11/27/16: Of Swords and Plowshares, Isaiah 2:1-5
Of Swords and Plowshares
First Lesson:Romans 13:11-14
Second Lesson: Isaiah 2:1-5
Did anyone else suddenly feel the need, during that reading, to lay they’re burdens down by the riverside and study war no more?
One day we’re going to do that, you know; have worship down at the Ocmulgee. We may even have a river baptism if we can find an agreeable participant. I told there aren’t too many snakes out there anymore.
But it’s truethat this passage from the second chapter of Isaiah features some of the most memorable images in all of Scripture. They shall beat their spears into pruning hooks and, of course, their swords into plowshares. These instruments of death and violence and war being transformed into plowshares—which is the cutting blade on a plow, the part that goes into the ground and tears open a space for the seed to be planted. These instruments of war shall be turned into instruments of life and peace and growth. It’s an image so powerful that it’s transcended the Biblical world and has come to represent the concept that ultimately we must choose where we all invest ourselves: in the work of destruction or of the common good. Will we one day find the courage as a people to beat our swords into plowshares, or will we continue to beat our plowshares into swords—which is also a Biblical image, you may not have known.
It’s found in the prophet Joel, the third chapter:
Proclaim this among the nations:
Prepare war—(the Hebrew actually says “sanctify war”)
stir up the warriors.
Let all the soldiers draw near,
let them come up.
10 Beat your plowshares into swords,
and your pruning hooks into spears;
let the weakling say, “I am a warrior.”
Scholars argue over which image came first: was Joel distorting Isaiah, or was Isaiah subverting Joel? Or could it be that Joel’s image of beating plowshares into swords wasn’t unique to the prophet but was instead simply a popular image? After all, repurposing instruments or tools or anything you can find as a weapon is a natural instinct. Fear makes people incredibly imaginative: everything becomes a potential weapon. Both of these images are Scriptural, and unfortunately, the people of God have acted from both of them at different times. Swords into plowshares isn’t so hard to imagine, but we’ve beaten a few plowshares to swords, too. For instance, our church’s bell.
The enormous bronze bell that currently sits in our parking lot is, as best I can tell, at least the third bell to ring from our belfry. It dates back to 1887 and the dedication of this sanctuary, where it hung in our spire for roughly 70 years until the 1960s when a structural engineer did a study of our sanctuary and told us that might not be a good idea anymore. Our first bell was also made of bronze—900 pounds of it, in fact—and was situated inside the belfry at our third church building on 2nd St. and Cherry. And we might still have it today, except that in 1863 the congregation voted to send our bell away to be melted down and molded not into a sword, or swords, but a canon to support the Confederate war effort.
When the drums of war begin to beat, everything begins to look like a weapon, even church bells.
And of course, our congregation wasn’t the only one to go to such lengths, on either side of the war. In fact, for a while after we sent that bell away, our belfry housed another bell sent to us from the First Baptist Church in Dalton, Georgia, who feared that Union troops knocking at their door might repurpose their bell in the same way.
We must admit that both these images: plowshares to swords and swords to plowshares are Scriptural, and both have been acted upon and embodied in different ways by the people of God. This much is true. But it’s also true that while both may be Scriptural, only one image is gospel. And there’s a difference. Not all Scriptural is gospel—we forget that sometimes. Some Scripture describes the very reason the gospel was necessary. Both of these images are Scriptural, but only one is gospel. Only one claims to be God’s ultimate and final vision, a vision that’s attested to time and time again in Scripture, most completely in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—the cross, you might say, is the ultimate sword, and yet through the power of God, Jesus manages to transform it into a kind of spiritual plowshare, clearing a way for the seeds of life to be planted and grow. Joel’s call to arms may have been the word of God for that moment in time—though I have my doubts even about that—but only Isaiah’s vision of peaceful transformation can claim to be God’s word for eternity.
But church, there’s something else important we need to say about this passage. It would be dishonest to say that the kind of universal peace foretold in this passage from Isaiah is something we can realistically hope for in our lifetime. Or our children’s lifetime, or our children’s children’s lifetime and so on. To say that we should anticipate a time when all the nations of the earth will come together and reach such a lasting and just peace, that all our weapons, our countless, countless weapons, will be laid aside but transformed—to say that this is what we should in any way expect or even hope for in the foreseeable future would be an insult to your intelligence and mine. Dream about it? Of course? Envision it? Sure. But expect it? No. We will not see this in our lifetime. We need to say that aloud, and let it soak in.
But! (The the gospel there’s always a but.) It would be an insult to the gospel if we didn’t also say that while this vision of the world to come in its entirety isn’t a realistic goal to see in our lifetime, over the course of a lifetime we’re offered many smaller opportunities to bring it about bit by bit, pruning hook by pruning hook, plowshare by plowshare.
Over the course of our lifetime there will be times when we’ll be handed a sword, and thus we’ll be given the opportunity to either use it for its intended purpose and continue the cycle of violence that grips us so tightly that we can scarcely imagine an alternative.
