Advent 1A: “Swords to Plows”

Readings

  • Isaiah 2:1-5
  • Psalm 122
  • Romans 13:11-14
  • Matthew 24: 36-44

You can find all of the readings, in CEB and NRSV, here.

Sermon

This sermon is coming to you with help from my dear friend, Rev. Karen Stepko.  She is an ELCIC pastor serving the folks at Christ Lutheran Church in Rhein, SK.  My thanks to her for sharing this week’s message with me.

In the garden of the United Nations Headquarters in New York City there is a statue.  It was a gift from the Soviet Union to the UN in 1959.  The Sculptor, Evgeniy Vuchetich entitled it: “Let Us Beat Swords Into Plowshares”?  The statue is of a man hammering and bending a sword into the shape of a plow.  The words spoken by Isaiah in our Old Testament reading are carved beneath it:

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 anymore.

Curiously, the people of God who lived when Isaiah’s prophecy was written – in the second part of the Iron Age – did not have junkyards full of iron and steel as we do today.  Metal was in very short supply.  Out of necessity, items that no longer served a function were re-purposed, recycled, and created into something that could serve a new purpose.  Isaiah’s words are speaking about a world ruled not by might, not by power, but by peace through God, where weapons would never ever be needed again.

During these next four weeks of Advent, we are commemorating the anticipation of the people throughout history that Isaiah’s prophecy is speaking to.  We are marking our own time of waiting for the birth of the Messiah, as well as acknowledging our current prayerful anticipation and time of waiting for Christ’s return – the Second Advent.

And as our Gospel text tells us this morning, only God – not us, not the angels, not rapture-predicting evangelists, not the magazines in the grocery checkout lane, not even Christ Himself – knows the day or the hour at which this, the Second Advent, will come to mark the end.

Despite the uncertainty, we, as Christians, proclaim hope throughout all seasons of the year.  We live in hope with the knowledge that Christ will come again and that, through Christ, all things on earth will at last be set right.  The interesting thing is that during the month of December, the rest of the world seems to join us in that hope.

Granted, everyone around us may not articulate it in the same way we do, or see it rooted in Christ’s coming as we do:  if you go around talking about Advent outside of this building, most people will give you a confused look.  Really, just when the church begins to celebrate the Christmas season, the world considers Christmas to be over.  I think that’s all the more reason for us to be bold in sharing our celebration of Advent with our friends and neighbours and to invite them to join us as we wait and watch for Christ’s coming in hopeful anticipation.

But even when the world does not acknowledge or recognize Advent, we do.  As Christians we can still hear, see, and feel Advent proclaimed in the world.  This is the time of year that encourages people to grab onto the promise of hope, peace, joy, and love.  In truth, I think more people than usual give themselves permission to dream about the time when there will be an enduring peace.  This Gospel of “Peace on Earth” gets proclaimed to us over and over on the radio in the sacred and even some secular music.

Someday at Christmas”, released by Stevie Wonder in 1967, retells Isaiah’s prophecy with a modern twist, saying how:

Someday at Christmas men won’t be boys
Playing with bombs like kids play with toys
One warm December our hearts will see
A world where men are free

Someday at Christmas there’ll be no wars
When we have learned what Christmas is for
When we have found what life’s really worth
There’ll be peace on earth

Someday all our dreams will come to be
Someday in a world where men are free
Maybe not in time for you and me
But someday at Christmastime

Someday at Christmas we’ll see a land
With no hungry children, no empty hand
One happy morning people will share
Our world where people care

Someday at Christmas there’ll be no tears
All men are equal and no men have fears
One shining moment, one prayer away
From our world today

Someday all our dreams will come to be
Someday in a world where men are free
Maybe not in time for you and me
But someday at Christmastime

Someday at Christmas man will not fail
Hate will be gone and love will prevail
Someday a new world that we can start
With hope in every heart

It seems that beyond dreaming about this someday, people make special effort at this time of the year to reach out to their neighbours and to put aside difference and grievances.

