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The Fifth Gospel

There is a scene in one of my favorite movie trilogies – The Lord of the Rings – in which the evil army is preparing for war.  The sound of war preparations is unmistakable – it is symbolized by the banging of the anvil as swords and spears and arrowheads and catapults are fashioned for battle.  In the movie, you hear the loud metallic banging, over and over again.  It is harsh, angry, ominous.

Ironically enough, it brings to mind a sunny fall day this past October.  We were on vacation, and before anyone else stirred, I got up early and went running in a state park close to our hotel.  It was a beautiful autumn morning and a great run.  The trail went through the edge of a wood, and into the floodplain of the Tippecanoe and Wabash Rivers.  In this plain, I ran between tall prairie grasses, and spooked up whitetail deer, who sped through the high grass, and bounded in front of me, racing to safety.  As the sun started to rise higher in the sky, I got back in my car and the CD player came on.  The first song that played immediately gave a sense of heaviness to the morning.

It was a song by the band Old Crow Medicine Show, titled “Carry Me Back to Virginia.”  The song is fast paced and upbeat, but the subject matter is anything but.  From the perspective of a Civil War soldier, it tells the story of the horrors of war, death and violence.  As we listen to the song, we find that the lyrics are a plea – when he dies, he wants to be carried back to Virginia to be buried.

As I drove away from my run, the words of this song felt imminent and ominous, especially one line: “And they died in the valley, died in the swamp, on the banks of the river where the whitetail jumped.”  It was a haunting reminder how close war can be, even in places of apparent peace.  The peaceful, picturesque places where the Civil War solider remembered had become places of death and war.  As I drove through the park, I was struck by the fact that it was preserved as a state park, in order to remember the battlefield of Prophetstown.  The very riverbed where the whitetail jumped in front of me had indeed been a place of death and killing and war in the 1700’s.

What a way to kill the mood of a run on a sunny morning, right?  So, in an attempt to avoid the heaviness of the song, I turned on the local NPR station.  Of course, I was immediately greeted by reports of Syrian war updates and updates on our country’s imminent government shutdown and political infighting that our country faced – and still faces.  And got more depressed.

The thought that ran through my mind was that the distrust and rage that our country faces today was not that unlike the mood and context in our country in the years prior to our country’s Civil War.  Political infighting.  Verbal violence.  Maybe it seems too catastrophic to compare the two.  We aren’t that bad, are we?  But I imagine that plenty of Americans before the Civil War never thought it would get to that point.  That citizens of Syria living in a prosperous and safe place would ever think that they were in danger of actual war.  But in the unraveling of a few short year, fields were turned from places to cultivate and grow and watch the whitetail jump, to places of violence and death.

So, as I drove away from the park that morning, and emotion overwhelmed me, I asked, “are we immune?”  Are we guaranteed that we will never go there again?  The feeling I got was similar to the scene from Lord of the Rings – dark, ominous, overwhelming fear.

Oh, if only I had thought to open up the book of Isaiah.  This Old Testament book is filled with images and visions of hope and peace and good news.  In fact, it is sometimes called “The Fifth Gospel” because of these themes of Good News that fit with the Gospels.  A surprising number of familiar Advent and Christmas images and lines are actually from Isaiah and not the New Testament.    A good chunk of Handel’s Messiah comes from this book.  If you are looking for good news, turn to Isaiah.

Today’s passage from Isaiah, and its companion in Micah, are some of the most hopeful in the Old Testament.  They tell of a day that is coming – not beyond this world, but within it – where the weapons of war will be replaced by implements of cultivation and nurturing and growth.  Instead of an ominous vision of war – in which all we can hope for is that we are brought back home to Virginia when we die – it is vision of peace and justice in which the very tools of war are recast as plowshares and pruning hooks, to field and fish instead of fight.

Isaiah’s vision is universal.  All nations will respond to this reckoning of God.  In a world of violence and nuclear doomsday clocks, this passage has continually been used as a symbol for peace and disarmament.  (On the front of your bulletins) is a statue that stands outside of the United Nations in New York.  It is a statue depicting a blacksmith beating a sword into a blade for a plow.  In the 1980’s Christian young people in Germany wore patches with this statue on it, as a silent emblem of peace.  It was this momentum that is largely named as one of the primary political motivators for peace and reunification in Germany in the 1980’s.  The image and language of swords into plowshares has been used consistently as a symbol of peace, of disarmament, of a vision for unity.

In our world today, where every day brings us an update of goings on in Syria or Iran or Afghanistan or Israel and the Palestinian territories, peace seems so far away and so naïve.  But it is exactly because of this nearly laughable conclusion that Isaiah insists on this vision.  His world was also filled with similar political infighting and conflict, but he dared name an alternative vision – one of hope.