Or we can imagine an alternative.
We can beat it into a plowshare; turn it instead into something that cuts through the cycle of violence and allows something new to grow—it won’t be easy. The sword will not want to become a plowshare and will resist. But the people of God are called to hammer away at it anyway. Over the course of a lifetime there will be opportunities to take what is intended for harm, and transform it into something good.
There will also be times when we find ourselves with a plowshare, and the call will come to beat it into a sword—not by God, mind you. But a call will come, and we’ll be tempted, tested, seduced, shamed, into taking the good we’ve been given and using it for harm. Now, it’s not likely to be offered to us in quite those terms. It may come to us in the cloak of protection or profit or patriotism, but the call will nonetheless be for the rendering of swords from plowshares. These moments, too, will come, and the people of God must choose which it will be.
We’re never promised that the world Isaiah imagines will come to fruition in our lifetime, but over the course of a lifetime there will be opportunities to bring it about in small ways, which when added together will become much bigger ways, and that when added to the wild dream of an all-loving God, in the end—we’re told—all of this will turn out to be enough. And this is where hope comes in.
This is, after all, the Sunday of hope: where our Advent journey begins. The great hope in all of this is on the one hand that in the end, God’s promises are good: that this vision of peace will one day come true. Part of the hope is in the future, and this is important. But part of the hope, maybe even most of the hope, has to do with right now. As we say, Advent is a season when we meditate on the “here and the not yet.” On the one hand Christ is already here, but on the other, he is not yet.
And so while part of the hope is in that distant “not yet,” another part of the hope is in the “here”: that even now, in small ways, hidden ways, ways at times imperceptible or under-appreciated or overlooked, swords are already being beaten into plowshares. The people of God are already choosing life and love and faith and peace. Choosing plowshares over swords. Choosing to put the blade to the earth instead of each other. And so the Kingdom of God has already begun to grow, i small ways, even now. This is the hope of this season, as much as that vision which at times seems so distant.
And this is how I’ve come to understand all the attention we’ve received this fall around our relationship with our brothers and sisters around the corner at First Baptist Church on New St.
As many of you know, we had guests with us in worship last Sunday and Monday from CBS News who were here filming for a segment to appear on the Evening News and perhaps elsewhere—we don’t know when but we’ll keep you posted. They filmed our worship service and New St.’s, as well as the potluck supper we shared with them last Sunday evening—which was an incredible evening. And then on Monday the guest of honor arrived—and I don’t mean the Christ-child; this was the week before Advent began. I mean James Brown, better known as JB from CBS’s sports coverage and other shows. JB was with us all day on Monday, interviewing James and I and then a group of folks from both congregations. The sanctuary was converted into a TV studio—it was a wild day and a lot of fun, and more than a little surreal.
There’s a part of me that can’t help but think all of this media coverage we’ve received is just the slightest bit absurd. Don’t get me wrong, what we’re doing together is good. But it’s small. We’re getting to know each other. We’re talking about our congregation’s history. We’re eating each other’s food. Good things, all of them. But “national news” things? “Transform the sanctuary into a TV studio" things? I’m not so sure. So the way I’ve come to make sense of all of this is to understand what’s happening between our two congregations less as unique or noteworthy in and of itself, and more as representative.
It’s not that the things we’re doing are so impressive that we’ve got to get the word out. It’s that the small things we’re doing here in our own way are representative of all the many other small things that people and churches and communities all over the country and even the world are doing in their own way to choose plowshares over swords. To choose life and love and generosity. To reject death and violence and hate. The story is not that what we’re doing here is big—that the Kingdom of God is coming about right here in Macon, Georgia! No, friends. The story is that all over the place, many small things are being done. Small, good things. And within each of them, something of the Kingdom of God has come. Even here in Macon, Georgia.
This is the story. Not just the story being told about our two churches, but the story that both our churches and so many others tell each and every Sunday. It’s the gospel story. And it is newsworthy, I think. Good news worthy.
It’s a story that we begin to tell together today as we once again make our way to Bethlehem.
And while it’s true that the brightest light is not yet here and waits for us at the end of this journey, it’s also true that a light still shines. A small light. This light in our sanctuary isn’t the only light that shines—there are many others shining in sanctuaries all around the world. And not just sanctuaries, but in people. In you. These lights already shine, in small ways. Our task this season is to look for them, to focus our attention on them.
As we say each year, to the world out there, this is a season of big things: big meals, big sales, big expectations. But in here, it is a season of small things. Small hopes, small peace, small joy, small love. It’s a season that ends with us gathering by candlelight and telling each other again how small things make all the difference. We’re a people of small things, as we say.
So as you enter this season, this season of family and friends and food and laughter, but also of tenderness, look for these small things. These small, good things. Look for all the many ways the people of God are already choosing plowshares where there could be swords; light where there could be darkness; life where there could be death. Looks for these things, these places, these people. For this is where you’ll find the Christ. Amen.