Yr A ~ Advent 1 ~ Isaiah 2:1-5
In days to come. What do you think of when you hear that? In days to come.
Does it make you think it’s going to happen this week?
Does it mean something like the season of Advent when we know something is coming that we’ll celebrate at Christmas but for now those days are still to come, but they’re coming any day now?
Or does it mean some day in the far off future?
How certain are you that those days are going to come?
Is it just a wish? A faint daydream?
A fairy tale about how things are supposed to be but very rarely are?
Or is it more than a wish?
Is it a hope?
They’re not the same thing.
A wish is for something that you’d like to happen but you’re not at all counting on it. “I wish I could win the lottery!” or “I wish he was better looking!” (says my wife!).
But a hope is different. They’re not interchangeable – wishing and hoping.
To hope, in the biblical, theological sense, is to trust in something that has not yet happened but will certainly come to pass because God has promised it.
And if you think that’s just wishful thinking then you are not yet getting it.
Hope is trusting in what will be, not what might be.
This reading from Isaiah is a reading of hope. Isaiah has received a vision. It was a word that he “saw”. Isn’t that great! How do you see a word? You envision it. So God gives a vision of a hopeful future to Isaiah, and Isaiah shares it with us.
Now, why do we need this vision for the future? Well, the truth is it’s because the present isn’t going so great in many ways. If you don’t believe me pick up a newspaper! If you were to go back and read the first chapter of Isaiah you’d see that they were doing even worse. The state of human affairs described is frightening. So into that darkened world Isaiah shares a vision, a hope, for the future. Sounds just like Advent!
Isaiah says that in days to come God’s Presence in the world will be so awesome and so wondrously manifest that everyone shall be drawn to it. His language is brilliant – God’s house on a mountain and everyone will stream to it – steam…UP the mountain. Fantastic! And the people will say, “Come on, let’s go to church and learn about God so we can walk in God’s ways!” Well, that’s not in days to come – you’re already here doing that right now! That’s hopeful!
Then we get to one of the greatest, most poignant, most famous verses in the bible. And I’m going to suggest that we’ve generally been reading it much too shallowly. I’m also going to open up some of the language to give a fuller meaning of what it says.
Isaiah 2:4 [God] shall [govern among] the nations, and shall [reprove] many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
So, you may have noticed I said “govern among” the nations instead of judging between them. Judging suggests right or wrong, whereas governing is more dynamic. It could be translated either way.
Similarly, to arbitrate for can mean “to reprove”. Again, arbitrate is judicial whereas reproof still has the sense that someone needs correcting but it’s done with an eye toward growth.
This is important because it’s tempting to skip over this bit and get to the swords and ploughshares part, but without this bit the next bit isn’t even possible.
Now the famous line: they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks.
Who are “they”? – The people being governed and reproved by God. In other words, the people who have submitted and surrendered to God’s presence and lordship in their lives. That makes all the difference in the world. You can be judged and not surrender, but you can’t be governed and reproved by God unless you surrender. And that just means you drop your guard, you open your hand, and you say “Yes, God!”
They, the surrendered, shall beat their swords into ploughshares.
What’s a ploughshare? It’s not what you think!
The actual Hebrew word is coulter not ploughshare because a ploughshare is the whole plough.
A coulter, on the other hand, is specifically the sharp cutting tool at front of a plough.
Think about that! It’s so great!
It’s not telling us to just lay down our swords and pick up a plough. It’s telling us to take our swords and hammer them into coulters – the sharp cutting tool on a plough.
In fact, it doesn’t take any physical hammering at all!
All you have to do is take the sword and tie it to the front of the plough. It’ already made for that job!
There are wonderful, amazing sculptures that take guns and swords and twist and bend them into beautiful artistic shapes. That’s great, but that’s not what this verse says.
It’s more direct than that.
Take your sword and use it as a coulter on a plough.
Look, here’s the thing. Listen closely here.
You don’t have to change who or what you are – you just have to repurpose your tools for good rather than harm!
And even that’s not far enough – repurpose your tools, gifts, skills, for growth rather than harm!
Same thing goes for the spears into pruning hooks bit.
Imagine pruning branches. Doesn’t the device look a lot like a spear? Sharp thing on the end of a stick?
But instead of stabbing and causing harm, and instead of just laying down the spear, repurpose it for pruning, for gardening.
Repurpose it for growth!
But Isaiah understands the human condition.