Gene Tucker interprets the words of Isaiah thusly: “International peace may not come, even as we visualize it and hope for it.  Wishing, even praying, will not necessarily make it happen.  But it certainly will not come unless we imagine it, unless we believe and articulate the vision that God wills the end of war.”

That is why the image in Isaiah is so important.  And that is why it fits for this first Sunday in Advent.  For as Paul Duke says, “Advent proposes impossibilities.”  We gather strength in naming its absurdity and apparent impossibility.  Because the story of Christmas is the story of things that should not happen, but do.  Things that cannot happen, but defy expectation at every turn.

In other words, Advent ushers us into the impossibility of saying that peace and justice are more than Christmas card clichés!  They are historical possibilities.  In the same way that the improbable story of Advent shocks us – the impossible becomes reality.  A vision of universal peace and justice is silly.  But so is a baby born in a feed stall becoming one of the most influential men in history, dare we say God incarnate.  Advent is about the stark reality of that which seems unrealistic!  Can we ever achieve peace in our world?  Not if we don’t hold it up as a possibility, ludicrous as it seems.

But not only is Isaiah’s vision universal and global and macro, but it is also relational and micro.  For violence happens between countries and nations, but it also happens between individuals and families.  The two are linked.  It is naïve to say that we can judge and criticize and fashion the swords of our tongues and the spears of our words without imagining that they will one day be fashioned of iron.  Or Sarin gas. Or nuclear missiles.

Yet, if violence is at once both global and relational, so is God’s healing and peace.  God mends our relationships as well.  Again, this is more than a pie in the sky vision of peace, suggesting all we need to do “turn that frown upside down.”  But it is the hope that Advent in Isaiah promises more than family photos in our matching outfits around the Christmas tree.  Isaiah’s vision for beating swords into plowshares is a powerful relational reality that fights against toxic mistrust, against physical or verbal abuse, against infidelity, and against mistrust and hatred.  For every couple that chooses to work on their relationship instead of escaping in one way or another, for every family that chooses to serve together instead of worshipping the Toys R Us catalog, and every co-worker that chooses to speak with generosity instead of spite, another spearhead becomes a fishhook.  Another sword a plow.  This is not Pollyanna and it is not insignificant.  The way we treat each other in our personal relationships has a significant impact on the ways that world peace approaches.

But, Isaiah dares to say that even in our words and our relationships, God will remake and remold us.  Our hope in God reminds us that the tools with which we judge one another, criticize one another, suspect one another, and tear each other down will also be melted down and recast.  Judgment will be melted down and recast as listening and learning.  Discouragement will be recast as encouragement.  Criticism will be recast as comfort.  And suspicion will be recast as trust.  Isaiah’s vision is personal and relational, as well as universal.

Finally, Isaiah’s vision is also internal.  Tertullian, Athanasius, many of the early church writers, saw this as a passage primarily as a personal spiritual metaphor.  While we don’t want to ignore the practical relational and universal applications, we also trust their wisdom and turn inward.  We explore the metaphorical ways that God is recasting the weapons of violence of our own hearts and minds.

Today, how is God transforming us from instruments of self-loathing and self-hatred into those open to the peace and love and grace of God?  Advent is traditionally a time when we turn our hearts inwardly to seek wisdom from God as we prepare for Christmas.  This season, you are invited to allow God to melt down all that is sharpened for gracelessness in your own heart.  Perfectionism.  Arrogance.  Apathy.  Shame.  God wants to take those barbs of violence and turn them into something else.

Father Alfred Delp, a Jesuit priest who was condemned for his opposition to Hitler, wrote from a Nazi prison just before he was hanged.

We may ask why God has sent us into this time, why he has sent this whirlwind over the earth, why he keeps us in this chaos where all appears hopeless and dark and why there seems to be no end to this in sight.  The answer to this question is perhaps that we were living on earth in an utterly false and counterfeit security.  And now God strikes the earth till it resounds, now he shakes and shatters; not to pound us with fear, but to teach us one thing – the spirit’s innermost moving and being moved….  Here is the message of Advent: faced with him who is the Last, the world will begin to shake.  Only when we do not cling to the false securities will our eyes be able to see this Last One and get to the bottom of things.  Only then will we be able to guard our life from the frights and terrors into which God the Lord has let the world sink to teach us, so that we may awaken from sleep, as Paul says, and see that it is time to repent, time to change things.  It is time to say ‘All right, it was night; but let that be over now and let us be ready for the day.’

Today, the sound of the anvil need not be one of doom and ominous fear.  Instead, it can be one of hope.  It is the sound of God transforming us, molding us, remaking us, encouraging us, loving us.  Swords into plowshares.  Spears into pruning hooks.  Today, on this first day of the new year in the Christian calendar, and in the days to come ahead, we learn from the vision of the anvil that when we are transformed, there is something better that awaits.  “It was once night, but let that be over now…and let us be ready for the day.”

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