1This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem: 2 In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.3 Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4 He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. 5 Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.
I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. It is always great to catch up with loved ones, reflect upon what we are thankful for, and eat enough in one sitting to sustain a small army for a week. Everyone loves the pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, and dressing. But I always look forward to the turkey. I guess you could say that Thanksgiving always puts me in a foul mood.
Because I am not the only turkey fan in my family we always try to buy a really big turkey so we can have leftovers. So I went to the grocery store on Wednesday to select the best bird. Of course they were a little picked over, and all I could find were really small turkeys. So I asked one of the sales clerks, “Do these turkeys get any bigger?”
The smart aleck replied, “No, they don’t. They are already dead.”
Today we move from celebrating Thanksgiving to observing Advent. Advent is the period including four Sundays leading up to Christmas Day, and because Christmas is on a Sunday this year, we actually have the longest possible Advent season this year. This is good if you like Advent, but not so good if you don’t like waiting.
Yet that is what Advent is. Advent is a period of waiting. The word “advent” literally means the arrival of someone of significance. Two thousand years ago, the world experienced the arrival of a baby born in a manger in Bethlehem (not Pennsylvania). And since his departure, we have been waiting on his return, when we are told Jesus will make everything right. There will be no more suffering, no more pain, no more hunger. There will be no famine, there will be no more war. The world will be as God intended it to be.
So in this season of Advent, we wait. We light the candles, providing a visual element to our waiting. We wait for not only the day when we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior, we wait for the day when he takes away our suffering.
Let’s look at today’s text for a few minutes, because this is one that we know perhaps too well. We know about the swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. We know the “ain’t gonna study war no more” part of this scripture. But the context is really important for us to understand what is going on here in Isaiah’s prophecy.
When we look at the book of Isaiah, we need to remember that this book was written over a period of at least 70 years. The first 39 chapters are filled with warnings, laments, and judgments. Woe to you, Israel! These 39 chapters warn of something that is quickly approaching, an event that we are told is the result of the people having turned from God. The first 39 chapters speak of the coming of the Babylonians, who will defeat the Israelites and carry them off into captivity. They will be separated from friends, family, and from the Temple of God, where Yahweh himself is believed to dwell.
When we come to chapter 40, we find that passage made popular by Handel’s Messiah, Comfort, comfort ye my people, says thy God. Your iniquities have been forgotten. But chapter 40 doesn’t come for another 38 chapters, and another 70 years. In the early chapters of Isaiah, the people aren’t expecting comfort. They are expecting pain and suffering.
So why do we have this passage in the middle of God’s pronouncement against the people who are about to be defeated in war that there will come a time when we ain’t gonna study war no more? Because in the middle of suffering, we need to be reminded that better days are coming and to be assured that better days are indeed here.
I feel like 2016 has been a rough year. It all started last January, when singer David Bowie passed away. He was later followed by entertainers such as Prince, Merle Haggard, Muhammed Ali, and just this last week, Florence Henderson (aka, Mrs. Brady). We have seen horrifying images of the conditions endured by Syrian refugees, including the picture of 5-year-old Omran, sitting in the back of an ambulance after his home was bombed during an air raid. There have been numerous terrorist strikes around the world. Stateside, police officers have shot unarmed black men, and snipers have struck back, killing police officers. We are still waiting to see what will come from “Brexit” and a Trump presidency.
While I do not wish to compare my comfortable life to that of the Israelites, I am sure that I am not going too far in stating that I am ready for 2017. We are waiting for something better, for some good news. I am waiting for an advent. I am waiting for Jesus to make things right again.
So what is God waiting on?
Isn’t that the question on all of our minds? What is God waiting on? Why doesn’t God make things right? Why allow the Civil War in Syria to continue? Why allow terrorism to thrive? Why must racial, ethnic, and religious bigotry be so prevalent? Creator of heaven and earth, we cry out to you and ask why?
Let’s consider a few options as to why God/Jesus has not come back to set the world right. There are a number of ways of doing theology that attempt to redefine how we understand God’s power or omnipotence. Often, but not always, these theologies boil down to an attempt to explain why a loving God would allow bad things to happen if God is indeed all powerful.
One way to explain this is through something called “Process Theology.” Process Theology is much more complicated and nuanced than I can begin to explain here, or even understand myself. But one of the aspects of Process Theology says that God cannot bring about the end of suffering and bring the new world because God is not physically able to do so. This is sometimes referred to as the “weak force of God.” This isn’t to say that God is weak; indeed, God is the most powerful being. God is more powerful than us, but even God has limitations. God is not powerful enough to bring the world to where it should be. Instead, God’s power, God’s weak force on the world, is seen through influencing human beings, drawing us to a better version of this world.
