Isaiah 2.1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13.11-14; Matthew 24.36-44
Advent is here in the wake of a brutal election season. Advent is here in the midst of ongoing protest at Standing Rock. Advent is here, following Black Friday. Advent, the season of expectant hope, is going to have to stand up violence in words and actions, past and ongoing marginalization of indigenous people, the 450,000,000 billion dollars we will spend on “Christmas”, and the countless things that would drain us of hope. It seems Advent has its work cut out for it.
Into this world, into this season of Advent, comes the word of God through the prophet Isaiah. And right from the beginning, we find that there is perhaps more to Advent, this four week whisper of hope, this blue season of preparation, than we thought. The very first word of scripture we heard from Isaiah this morning was “This is the word that Isaiah SAW.” Not heard or read, but saw. It seems God has something to show us. Each week in Advent, we will hear a reading from Isaiah and we will see another picture of God’s word - of what is to come. A picture of what God’s reign looks like. A picture of Christmas.
Today we heard of swords beaten into plowshares, of spears into pruning hooks. We hear of instruments of war transformed into instruments of work and harvest. Instruments that will sustain life instead of take it. And this picture of peace isn’t just for Jerusalem or the Israelites, all nations shall stream to the Lord’s house. This is good news for everyone. Through God’s mediation, the nations shall no longer learn war. God’s mediation, judgement, and justice will bring peace.
And the word made visible continues. The second Sunday of Advent will bring a shoot from the stump of Jesse, who will cause the wolf the live with the lamb - a peaceable kingdom. The third Sunday of Advent will bring a desert that blooms abundantly and has a safe highway. And on the fourth Sunday of Advent we hear of the birth of child as a sign of hope for a city about to be overrun by two warring kingdoms. That child’s name? Immanuel - which means ‘God with us.”
From these images we know what God’s word looks like - it looks like transformation. Swords are not simply destroyed, they are transformed. From warfare and fear to the sustaining of life and peace. This message of holy transformation is wrapped up in tangible things we can dream of and cling to. in mountains and deserts, bread, water and wine we can see what is possible. We see transformation in a tiny baby.
His name is Immanuel and his presence among us means that the work of transformation is not a burden for us to bear, but a truth already being spoken that we are invited to participate in. This poem of Isaiah is not a prediction but an affirmation that history will reach its goal - this transformation will happen. We are assured by Immanuel that the future is God’s, not ours, to usher in.
And we can see the transformative work of God’s reign all around us. We saw it in the early 2000s in Liberia as Christian and Muslim women dressed in white gathered in non-violent protest of the civil war that had been raging for years. When talks in Ghana were failing, they linked up arms outside the building, refusing to let anyone leave until progress was made. We saw God transform war into peace.
We see it in the rice paddies, green and lush, of Cambodia. More than a dozen programs have been working to rid the country of land mines and provide assistance to the Cambodian people. The number of people injured or killed every year from mines has dropped from a high of 4,320 in 1996 to 286 in 2010? We see God transform danger into life sustaining fields.
We see it in the steady elimination of malaria in this world, something the ELCA has been an important partner of. (www.elca.org/malaria) Together we have saved countless thousands of lives, and connected with other church bodies and non-profits, look forward to a malaria free world. We see God transform fear into freedom.
God’s reign IS breaking forth in the concrete realities of earthly/human life. All of these and ANY movement in the direction of peace with justice is a sign of that reign. And we have an open invitation to grab a plow and get to work. Small or large, it doesn’t matter. Work for peace with justice in ways that you are comfortable or ways you are not. Small or large, individual or communal, it doesn’t matter - just get a hand on that plow.
Remember the power of everyday choices. How do we spend our money? How much will we buy and consume, especially in this season? Will we step in when someone is being bullied or harassed? Are we willing to sacrifice our moments of privilege to make the world a better place?
Remember the power of a community. How we will be a welcome to those in fear? How will we share what we have? How will we spread love in our community?
Most importantly, though, remember the power of God. Remember the power God has to transform. What if every time we hear the jingle of bells this season, we took a moment to think instead of the sound of a sword on an anvil, being beaten into a tool that can feed the hungry? What if every time we hear news that makes us sad, we say a prayer in the midst of our struggle? What if every time we laugh in joy, we remember that it is God who makes that possible?
Let’s keep awake, keep watch for God’s word - God’s reign. There is much to come, but there is much already here. How is God’s word speaking to us? Let us lay down our swords, listen closely, and get to work! Because Christmas is coming, not to awaken nostalgia, but to awaken our hearts to the reign of God.