The War We Fight: Nov. 27, 2016

November 27, 2016

Year A, Advent 1                                                      
Isaiah 2:1-5                                                              

WWI is sometimes described as a chemical war because of the use of chemical weapons.  One of the most effective chemical weapons was Mustard Gas.  One of the  first recorded uses was in Ypres Belgium in 1917.  While the effects of the gas were not immediate as it could lead to a long and painful death, it is believed that 10,000 men were killed from the gas in this one battle.  Many hoped that this great war would be the last.  However, we all know that is not the case.  When it became evident that another world war was on the horizon, scientists started to look into possible antidotes for Mustard Gas. Two American doctors studied the medical records of soldiers who had been exposed to Mustard Gas.  They learned that these soldiers had very low count of immune blood cells and hypothesized that if this substance could kill immune blood cells, then it could also kill the cells that lead to Cancer.  After more research and testing, they developed what would soon be known as chemotherapy–the first successful treatment of cancer. [1]

During the season of Advent and Christmas, we will hear a lot from the prophet Isaiah….every Sunday in fact.  The Book of Isaiah is one of the longest books in the Old Testament and one of the books of Old Testament most often quoted in the New Testament.  Isaiah preached over the span of three kings at a very critical time in the history of Israel.[2]  Israel was divided between the North and the South and these sides were often at war with one another and under attack from foreign lands who were often much more powerful.  Isaiah attempted to counsel the kings and lead them in the ways of God.  Sometimes they listened, but often they did not.  Often these kings would choose to ally themselves with more powerful countries like Assyria.  This never turned out well for Israel.  

In our reading for today, Isaiah is talking about the future, the time when all things will be made new.  This reading is sandwiched in between two sections in which Isaiah lectures Israel on their inability to remain faithful to God and the sinfulness of their people and leaders.  This reading is a brief reprieve in a litany of doom and destruction.   It is a spark of hope in a wasteland of fear and grief. 

One of the unique attributes of the prophet Isaiah and one of the reasons he is mostly likely referenced so often in the New Testament is because he refers to God as the God all of nations, not just the God of the Jews.  All nations will receive both the judgment and the forgiveness of God. Isaiah also speaks poetically of his vision of peace between the nations.  “He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”  This is a particularly beautiful part of our reading for today.  We know this quote from Gospel hymns, war protest songs, pop songs, and speeches of world leaders.  It is also depicted visually in paintings, statues and sculptures.  One of these sculptures is in front of the United Nations headquarters in New York City and depicts a man pounding a curved sword into the ground. The Soviet Union gave it to the United States in 1959, right in the midst of the Cold War.

By Neptuul – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Not being a farmer or familiar with farming techniques, I had to look up what a plowshare is.  Not surprisingly, it is a part of a plow.  It is the sharp edge of the plow that breaks up the earth making it fertile for planting, for new growth.  It is therefore, not very farfetched to turn a sword into a part of a plow.  It is a nice image, taking something intended for destruction and making it into something that would create life…  But the idea of no longer needing weapons, of no more wars or fighting among nations–that seems like an impossible ideal, does it not? It seems like dream not worth dreaming, words that are not worth saying.

            In 1987, President Reagan addressed the United Nations and said the following, “Cannot swords be turned to plowshares? Can we and all nations not live in peace?” He then went on to hypothesize that perhaps the nations of the world could unite if we had some alien force against us. That always happens in the movies after all.  He then said, “And yet, I ask you, is not an alien force already among us? What could be more alien to the universal aspirations of our peoples than war and the threat of war?[3]

            We have become so accustomed to violence and war, we have accepted it as the default and the norm. It is the status quo.  Since Cain murdered Abel, violence has been part of the human family.  However, just because that is the case, does not mean that is how God intended it.  Isaiah’s vision was that one day we would be able to take these instruments of war and turn them into instruments that would create new life.  We would not have to learn war anymore.  I am not sure that we will ever know a time where there is no violence.  Even for Isaiah, it was a dream, an image of what it would be when the Lord came to earth. 

            Yet even if we are to be practical and assume that wars will not end, that does not mean we cannot do our part to create peace.  One of the most destructive weapons of WWI became a drug to combat one of the most destructive diseases of our time…it became an instrument of new life.  Wars continue and Cancer continues to claim far too many lives, but that does not mean that this advance, this evolution did not make a difference for many people. 

            Right now, our nation is at war with itself.  It is not a Civil War like the one that burned this town and this church.  It is a war that we wage every day with our actions, our words, and our lack of actions.  Our brave military is not fighting this war.  It is each one of us.  We contribute to this war when we allow hate to spread, when we do not speak up for those who cannot defend themselves, when we talk over one another because we are too afraid to take a breath and listen to the other, when we forget that our God is a God of all nations. 

Our politicians did not start this war.  We cannot merely turn to the leaders of our world or our nation to stop this war.  One of the prophet Isaiah’s frustrations was Israel’s tendency to put their faith in human kings, instead of the Kings of Kings, the Lord of All. We continue to make that mistake.  Yes, our national leaders and government have a huge effect on our nation and our world and that effect is not to be underestimated.  Much like Isaiah, we have to continue to speak out to those leaders when we disagree or agree with what they are doing.  At the same time, we must also live in a way that shows that we serve a far greater power than any that exist in the world.  Each one of us has the ability to serve that power in such a way that we can help the people who are powerless, the people who cannot help themselves. Swords and spears will continue to be produced, but we can also create opportunities for life in the midst of words and actions that bring nothing but pain. 

The hope that Isaiah prophesied was that hope that Jesus brought when he was born, died and was resurrected.  We have tasted what life and hope is all about.  We taste that in the Eucharist every week.  We have seen the light and it is up to each one of us to walk in the light of the Lord…to be the light in the darkness.  Will you be that light? Can we be that light together?

[2] Most scholars agree that there are multiple authors of the Book of Isaiah. For the purposes of the sermon, I will refer to the author as one person because it would take way too long to explain 1st, 2nd, and 3rdIsaiah and would not contribute anything to the sermon. 
[3] to the 42d Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, New York   September 21, 1987