I like the idea that God is not coercive and that God instead influences human beings. But I have a problem with the idea that the one who created the world is not able to do what he wants with the world. I want more options.
There is another line of thinking that says that Jesus will not return to set the world right until everyone has heard the Gospel. This comes from Matthew 24, which is the Gospel reading from the lectionary for today. Matthew 24 is what we sometimes call the “mini apocalypse,” and includes lines about the sun turning to darkness and the stars falling from the sky. Verse 14 says, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
I like the idea of all the world hearing the good news about Jesus. But this could also be translated as saying that all “gentiles” need to hear the Gospel before the end will come. Does this mean that the end will only come when every person has heard? If so, it might be awhile. At least if we translate this as “all nations” we can put a number on it because there are 196 countries in the world today.
No, I don’t love this explanation either, especially because I don’t like basing my understanding of the end times on one obscure verse in a passage that may or may not be talking about the second coming of Jesus.
While there are things about these options that I like, I prefer a third. I believe that we are called to partner with God to live out the teachings of Jesus and to bring about the vision that Isaiah witnessed. When we beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks today, we are working with God to bring about God’s vision for the world.
Remember the way that Matthew’s Gospel ends, with what we often call the Great Commission. Verses 18b-20 capture the words of Jesus, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
When Jesus leaves, he gives all authority to his followers. Go, make disciples. Baptize them. Teach them. And I will be with you, alongside of you, partnering with you, until the end of the age.
I don’t know why God allows suffering to continue, but I do know that we are to partner with God to teach, preach, make disciples, and continue the work that Jesus began here on earth.
So we hold these images of the good in our minds and try to live them out in our fallen world. The swords into plowshares, the spears into pruning hooks provide for us a reminder that though the world may at times be terrible, horrible, no good, and very bad, there is still the potential for good. As we wait for perfection, I want to remind of you the very good things that are happening around us today so as to sustain us in our work in partnership with God.
Earlier this month, Franconia Mennonite Conference and Eastern District Mennonite Conference had a joint assembly. These two conferences are primarily located in Pennsylvania, and overlap significantly geographically. In fact, 169 years ago, these two conferences split from one larger group.
Of course, these splits often affect more than conferences. They split churches and they split families. And when a church splits, there is often a struggle over who owns the church building. Historian John Ruth tells the story (as presented in the Mennonite World Review):
When it became clear that the [liberal] majority was just as determined that the property belonged to them, some conservatives bolted the door shut from the inside, using straightened wagon wheel rims as reinforcement. Their outraged opponents then persuaded one of their own young men to break in. He ‘bored a large hole’ in the three-year-old door, ‘and secured a strong steel saw and sawed until the bolt was sawed through.’ Then, the man recalled years later, ‘We went in to hold services.’
Okay, I love the determination involved in boring a hole through a door and sawing through the lock. I really love that they then went in and held a worship service, even though the others were already inside. But this church split. And at the joint meeting between these two conferences earlier this month, they decided to work at reunifying again.
Swords are beaten into plowshares.
Two weeks ago I got a phone call from my mother telling me that my 97-year-old grandfather wasn’t doing well. He was retaining water and having problems breathing. It didn’t seem like he had long.
It had always been an emphasis in my grandfather’s family to come home for Thanksgiving. The story is that when the siblings started marrying and moving away, my great grandmother said, “I know that it will be hard for everyone to be home for Christmas. You have other families now, too. Please be home for Thanksgiving.”
To the best of my knowledge, he has only ever missed two.
A few days ago, my grandfather gathered with all of his living siblings, along with family members from as far away as Jacksonville, Florida. He had to take three canisters of oxygen with him, and his only living sister will not remember that any of them were there. But for at least one more Thanksgiving, my grandfather made it home.
Swords into plowshares; spears into pruning forks.
And one week ago, there was an uncomfortable woman here at church. Here feet were swollen, her dietary restrictions were getting to be annoying. She wasn’t sleeping well, and her energy was low. And on Tuesday, I got to hold a new baby.
Swords into plowshares; spears into pruning forks.
My friends, I don’t know why God is waiting to set this world right. But I do know what we are to be doing in the meantime. We are to be beating swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning forks. We are to take the bad, the painful, and the destructive things of this world, and transform them into the beautiful, the creative, and the life giving. We are to proclaim a kingdom that is yet to come, a kingdom that has already begun.
In this season of Advent, we may wait on the coming kingdom. But we wait actively.