A sermon based on Psalm 122 and Isaiah 2:1-5 preached on 12/1/13.
Happy New Year!
I forgot my cardboard party hat and my spinny noisemaker—I’ll leave those for January 1st, but today is the first Sunday in Advent and the first day of the Christian year. Just as we have all these built-up expectations at New Years and as we use each January 1st as a way to clean the slate, the beginning of Advent is a time for us who follow Jesus to start again, to expect God to show up—to come among us, to approach not only our hearts, but to lay upon our community a fresh promise of renewal and hope.
Advent is my very favorite time of year. In a way, Advent is an invitation for us who follow Jesus to press the reset button. Advent is a time for us to prepare our hearts for Jesus’ coming. To remember that the God of grace and hope chose to come among us in Jesus Christ.
Advent is also a time of anticipation. Not only anticipating Christmas, but anticipating and waiting for God’s promise to do something new among us. So, we wait for the Christ child.
Hasn’t Jesus already come? Good question. Yes, Jesus has already come. What we do during Advent is peculiar, and as much as I love the message of hopeful expectation and the preparing of our hearts for the infant Jesus to reside among us as Christmas moves closer, there’s also this sense that we’ve done this before.
Don’t we do this every year? How do we think this year will be any different than the last, or the one before that? What fresh Word does God have for us after all these years?
I guess we have the same built-up expectations at the beginning of a calendar year too. Even if our New Year’s resolution is to have no New Year’s resolutions, there’s still this idea that each January 1st invites us to shed old skin, to leave behind what’s broken, and to hope for a fresh start.
It’s an odd thing we do. We take the change of a season and we make meaning out of it. And sometimes I wonder if our hopes are too fantastic this time of year.
This word from the prophet Isaiah seems too fantastic also. Isaiah envisions a time in the days to come when all the inhabitance of the world will converge—even more that that, be drawn to, one place. Isaiah speaks about a mountain on which will sit a Temple—the Lord’s house—and it will be higher in elevation than anything else. This will be the place, literal or metaphorical, who knows, where all the peoples of the world will come together to finally practice peace.
As every person converges on this mountain of God, Isaiah says, their hearts will be changed. The nations will put away violence—people will beat their instruments of war into instruments to cultivate the land—swords will once and for all be beaten back into ploughshares.
There’s a garden outside the United Nations in New York City, and in that garden is a collection of sculptures and statues that have been donated by different countries.
One of these is of a man with a hammer raised above his head, he’s taking a sword and bending it—beating it into a plowshare. An instrument used to kill and strike down is being bent—hammer strike by hammer strike—into a farming tool used to cultivate, to till the ground, and to nourish the people.
This sound of hammer striking metal is the first sound we hear in the church’s new year. We who follow Christ see in his teaching of the peaceable Kingdom of God a bright vision laid out before us by him, where there is no longer need for militant force or confusing theories of just war. Jesus’ kingdom is one where we use broken swords, shaped now into tools used to give life.
But all this talk of world peace and nations laying down armaments is crazy talk. We can’t read a passage like this and say we’re believers in Isaiah’s vision. His opening words are “In the days to come.” Clearly he thought that this transformation from unending conflict and division to unending unity and peace would one day actually happen within history.
What wishful thinking! How in the world can we expect this radical and universal vision of unity and peace among the nations to someday come true? And isn’t every nation of the world still, 3,000 years later, in some sort of military conflict with one another.
How many peace treaties have been broken since Isaiah proclaimed that this day would one day come? How many ploughshares have we beaten back into swords? Haven’t we waited long enough for our God of peace to make an actual difference in the way the world works?
Isaiah’s vision sounds fantastical and absurd.
