Saturday, November 30, 2013

Swords Into Plowshares

Isaiah 2:1-4
This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem: In the last days
the mountain of the LORD's temple will be established as chief among the mountains;
it will be raised above the hills,and all nations will stream to it.

Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths."

The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.

Matthew 24:36-44

"No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.   As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.   For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark;  and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.   Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.

"Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” NIV

Christmas – the celebration of the birth of the one we call ‘the Prince of Peace.’

And yet, there is no peace in the world.

Have you seen the videos of those terrible attacks on people in cities and communities.  It is a game called “knock out,” and young people, mostly gang members, approach an unsuspecting person from behind and hit them as hard as they can in the head, with the goal of knocking the person out.  These are terrible attacks.
When will we have peace on earth?

Last week there was a video of children in Syria.  CNN reporters were interviewing these children about the war in that country.  One of the children described how one day she saw an explosion and a man’s head flew overhead.  What a terrible way to live.  And during the interview, there was yet another explosion in a building behind the children and everyone was knocked on their feet.  Once the dust settled, the video camera was turned back on and these children calmly continued to answer the questions of the reporter – war and violence are so much a part of their lives that an explosion that knocks them down is no big deal.
When will the fighting in Syria end?

The War in Afghanistan has been going on for 12 years, 1 month, 3 weeks, and 3 days.  When will that war end?

In fact, on Christmas Day – that first one, the one when there was a baby in a manger and shepherds watching their flocks by night – the angels sang about “peace on earth.”

Well, when is that going to happen?

Our Old Testament lesson was written by the prophet Isaiah. 

It was some 400 years before the birth of Christ, and it was a time of war and violence.  The kingdom was divided – Judah in the South and Israel in the North.  There was civil war between the two.  Judah was in revolt against super-power Assyria under King Hezekiah.[i]

You can imagine the people of Isaiah’s time asking the same thing the people of our time ask, “when will this war end? When will violence stop?  When will there be peace on earth?

Isaiah answered by recalling the words of another prophet, Joel, who some 2 or 3 hundred years earlier had called the people to prepare for war by telling them to beat their plowshares into swords and their pruning hooks into spears.[ii]

What Isaiah does is to lift that phrase out of the writings of Joel and he turns them around. 

They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.

What an idealist dream!

Imagine taking the weapons of today and recycling them as Isaiah proposed, turning guns and bullets and missiles and jets and tanks – into farming equipment, medical tools, building materials for schools.

Can there ever be a day when “nation will not take up sword against nation,” or “train for war anymore?”

When will wars end?

In Matthew’s Gospel, the people asked Jesus about when the Kingdom would arrive on earth. That’s more than just the end of war.  That’s the end of poverty, disease, injustice, racism, violence, hatred – as well as war.

And at first glance, the news is not good.  Jesus looks at the disciples and gives us the straight news.  “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.

“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.”

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of living through these birth pains.  I want the end of the age to come, and with it, I want Jesus to establish his kingdom on this earth.

In the early years of the church, the disciples expected Jesus to return at any moment.  They thought it would be “6 days, 6 weeks, probably not 6 months.”

But the months turned into years.  And the years turned into centuries. 

And we are still waiting.

Waiting for an end to racism.  Waiting for an end to injustice.  Waiting for an end to poverty and disease and hunger.

Waiting for war to end.

We’ve waited so long, that it seems almost useless to continue to wait. 

Why work for peace, when wars will not end?

Why fight this war, when ten years later, or 20 at best, another enemy will appear?

Several years ago I was teaching a 3rd grade Sunday School class.  We were studying our New Testament lesson for this morning, from Matthew’s Gospel.  The memory verse was from the lesson we read just a little while ago.  “So watch, for you don’t know when the Son of Man will come.”

Geeze, I couldn’t believe it, but one of the kids memorized it incorrectly.  Instead of saying “So watch,” the child thought it was “So WHAT.” 

And that is the way many of us live our lives. 

“So what, we don’t know when the Son of Man will come.”

“So what.  We don’t know when Christ will establish his kingdom.

“So what.  We don’t know when poverty, injustice, hate – and war – will end.”

You reach a point at which you feel like giving up.

“So what?” There will always be hate.  There will always be crime.  There will always be racism.  There will always be war.

But against this, the Word of God calls us to work for peace.

Psalm 122 says, “Pray for peace.”

II Timothy, chapter 2, calls on us to pray for our nation’s leaders, “that we may live in peace.”

In fact, we are to do more than pray for peace, we are called to be actively seeking peace.  The psalmist said that we should “seek peace and pursue it.”[iii]

Jesus promised a special blessing to those who worked as peacemakers, promising that those people would be called children of God.[iv]

But it is so easy to just say, “So what?” 

It is so easy to think that things will never improve, and that things will never get better.

But to say that is to have no hope.

More than that, it is to have no faith, and to call Christ a liar.  For He himself promised that he would establish peace and that he would establish his kingdom.

Today is the first day of Advent, the beginning of a new year in the Christian calendar.

Advent is a time to anticipate the day when we can celebrate the first coming of Christ and to celebrate his birth on Christmas.

But Advent is also a time to anticipate the return of Christ.

The day will come like a thief in the night, as unexpected as we could possibly imagine.  But it will come.

And then all wars will end.  And so will injustice, and crime, and hate.

Meanwhile, so what?

What difference does this make?

This past week I read a book that was published in 1858, TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE.  It is now a movie which is currently in the theaters, which I have not seen, but in the book the author is telling about his true experiences as a free Black who is kidnapped and taken to Louisiana where he lives as a slave.  A dozen years later, he is finally able to send a letter to friends and family who are able to secure his freedom and return to his home in New York. 
As the book is coming to a close, Solomon Northrup, after 12 years in slavery, is leaving Louisiana and is saying goodbye to other slaves.  Among the friends he leaves behind, some have a sense of hope that someday they will be free.  They absolutely no idea how that will happen, but they have that hope.  It is a hope that any reasonable person would say was vain and senseless.

But – the modern reader knows something that back in 1858, the writer of that book had no clue.  In just two years, the Civil War would begin.  In less than 5 years, Lincoln would issue the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in ten of the states that made up the Confederacy.  In 7 years, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution would forever outlaw slavery in all of the United States.  Slowly, freedom came to all of those who in 1858, had hope, but no evidence, that such a day would come.

We live in an age of violence.  There are wars and rumors of wars. 

But it is our task to live in hope, and not to let hope die, that someday there will be true peace.  And while live in hope, it is up to us to live out peace within ourselves and within our relationships with others. 

In his New Testament letter to the Romans, Paul said, “As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”


Copyright 2013, Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved. 
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[i] Von Rad, “The Message of the Prophets” pages 118-144.
[ii] Joel 3:10
[iii] Psalm 34:13-15
[iv] Matthew 5:9