***Note: I owe a great deal of gratitude for this sermon to Doug Bratt’s article on Isaiah 2:1-5 for The Center for Excellence in Preaching through Calvin Seminary. You will note I quote extensively from it. I once heard someone say that whatever you have to say has probably already been said, and better. I am not quite that pessimistic, but in this case, Bratt was able to articulate many of my feelings on this text in ways I hadn’t even considered. So, Doug, in the rare chance that you read this, thank you. And if you get a chance, check out his article that I have linked to in the Works Cited section at the bottom of the page. ~grace & peace, ~k
For the past three weeks, it has been difficult to cope with the fact that it is getting dark so early. By the time it is 4 o’clock, the daylight is already waning, and it feels as if we are supposed to be preparing ourselves for bed by six! I know I am not the only one who feels this way!
This is the time of year of seasonal affective disorder when the lack of sunlight lends itself to feelings of sadness and depression. It is the season of staying inside, cozied up in a blanket watching movies or reading books, as we did in our home last Monday as the snow piled up and the wind whipped the few remaining leaves from the branches of trees.
But this is also the season of Advent, which carries with it a lot that challenges the darkness.
This is the season when we drape the church in purple (the color of royalty and of penitence), light candles, recite special scripture, and anxiously await the Christ child.
“The etymology of Advent is fairly straight forward- the English word stems from the Old French advent which is from the literary form auvent. The French, of course, stems from the Latin adventus for ‘arrival.’ In French, however, the only meaning of the word is that of the sense applied in Christian tradition, the coming of the Savior, nowadays, the period of the Nativity beginning four weeks before Christmas” (Gearing).
But the arrival of who or what? The Sunday School answer is obviously: Jesus! Of course! But what are the implications of this arrival?
John 1:3-4 reads: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
I’m usually more of a Mark guy when it comes to the gospel story, but those opening verses of John’s gospel give me goosebumps every time! It is no accident that we celebrate Christ’s incarnation in the darkest time of year. The Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, is December 21st, which puts Christmas Eve and Christmas Day literally in the darkest time.
But we don’t really need to notice the rising and setting sun to see the darkness in our world, do we? There is plenty in our time that is covered by shadow.
The same was true of Israel in Isaiah’s time:
“Peace was… in short supply among the ancient Israelites of whom our text speaks. Isaiah 1 shows that their nation and capital, Jerusalem, are in deep trouble. The Israelites are morally bankrupt, religiously rebellious and guilty. Their capital is full or ‘murderers.’ Israel’s leaders are wantonly corrupt.
“The land of Israel lies in tattered ruins. Foreigners plunder her fields so that the land of ‘milk and honey’ is covered with little but rocks and scrub brush. Israel’s cities are shabby wastelands that foreign powers have thoroughly looted. God calls the Israelites, ‘survivors,’ just a shell of their former glorious selves. Large armies have shrunk Israel to nothing more than a fortress under attack whose citizens have a siege mentality” (Bratt).
These are dark times for Israel. And “in this depressing context, God speaks a potentially even more depressing word of judgment through the prophet Isaiah. The Lord condemns the countless Israelite acts of religion as a burden of which God is tired. God even threatens to close God’s eyes and shut God’s ears to Israel’s prayers. God also warns that resistance to repentance and obedience will result in Israel’s final annihilation” (Bratt).
Around the world, this morning, Christians who have gathered together to worship will also read these words from Isaiah. In many places, those who read Isaiah words live in relative peace, as we do. “However, we too long for a word of hope, a word of peace” (Bratt). We live in a time of uncertainty, of threats to our peace, both real and perceived.
And we don’t have to look beyond our front door to find examples of the darkness in our world. This week we mourn with the community in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where five children died in a school bus crash… we find our anger kindled by the violence aimed at peaceful protesters at Standing Rock… we are appalled at the increase in hate crimes aimed at people for their race, sexuality, and citizenship status… “The streets of our communities are filled with large and small acts of both random and systematic violence” (Bratt).
Even in our own homes and families, we can find ourselves longing for peace. The holidays are wonderful times for the family to gather and celebrate, yet how many of us at the same time, “dread the… holidays for the tension they’ll produce? Tensions the results of the recent American presidential election only exacerbate” (Bratt).