I’m a little harsh with my words about what I see Christmas turning into. I sound curmudgeonly whenever I talk about the over-commercialization of Christmas. I find a lot of reasons to complain about it and sometimes I get so busy complaining that I forget to recognize that there is hope and joy in the Advent season and in Christmas too. I worked retail for 8 years and I was always there to see Christmas from the other side. Hours and hours of dealing with crazy and frustrated Christmas shoppers left me a bit disillusioned and sometimes very frustrated by the entire season. Humbug!!
Could it be that behind our tendency to shop and shop, spend and spend, our willingness to stand in miles-long lines and fend off rival shoppers and boldly grab parking spaces from one another, there lies something much deeper?
Perhaps celebrating Christmas as our culture does is a confused way of enacting and remembering the spiritual experiences of our past. That we have a desire to gather around the messages of the season but we don’t know how to celebrate in a way that brings us more satisfaction and joy, so Christmas is instead mis-celebrated with the overspending and overcommercialism that we all see.
We each come to this season with a deep longing—whether it’s a longing for reliving the Christmas’s of the past or to give our children and grandchildren the sort of Christmases we remember having.
Every year, we’re reminded again that the joy of Christmas has nothing much to do with giving or receiving products but enjoying time together around food, to decorate the tree and sing songs together. But even those things only last for so long. Then we put Christmas away into boxes for another year.
Perhaps in all our scrambling to buy and decorate and shop—all these cultural messages we are barraged with in December—maybe over and above, or really underneath them all, resides a much more profound desire.
Maybe through all the clutter of Christmas what we’re seeking is for our hearts to be tuned into much greater promises. Maybe this season is really about tuning our hearts to the notes of God’s peace. To noel. To good news of great joy.
Perhaps what we’re really seeking at Christmas are glimpses of a world with no fear, a world full of people who one day may be able to see eye to eye, able to recognize in each other more of what’s similar in each other than what’s different. And instead of pointing weapons at one another and reacting out of fear, we would begin walking toward each other and see how peace is possible.
But these are big ideas, they’re the stuff of fantasy and hippies and utopia—these things are much too big for our minds and much too delirious to ever be true.
This Advent season, there’s a deep and profound hope, a desire for every longing heart as we await the birth of our Messiah. And as impossible as it sounds, we too hope, just like Isaiah, for the day to come when God will gather all together, when swords are once and for all beaten into ploughshares and all will be shown paths of peace.
But if we read this message thinking that Isaiah’s message of a greater way is something that will just start happening one day, then we’re misunderstanding Isaiah.
Wars just don’t end on their own and peace is not the absence of war, peace is life lived in the presence of God, and that is possible only after we do the work of tuning our hearts to the ways of God.
The ways of war need to be unlearned, and that takes imagining peace in ways we’ve never done before. Neither do swords beat themselves into ploughshares. We have to do that work before these words from Isaiah would ever be possible.
This is not a hopeful wishing that one day weapons would just simply disappear and people would all the sudden begin hugging instead of fighting. Isaiah is not a wishful thinker but a prophet who spoke to his people, confronting them, challenging them to live their lives differently.
During this first week of Advent, we come once again to the beginning of a journey and we once again hear of God’s promise of a coming hope.
This Advent we pay attention to the ways that God is calling us to get up and walk in the direction of the light of Christ. The light that shines up ahead. In this first week of Advent, these words from Isaiah confront us and challenge us to learn the ways of peace. Until all the world gathers together on the mountain of God and begins walking in the paths of God. Until that day when we all take tools that destroy and beat them into tools that help us sow seeds of peace, unity, justice, and nourishment. Until that day when we cultivate a consciousness that one day includes all.
The Jesuit chapel at St Louis University is creatively lit. When you look up during worship services, you see that the light fixtures are made with twentieth-century cannon shells.
Now emptied of their lethal contents, these cannon shells are used to shed light for people to worship by. Just as these cannon shells have been transformed from instruments of war into instruments for worship, let us pray and live and work for a day when more light is shed into dark places and we all fashion our weapons into tools that illuminate God’s presence in the world.
O God, tune our hearts this Advent and craft us into instruments of your peace.