Readers of The Church Times will recognise an illustration from John Pridmore's commentary this week. I think Pridmore's commentaries are truly inspirational and I try not to write my sermon before reading them. Long may he continue to write!====
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. So reads the second half of Isaiah 2: verse 3.
I suppose it’s the sort of thing we expect to hear from a prophet. And, given that this first Sunday in Advent is devoted to The Prophets, we probably don’t find this verse terribly surprising at first glance.
But what is surprising about this morning’s reading from Isaiah is the fact that much of Isaiah’s prophecy is directed toward calling Jerusalem to repentance. Jerusalem, in Isaiah’s day, is an unending problem from God’s point of view. Jerusalem is a symbol of self-sufficiency and a national, self-serving religion. It is a symbol of country’s focus of faith in the nation rather than faith in God.
Yet despite all these problems, Isaiah is given to see a picture of a new Jerusalem where God resides and where people of every nation acknowledge God as their Lord. In the new Jerusalem which Isaiah has seen, it is God whose judgement and arbitration of all nations has resulted in international peace. And is because of the rule of God that nations are able to exchange weapons for tools of peace.
In this morning’s Gospel reading, we are told that, as we look forward to the coming of the Lord, we are to keep awake and to keep ready. Our waiting and our readiness are not to be passive things, but they are to be active things.
So what does any of this mean for us? And how does it affect our lives today?
Well, the Gospel message is not all about pie in the sky by-and-by. I think perhaps that we are told about the coming Kingdom of God not so much to provide us with information as with motivation.
It can be hard to stay motivated, however.
Perhaps our difficulty in staying motivated is a case of remembering how things were in the past in church and wishing that they could be that way again. Or perhaps it’s a case of feeling that decency is society is deteriorating in comparison with the way it was in our youth.
We might sit here and think ‘Well, it’s easy for Isaiah to talk about the coming reign of God when swords will be turned to ploughshares, because he lived in a time when people feared God. Isaiah didn’t have to face the problems that we have today.’ Well, listen to Isaiah just one chapter later (Isaiah 3:5): The people will be oppressed, everyone by another and everyone by a neighbour; the youth shall be insolent to the elder, and the base to the honourable.
That hardly sounds like The Good Old Days. And it hardly sounds like Isaiah doesn’t have a clue about the sort of issues that we are facing today. And yet, even in the middle of all this, Isaiah claims to have seen a vision of a world at peace. He claims to have seen a vision of people labouring for the production of food rather than for the production of weapons of war.
How can we catch a glimpse of that in a world where there is new unrest in the Philippines, in Pakistan and in Burma? Not to mention old unrest in Korea, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and the Holy Land? How can we catch a vision of a world turned toward the purposes of God in a society where the church ain’t what it used to be?
How can we keep our eyes on this New Jerusalem – on the purposes of God – without losing our motivation? How can we see God’s vision if it doesn’t necessarily look like what we’re expecting?
Guns into Sewing Machines
The image of ‘swords into ploughshares’ is a powerful one and one Christian charity in Mozambique used this idea in a very literal way when the decades-long civil war in that country ended. The charity, the Christian Council of Mozambique (CCM), was sponsored by Christian Aid and they recount the story of a man named Sousa Manuel Goao.
Senhor Goao was kidnapped at gunpoint by rebel forces in 1981 when he was 23 years old. He was forced to march 150 miles bare-footed to a training camp near the South African border. The prisoners were barefooted to prevent them running away but anyone who did attempt to escape was shot in front of the other prisoners. In order to survive, the rebels had to hunt wild animals, raid farms or attack civilians.
The war lasted 18 years and ended in 1992 but the United Nations forces which were meant to disarm both sides failed to find most of the weapons in the country, as most of them had been hidden and people were afraid of being reported to the government. But later in the decade, CCM came up with the idea of collecting weapons themselves. In 2001, Senhor Goao handed over his guns to CCM and in return, he received three sewing machines.
CCM is a small organisation, and it was working with a couple of old trucks that keep breaking down – but it nonetheless managed to collect more than 100,000 guns, hand grenades and rocket launchers. It was far more successful than the official agencies because former rebels feared being prosecuted by the government.
CCM provided former soldiers with ploughs, bicycles and sewing machines and these tools made the difference between life and death for many of the people who had nothing. When CCM wondered what it was going to do with all the weapons, it came upon the idea of disarming them, cutting them up, and giving the metal to local artists who turned them into sculptures. They even made chairs and coffee tables out of cut-up Kalashnikovs.
Mozambican Bishop Dinis Sengulane said the following about the CCM project: ”I say to people that sleeping with a gun in your bedroom is like sleeping with a snake: one day it will turn round and bite you. We tell people we are not disarming you. We are transforming your guns into ploughshares, so you can cultivate your land and get your daily bread. We are transforming them into sewing machines so you can make clothes. The idea is to transform the instruments of death and destruction into instruments of peace and of production and cooperation with others.”
Conclusion: Keep the Faith
This is one very powerful – and almost literal example – of turning swords into ploughshares.
The call from the Prophets on this first Sunday in Advent is a call to keep the faith. It’s a call to keep faith in God and in his purposes for the New Jerusalem when swords will be turned to ploughshares and where Christ will reign as the Prince of Peace. And it’s a call to keep this faith even when we are tempted to think that faith is not possible.
Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God grows from small mustard seeds. This morning, we have heard some examples of how small seeds can grow. Sometimes we have the satisfaction of seeing our seeds grow into healthy plants. Sometimes we don’t even have the opportunity to see them germinate.
But we are nonetheless called as Children of God to keep on planting the seeds. If we remain alert and on watch, we will find our opportunities.
We are told about what is to come not to provide us with information, but with motivation. If we keep our eye on the prophets’ vision of the New Jerusalem, our motivation will remain strong.
As we come to the Lord’s Table this morning, I pray that each of us can stay focused on the image of God’s Kingdom. And I pray that we may each be empowered to acts of kindness and mercy and to keep faith in the coming of the Prince of Peace. Amen