Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 46
Rev. Aaron Willett
A week ago, our Session (code for governing council) gathered for our annual Visioning Retreat. We opened our time together with a reading of the end of Psalm 46 and a call to "Be still and know that I am God." We followed that reading with a guided prayer and an extended period of silent reflection as together we each sought God and God's will. In our Godly Play classrooms, we often sing "Be Still and Know," as we did this morning. It is one of the ways we can, as we say, “get ready to be with God.” Taken out of its Scriptural context, it is a reassuring call away from the hectic busyness of our lives and into God’s presence. Like this stanza of a Wendell Berry poem:
“I go among the trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.”
Amen! That works for me! I can settle right down into that space, when I can still my own stirring and listen to God’s voice.
BUT, that’s not really where the Psalmist is going with this. V. 8-9 make it clear that this is not a cozy, restful kind of peace:
8 Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
This is like God saying PEOPLE! STOP. WAR NO MORE! Our God is a warrior who fights for peace (McCann, The Book of Psalms).
The 20th Century opened to great proclamations of peace to last forever, only to conclude as the most horrifically violent and deadly century humanity has, to this point, ever known.
Do you grow weary, like I do, hoping for what seems impossible? Today, maybe you can’t find your way to believing that God’s promised kingdom is coming. Maybe I can’t either… but we will find a way to affirm that hope together, here. Isaiah was writing to people like us, people who only knew the fruit of war and violence, people who yearned for God’s shalom, for the restoration of relationship and the wholeness of God’s presence among the nations. Isaiah weaves together their sorrow, doubt, and disillusionment, and with it he gathers our own as well. These feelings are here with us, in our hearts, in our neighborhood, in our worship.
I was looking through my copy of the “Dictionary of Theological Interpretation of the Bible” as I was researching “shalom” for the children’s message, and I was stunned and dismayed to see that the entry on “Peace” just said, “See violence.”
We see plenty of that, for sure.
We see violence when we turn on the TV, or when the news apps on our phones send us notifications. We see violence in our community when guns destroy lives, and when homes are shaken by fighting. We see violence across the world, because since Vietnam, the brutal truth of war always comes home. But violence is not where we find peace.
God’s peace is different. God’s shalom is separate from our experience of violence in the world. Isaiah begins this chapter declaring, “in the days to come...” There is a discontinuity with the world as it is. Isaiah tells us there is a future tomorrow that does not resemble the yesterday before it. This is a future rooted in God’s promises, still coming over the horizon.
In the Psalm we read, it is God who destroys the tools of war, but not so here in Isaiah. In Isaiah’s vision of peace, God only does two things:
God judges and God arbitrates.
God establishes justice, we, the nations, make peace.
This is not a pollyanna peace either, soft and cuddly. Strength and determination are required to beat swords into plowshares. The verb translated here “beat” is elsewhere translated to “crush,” “destroy,” and “demolish.” Swords are not so easily made into tools of cultivation.
This vision, beating swords into plowshares, reveals a repurposing of humanity’s ingenuity and strength. God does not desert us, we who fashion swords and spears, we who harbor violence in our hearts. Rather God gives us instruction and justice by which we can participate in a different story.
Real peace, God’s shalom, requires a new narrative, marked by cultivation, not fighting; by fostering life, not death; by breaking down walls of division, not building them; marked by love for strangers not fear of them; marked by the uniting of people and not division.
Real peace is hard to imagine. But, God stretches our imaginations, our dreams, our sense of what is possible, to make room for shalom in our midst. Isaiah’s vision of weapons of war becoming tools of cultivation stirs our imagination today just as it has for generations. There is a statue at the UN bearing this passage, expanding the imagination of those world leaders gathered there about the possibilities of peace.
I asked Lona, who is so gifted in arrangements, if she could do something like this, with garden tools, so we could have something for us to focus on this morning. These tools are common, dirty, and will never command the same attention as a glittering sword or an antique pistol. Yet they are the image that can stretch our notion of the possible. It is through tools like these that God’s unifying peace will be known. God’s light shines through their rusty metal and aged wood.
