Neither shall they learn war anymore (Alan Combs)

Title: Neither Shall They Learn War Anymore
Text: Isaiah 2:1-5
Date: November 28, 2010
Place: Heritage United Methodist Church (Lynchburg, VA)
Author: Alan Combs

These verses are one of the most beautiful visions of God’s radical transformation of the world that we find in Scripture.  Even more beautiful this vision is not isolated to Isaiah, since there is a nearly identical version of this passage in chapter 4 of Micah.  Now, there is plenty of scholarly debate about whether these prophets somehow had access to one another’s writings or whether there was an older tradition of these versions to which both prophets.[i] However, for us as we worship this morning such debates are eclipsed by our excitement about the way that this vision captured the imaginations of both prophets!

As we gather together on this first Sunday of Advent, God invites us to allow our imaginations to be captured by this vision as well.  We are beginning a season of waiting, a season where we find ourselves resisting the way the society around us measures time and perhaps even our own tendencies to want to rush to Christmas.  We are resisting the world’s time in favor of God’s time.  In the world’s time, Christmas began the day after Halloween, and it has just now reached a fever pitch as we have risen early in the morning from our Turkey-induced slumber to open our wallets to stores that open earlier every year and even chose to pull their own employees away from their own families on Thanksgiving Day with the hopes of drawing in more privileged folks with bigger wallets and more assured Thanksgiving time off.

I don’t say this to condemn you for heading out early on Friday, or even Thursday to get some good deals.  It makes sense to want to get items we were planning on buying one another anyway at a better price. Rather, the lines of late-night tents populating the sidewalks of strip malls is a different vision of time that is predicated upon making Christmas be here sooner and giving us a greater sense of urgency about Christmas, specifically about our Christmas purchases.  But God’s time is different.  God’s time is lived in a tension between the fullness of salvation we now taste, yet will only come to fruition on the last day.

Isaiah looks forward to those “days to come” for the time when God’s mountain will definitively be the highest, and where all people will come to that mountain to learn from the Lord.  Isaiah looks forward to those “days to come” from the time when violence will cease as God arbitrates the disputes of the peoples of the earth, where weapons of death and violence are made into weapons of life and growth, and where people will no longer learn war.  Though this vision occurs in the future, Isaiah exhorts his hearers now, “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” He doesn’t say, “let’s wait until this day to walk in the light of the Lord!”  He invites them to live into this reality today, at this very moment. He calls them to be a people who live righteously in the present, even as they wait for the full future fruition of this beautiful vision of people living in peaceful relationship with one another.  He invites his hearers, who now include us, to live into the tension.

The tension becomes even more acute when we place verses 2-5 in the context of the rest of chapter 2 of Isaiah.  We are quickly returned to our wits by the contrast between verses 2-5 and verse 6 and following.  Suddenly, the tone shifts and following as Isaiah’s words of salvation shift to words of judgment:

For you have forsaken the ways of* your people, house of Jacob.  Indeed they are full of diviners* from the east and of soothsayers like the Philistines, and they clasp hands with foreigners.  7Their land is filled with silver and gold, and there is no end to their treasures; their land is filled with horses, and there is no end to their chariots.  8Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made.  9And so people are humbled, and everyone is brought low—do not forgive them!  Enter into the rock, and hide in the dust from the terror of the Lord, and from the glory of his majesty (Isaiah 2.6-10).

Isaiah provides his followers, and us, with a vision of what is possible, of what God has in store, of the peace and wellness that comes from God’s presence.  But unrighteousness cannot exist in the presence of God.  Thus, these two contrasting visions of the Lord’s presence immediately show forth the shadows in the life of Israel.  There are false prophets among them, they are hoarding their wealth, they are built up with great stockpiles of horses and chariots for war making, and there is idolatry!

Just as Isaiah did, I don’t think we can help but look at the contrast in our own time between the world around us and Isaiah’s vision.  We feel this especially deeply in the reality of violence all around us.  Even Christians all over the world who look for this vision of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks are caught up in nationalistic struggles for power that more often than not result in the proliferation of weapons and violence throughout the world.  And we can say, “well, of course there is still violence because the day in the vision hasn’t come.”  Except, of course, that Isaiah doesn’t say that.  He says, “come, let us walk in the light of Lord” not in a later day, but now!  We know that the threat and possibility of violence will remain until the last day, but as the bearers of God’s vision of a day where we will no longer learn war, Christians are still called to have a voice in resisting violence.

Did you know that early Christians “considered all bloodshed a sin, they consistently refused military participation, and believed [the] prophecies in Isaiah 2 and Micah 4, [one of which is our passage for this morning] were being fulfilled through the life of the church?[ii] This was all in the midst of a time of great oppression by the state, where many Christians were martyred.  Yet it was also in this time that the church experienced some if its most staggering growth.  As one early church theologian put it, “the blood of the martyrs in the seed of the church.”

Now, what I’m not necessarily saying is that everyone here needs to immediately become a pacifist.  Even Christians who serve as soldiers,  I would imagine, do so with a understanding that their goal is to make peace possible.  What I am saying is that if Isaiah 2 gave the early Christians, and many Christians since cause to examine their lives and determine how they would resist violence and embody God’s peace in their time, then this vision that Isaiah shares is worthy of our consideration in the same way.  Even if we hold to the possibility that a war or particular violence can be just, this vision suggests that violence for followers of God is always an exception in need of justification.  If we are to be people who embody this time when nations will not learn wary any more, then God calls us to be the kind of community that resists violence, that is a voice for real peace, and a community that provides glimpses of God’s kingdom of peace as we emulate Christ, the one who suffered violence rather than commit it.

