus—God among us—has power to transform our world. As Mary’s song says, the lowly will be lifted up, the hungry will be filled with good things.
We long for the coming of Christ, because we know that our world desperately needs to turn; to turn away from so many things that diminish and destroy life. And this morning, we particularly mourn the devastating violence of our world and look toward the promised peace of God’s reign.
It seems we live in a particularly violent time. There are wars and rumors of wars. I was on a conference call this week with other MCUSA people to discuss the Prayers and Petitions for Advent that they are promoting. The MCC Washington representative said that there are disturbing parallels between what is happening now with Iran and what happened during the build-up to the war with Iraq.
It seems Isaiah lived in a particularly violent time. There were wars and rumors of wars. During the eighth century, C.E., Israel suffered from internal and external conflict. War broke out with Assyria, only to move toward a shaky resolution, which fed into another war.
Violence, war, bloodshed, seem to be constants throughout human history. Wherever I look in the history books or the newspaper, violence is close at hand.
Much of the time, it is difficult for me to even imagine what it would look like for the world to turn from violence to peace. I can’t even visualize it, let alone believe that it will happen.
Priest and peace activist Daniel Berrigan writes about the out-break of war when he was a young man:
“The war was cold as a blade laid against one’s face. In effect, the plows of our farm and of every farm in the land, were not abandoned to rust or rot. ‘Lend-lease’ was the cry, a war cry. The plows were beaten into swords. Overnight, swords sprang up in the furrows. They were the first shoots of a harvest of blood.”
That is the human experience. Creativity in the service of violence. Resources diverted to making weapons. Plows into swords.
But Isaiah has a different vision, which we have already heard. And the prophet Micah also has a vision of peace. Listen to these words from Micah, chapter 4:
In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations 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 many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; 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.”
No, I didn’t get confused and read the Isaiah passage again. These two passages from Isaiah and Micah are almost word-for-word the same.
Scholars like to debate about whether Micah or Isaiah wrote their poem first. Who has the legal rights to this text? But maybe, as Walter Brueggemann suggests, neither of these prophets wrote it; they were just copying down a popular poem of the time. It was the best-selling Hallmark card. The words that everyone in that war-torn land wanted—needed–to hear. “Nation will not lift up sword against nation.”
And, as Daniel Berrigan says, “the necessary must somehow be fused into the impossible.” Swords into plowshares. Spears into pruning hooks. Seemingly impossible, and yet necessary.
So we listen for the promises of God, and we wait for the world to turn.
We wait. And we work. Beating swords into plowshares takes a lot of muscle.
Just ask those who participated in the “gun bake” at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Oakland, California. After the church had invited a series of speakers to share about the problem of gun violence, parishioners were invited to bring their guns to the the church parking lot. The guns were piled up next to a furnace and anvil. People took turns pounding the glowing hot weapons on the anvil with a sledgehammer.
“Wow, that felt good,” one participant said after taking a few whacks at his AK-47. “It’s nice to smash one of these things instead of having it shoot at you.”
The guns are now part of two peace-themed sculptures on the church property.
So a few swords have been beaten into plowshares. A few guns have been beaten into art. It’s not the turning of the world. But it is important.
I was reminded how important during my conference call this week. “Our letters and visits to legislators do matter,” one pastor said. “We can affect policies that affect this country and the whole world.”
“And,” said another pastor, “our actions for peace matter because they serve as an encouragement to others who also long for peace but feel discouraged.”
I would like to insist, along with our Mennonite leaders, that it is important that we pray for peace. It is important that we act for peace. Not because our actions will cause the nations to lay down their weapons; not because our prayers will disable the military industrial complex.
But because we know that the Spirit of peace strengthens and enlivens even our smallest gestures. Because we seek to follow the one who is the Prince of Peace. Because we serve a God who can, and will, cause wars to cease to the ends of the earth.