Swords into Ploughshares?

ADVENT SUNDAY – 1st December, 2013 – St Barnabas’, Rivervale

Yesterday afternoon, I conducted a wedding in the Chapel of one of our long-established Church Schools. A beautiful afternoon, with a delightful couple, surrounded by supportive family and friends, and serenaded by a small but more than competent choir and a fine organ.

The only somewhat jarring note for me was a piece of so-called “poetry” read to the couple. It began:
“Today is a day you will always remember
The greatest in anyone’s life
You’ll start off the day just two people in love
And end it as husband and wife.
It’s a brand new beginning, the start of a journey
With moments to cherish and treasure
And although there’ll be times when you both disagree
These will surely be outweighed by pleasure.”

To be fair, some of you may well think it beautiful, but I can only be thankful that the “poet” is that prolific writer “Anonymous”  I was intensely grateful that St Paul’s great poem about love – from 1 Corinthians 13 followed, balancing the books somewhat!

Thankfully, however, the final couplet of the “poem” set me thinking about today’s sermon and the Season of Advent. It reads:
“Tomorrow can bring you the greatest of joys
But today is the day it all starts.”

Advent is the very beginning of the Church’s year – a kind of “New Year’s Day”, if you like. And the theme for the first Sunday of the Advent Season, as we heard when we lit the first candle, is that of “Hope”. It is a season of looking forward – partly for Christmas – but more accurately, to the coming of Jesus Christ among us, not simply as a baby in a manger, but as Lord of all when he will restore creation to its originally intended perfection.

Today’s readings from the prophet Isaiah is a poem of – to my mind – somewhat greater quality than the wedding one! Isaiah’s picture of God’s coming reign is pure poetry and parts of it have been quoted often in a world which longs for peace.

Outside the United Nations building in New York there is a wall bearing the inscription, “They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they learn war anymore. Isaiah.” And there is a statue in the gardens of that building of a man hammering the end of a sword into a ploughshare, and the words of Isaiah are on the statue’s plinth. Ironically, the statue was donated to the UN by the USSR in 1959, a time we know as “The Cold War”, when world peace was then, as now, an elusive dream.

And still our world is in need of true peace, not just the absence of war – as good as that would be, but the active seeking of wholeness, healing and justice.

But what secular people who quote the words about swords and ploughshares tend not to realise is context of Isaiah’s hope. His vision of peace is one where
“ Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’”
Isaiah’s vision in one where people are learning and walking in the ways which God decrees – ways of justice, mercy and humility, to quote the prophet Micah, as I did last week. There will be no true peace in this world without the willingness of all to follow the instruction of its Creator.

And the One whose coming we will celebrate at Christmas is the “Prince of Peace”.

“But”, we might say, “he has already come, in a stable some 2,000 years ago, and there is still no peace”. How true that is. In fact the armies of Rome and the leaders of God’s people, Israel, saw to it that the Prince of Peace was unjustly tried and summarily executed, so that those who held power would not be threatened and challenged.

Advent reminds us that we live in a period of “already, but not yet”. The Prince of Peace has already come, but we can not yet experience that shalom which is God’s peace throughout the world.

The peace of the world is not dependent on the United States and her allies (including Australia) going into battle to enforce “democracy” in the troubled parts of the world. Isaiah tells us that we have it all wrong if we believe we can fix everything. He says that:

“He [the LORD] shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples”

And that that precedes the beating of swords into ploughshares and the abolition of war from the educational curriculum.

So, are we to stop bothering about working for peace and justice, because it’s all up to God sometime in the unforeseeable future? Are we to give up in despair and go hide in safe little communes and continue our worship privately, so as to remain unchallenged and unchallenging?

No – a thousand times, no! The first thing this passage from Isaiah tells us to do is to “go up to the house of the Lord”, both to learn his ways and to walk in his paths. In this period of “already but not yet, we have all sorts of work and worship to do.

The “poem” with which I began is accurate when it says
“Tomorrow can bring you the greatest of joys
But today is the day it all starts.”

At every Eucharist, we recite “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.´ And when St Paul narrates the institution of the Lord’s Supper in I Corinthians, he says,
“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,
you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

This and every Eucharist is the story of “already but not yet”. Tomorrow may well bring great joys, but today, this morning, in the remembering and eating and drinking, it all starts.

We have come together to “the house of the Lord”. We have learned again of his ways and we are sent out to “walk in his paths”.

And as we go, taught, fed and encouraged, we will – in our own, perhaps minuscule, ways – begin to prepare the way for the one who has come and is coming to restore all things to the perfection which has always been the dream of the Creator.

The Lord, who is coming and for whom we wait, be with you!