Yet at the heart of Isaiah’s message to us this morning, comes a message that
“God insists that God refuses to desert us. God hasn’t abandoned even sinful people who freely choose to make swords and spears. God hasn’t abandoned people who still aim our nuclear missiles at each other. God hasn’t even abandoned people who let vines grow tangled and ground lie fallow because we prefer making swords to plowshares and spears to pruning hooks. God won’t even abandon us to our own limited understanding of reality and vision for the future.
“After all, God gives us a vision of a world that’s radically different than the one we’ve chosen to produce” (Bratt).
Verse 4 of our passage has one of the most beautiful images of scripture: swords beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks. It is a vision of the future kingdom when our implements of war are turned into implements of peace. It is an ideal of leaving behind the work of destruction to take up the work of creation. We long for this kingdom; we ache for it; we yearn for it with every fiber of our being. Yet it seems to linger just out of our reach.
In theology classes in seminary, we often spoke about the Christological event- Christ’s incarnation, life, death, and resurrection- as being past, present, and future. It is already, and not yet. This is the truth of the kingdom of God: it is already, and also, not yet.
We have seen visions of the kingdom, and what it will look like: where all are fed, where no one mourns, where all that divides us is what unites us. We see it when a hungry child is fed, when we visit the sick and imprisoned, and when we welcome the foreigner into our home.
Yet we still live in a time where the kingdom is still to be realized, but God promises that it is coming.
But what good is that promise when
“nations still beat their iron into swords and their steel into spears? What good is it to talk about peace in church when tensions sometimes scar our fellowship? What good is talk about peace when so many of our communities and neighborhoods are pockmarked by tension and violence?
“It’s good because texts like this one remind us of the alternatives to the course of war and violence that we’ve chosen and choose. It’s good because while we remain stubbornly unimaginative in our pursuit of peace, God’s promises stretch our imaginations.
“God doesn’t lift up God’s sword of judgment or the spear of punishment toward those who hear and believe God’s promise of peace. Instead, God challenges and equips you and me to pursue peace even now…
“It’s time, says Paul [in our passage from Romans], for us to wake from our sinful slumber. It’s time for you and me… to ‘put aside the deeds of darkness.’ It’s time for God’s people to put aside our attitudes and actions that make for hatred instead of love and war instead of peace. After all, Christians don’t know when Christ’s return will usher in the complete peace for which we long” (Bratt).
Our work for peace is more important now than ever. We must be light-bearers, carrying with us the light of Christ within us and before us. It is no coincidence that this is the time of year when many different faith traditions celebrate holy days concerned with light. Hanukkah begins this year on the evening of December 24th. Kwanzaa begins December 26th. These are celebrations that focus on light, particularly through the use of candles.
How do we work for peace? We light candles as a form of protest against the darkness.
How do we work for peace? We pray for our enemies, and those who would wish us harm.
How do we work for peace? We pray ceaselessly for those places afflicted by violence.
How do we work for peace? We demand our leaders work for the comfort and well-being of the poor.
How do we work for peace? We reject the sinful culture of racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and hate.
How do we work for peace? We allow ourselves the space to be open to God’s Spirit working in our hearts.
If Isaiah were preaching today, I know his message would be the same, but perhaps he would phrase it a bit differently. Perhaps he would envision the day when our handguns are turned into hammers, our rifles used as garden tools, our bombs as flower planters.
As we begin this journey of Advent, we are preparing ourselves for the arrival of the Christ child. “In preparation for the peace that his return will usher in, you and I clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ right now… You and I also act with love, compassion, and peace today. We love our enemies right now… You and I are peaceful toward our family members and friends immediately… After all, we approach the beginning of a new year in a world that is not just broken and hostile. We live in a world that also belongs to God who keeps God’s promises, no matter what” (Bratt).
Bear the light with you, and turn to the good work of creation. Amen.
Bratt, Doug. “Isaiah 2:1-5.” Center for Excellence in Preaching. Calvin Seminary, 21 Nov. 2016. Web. 23 Nov. 2016.
Gearing, Jes. “The Etymology of Advent.” ALTA Language Services. ALTA, 29 Apr. 2013. Web. 23 Nov. 2016.