Monday, November 29, 2010

As the Prophet Foretold (1): Fighters to Farmers

11/28/2010 Bethany, Advent 1A
Psalm 122 (call to worship)
Matthew 24:36-44 (children)
Isaiah 2:1-5 (message)
Romans 13:11-14 (benediction)

Our theme this year for Advent is “As the Prophet Foretold”, from the traditional readings in Isaiah. Before we go on, we need to address what Advent is, and what prophecy is (in the biblical tradition). First, prophecy. Walter Brueggemann, one of the premier biblical scholars today, says that we need to read Isaiah with a “bi-focal vision” (1998, Isaiah 1-39, 12) on the “near history” and the “far history”. For Brueggemann, that refers to the “near history” of judgment on Jerusalem and the “far history” of anticipated restoration. Chapter 1 of Isaiah is full of judgment. These opening verses of chapter 2 look to restoration, before diving back into judgment. The main character in this history is NOT Israel, but God. God brings judgment and God restores.

Jacques Ellul, one of my favorite theologians, describes the vocation of the church as prophet: “to understand and dominate the present from the point of view of the future, as an historian understands and dominates the past from the point of view of the present” (The Presence of the Kingdom). When Isaiah says, “Come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!” (2:5), Isaiah is inviting God’s people to live in light of God’s future. The faithlessness of Jerusalem in the text is tied to repeated compromises made in the present, compromises that make no sense at all in view of God’s future, though they look pretty here and now.

Second, Advent. The word itself is rooted in Latin for “arrival” or “coming”. The parallel Greek term, in the New Testament, is “parousia”, and this term has a bit broader meaning – not only “coming” but “presence” (as opposed to “absence”). In the non-Christian culture of the New Testament era, “parousia” had two main uses. First, for the “mysterious presence of a god ... particularly ... in healing”. Second, “when a king or emperor visits a colony” (N. T. Wright, 2008, Surprised by Hope, 128-129).

Advent is applied to Christmas. Jesus is called “Emmanuel, God with us” – that’s Presence. And, he comes as Lord to his “colony” Earth. Yet, we also know that is incomplete. His presence here on earth, here and now, is punctuated by absence. His lordship over the earth is disrupted by evil. So, Advent is also applied, and indeed more focused upon, Christ coming again. In that day, the one we sense to be present by the Spirit, in healing, in Scripture, in Christian community, in the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, in a hundred other ways – the one we sense to be present will be present here on earth in much more tangible and powerful ways than we can imagine. In that day, he will come as Lord to rule, to set things to right, to restore the entire creation. That’s Advent, and that’s where the themes of the Advent Scriptures take us – to anticipation, to living in the light of God’s future, to a bi-focal perspective on our own lives – not just in the here and now but also in the promise of God. “Come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!”

Advent also asks us to consider how small things can create immense impact. The birth of one baby in ancient Palestine changed history so significantly that we number our years as “Before Christ” or “In the Year of Our Lord/Anno Domini”. The birth of Jesus had such an amazing and unforseen impact; his death and resurrection create so much more – they open the door of fulfillment for all of God’s promises, they literally begin the new creation, the re-creation, of this world. How can we live in the light of this future?

For a glimpse of the power of small things, check out this AT&T advertisement: “Sometime in the Future” (President).  If AT&T can imagine that the 57th president of the United States comes from a man buying an AT&T cellular plan, then what can we imagine as the impact of the small things we do to live in the light of God's future?

This living in light of the future is the theme of the story from Matthew’s gospel – the story we told with the kids. Building an ark makes absolutely no sense, except in the light of a flood. At that point, it made perfect sense, but only Noah was living in light of that future. So, what does that future look like?

Following the lead of the early Christian preachers, who called Isaiah the “fifth Gospel” (Brueggemann, 6), we’re asking Isaiah for descriptions of God’s future, the promise of God in Christ.

