A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 1, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Psalm 122 and Isaiah 2:1-5
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Today is the beginning of the new church year.  We begin the liturgical year with a season that is marked by tension.  The Christmas rush notwithstanding, the tension of Advent is not that there are too many things to do in too little time.  Rather, as we begin the Christian year, we experience the tension between what is and what is yet to be:  between the coming of Christ in history (in the birth of Jesus) and the coming of the reign of Christ.

While the world around us moves toward the conclusion of another year, “hoping for increased consumer spending and waiting for final reports on this year’s profits, the church has already stepped into a new time, to begin a season of hoping and waiting for something of much greater significance than profits or spending.”[1]

So, this is a season of prophecies.  Today we begin a season of listening for God’s truth about what is and what is yet to be.

Our reading from Isaiah is a prophetic oracle or short poetic revelation.  It is a familiar passage, perhaps because it also appears in Micah 4.  Our other reading, “Psalm 122 contemplates a pilgrimage of believers to [Jerusalem].  It is a journey we are invited to imagine, to the city of real holiness, new regime, fresh king.  The substance of the new order is ‘peace and prosperity,’ ‘peace and security,’ ‘peace,’ and ‘good.’

“In Isaiah 2:1-5, the vision is enlarged.  Now it is a pilgrimage of all nations to the city.  The journey is to embrace Torah (verse 3), to practice justice and equity.  And the result will be an ordered society marked by disarmament and well-being (verse 4) – no more war, no more policies of greed, exploitation, and rapaciousness.”[2]

“The verses from Psalm 122 follow the same pattern as the [Isaiah] oracle:  diverse groups go up to a high place to worship, God’s divine judgment follows, and then there is peace.  This ringing declaration from Isaiah describes peace under God’s reign: ‘[T]hey 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.’”[3]

Isaiah’s is “a vision of peacemaking, in a bloody, unpeaceable time.  The century of Isaiah, the seventh before Christ, [was] turbulent in the extreme.  War and rumors of war.  In the grand tradition of prophets in action, Isaiah intervened directly in political, military, and diplomatic events.  He predicted the invasion of [the] Palestine; it happened twice.  He lived to see the threat of siege laid to his beloved Jerusalem.”[4]

And yet, he holds up these words:  “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.”  These are not just words of hope.  They are words that teach.  They declare that there is a direct connection between war and hunger.  Perhaps the connection is that finite resources cannot feed both the hungry and conquest.[5]  Perhaps it is a recognition that when a nation’s focus is on war, it will not focus the needy.  Either way, I hear an echo in the famous words of President Dwight Eisenhower, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in a final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”[6]

“The Isaiah reading also points out the deliberate and studied nature of war:  Nations learn and teach it.”  Can the same be said to the lesser wars in our lives – in our families, our communities, our churches?[7]  Perhaps there is a metaphor here for these lesser wars as well.  Just as nations learn and teach war, I think that we study and learn how to wage emotional jujitsu in our families, our communities, and our churches.  And we unintentionally teach what we’ve learned to our children.  There are, no doubt swords and spears in our interpersonal relationships that need to be brought to the blacksmith to be beaten into tools for planting and harvesting relationships of peace.

“If this text were not so comforting and full of hope, it would be painful to read.  Indeed, how our hearts long for a time – the time – of peace in the world!  Perhaps the most powerful affirmation in the text, however, is that history belongs to God and will surely unfold as God sees fit.”[8]

In my experience, there are two types of hope in the world.  There is powerless hope and there is hope that empowers.

I ran into powerless hope a lot when I worked at the juvenile hall years ago.  Kids would have a hearing coming up, and the closer they got to the date of the hearing, the more they would buzz with anticipation.  “I hope I get released tomorrow,” they would say.  “I hope the judge says I can go home.”  Even, “I hope my mom shows up.”  This was a hope that was based in nothing more than their fantasies.  They fantasized that their life was just fine, that there was no danger in being part of a gang or that their drug addiction didn’t control their lives or that their parents were reliable.  God’s truth about the way things are and about how they were going to be was not part of these fantasies.  And so their hope had no power.

But hope based on God’s truth empowers.  That’s what’s so powerful about these passages:  they are based on God’s truth.  “A monumental shift in geography is proclaimed, a change in the geography of our hearts as much as the Earth.  We won’t be able to ignore God any longer, Isaiah says, and we won’t want to.”[9]  This is a hope that empowers us to embrace the lessons of peace, to take up new tools for the trade.

As I mentioned earlier, both of our passages today follow the same pattern:  diverse groups go up to a high place to worship, God’s divine judgment follows, and then there is peace.  The way Christianity has traditionally understood the divine judgment part of this pattern has been to see it as Christ’s judgment coming in some cataclysmic event – or in the cataclysmic event, the apocalypse, when Jesus returns with armies of angels and establishes his reign.

