Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 27, 2022

Isaiah 2:1-5 Commentary

Over time many people, including most certainly many church people, have come to view Advent (and certainly Christmas) as a time when we need to do our level best to keep at bay any and all thoughts about sad things.  Hence, a death in the congregation anywhere near Christmas just feels worse somehow than how that death would have seemed to us had it happened near the Fourth of July or something.  Whether the family who lost the loved one feels any different is an open question but the rest of the congregation usually hears the news, clucks its collective tongue, and says something like, “Oh, what a shame, and so close to Christmas, too.  Well, there goes their holiday.”

Certainly we don’t want to think thoughts about warfare and other horrors during the Advent Season.  We want things pretty, serene, sparkly.  Yet the Revised Common Lectionary kicks off its Year A Old Testament texts with a passage that reminds us that the coming of God’s Messiah—and one day the full coming of that Messiah’s Kingdom—has a whole lot to do with warfare and fighting and so we do well to focus on such things during Advent.  Granted, our focus on war must be in the direction of praying and working for the day when war will be no more as a result of the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom but the point is we cannot ignore it.

Curiously, Isaiah 2 indicates that unlearning the arts of war will be among the first effects of people’s being drawn to God’s holy mountain.  When we learn God’s ways, we unlearn the ways of war.  The one follows the other like hearing the thunder after seeing the lightning.  When we walk in God’s light, we leave behind the shadowy and horridly dark regions where lives and civilizations are snuffed out through the killing and mayhem of war.

As Neal Plantinga once riffed on Isaiah’s imagery here, the day will come when Howitzer tanks will be converted into John Deere tractors to plow fields.  Guns will be used to build the fences on which grapevines can grow.  We’ll turn missile silos into wheat silos and make the Pentagon into the world’s largest Food Court.

When we come to the mountain of God—and in this Advent Season we can affirm that when we come to the Prince of Peace—war will be one of the first agenda items to drop from the human docket.  Why?  Perhaps because war is perhaps the best emblem ever of all that has gone wrong with God’s intentions for this creation.

Few things better symbolize the opposite of God’s desired shalom than warfare and battles.  What the world has been witnessing most recently in Ukraine is emblematic of this fact.  It’s always the innocent, the children, the elderly, the vulnerable who suffer most in wartime.  And if that doesn’t sound like a highly evil thing, then I don’t know what could.

Shalom, of course, does not merely mean “peace” in the pop sense of the word (i.e., as an absence of fighting).  Shalom is that but is so much more.  Shalom means doing more than finding ways not to argue or come to blows.  Shalom means seeing God’s image residing deep inside every person we encounter, no matter how outwardly different from “us” that other person may be.  What’s more, shalom means not just passively accepting the fact of our inter-relatedness but of actively wanting to do something to make that relationship better.  We do what we can to make others prosper and flourish.

That’s why we turn swords into pruning hooks and tanks into tractors: we want to feed one another.  We want there to be enough victuals to go around so that no one will be hungry again and so that four-star dining will become the norm for all and not just for the privileged few.  Small wonder that Jesus was born in Bethlehem: Beth-Lehem, “the House of Bread.”  The earth was along meant to be a source of abundance, a planet-wide Garden of Eden that would sustain life in all its variety and forms.

All of that is why war is the opposite of God’s design.  In war we take the differences among us as people and, instead of celebrating them as God’s gifts, we use them as an excuse to kill each other.  We even convince ourselves that those differences point to deficiencies in ways that actually justify our murderous actions.  We find ways to develop economic schemes and programs that make it easier to deny certain people basic sustenance and rights—people who think such-and-such a way don’t deserve a place at the banquet table.

In Advent we consider the One who did come and who (a la Matthew 24 in this week’s Gospel Lection) will come again in order to make the Bread of Life available to all, and in hyper abundance at that.  Nothing denies life like war.  War actively takes life.  War leaves behind ravaged conditions in which nothing can grow in the soil of the earth—isn’t it curious how tightly linked war and starvation are?  In World War II almost as many Russians died of starvation in cities cut off by the Nazis as in combat.  After World War II the Russians returned the favor by cutting off Berlin, necessitating the Berlin Airlift as the West found ways to fly in food anyway.

The reason we will turn the weapons of war into the tools of cultivation and agriculture is not just because we won’t need them to fight anymore.  It will also be because we will all catch the wave of God’s Son, Christ Jesus the Lord, and so be eager to get at the holy and divine work of growing things to feed all creatures and all people at the never-ending Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

Visit our special Advent Resource page for additional preaching ideas for the upcoming Season of Advent and Christmas!  

Illustration Idea

In the remarkable French film Joyeux Noel, we see a lyric vision for what the world could be if only the One made incarnate in the womb of Mary could indeed lead the way toward peace, toward shalom.  The film is set in World War I and tells a true story.  In World War I, trench warfare meant that soldiers from opposing sides were often in close proximity to one another.  Mostly trench warfare led to some of the most sickening slaughters in battle anyone has ever seen—the British lost so many troops in World War I (mostly through trench warfare) that Winston Churchill said afterwards that theirs was a victory “scarcely indistinguishable from defeat.”

But on one particular battlefield on Christmas Eve 1914, the proximity of the trenches led to something very different.  In the German trenches one of the soldiers is a skilled tenor who at one point tries to lift the spirits of his fellow soldiers by singing a hearty rendition of “Silent Night” / “Stille Nacht.”  Just as he is about to begin the second stanza, however, the soldiers are startled to hear that the bagpipe player in the nearby Scottish trench has taken up the tune.  The singing continues until finally the tenor and the bagpipe player emerge from their trenches to face each other.  When the bagpipe player starts to play “Adeste Fideles” / “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” the tenor takes up the song in French, and now the bewildered soldiers in also the French trench begin to sing along.  Finally all of the soldiers emerge for an impromptu Christmas Eve ceasefire, during which they share chocolate, champagne, brandy, and other treats, reveling for a time in their shared humanity and putting aside the horrors of the war that otherwise leads them to try to kill each other.

You can watch the key scene here (though I heartily recommend the whole movie).

When we come to the holy mountain of our God and to his Christ, surely it will be true: they will learn war no more but will walk in the light of the Lord.

Sometimes you can see glimpses of it in even this broken world.


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