What makes a sermon, a sermon?
I’ve long held that the mere writing of a sermon, words on a page, don’t actually make it much of anything. A sermon is only a sermon when it is proclaimed among and for God’s people within the context of worship. The prayers, music, and even presence of individuals make the sermon what it is because the Holy Spirit delights in making the words proclaimed from the pulpit God’s words for us.
And so, I have a sermon that is not really a sermon. I prayed over these words and put them together for the first Sunday of Advent, but became sick prior to Sunday morning and never actually preached them. Oddly enough, I am grateful that I didn’t preach this sermon because Isaiah’s insistence on God’s people beating swords into ploughshares, and my take on what that might mean today, was sure to upset quite a few in the pews. And yet, if we believe the church lives according to God’s future in the present, then perhaps every Sunday is an opportunity to proclaim the radical audacity of our hope in the God “who shall come to judge between the nations.”
Anyway, here’s the text and “sermon”…
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 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.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord form Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; 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 any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
We begin at the end.
7 centuries before the Advent of Christ, before the little town of Bethlehem hosted the heavenly host, before the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head, the prophet Isaiah saw a word.
What an interesting turn of phrase.
The prophet doesn’t see a vision, he doesn’t hear a word, he sees the word.
In the days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains and all people will stream to it. A king will come and teach the ways of the Lord, the instruction will command the attention of the masses.
And what does this king teach?
An eye for an eye!
Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!
Life’s hard, get a helmet!
The king will teach the way of peace. He will come to judge the living and the dead. And, in judgment, the people will beat their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning hooks. Their weapons of war will become instruments of agriculture.
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.
Even if you’ve never read from the prophet Isaiah, you’ve probably heard these words before. Or, perhaps better put, you’ve seen them, or some version of them.
We’re familiar with these words because they have captivated the imaginations of the faithful for generations, just think of the famous images during protests against the Vietnam war and all the people who placed flowers inside the barrels of guns.
And, interestingly, this prophetic proclamation from Isaiah is engraved in large letters on the wall directly across the street from the United Nations. There they rest, day after day, mocking our feeble attempts to make peace while we continue to lift up our swords against one another.
Isaiah sees the word about the days to come. He does not know when, or even how, these things will come to fruition, but the prophet catches a glimpse behind the curtain of the cosmos and he seeds the end.
It’s a bit odd that we begin at the end. Today, after all, is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new year and we start with the conclusion. But, then again, it’s only right for us to do so because we are Easter people, we’re stuck squarely between the already but the not yet.
There’s a through line in the Gospels, frankly the whole of the strange new world of the Bible, about time. We sees these words about the past, the present, and the future, and it’s not altogether clear which ones are which. And yet, if there is a persistent proclamation, it is that we belong not to this age, but to the age to come. That’s why Paul can write in his letter to the church in Rome, do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.
We are a people out of time. We live in the future because we know that the tomb is empty.
But the future we live in its not a future that we bring to fruition.
There’s a temptation, every time Advent rolls around, for us to feel like it’s our responsibility to make the world come out right; that its up to us to make the word Isaiah sees real.
To use language from Stanley Hauerwas, we play at waiting this time of year. Advent, after all, is all about patience isn’t it. And yet, for us, it isn’t. We can’t help but make ourselves the main character of the story. We rejoice in this language of getting back to God, of climbing back up the mountain, of making the world a better place.
But, when was the last time we left church jazzed up to turn our swords into ploughshares, or transform our guns into garden shovels?
Did you know that there are more guns in this country than human beings?
The word Isaiah sees is not predicated on us finally getting everything good enough that we can be good enough for God. In fact, its quite the opposite. The end is made possible only as we come to grips with our badness and how badly we need someone to do for us, and to us, that which we cannot do on our own.
Isaiah sees swords turned into ploughshares, a people willing to relinquish their forms of control for forms of sustenance, a people of peace. The strange new world of the Bible is filled with impossible possibilities just like that. The Lord will bring the hills low, and raise the valleys up. The Lord will make the last first, and the first last. The Lord turns a sign of death (the cross), into the sign of life (salvation).
The end is not yet. We Easter people are oddly stuck living in the time of Advent. We exist in the time in between, the time being as Auden put it. We make it through this mortal life waiting and hoping for things not yet seen.
That’s why we sing of the hopes and fears of all the years. We know not all is as it should be, but we also know that the future is coming, and his name is Jesus.
“Building a better future for our children.” I saw that on a sign recently. And I hear those kind of words all the time. Here at church. The PTA. On the news. And, it’s a worthy sentiment. What can we do now to ensure a better and brighter future for the coming generations?
The only problem is, we are not creating the future, and certainly not a better one.
We know what we should and shouldn’t do, and for some reason we refuse to change.
It’s been almost ten years since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. 20 children between the ages of 6 and 7, plus 6 adults were murdered. I remember being glued to the television and feeling this raw hopelessness in my heart. And yet, I also remember thinking, “This is so bad, we’re definitely going to make sure these types of things will never happen again.”
But we didn’t.
In just the last two weeks we’re seen horrific shootings in Charlottesville and Colorado Springs. Awful. And we just keep going forward as if nothing happened. We’ve become numb to the violence that we are.
And, sadly, I had to go back and edit this sermon because in between writing it, and preaching it this morning, there was another mass shooting at a Walmart in Chesapeake.
These reports keep coming out, year after year, about how we have a problem with guns in this country. There are too many and the access is too easy. But we do nothing.
We were at the pediatrician’s office a few weeks back, patiently waiting. Talking about living into the Advent season, waiting and waiting and waiting. And what is there to do when you’re waiting in a doctor’s office? You start reading all the random posters on the wall.
Here’s the proper amount of medicine for a 6 year old. Here’s an example of a healthy diet for a ten year old. On and on.
But then I saw a word, a poster on the wall that chilled me to my core:
“Firearms are now the number one cause of death for children in the United States.”
We are not making a better future.
But, thankfully, the future is coming to us. From God.
God is creating our future and that future is our only hope. If it were left up to us, we would continue on paths that lead to destruction. But it is not God’s will that anyone should perish.
Isaiah sees a word that is staggering. Weapons turned into tools for food. People gathering at the mountain. And judgment.
We don’t do well with that word. It sits heavy on our hearts.
But the day of judgment that Isaiah sees is ultimately a day of hope, not of despair. It is a day of restoration, not doom. It is a day of judgment when sin will be no more.
That’s why we pray to God for help.
We need help that is outside of us. We need something done to us. We need this because we’ve had plenty of opportunities to change ourselves, to make things better, and the world keeps going down the toilet.
No wonder God had to send God’s son into the world. We need all the help we can get.
God is in the business of making all things new; yesterday, today, and forever. And the church, as Christ’s body in the world, is not some social club or gathering that provides a distraction from all that is wrong in the world. Instead, the church exists to call a thing what it is. Or, in other words, the church exists to tell the truth.
Advent starts in the dark. It always has and it always will. The texts, the hymns, the prayers, they all beckon our attention to the way things are knowing that that not all is as it should be. It is the season of honesty about who we are, but more importantly whose we are.
We are not making a better future but, as the church, we live according to God’s future in the present. We live, oddly enough, by grace. We practice trust and honesty and forgiveness in the midst of a time in which those things sound like fairytales.
The church is God’s weird and wild story for a time and place that is desperate for a new narrative, albeit one that runs completely counter to everything else in the world.
One day God is going to get what God wants. Swords will be beat into plowshares, guns will be melted into garden shovels. Peace will reign. O church, let us walk in the light of the Lord!