But as I studied these texts, I began to wonder, “What if we’ve got how God’s judgment is going to be experienced all wrong?”  If we expect Armageddon, then it’s some time off, and the promised peace is some time off.  But if we expect God’s judgment to come in a child, a poor person, a rape survivor, a wounded soldier, a typhoon survivor … then the judgment has come and is coming even now, in this moment.  Perhaps what we need to do is pay attention to the judgment that is all around us.

This reminds me of a story told by my favorite preacher, Fred Craddock[10] (who happens to be a Disciples of Christ pastor).  Fred Craddock and his wife were on vacation in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee.  They found a lovely restaurant at a place called the Black Bear Inn.  They were seated there looking out at the mountains when this old man with shocking white hair – a Carl Sandburg-looking person – came over and spoke to them.

“You’re on vacation?”

They said, “Yes,” and he kept right on talking.

“What do you do?” he asked Fred.

Fred thought, “Well, it’s none of your business,” but somehow it slipped out that he was a minister.

“Oh, a minister!  Well, I’ve got a story for you.”  And he pulled up a chair and sat down.

“Won’t you have a seat,” Fred said.  (Later, Fred found out that the man sitting there was an 80-year-old who had twice been elected governor of Tennessee.)

“I was born back here in these mountains and when I was growing up I attended Laurel Springs Church.  My mother was not married and as you might expect in those days, I was embarrassed about that.  At school I’d hide in the weeds by a nearby river and eat my lunch alone because the other children were very cruel.  And when I went to town with my courageous mother I would see the way people looked at me trying to guess who my daddy was.

“The preacher at Laurel Springs fascinated me, but at the same time he scared me.  He had a long beard, a rough-hewn face, a deep voice, but I sure like to hear him preach.  But I didn’t think I was welcome at church so I would go just for the sermon.  And as soon as the sermon was over, I would rush out so nobody would say, ‘What’s a boy like you doing here in church?’

“One day though, I was trying to get out but some people had already got to the aisle so I had to remain.  I was waiting, getting a cold sweat, when all of a sudden I felt a hand on my shoulder.  And I looked out of the corner of my eye and realized it was the hand of the preacher.  And I was scared to death.

“The preacher looked at me.  He didn’t say a word; he just looked at me.  And then he said, ‘Well, boy, you’re a child of …’  And he paused.  And I knew he was trying to guess not who my mother was but who my father was.

“And the preacher said, ‘You’re a child of … um.  Why you’re a child of God!  I see a striking resemblance, boy!’  He swatted me on the bottom and said, ‘Go claim your inheritance.’

And the old man told the Craddocks, “I was born that day.”

When we can see in each other and in ourselves the image of God and how God’s judgment exists in our relating – then we will be closer to the empower hope of Christ’s reign.

This Advent, like every Advent, we read these prophetic texts in the context of war:  conflicts and struggles flare and threaten to flare all over the world, in Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt … in our cities and neighborhoods, in our homes and workplaces, in our relationships with one another, perhaps even within the walls of our congregation.   “We’ve come to understand the absence of peace in other ways, too:  in the threat of terrorism that [too often] makes even ‘peaceful’ days feel ominous and ‘secure’ places unsafe, in the growing anger of the dispossessed that threatens to explode, in the damage to the earth that we will leave as a tragic legacy to our grandchildren, and to theirs as well.  (Who ever heard of a ‘super storm’ before?  And yet the Philippines lie devastated from only the most recent one, and we have to wonder if nature itself is at war with us.)

“It isn’t hard then to imagine how the people of Israel must have felt over the centuries in the face of threat, destruction, and exile by one empire after another.  More than 500 years before the time of Jesus, they listened to this dream, this vision of the future, and then they looked at their once-beautiful city, Jerusalem, burned and battered by powers that must have appeared unstoppable.  Still, they held on to their trust in the promises of One more powerful than any empire and any destructive force.”[11]  They held on to this hope that empowers.

And so can we.


[1] Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” The United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/december-1-2013.html (30 November 2013).

[2] Walter Brueggemann, “A Better Governance,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/better-goverance (26 November 2013).

[3] Laurel A. Dykstra, “Hunger and War,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/hunger-and-war (26 November 2013).

[4] Daniel Berrigan, “The Vocation of the Servant,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/vocation-servant (26 November 2013).

[5] Dykstra, op. cit.

[6] Dwight D. Eisenhower in his Inaugural Address on 20 January 1953, quoted on http://www.babson.us/quotes/eisenhower_quotes.html (30 November 2013).

[7] Walter Bruggemann, “Light the First Candle,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/light-first-candle (26 November 2013).

[8] Huey, op. cit.

[9] Julie Polter, “A New Day,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/new-day (26 November 2013).

[10] I wish I had the source out of which I quote this story.  I don’t.  All I have is the story as I wrote it down in 2002 for a sermon I preached.

[11] Huey, op. cit.