In this way, God’s promised future shines a light on our present.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. saw that light, that promise, and he preached that dream of true shalom. He declared, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
We see evil triumphant in the wars that rage, in famine, in the stark inequality of our world, in abusive relationships, and broken communities. See Violence, the dictionary said. We may doubt that God’s way of peace could ever prove effective. The dogs of war are ever hungry. How could we ever expect peace through justice? Through safety? Peace through widespread prosperity? Well maybe there is a compelling case that such forces stand a better chance than injustice, danger, violence and disparity!
And so we wait, and we hope.
This is not easy! Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "Not everyone can wait: neither the sated nor the satisfied nor those without respect can wait. The only ones who can wait are people who carry restlessness around with them" (God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas).
Do you feel that restlessness in you? That longing in your bones for a better way, a better world? Are you restless for a world where the dictionaries say “Violence, see Peace” instead of the other way around? I know I am.
Jesus was born into our world, a light into the darkness, to establish the reign of God’s peace. Jesus is the Prince of Shalom, and there will be no end of that peace. He opened the path for humanity to be restored to shalom or wholeness with God. Jesus has torn down the dividing wall of hostility.
It is no accident that we pass the Peace of Christ with each other each Sunday. It is no accident that we pray for peace in our world. We are agents of God’s peace. Each of us. We are called to live peaceable lives, to act with love and compassion. We are the ones to bind up the broken hearted, to practice the wholeness of God’s shalom until that promised time when Isaiah’s vision comes to pass.
How do we hold hope together, even when it seems impossible? Well, we keep pointing to the ways we see God’s peace breaking into our reality, right now. We celebrate the work of the peacemakers in our time. We celebrate Peace Trees Vietnam, clearing landmines and unexploded ordinance from the fields and forests of the Quang Tri Province. Allowing farmers to work the soil and children to run and play free of the threat of harm. We celebrate neighbors who help repair fences after a windstorm. We celebrate moments of encouragement and inclusion when our society leans towards isolation and tribalism. And, tomorrow we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. who was considered a threat by the powers and ultimately assassinated for his staunch advocacy for people of color and the poor.
Well, last August I participated in an ecumenical peacemaking service at Lake Burien Presbyterian Church. You may have read about this in the Servant. In the course of that service, we witnessed these hope-filled words of Isaiah 2:4 enacted before our eyes: a gun barrel was smithed into a pair of garden tools.
While the forge roared and the hammer pounded, people testified to the impact gun violence had made on their lives.
I was particularly struck by the story of one young man who shared his story of having an older adopted brother killed by gang violence--killed by a gun. He told of the day, some years later, when another of his brothers shared a secret with him: a gun, hidden away. Together he and his brothers would just hold the gun, in awe of the power it represented. They bragged to each other of the people they would shoot if they were disrespected, threatened, or endangered. The gun represented safety, security, and strength. But then, on a fateful, terrible day in 2006, the gun went off and one brother was dead.
Here at Southminster, we had two students at Evergreen High School who were on the wrestling team with those brothers. They mourned with that family. That gun, acquired to be a sign of safety and power, brought darkness, powerlessness, and death.
Isaiah makes it clear: When God’s justice is established, we will not make peace with weapons of war, but tools of cultivation. Garden claws, trowels, hoes, pruning shears--these are the tools of prosperity, the tools of peace, the tools of God’s shalom.
The world *is* broken, hostile, and violent. But the world also *belongs to God.* It does not belong to the forces of greed and domination. It does not belong to Wall Street and the system of international capital. It does not belong to the strongest, the smartest, or those with the greatest wealth. It is not the province of passive, disinterested god, but it belongs to a God who desires for Shalom to rule in the hearts and minds of every person and every nation, to make complete the tapestry of human relationships between each other and between us and God.
... and, sisters and brothers, our God does not break promises.
Please pray with me.
God, we long for the day when humanity will no longer learn war, for the day when your justice reigns and all people know your love and grace. Give us restless hearts for the waiting, that we might yearn all the more, that we might pray all the more, that we might practice your peace in our lives... because we want to see your light breaking through.
So come, Lord Jesus, come. Amen.