I think the key word in Isaiah’s vision in this regard is “learn.”  “Neither shall they learn war any more.”  War and violence is not something that just happens, but rather it is something that we learn.  What we often learn about it from politicians, the media, movies, and video games is that it is the quickest way to solve a problem with whatever group we have currently labeled “the other” or “the enemy.”  This labeling leads to many things, but the most dangerous reality is that we can forget that even the one we call “enemy” is a human created in the image of God.  When we forget that, the kinds of complicity that our own country as well as others have had in the deaths and even torture of civilians in the countries of “the enemy” becomes possible.  When we lose sight of the image of God in others, even the ones we may fear or hate the most in this world, horrible things become possible.

Let me be clear.  This is not a political sermon.  I’m not endorsing the policies of any party because frankly, it has been the policy of both of our major parties to endorse violence.  What I am saying, is that the vision of Isaiah calls us as church to be a voice for peace in this world and to embody peace in our lives.  Real peace where the possibility of mutuality and understanding is possible.  The kind of peace where swords become plowshares and spears become pruning hooks.  Now, of course, the question is, how do we do that?  How do we embody peace in a world full of so many threats of violence?  How do we do that and continue to support those who also feel called to serve our country as soldiers?

The answer, not surprisingly, is Christ!  And this is not a Sunday School answer to a pressing theological question.  Rather, Christ is the answer because he is real peace.  It is only through his grace acting in the world that any real kind of peace is possible.  Christ’s presence is the kingdom of God here and now, yet not fully realized.  It is Christ in whom we experience the first fruits of the full restoration of the world that will come on the last day.  It is Christ in us who enables us to embody peace and be peacemakers in a world that appears to be full of fear and scarcity because his love drives out all fear and he is the one who turns scarcity into abundance with five loaves and two fish.  It is he for whom we wait in Advent, looking toward the remembrance of his first coming as well as the full fruition of his second coming.

Just as Isaiah called his people to walk into the light now, and not later, Christ does the same.  Jesus is the embodiment, the fulfillment of God’s breaking into history and making this kind of peace a reality.  And we are drawn into this reality because Christ draws us to himself as members of his body, whether we are pacifist members or solider members of that body.  Whether we are peace activists or military chaplains of this body.  It is in his body that all of these members are brought together face to face.  It is where the peace of Christ is passed in worship together, expressing the forgiveness and love we have for one another, even in the midst of disagreement, that we can carry out into the world into our relationships even with those who we might consider enemies.  And, most importantly, these members of this body share the same body and blood of Jesus Christ as this table.  As one writer has said, “The Eucharist is an offer of life, a promise of hospitality to strangers, a sharing of peace, a taste of God’s generosity, a breaking that opens space for healing.”[iii]

As I’ve said before, the Lord’s Table is the perfect place for us to be during Advent. In these places we experience the already of what Christ has done now.  It is the place where we look to the past where Christ offered himself and instituted the Lord’s Supper.  It is the place where we together experience Christ’s presence now as he invities us to his table.  It is also the place where we anticipate, where we wait for what has not yet happened.  It is where we anticipate the full fruition of what God has already accomplished in Christ, where we will feast together at his heavenly banquet.[iv] It is the place where even folks who might not like each other, who might even consider one another enemies meet.  It is the place where people who don’t look like us all over the world come to share in the same meal that draws us all more deeply into Christ’s body.  It is the place where we experience Christ’s peace now, and where we can begin to embody that in our relationships as well as our voice against violence in our community and in the world.   “Just as the Eucharist leavens and makes the Church into bread for the world, the Church is to leaven and nourish the world.”[v]

The table of Holy Communion is where we learn peace, as opposed to learning war.  It is the foretaste of that time when all peoples will no longer learn war anymore.  That is why we must come to the table over and over again, why we do a similar order of worship every week.  We must do the same thing over and over to learn it.  We accept this for sports.  We accept this for art and music.  Why do we have so much trouble believing God would work this same way in us in our own growing in holiness?  We come to this place to learn, among many other things, to be Christ’s peace.  We do it over and over again because it takes learning, it takes training, and most importantly God’s grace for us to be the people God calls us to be, which includes being real peacemakers.  There are a lot of reasons to want to put this kind of embodiment of Christ’s peace off.  We may be scorned for this.  We may be called bad citizens.  We may be called cowards.  We may even be accused of undermining the religious establishment.  Yet, isn’t a lot of that similar to what Jesus was called?  If that is true, we should be so lucky to be in such company.  May it be so in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

[i] Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah in The Old Testament Library, (Louisville, KY:  Westminster John Knox, 2001), pp. 28-29.

[ii] Gerald W. Schlabach, “Peace and War” in The Blackwell to Christian Ethics, ed. by Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells, (Oxford:  Blackwell Publishing, 2004), pp. 362-363.

[iii] Schlabach, “Peace and War,” p. 367.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid. ,p. 369.


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