Perhaps the most famous incidence of this happening was in the midst of World War I in the year 1914.  Requests from outside parties for even a temporary peace had been flatly rejected by the leaders of the nations engaged in battle, but during the month of December, German and British soldiers gradually began exchanging seasonal greetings and songs between their trenches.  By the time it was Christmas, the soldiers had ventured into no-man’s land to fellowship together.  They held joint services to bury the dead, exchanged small gifts such as alcohol, cigarettes and chocolate.  And French, British, and German soldiers even joined together in playing a game of soccer.  Approximately 100,000 soldiers participated in this temporary truce along the Western front.  In some places, the ceasefire lasted for an entire week.

This dreamlike peace in the middle of war was commemorated eight years ago on Remembrance Day when a monument was placed across from where the soldiers played their historic soccer match in the community of Frelinghien, France, near the Franco-Belgian border.

Sadly, history teaches us that the peace between these two armies did not last, and that particular world war was not “The War To End All Wars” as the world had hoped at the time.  There was no widespread Christmas Truce the next year or any year after that.  Strict orders came down to the soldiers from their superiors that this behaviour would not be tolerated and it was not to be repeated.  And as their methods of fighting, such as poison gas attacks, grew more and more brutal, these soldiers stopped seeing each other as brothers in Christ, or in many cases, as human beings, anymore.

But, it must be said that similar events to this one, on smaller scales, have been documented throughout history.  The sad reality that we face is that, more often than not, we tend to hear of the opposite happening.  Every year, about this time of year, there is a growing sense of worry and fear over how the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim people will share their time in and around Jerusalem without coming to blows and war.  Christians all over the world who are targeted and victimized while they gather to worship are praying fervently for the Prince of Peace to deliver them from violence.  The wider world continues to show us that many wars and crisis situations, which we had thought would be well and truly done with, continue ever onward.  This world continues to chant a message of might and power.  And many people have stopped believing that war will ever end, or that food will come, or that governments will change, or that the Church cares.  Hope, peace, joy and love seem reserved for sentimental holiday songs or December television specials.

A sentiment captured rather eloquently in another popular carol:

And in despair, I bowed my head
“There is no peace on Earth”, I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on Earth, goodwill to men.

In the chapter immediately before our Old Testament reading for today, the prophet Isaiah lays out a picture of the world around him that is as graphic as certain twenty-four-hour news channels.  It is a place of violence, bribery, unfaithfulness, desolation, and trampling on the poor.  Any glimpse of hope or call for repentance by God’s prophets was drowned out by even more violence and rebellion.  The people of Isaiah’s time saw his prediction of a world without war as absurd and impossible…

…but then also…

…there were those who hoped and prayed and waited and dared to believe that what is impossible for us is possible for God.

And in today’s world, we, like them, pray for peace in the world and in our homes – for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.  While we wait in hope for the coming of God’s kingdom, Jesus urges us to stay awake in order to watch for our Messiah – for Christ will return when we least expect Him.

Often, people receive this charge that we find in both our Epistle and Gospel lessons for today, with a great deal of fear.  What if Jesus Christ happens to catch us at a bad moment, like unexpected company that arrives on our doorstep when the house is a mess and we are just getting out of the shower?  These people can be paralyzed with the fear that their salvation might be in jeopardy.

However, we know and stand firm in that knowledge, that, in our baptism, we are freed from sin, death, and the Devil.  Our sin is covered over with Jesus Christ’s righteousness forever.  Christ is the Light that shines into all the fearful dark corners of the world, and the sinfulness of our lives, and he will not be overcome.  As members of the body of Christ, we are called to take an active part in bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.

So, stay awake and watchful, people of God, children of the Light!  This Advent, I encourage you to live not out of fear but in hope and wonder and amazement at all God is doing through you and around you to remake this world in God’s image.

Let us pray:
God of hope, who brought love into this world, be the love that dwells between us.
God of hope, who brought peace into this world, be the peace that dwells between us.
God of hope, who brought joy into this world, be the joy that dwells between us.
God of hope, the rock we stand upon, be the centre, the focus of our lives.
Always. Amen.


Sermon Inspirations

  1. Stevie Wonder. “Someday At Christmas” YouTube.
  2. Casting Crowns. “I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day” YouTube.
  3. Christmas Truce 1914

This week’s image is “Let Us Beat Swords Into Plowshares” by Evgeniy Vuchetich – a photograph taken by Rodsan18.  The image is from Wikimedia Commons, and has been cropped and modified for the purpose of this blog.  You can find the image here.

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