Plows and Pruning Hooks
December 1, 2013 ~ First Sunday of Advent
Eureka Christian Church, Eureka, IL ~ Rev. Jennie Churchman
Coming in to the sanctuary today, you could tell immediately that things are different! We have entered into a new season of the Church Year. Actually, we have begun a new Church Year. This is the season of Advent, a four-week time of preparation for the coming of God-with-us. People of faith are invited to use this time to examine our lives—to change what needs to be changed, to purge what needs to be purged, to add what needs to be added, and to lay bare what needs to be laid bare. The favorite Christmas Carol “Joy to the World” says it the best: “Let every heart prepare him room.” That’s what we are called to do in this season—prepare room for the Christ to enter our hearts and transform us.
Now I don’t need to tell you that this is a very counter-cultural action. Out in the world, we use these four weeks leading up to Christmas for all kinds of incessant busyness. Some of it is great fun. I love to decorate. I love to bake and cook. I love to wrap presents. I love to go to parties. I love to eat. (I’m already finished shopping, so I don’t need to shop. But I love to gloat about it!) I love the caroling and the Christmas movies and the special events like The Nutcracker. It is all fun, but it is also all distraction and busyness and noise and exhaustion. Where’s the room in my heart for the Christ when I’m so preoccupied getting ready for Christmas? The world wants us to go, go, go, but faith tells us to “be still and know.” Author and Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister says it well in her book There Is a Season:
Quiet has become a phantom memory in this culture. Some generations among us have had no experience of it at all. It has been driven out by noise pollution that is endemic, invasive, clamorous. Everywhere. Everyplace…[But] the substance of silence…is the awakening [of the] soul. (p. 109-110).
Advent awakens our souls to the mystery of God-with-us. But we will miss this miracle if we fill our hearts with the noise of the season. So be a rebel this holiday season! Do your best to still the silver bells and the jingle bells and the sleigh bells and instead tune your heart to the angel song, the good tidings of great joy.
Our guide for Advent this year is the prophet Isaiah. His preaching is not warm and fuzzy. It is not babe in the manger, all tender and mild. Isaiah is a tough preacher prophet. He gives us soul-challenging, life-altering visions of how the world will be, should be at the Messiah’s coming. There is no better guide for preparing room than Isaiah. As one theologian said, “Isaiah…paints a vivid picture of God’s corrective message to the people and the new reality [God] will create” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1,“Theological Perspective,” p. 2). Just so you know, “corrective message” is code for “change.” So get ready because Isaiah is going to ask us to change.
Today’s text begins “The word that Isaiah saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.” Note the verb here: “the word Isaiah saw.” We’re only one verse in, and already Isaiah is pushing us to think in a new way. We’re not used to talking about words like this. We speak words. We hear them. We read them. We discern them. We don’t see them. “Ah,” Isaiah says to us. “You’re thinking in human terms. God’s ways are different. God speaks, and we see. Don’t you remember Genesis?
‘Let there be light, and there was light.’ With every word that comes from God’s mouth, something comes in to being. So go deeper. Don’t just hear the word; let it engage all your senses. Let it take hold of you, take root in you. Let it be born in you as you behold the word made flesh.”
Isaiah begins with a vision of the multitudes pouring in to the house of the Lord. “The nations shall stream to it,” he says. That means all people. In Isaiah’s day, it meant the radical notion that Jews as well as Gentiles would go up to the house of the Lord. We don’t often think in those same terms, so let me put it this way: neighbors and strangers, friends and enemies, Republicans and Democrats, black and white, Israeli and Palestinian, Hutu and Tutsi, dogmatists and skeptics, sinners and saints. All means all. Isaiah goes on, “For out of Zion shall go forth instruction.” Whatever it is that God wants to say, it is for all of us. Whatever changes God is going to demand of us, it involves the whole world. We rise or fall together. We thrive or perish together.
Let’s hear it God. We are ready…we think:
Thus says the Lord, “I will judge between the nations and 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.”
Yikes. How far we are from God’s vision. This text is every bit as true for us today as it was for Isaiah’s people. In his day, war with Assyria was imminent. In our day, war is omnipresent. Swords and spears make have been replaced by tanks and drones, but the destruction is just as real. “Neither shall they study war any more”? This vision is so far from reality it either makes you want to weep in desperation or give up on it altogether as unrealistically optimistic. What are people of faith supposed to do when the reality on the ground is so far from the vision of God?
It feels like such a farce. You can understand why people have doubts. How can it be that the Prince of Peace has come and yet there is so much person-to-person destruction, so much heartache, so much bloodshed. Where is the peace? Sometimes it feels like we’re speaking into a stiff wind with our words going nowhere, creating nothing. We want to give up. But God doesn’t give up. This vision is placed before us again and again. “Oh my people, you know what is required of you. Study war no more. Destroy no more. Hurt no more. Pick up swords and spears no more.” We have a long way to go.
Joan Chittister talks about sowing seeds. I like this image, especially given that Isaiah has just talked about plows and pruning hooks. This life in God’s way is about sowing and planting and tending and waiting. She writes:
An Arab proverb teaches: ‘Every morning I turn my face to the wind and scatter my seed. It is not difficult to scatter seeds but it takes courage to go on facing the wind.’ The ability to stand steadfast in the face of opposition is the real [spiritual gift] of the sower…The willingness to sow seed on barren ground, on rock, and in thorn bushes is the prophetic task of the sower…Sowing, however is a tedious task…[which means that] the spirituality of the sower is the spirituality of urgent patience (There Is a Season, p. 54-55).
