‘Tis the season!’ But ‘tis the season for what? According to any retail outlet, since about mid-October it’s 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 Jesus-followers only get to celebrate it for twelve days…and the first of those days isn’t until December 25th.
Thank you, Quentin, for the reminder of the music we’ll get to sing beginning 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 is different. We’re different people than we were this time last year. We’ve gotten older. We’ve lost loved ones. We’ve said hello to new family members. We’ve adjusted to difficult diagnoses and recovered from accidents, falls, and surgeries. And not only are we in different places as people, our country and the world are different places than they were last year, too. The war in Ukraine. The repeal of Roe. Oppressive legislation. Soaring inflation. Increasing gun violence.
Waiting for the Christ-child, waiting for God’s presence to dwell with us is different this year because we are different people; the world is a different 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? This year, in this place, in these circumstances?
Several years ago, the church I served needed a new crèche. Have you ever tried to find a manger scene where the baby Jesus is not attached to the manger? It isn’t easy! We looked everywhere for an unattached baby Jesus. Finally, Allen and I found one in Adel, Georgia, of all places. 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. Are we afraid of losing a small piece of ceramic? Or are we scared that this might be the year the Christ-child doesn’t come at all? 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. What shall we do while we wait again for the Christ-child to come this year?
Isaiah has some ideas. “In days to come the mountain of God’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains… all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of God, 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.
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 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 create that world. 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; (Here we go. This is the key.) 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.
Swords into plowshares. Also a powerful image…if you know what a plowshare is. I Googled it. A plowshare is the blade of a sickle. It’s used to harvest grain. The prophet invites the people to imagine turning tools of war into tools of peace.
I try not to read the Bible literally. If I did that, well, I wouldn’t be here preaching, now would I? That said, I like the results of some folks who are taking this “swords into plowshares” image from Isaiah literally. Take a look.
A newly created pick-ax with the words:
“They will beat their swords into plowshares.” Rawtools.org
“Guns into Plowshares” sculpture at Eastern Mennonite University,
An artist, Pedro Reyes, who lives in Mexico, creates musical instruments and shovels out of guns. Make me an instrument of your peace, indeed.
Artist Pedro Reyes
Pedro Reyes, Imagine (Double Psaltery), 2013.
Pedro Reyes, Palas por Pistolas, 2007–present.
Pedro Reyes, Imagine (Psaltery), 2013.
Pedro Reyes, Imagine Pedro Reyes, “Disarm,” installation shot, 2013.
(Bass Guitar Bass), 2013.
Perhaps the most powerful artistic rendering of Isaiah’s “swords into plowshares” 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.
“Swords into Plowshares” sculpture at the United Nations
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.
Today’s words from Isaiah were written to agrarians in the 8th century BCE. Turning swords into plowshares is an image that would have connected for them. They wouldn’t have had to Google “plowshares.”
If the prophet were prophesying today, I wonder what image they might use? What tools are used for war today? Guns? Nuclear warheads? Legislation? Social media? How might we transform these tools, sometimes used for violence, into tools of peace? How might each of us use our gifts and skills to create peace in our world? Are you good with numbers? How might you use that gift to create peace in the world? Are you a musician? How might you use that gift to create peace in the world? Are you a teacher? How might you use that gift to create peace in the world? Are you a builder? How might you use that gift to create peace in the world? Are you a quilter or a crafter? How might you use that gift to create peace in the world? In what new ways might we use the gift of our UCT community to create peace in the world?
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…of using whatever we have at our disposal to create peace. If some completed peace product emerges from our peace making process, great. But we aren’t called to complete the process, only to use whatever means we have at hand to engage fully in the process of creating peace.
And so, as we wait this Advent, let us use every tool we have to work together for peace. Let us continue searching for God’s mountain. Let us scale that mountain together. Let us encounter God there. And let us meet God’s other children there, our sisters and brothers. Let us find peace there. And as we work together and seek God’s peace, as we keep one eye on our holiday tasks, let us keep the other eye on the empty manger. If we do, we might just discover that—just as we hoped—the baby Jesus has come again. That God is indeed with us…still.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2022 (2019, 2013, 2001)