A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on November 28, 2010.
First Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14
When I step into this pulpit on Sunday mornings, you’re not looking for me to offer you some pie-in-the-sky promises that you know aren’t going to come about. You don’t want a lot of gobbledy-gook that may sound good but has no meaning and purpose. You want to hear something real, something that offers a hope that will quite possibly come to be. You don’t want empty platitudes, otherwise you’d go to a political convention. This is church, and you want to hear and experience how God can speak to your particular situation and give you a sense of purpose in what is going on in your life.
Am I not right?
Well, if that’s true, on the face of it, Isaiah is not for you. Not this Isaiah anyway. On the face of it. Because he offers a lot of pie-in-the-sky dreams that have yet to become anything close to a reality.
Isaiah talks about a future day when God will actually be in control. This is the way the prophet puts it: God will occupy the highest ground, a place from which God will be able to judge and arbitrate over all his people. All the nations of the world will flock to this holy mountain. Think of that... all cultures and languages, colors of skin, different ways of looking at life and faith. They will come together in one accord and if they are not of one accord God will listen to their grievances, will consider their disputes and the concerns of the nations, and justice – true justice based on God’s righteousness – will be the name of the game.
And in one of the most famous of all biblical images, the prophet says that all the swords of the world will be beaten into plowshares so that instruments of taking life will instead become instruments of sustaining life. Peace will come forth from the light of God, and all God’s children will walk toward it. What a wonderful picture of how life could and should be.
You can understand, can’t you, why this passage from Isaiah has been chosen to lead us off into the season of Advent?
But it isn’t realistic. It is a wonderful dream, but we all know it just isn’t going to happen. Which makes it that much more interesting because Isaiah isn’t the only prophet who talks like this. Micah gets into the act too, and essentially says the very same thing (4:1-3).
What does that mean? That Micah was looking over Isaiah’s shoulder when he wrote this down? Of course not. That he was as delusional as Isaiah? Maybe. What I think it means is that God is intent enough on getting his message across that he lays it in the lap of at least two of his prophets, just to make sure the message gets conveyed. So this isn’t just the pipe dream of a couple of overly optimistic prophets. It’s the vision that God has given his people of how God wants things to be.
But still, it ain’t gonna happen. Not in our lifetimes anyway. After all, things were just as bad in the days of the prophets as they are now for us... maybe even worse. Even so, things are pretty bad, aren’t they? And they don’t appear to be getting any better.
Monday morning, the local newspaper shared the news that the Taliban has announced it won’t wait til 2014 for the U.S.-led coalition of NATO troops to vacate Afghanistan. 2014 has been established as the target date for turning over all government operations to the local people. Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said they “will not remain silent even for a single night until and unless the goal of complete freedom and the formation of an independent government is achieved.” I assume this talk of freedom and the formation of an independent government is a euphemism for telling the U.S. to get out of Afghanistan and let the Taliban have control once again.
That same issue of the newspaper reported that twenty-three people died in fighting in Somali, and that missile strikes in Pakistan claimed the lives of six people.1 Since then, the talk has been about the conflict between North and South Korea. And let’s not even get started about airport security. In other words, the newspaper stories of this past week pretty much mirror how it was last year at this time and the year before that and the year before that, and unfortunately the way it will be next year for us as well. But it also mirrors the way it was in Isaiah’s day.
Isaiah, what a dreamer. Or was he? Before you jump to that conclusion, let me tell you something about our friend Isaiah. As a prophet, he served as an advisor to King Hezekiah. That was his day job, where he drew his paycheck. The prophet thing was his volunteer work.
For the most part, the latter kings of Israel were a pretty worthless bunch. But not Hezekiah. He brought to the throne a fairly strong desire to do things the way he thought God wanted them done. Isaiah was there to help him see the big picture. What that means is that all the time Isaiah kept Hezekiah abreast of what God wanted him to do, he also kept an eye on the kinds of international affairs that were in Judah’s best interest.
What does that mean? Well, for one thing, it meant that Isaiah was no fool. He knew where the quicksand was, and was pretty shrewd when it came to thinking and acting politically. He could hold his own when it came to meetings with the king’s cabinet. And it means that Isaiah was a realist, not a dreamy-eyed Pollyana.
And that means that Isaiah, when he shared his vision with his king, was letting Hezekiah in on the very secrets of God. So there is a sense in which, during this Advent season as we look at Isaiah’s prophecies, we too will be witnesses to God’s secrets. The question is, will we have the eyes to see?
Frankly, I doubt it.