I’m not sure I can be patient enough. I am heartsick of turning on the news and hearing about war’s destruction yet again. I am heartsick of opening the morning paper and reading about broken bodies, broken psyches, broken families, broken lives. I’m tired of war and violence and destruction. When will we learn to study war no more? And I’m not only talking about Americans here. I’m talking about nearly the whole, blood-soaked world. We are all implicated in this—every tongue, every tribe, every nation. In a perversion of Isaiah’s vision, all nations surely are streaming somewhere. But instead of streaming to worship on God’s holy mountain, the nations are clamoring to pay homage to the dogs of war.
By the way, we’re not only studying war and engaging in war, we are playing war too. I know this makes me sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but have you seen the video games our kids play these days? I don’t know how it can be fun; it is a warped version of fun. This reminds me of the candy cigarettes that were popular when I was a kid. Do you remember those? The end was red like it was on fire, and if you blew into it, a smoky candy dust would come out. Their purpose was to normalize smoking. Again, I know I’m an old fuddy-duddy, but these video games seem to exist to normalize violence. How long, O Lord, how long? How long will we study war? How long will we glorify war? How long will we play war? I feel the urgency, but I’m all out of patience. Where is this Prince of Peace?
Well, my friends, this is where we come in. Remember, we are the body of Christ—his hands and feet and voices. We’ve talked a lot in recent weeks about using those hands and feet and voices to serve our neighbors, but we can also use them to sow seeds for the Prince of Peace. This is also our job. Two great quotes I just couldn’t choose between so I decided to include them both:
Joan Chittister, “Even in the face of the impossible, we must act as if the miracle will come tomorrow. That’s what sowing is all about. It requires trying when hope is thin, faith is stretched, and opposition is keen” (There Is a Season, p. 54).
And then from Pastor Stacey Simpson Duke, “However hard it may be to believe that a new and longed-for reality will take hold some day, there is power in walking in God’s light now, one step at a time” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, “Pastoral Perspective,” p. 6).
Church, it just so happens that this is the season of miracles and this is the season of light. If we can’t believe in miracles now and if we can’t see light in the darkness now, then there really is no hope. Tell me, Church, do you believe in miracles? Do you see Light in the darkness? Please tell me you do because otherwise, why are we here? Do you believe in miracles? Do you see Light in the darkness? [“Yes! Yes!”] I’m glad, but I’m also sorry to tell you that saying yes is not enough. Paying lip service to the Prince of Peace is not enough. Saying yes comes with the sacred and weighty responsibility to sow the seeds of Christ’s peace with urgent patience and keep sowing them with untiring persistence until God’s kingdom comes.
This starts at home. This starts with the painful plucking out by the roots of all the many little but harmful ways we contribute to our culture of violence. It starts by ridding ourselves of the anything-but-benign way we have of chipping away at others with unkind words and thoughtless actions. It starts with the choices we make in the marketplace. Your dollar is mighty—make it work for good. It starts with not turning a blind eye anymore to the glorification of violence in our culture.
Our Lord is the Prince of Peace; let’s start following him. Let’s beat whatever swords we wield into plowshares—instruments of productivity, community, nurturing, sowing. Put down your swords. Put down your anger. Put down your ego. Put down your agenda. Put down your criticism. Put down your destructive habits and pursuits. Put down your hopelessness. Pick up instead a plow, an instrument of peace that can prepare the good earth for the coming of a Savior. Let’s turn whatever spears we throw around into pruning hooks. Now here’s what’s interesting about this image. Both spears and pruning hooks cause pain; both are invasive. But where a spear is used for death, a pruning hook is used for health and well-being. Put down your spears and pick up your pruning hooks to cut away all that is dead and destructive in your life and in your circle of influence. Do it! Purge your life of death and fill it instead with Life.
If we all do this one step at a time, one seed at a time, one plow at a time, one pruning hook at a time…if every Christian in every part of this world did this one step and seed and plow and pruning hook at a time, we would see change. We would see radical change. Indeed, we would see a miracle! Church, do you believe in miracles? Guess what? Now’s your chance to be one. The Light has come into the darkness, and the darkness will never—not ever—overcome it. The Light is mighty, and it is powerful. It can change the world.
O come, O come Immanuel
And bless each place your people dwell.
Melt ev’ry weapon crafted for war,
Bring peace upon the earth forevermore.
Rejoice, rejoice! Take heart and do not fear,
God’s chosen one, Immanuel, draws near.
(Revised text by Barbara K. Lundblad)
It is the season of Advent. It is the season when we wait with urgent patience for the one who can bring Light into the darkness of this world. But we do not wait helplessly, and we mustn’t wait passively. We already bear his Light. He has already come into our world and into our hearts and left his mark there. We each have a choice. We can let that mark—that Light—be buried under the bushel baskets of our fear, our apathy, our blindness, our reluctance to get involved, our tendency to get overwhelmed. Or, we can let our Light shine for all the world to see as we beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks for the sake of the kingdom.