Belt Sanders and Plowshares: A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, Year A

I was shopping for a belt sander this week—one of my next projects around the house is to strip and refinish the staircase that goes up to the second floor. I visited a couple of stores as I began to price the tools and I was struck again by how much has changed in the world of carpentry since I was a teenager working for my dad. My dad was a finish carpenter and contractor who began to work in that trade in the late 40s. He began just as the revolution in power tools was beginning, and until the end of his life he continued to use the drill and the router he first purchased.

When he died in 1998, his shop still contained those tools and many of the hand tools he had used throughout his working life, but in the last decade or so, he had begun to purchase many more specialized power tools, items that didn’t exist 30 years earlier. As I walked through the aisles of stores last week, I was amazed by the variety of tools on display. It seems as if there’s a tool for every possible purpose, and often at very low prices. The idea that a carpenter might use a drill every day for thirty years is inconceivable because you can always buy a new one, with fancier technology for a few bucks.

I bring this up because there’s an image in today’s reading from Isaiah that goes against this idea. It’s a familiar image, of a time when swords are beaten into plowshares. I’ll grant you that it’s a powerful image—perhaps what comes to mind for you is that sculpture outside of the UN building in NYC that depicts the scene. But for us, swords, and plowshares, are relatively familiar things. Swords we see in movies, paintings, museums; plows we see every fall and spring in the fields around Madison. They are both common, unremarkable things.

Not so in the time that Isaiah was making this prophecy. He lived and was active in what is known as the Iron Age II. We know from other biblical texts that iron was rare and highly prized. It was used for swords and spears, but probably not for agricultural implements. Yes, to beat a sword into a plowshare was an image of peace, but it was also a potent image of the repurposing of scarce resources, the repurposing of scarce and cutting-edge technology, away from the military toward peaceful, agricultural purposes. The prophet continues with more familiar words:

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war anymore.

We experience the power and appeal of this imagery even as we wonder about its relevance for today. That statue in front of the UN seems the relic of another age—certainly the peace hoped for when the UN was founded is a distant memory. Our military sucks up as large a percentage of our national GDP as ever, and it seems unlikely that we will ever be at peace as the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere continue to simmer. Our own cynicism and world-weariness looks back at Isaiah and wonders what the prophet saw in his own time, and what that prophecy might have meant.

Well, let me add another dimension for you. Isaiah was active in a very dangerous time for the now divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah. He prophesied in the second half of the 8th century, BCE when the Assyrian empire was on the ascendant. It would eventually crush the northern kingdom of Israel, and Isaiah, in Jerusalem, was probably pleading with the Israelite survivors of that defeat to come to Jerusalem. But the danger wasn’t over; it wouldn’t be over until the Assyrian onslaught ended mysteriously while besieging Jerusalem. Judah and Jerusalem would survive for another century or so.

What must those words have sounded like in that context, with your closest neighbors crushed by a powerful enemy, your own demise likely—what pipedreams, what unreality! But the power of those words and that image outlasted Assyria, and the prophet Isaiah himself. They retained enough of their power that they were used again by another prophet, Micah. Micah was roughly contemporary with Isaiah, probably a bit younger. He uses almost the exact same words about swords and plowshares, spears and pruning hooks, but extends the image to depict soldiers at rest and peace, sitting under their own vines and fig trees.

So think about it a moment. As far-fetched as Isaiah’s prophecy was with Assyria looming over Jerusalem, Micah found his words compelling enough to repeat them again a few years later. In our context, where the prospect of peace is far distant, and the promise of a world in which God reigns with justice and equity even more remote, to imagine a prophet proclaiming like Isaiah, or Micah, is not just far-fetched, it’s unbelievable.

This image of swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, is not specifically evoked in the New Testament; it’s not a quotation that Jesus uses, nor do the gospel writers quote it either directly or allusively. Still, the idea of God’s peaceful and just reign permeates Jesus’ proclamation in the gospels. The hope that one day, God will usher in a time of peace, a time when there is no pain, illness, or suffering, a time when all of humanity is united in its worship of God, those themes are prevalent throughout the Christian scriptures. The prophetic image of Isaiah and Micah inspired Jesus and his followers eight centuries later. It inspired them to imagine a reign of God that would bring peace, hope, and justice in an age that saw none of those things.

But can that image continue to inspire us? Today is the first Sunday in Advent; the first Sunday of our liturgical, church year. Advent is a season when we are invited to look forward in hope to the coming of Christ. It is also a time when, as our readings from Romans and the Gospel suggest, we are expected to look forward to the Second Coming. We are told in both that the time is near, to be alert and watchful. Paul offers that lovely phrase: “Salvation is nearer now than it was when we were first believers.” Lovely because it suggests time is coming short; lovely, too, because it reminds us that for him salvation was not just an individual thing, it involved all of creation.

Advent should be a time of expectant hope, hope not only for the coming of Christmas and our celebration of the incarnation of Christ. It should also be a time when we long for the redemption and salvation of the whole world. Such a hope may seem outlandish in our world today. I won’t recite the litany of troubles that we face, as individuals, as a congregation, a nation, even the world. You know them all too well. Our hopes have become small, diminished. We look forward to a nice meal, or a diverting movie, perhaps a comfortable retirement or a good job. Some of us may hope for enough money to make it through the month, for stability, for health. All of those are good things to hope for.

But Advent calls us out of our own preoccupations and struggles to look for God’s coming into the world in power and majesty. Advent calls us to imagine a world transformed by God’s reign, a world in which swords are beaten into plowshares, and no one prepares or trains for war. Advent calls us to imagine a world at peace, a creation full of God’s glory. Advent calls us to look for signs of God’s coming, signs of God’s reign of justice and equity. Isaiah lived in a time and place that was full of terror, with a future that looked bleak. But in that time and place, he imagined a very different world, a world of peace and light, and out of that vision he cried out, “O house of Jacob, come let us walk in the light of the Lord.” His cry comes to us, nearly 3000 years later. This Advent, may we hear that call, and walk in the light of the Lord, led by a vision of God’s just and glorious reign.

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