In this passage from Isaiah, which he describes as “the word that I saw” (an interesting mix of metaphors, common to visionary thinking), the anticipated future, the promise of God, has four main details:

  1. The exaltation and centrality of Jerusalem and “the mountain of the Lord”
  2. The nations streaming to that mountain, not particularly (at least in the description here) for worship but for the resolution of disputes and for “the word of the Lord”
  3. Teaching and learning, teaching as the work of the LORD and learning as the work of the nations, particularly to “not learn” war anymore
  4. An end to war, because disputes are resolved and because we no longer learn war
The Spartans were famous as warriors. At the age of 7, their young men entered their formal education, designed to make them warriors. They were underfed, so that they learned to steal and survive. They were taught to kill. Though they could marry at the age of 20, they could not live with their families until they finished their military service at the age of 30, and they remained in the reserves until the age of 60. They learned war.

Jerusalem was hard pressed by Israel (the northern kingdom) and their Syrian allies. Jerusalem was learning war, and learning to trust and ally themselves with a foreign power – Assyria – despite the warnings of the prophet (Brueggemann, 8). They learned war.

Today our young men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan have been learning war. As a nation, we have learned war, war on terror.

When I coach soccer, I teach children to be aggressive. It is an intentional part of the “curriculum”, as I teach it, even to 5 year olds. They are learning . . .

But in that day, in the anticipated future of Isaiah’s vision, “nation shall not lift up sword against nation”. If we believe that, then how do we live today in the light of that promise? Noah built an ark, the homeowner stayed awake to catch the thief, and we – what shall we DO to live into God’s future NOW, to “understand and dominate the present by means of the future”, to “walk in the light of the LORD”?

“They shall beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks”
Instead of being fighters, they become farmers.

No more aggressiveness drills on the soccer field?
My father’s swords . . .

This is visionary language, so it is not meant to be literal in every way. Yet, what Isaiah is calling the people to imagine, and to begin to live, is as absurd as building an ark.

Isaiah calls us to imagine a diverse society, a society where enemies meet on the paths of the LORD – Syria and Judah, Assyria and Israel, Afghanistan and the USA. It is a society in which disputes are settled, not my way but God’s way – and most of us are actually happy about that.

Isaiah calls us to imagine a world in which the energy and resources we’ve poured into war are now poured into agriculture. Instead of mass destruction, or smaller scale destruction, the human race is focused on mass construction, on rebuilding, on planting gardens, on plowing fields, on tending orchards.

And Isaiah imagines all of this not as doing away with warriors but as led by warriors. If you are beating your sword into a plowshare, you are a warrior. Instead of waging war, you now wage peace with the same level of skill and commitment.

From the perspective of the present and past, learning peace makes no sense, waging peace is ineffective, and the meek certainly do NOT inherit the earth. From the perspective of God’s future, learning war makes no sense, waging war is counterproductive, and the meek certainly DO inherit the earth.

“Come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!”

Jesus is coming, as a king visits his colony. And, like the people of the ancient colonies, we must make ourselves ready, head out to meet him, and bring him back with parade and praise. But we won’t be ready for the Prince of Peace unless we have been working for this kingdom all along.

Unregistered village in Galilee – woman who served the entire group coffee from her single cup and saucer. A gift of peace through hospitality, a small simple gesture with great impact.

In Isaiah’s vision, the deeds he imagines are ones that nurture peace among enemies. Here at Bethany, in our membership vows, we pledge to “guard the unity of this congregation through the practice of reconciliation”. A few small steps for peace that can have a huge impact:
  1. When someone wants to gossip or complain to you, respond with “The peace of Christ be with you.”
  2. Reach out to an enemy, taking the initiative to make things right.
  3. Forgive someone who has wronged you, particularly someone who doesn’t know they have done it or doesn’t care that they have done it. It’s what Jesus did, for you and for me.
  4. Cultivate blessing and give the gift of peace to someone else. Do so with all the creativity and resources and effort you bring to your career.
The Scripture tells us that our “labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15). Somehow, all our small works of peace are gathered up by God as a gift to the coming Prince of Peace. Somehow, they become greater and more powerful than all the works of war. Somehow, they help prepare the way of the Lord. “Come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!”

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