Isaiah knows that even though that same sword could be repurposed by simply fastening it onto the front of the plough, we humans are unfathomably reluctant to let go of the way we’ve been doing things, the way we’ve been using our gifts and skills, even though they may be doing harm to ourselves and others – and it really does take a hammering to get us to repurpose those habits and tendencies for growth.
I hope you’re hearing this clearly.
You don’t have to become something you’re not.
You don’t have to develop a whole new set of skills.
You don’t have to adopt a new personality.
You just have to repurpose those things from harm to growth.
But it’s really, really hard to do.
It’ll feel like a beating or a hammering to let go of those ways and repurpose them.
But the good news is you don’t have to do it alone.
Remember the beginning of verse 4, those who will do this are those who let themselves be governed and reproved by God – those who surrender to the Spirit and allow it to work in them, strengthening them and giving them resolve when their own is just not up to the task.
This is an incredibly hopeful verse! It’s not some Pollyanna wish for a world with no arguments or conflicts. It’s a hope-filled dream for the way things can be if we listen to God and let God work in us. And you can be sure that people whose lives are transformed by hammering their swords into coulters are not spending their time “learning war.” Instead they’ll be saying things like v.5, “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” – Because that’s exactly what walking in the light looks like!
Oh, in case you’re wondering, this is not a one shot deal. [S-spiral] Another truth about the human condition is that as soon as you do the hard work of repurposing one aspect of your life and you’re walking in a little more light that light tends to reveal some other aspect of your life that you hadn’t seen yet, couldn’t see yet, and you have to go through the hard work of hammering another sword into another coulter, and another, and another. That’s what spiritual maturity looks like, and it’s a never-ending, ever-deepening process.
So, it’s been a few thousand years since Isaiah wrote this. More than a few days have come and gone!
Why hasn’t it happened yet?
Why hasn’t God followed through on God’s promise yet?
This is Advent – a season of anticipation and waiting.
Well, geez, haven’t we been waiting long enough?! Come on God, do your thing!
But if you look at this passage as a whole you’ll discover that God doesn’t actually do very much here. God’s only tasks in this affair are to govern and to reprove! And that’s enough!
Our job is first to allow ourselves to be governed and reproved, and then to get busy putting this stuff into action.
It’s not us waiting on God to do God’s thing – it’s God waiting on us to get with the program and do God’s thing – which becomes our thing!
God promises to support us, not to do it all for us.
And until we claim our part – which first means surrendering – this whole thing will remain a wish and not a real hope. But the moment you say yes to God’s presence that wish becomes an absolute, sure thing – in time.
There’s a great bible study technique that helps you see the big picture in a text. Usually we focus in on a verse or a few words – much like I’ve done today with verse 4. To get the big picture it sometimes helps to reduce each verse to a single summary word and then see if that tells you where the passage is really going.
There are five verses here. If I was to reduce each verse to one word those words would be:
vision (Isaiah seeing the word),
transcendence (God’s Presence shining from the mountaintop),
worship (come, let us go up the mountain and learn God’s ways),
transformation (repurposing your gifts and skills from harm to growth),
and shalom (living in God’s light).
Altogether that makes: vision, transcendence, worship, transformation, and shalom.
Isn’t that the entire faith journey summed up in five words?
You catch a glimpse of the vision of God, you sense God’s transcendence, and God’s immanence is revealed, you are drawn to worship, as you draw nearer and let your guard down you can experience transformation, and then you live an abundant life in the light, in shalom.
Into the darkness of Isaiah’s world he casts this vision and this path of hope. And we read it and realize he’s talking to us too. This is our path, our journey.
And in this season of Advent, this season of waiting in anticipation, we begin to wonder when those days to come will come.
It shouldn’t surprise you that the answer doesn’t magically come on December 25th.
What we celebrate that day is the birth of the One in whom this journey knew its fullest and most powerful incarnation.
And instead of it just being a vision, or a dream, like Isaiah had, in Jesus we see the vision incarnated and enfleshed in a person.
And our hope is no longer just in an abstract, beautiful dream, but in a tangible, real, live person.
In him we see the vision lived out.
Through him we learn to be present to the transcendence of God and it becomes the immanence of God, the right-here-ness of God.
With him we pray and worship.
And following his example we surrender ourselves to God’s awesomeness and allow ourselves to be repurposed for life in God’s way – which is what Jesus’ Way is – an abundant life living in the light.
We don’t have to wait for Christmas for this to happen. Your ‘day to come’ can come whenever you yourself incarnate Isaiah’s vision.
The difference that Jesus’ birth makes is that it becomes so real for us that we can more fully trust in the hope of God’s promise.
And maybe then the dream can become reality.
I hope that happens for you this Advent!