On this first Sunday in Advent 2010, the prophecy of Isaiah will no doubt fall once again into the dark hole of human aggression, and we who consider ourselves the faithful will hardly even take notice. We’ve gotten used to living in a violent world obsessed with war and death. As long as it does not come to our doorstep, and the faces of the soldiers who die in Middle East conflicts, shown on our local TV newscasts, are strange to us, we don’t and won’t have a lot to say about how terrible all this conflict truly is.
Let it be, as far as we are concerned, just let it be. We don’t have any control over what happens anyway. And isn’t that what we elect people for, to decide what is in our best interests? Aren’t they supposed to be the ones who work for and establish peace? We’ve got enough troubles of our own without worrying all the time about world peace. Leave that up to our leaders; or maybe the prophets.
When the passage from Isaiah was read a few moments ago, I heard no one laugh at its absurdity. Not even a snicker. None of you was shaking your head at how silly and useless this all sounds. We have too much reverence for scripture to do something like that, don’t we? But just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t mean it’s going to be so. We all know that the Bible, at least the parts of it we like the most, calls us to a higher sense of life in Christ. It points out how things ought to be, how we ought to be. But it doesn’t necessarily convey how things really are, now does it?
As Paul Duke says, there are times when “sorrow and doubt need a voice in the room,” and this is such a time. I would think that goes for cynicism and skepticism too. Even Mary, who of course is central to the story of God’s coming in human flesh, asked the honest and penetrating question: “How can this be?” (Luke 1:4).2 How can what be?
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.
But just because this may not literally happen in our lifetimes does not mean that God is not working in our world toward this as his final and eternal goal. So this is what I suggest we do this Advent season. Let’s allow Isaiah to take us to this mountain he is talking about. From the vantage point of this high place, perhaps the prophet can show us what can be, what God’s final purpose is, and in that we can find something for us to do this Advent season that will come under the heading of “faithful.”
Instead of treating this Advent season simply as a run-up on Christmas, a time to get inspired about your faith and bone up on your caroling,3 why not try to embody the spirit of the prophet and seek to walk in the light that shows us a pathway through the darkness? Why not try to do something different his year as a way of showing God how much we desire his peace? In short, what can we do to beat our swords into plowshares?
During these next four weeks, we will be lighting the candles of our Advent wreath, as we do every year during this season. The first candle was lighted earlier by the Rogers family. What did they tell us? They told us it is the candle of hope. The lighting of the hope candle will be followed next week by the candle of love, then joy, and finally peace. It is always in that order... hope, love, joy, peace.
About ten or twelve years ago Sara Shoemaker offered to make this robe stole for me. Actually, she made four, and I wear them every Advent season. Have any of you noticed? Just in case you haven’t, let me explain. The stole I’m wearing today has one candle on it, on this side (left). On the other side of the stole is the word Hope. The stole I wear next week will have two candles and will say Love, then three candles and Joy, finally four candles and Peace. Why that order? Why not start with love, then go to peace, and then hope and finally joy? Who thought of this anyway?
Well, I don’t know who thought of it, but it makes sense that Hope always goes first. Why? Because you can’t find love without hope, nor can you experience joy or know peace without first having hope. And, of course, that big white candle in the middle is the one we will light Christmas Eve. That is the Christ candle. You can’t have any of it – hope or love or joy or peace – without Christ.
Understand, if you will, the difference between hope and mere optimism. “Optimism is based on the possibilities of things as they have come to be; hope is based on the possibilities of God irrespective of how things are. Hope can spring up even in the valley of the shadow of death... Why? Because hope is based on God’s coming into the darkness to dispel it with divine light.”4
What are you hoping for this season? Perhaps responding to an invitation will help. No, not an invitation to yet another party. An invitation offered you by the prophet Isaiah. He says to you and me, “Come, let us walk in the light of the LORD.” It doesn’t take much light to overcome the darkness of our part of the world. Just a little will go a long way in helping us fulfill the ultimate purposes of God.
There is a small Jesuit chapel at St. Louis University that makes use of some creative architecture. It has to do with the light fixtures. They are made of twentieth-century cannon shells, converted into cylinders for holding light bulbs. Emptied of their lethal contents, they now hold light for people to pray by.5
Cannon shells into light fixtures, swords into plowshares. It may just be a pipe-dream, but if it is, isn’t it about time that we give it a try?
Lord, may we take up the anvil of faith and start hammering away, making instruments that take life into those that sustain life. W/ Christ’s help, guide us to do it this season. Amen.
1Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 29, 2010.
2Paul Duke, Feasting On the Word, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), p. 7.
3George Mason, “A Secure House,” unpublished sermon, November 28, 2004.
4Miroslav Volf, “Not Optimistic,” The Christian Century, December 28, 2004, p. 31.