‘Tis the season!’ But ‘tis the season for what? According to any retail outlet, since about mid-October it has been the Christmas season, the season to buy, buy, buy! Does it sometimes feel as if the retailers get the better end of the Christmas deal? After all, they get to celebrate Christmas for two and a half months (or more…). We Christians only get to celebrate it for twelve days…and the first of those days isn’t until December 25th!
Oh, the pain of Advent! For those of us who celebrate Advent, now ‘tis the season to wait. We’re waiting on the baby Jesus. Again. Just like every year. ‘Joy to the world, the Lord will come!’ we sing….as we wink to one another over the tops of our hymnals. We wink because we know. We know the end of the story. We know that the world celebrates joyously because the Lord has already come. We know the baby Jesus will come again…just like he always does. We go through the motions of the Advent story every year because it’s familiar. And who doesn’t love a familiar story, especially one with a happy ending?
But I wonder. Do we know for certain the baby Jesus will show up this year? Yes, he’s shown up every previous year…but this Advent—as all other Advents—is different. After a year of experiences, we’re different people than we were this time last year. Waiting for the Christ-child, waiting for God’s presence to dwell with us is different this year because we are different people…and the world is a different place…Next Saturday’s anniversary of the Sandy Hook School shooting reminds us of just how different a place. Yes, Jesus has shown up every year prior to this one, but will he show up again? Will our waiting bear fruit, like always? Will God really come to dwell with us again?
A couple of years ago, the church I served was looking for a new crèche. Have you ever tried to find a manger scene where the baby Jesus is not attached to the manger? It’s quite a task! We looked everywhere for an unattached baby Jesus. Finally, Allen and I found one in Adel, Georgia, of all places. Why is that? Why is the baby Jesus so often so firmly attached to the manger? Oh, sure. The baby Jesus is small and we want to be sure we know where he is come the Christmas Eve service! Better to attach him to something bigger, like the manger, than to risk losing him.
But again, I wonder. I wonder if we’re afraid of losing a small piece of ceramic, or if we’re really afraid that the Christ-child won’t come this time. Yes, in ancient times, God said God wanted to be with us. God actually did dwell with us for a while. But that was then. Now we live in (what feels like) a much more complicated world. There’s so much pain and grief and meanness. Does God still desire to dwell with us? Will God-with-us really come again? I wonder if we like an “attached” baby Jesus because the empty manger makes us nervous.
Waiting is a messy, nervous-making business. But it always seems easier when we have something to do. So, what are we to do during this season of waiting? What shall we do while we wait again for the Christ-child to come?
The prophet Isaiah gives us some ideas. These few verses contain the prophet’s vision of a better time. “In days to come the mountain of God’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 God, to the house of the God of Jacob that God may teach us God’s ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.”
We 21st century folk understand God to be present in all the world, not just on mountain tops or in sanctuaries. But let’s go with this image for a minute. First, we have a mountain, taller than all other mountains. And on top of this mountain is the house of God, a place to worship God, to learn from God. And from as far as the eye can see, people are streaming to this mountain. From every direction, people of different races and ethnicities and nationalities and languages and sizes and shapes and colors and dress are streaming to the mountain of God. They get to the bottom of the mountain and they start climbing up. Why are they climbing up the mountain of God? Because they want to get close to God! They want to learn from God! And so, they start climbing up the mountain.
And here’s the interesting thing. As they’re climbing up the mountain, all these different people, as they’re climbing up the mountain trying to get closer to God, look at what else is happening! As the people get closer to God, they also get closer to each other…so that, by the time they get to the top of the mountain to commune with God, they’re sitting right next to each other! And what do they do once they get there? They learn from God’s ways so that they might walk in God’s paths. And what are God’s ways? God’s ways are whatever it takes for these people of different shapes and colors and nationalities to talk to each other and be with each other. What a beautiful image for this Sunday of peace!
But the prophet doesn’t just offer an image of a better world. He also offers an image of how to get there. Listen: ‘For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of God from Jerusalem. God 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 God!
Swords into plowshares. Also a powerful image…if you know what a plowshare is. I’ve heard this passage all my life, but I never knew what a plowshare was, so I looked it up. A plowshare is the blade of a sickle. It’s used to harvest grain. So you can see the significance of the image of turning a sword—a weapon—into a farm implement, an implement of peace. It is a powerful image and one that has been used in several places.
“The words of Isaiah 2:4 (‘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’) are engraved in large letters on the wall opposite the United Nations headquarters in new York City.” And in Washington, DC, ‘welded to a 16 by 19 foot steel plowshare are thousands of disabled handguns confiscated by the Washington Police Department. The label for the sculpture reads, ‘Guns into Plowshares.’” (For picture: http://www.artway.eu/content.php?id=1052&action=show&lang=en) The words of Isaiah serve well as a mission statement of sorts of the UN. And the creativity with which the Washington Police Department has contemporized the image is beautifully instructive.
But perhaps the most powerful use of this image is a nine-foot sculpture that stands in one of the gardens at the UN. In that sculpture, a muscular blacksmith is beating a sword into a plowshare. What the blacksmith has is neither sword nor plowshare. It’s something in between. The blacksmith is in the process of making peace. He’s in the process of conversion. (For picture: https://www.un.org/cyberschoolbus/untour/subswo.htm)
As are we. Oh, to live in a world where nations do not lift swords against each other! Oh, that war-making could be removed from our collective curriculum as obsolete! Unfortunately, for us—as for the prophet Isaiah—our conversion process is not yet complete. We live in a world where nations do war, a place where senseless violence still occurs. It’s hard—so hard—for us to imagine a world without war or violence, but that’s why God gave us prophets. Prophets help us imagine. And Isaiah helps us to imagine a new day, a day where people of different backgrounds and faiths and colors meet together on the mountain of God in peace. Isaiah helps us imagine a world without war, a world without violence.
Our work of Advent is like the work of the blacksmith in the sculpture at the UN: the call this Advent is to be about the process of making peace. We may not make it up the mountain of God. We may not even make it to the mountain of God. And our arsenals may be better-stocked at this point than our barns…But now that Isaiah has helped us imagine it, let us work toward peace. Let us continue walking in the light of God, searching for God’s mountain. And let us scale that mountain. And let us encounter God there. And let us meet God’s other children there, our sisters and brothers. And let us find peace there. And as we work and seek God’s peace, let us also keep one eye on our tasks and one eye on the empty manger. For we may discover that—just as we hoped—God indeed is with us and among us.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2013 (2001)
Prayers of the People (12/8/13)
Holy One, Our brother Nelson has died. We thank you for all he was to those who knew him and loved him…and also to the tens of millions of people he inspired with his life of justice-seeking and peace-making. We thank you that for Nelson, all sickness and sorrow are ended, and death itself is past and that he has entered the home where all your people gather in peace. GM/HP
With our brother Nelson’s passing, we are sad and a little frightened—Who will fill his shoes? Who will do as much to promote the human dignity of all people? Who will continue seeking justice for the oppressed? Who will continue the important work of “beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks?”
Even as we ask the question, though, the answer is emerging fully-formed: We will. We will promote the human dignity of all people. We will continue seeking justice for the oppressed. We will continue the important work of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Holy One, give us the desire, the strength, the wisdom to live as Nelson Mandela lived. Empower us to do the important work of creating the world as you hope it to be. Help us to make your kin-dom as real here on earth as it is in heaven. GM/HP
And now, in the quiet of this moment, we lift into your care those things that are not yet ready for public speech. (Silence)