Advent 2015 2: Transforming the Sword (Isaiah 2:1-5)

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Isaiah had a vision once, an image of peace and prosperity. He saw a world where war was no more, where no-one had to train for battle, where people gathered up their swords and turned them into tools for farming, where God has established a reign of peace.

It’s a beautiful vision, but it’s hard to comprehend. It’s almost utopian, and it’s clear that it’s only achieved because of God’s own intervention. Meanwhile we spend billions on inventing more and more elaborate ways of killing people, and no matter how impressive our drone fleets or our fighter jets are, we still need more of them. We can wipe out everyone multiple times over because hey, you never know, the survivors in their bunkers might have to obliterate, I dunno, zombified mutants or opportunistic cockroaches.

War seems to be baked into us now. There’s always another enemy emerging from the rubble of the previous conflagration, a never ending cycle that moulds our politics, embodies our fears, boosts our economies. Sometimes this will affect us deeply, when the shock of sudden violence strikes close to home, but then it’s back to business as usual, because the scale of the problem is too vast for individuals to process, there’s always another suicide bombing, always another mass shooting, too many losses to mourn without them breaking us, the minute’s silences stretching into hours.

And yet Isaiah’s vision is still compelling. We live in the now-and-not-yet kingdom of the Prince of Peace, who was broken on a violent cross and yet transformed that into a symbol of hope. Bill Hicks once asked why Christians thought Jesus would want to see all those crosses when he comes back. I get his point, but that’s the power of the resurrection story – a torture instrument is comprehensively transformed into a symbol of hope, each empty cross standing as a mockery of the power of violence and death.

All those crosses? Counter-cultural, just not in the way the Culture Wars pesent it. “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition” isn’t just a ‘thing’, it’s antichrist.

(And now someone’s asking “But what about ISIS?” I don’t know what to do about ISIS, but I’m willing to bet we should have done it 30 years ago.)

So.

What does it mean to live in the light of Isaiah’s vision? Yes, I know it’s eschatological, but the Kingdom of God breaks into this world when we catch a glimpse of that future and live as if it can be a present reality. And that’s going to be on an individual level, so what does “swords into ploughshares” look like into our communities?

Do we need to find ways to literally take knives and guns and turn them into sculptures or shovels?

Do we need to take those angry and insulting and threatening emails and Facebook comments and do some origami?

Do we need to, you know, stop sending hate mail peppered with Bible verses in the hope that they make vitriol holy?

Do we need to learn how to make peace instead of acting as apologists for volence or abuse?

Do we need to transfer more of our resources towards supporting safe spaces for survivors of domestic violence or child abuse or the sex trade?

Do we need to treat refugees and migrants with more kindness than we have been?

Do we need to be on the streets at 2am stopping fights and handing out flipflops?

Do we need to look at all of the above and see what we can do about their underlying causes, like poverty or prejudice or religion?

If violence is so ingrained in humanity then any intentional attempt to follow the way of peace takes a sword and turns it into a ploughshare. And that won’t stop wars, it won’t change the world overnight, but that’s not our job. We follow in the footsteps of Christ, and where violence tries to have its way, we turn to the empty cross and laugh.

And act.

Part 1 of this series, Breaking the Bow, is here.

Thunder in the Desert (John 1:19-28)

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(This post draws upon Keith Dudley’s recent sermon at Renovatus Church – you can check it out here.)

So John the Baptist has arrived on the scene and he’s making something of a name for himself. Only no-one knows who he is; some think he might be the Messiah, others suspect he’s Elijah come back from heaven. John waves away each of these suggestions, but the people want a straight answer: “Who are you?!”

And he answers, not entirely helpfully, “I’m the voice of one calling in the wilderness.”

Now, it’s all a bit abstract but his answer does make sense – after all, we know John as the first evangelist, a preacher and a prophet calling people to repent before Jesus arrives. And he lived in the desert, baptizing people in the Jordan river. So far, so literal.

But here’s the thing – apparently the Greek word used for “voice” can also refer to “thunder”, which gives us a different image to play with. Because the voice of God himself is often referred to as being like thunder – this isn’t John speaking in his own strength, he’s entering into a prophetic tradition and proclaiming God’s perspective on the situation. John’s directly quoting Isaiah 40 here, and I guess I’ve always seen this as a very lonely image – someone crying out in the desert, echoing off the rocks and the silence, an approaching voice with few to hear him.

But it’s a more regal image than that. John’s an outrunner for a royal procession – clear the way, build a road because the king is on his way. He’s not a lone voice at all, he’s just running further ahead, building roads and tunnels and bridges of repentance, taming the wilderness before the arrival of the king.

But the double meaning of voice/thunder provides us with another metaphor – thunder in the desert is a promise, a rumble of anticipation that should make desert dwellers stop and look into the sky – hear the thunder, here comes the rain. And on a very basic, physical level, rain can be salvation – water to drink, fuel for the harvest: the promise of new life?

But wait, this isn’t a drizzle, a quick shower. No, there’s a storm coming. When God arrives in town it’s disruptive – you can’t go on as you were, things get shaken up; you might welcome the rain but you want to run for shelter nonetheless. People don’t always like storms – in this case, a herald gets beheaded and the king ends up on a cross.

And yet the rain still comes; water seeps into parched ground and the barren soil gives up a harvest.

Maybe we’ve lost something of that anticipation, that excitement – I know I have, many times. Life carries on as normal and we get too used to the silence of the wilderness.

And yet John is a reminder – there’s a rumble of thunder on the horizon, a voice crying out in the desert. The King is on his way; the rain falls in his wake and the desert bursts into life.

No Beauty or Majesty (Isaiah 53:1-3)

jesus-and-the-woman-at-the-wellI’ve always struggled with these verses. They’re a prophecy of the Messiah, of Jesus, but the idea that he would have “no majesty to attract us to him”? Something about that never rang true. After all, this is Jesus we’re talking about – he’s been gathering followers for 2,000 years. His majesty breaks through, beyond circumstances and beyond borders, and if there’s nothing to attract us to him, well, how do you explain all the churches, all the hymns, all the blogs?

Yesterday morning I was forced to see this verse in a new way. A video told from the perspective of the woman at the well alluded to this verse and suddenly everything fell into place. We’re talking about a different kind of majesty here; Isaiah states that the Messiah would have no beauty, no esteem, true, but he’s using the language of kings, of heart throbs, of rock stars. Did Jesus have any of this? Well, maybe, occasionally and momentarily, but it soon faded, and when he was hanging on the cross he was largely alone.

Re-reading the passage, it should be obvious what Isaiah was getting at, but there’s something profound behind it. Beauty, majesty, esteem… They can be barriers. They’re the guards at the gate of palaces, the bouncers at the nightclub door, the edge of the red carpet. They’re symptoms of a broken kingdom, a kingdom in which we celebrate the beauty of supermodels, the lovelives of TV stars, crowns and cars and charisma. We do it in the church – pastors with substantial book deals and huge houses but little accountability, worship that ironically would rock more if it wasn’t just performance. I don’t believe this is universal, not by any means, but they’re very real threats, creeping serpents of temptation trying to infiltrate a greater kingdom.

We establish these boundaries but Jesus rejected them; the man who was God laid aside the beauty and majesty and radiance of heaven for dust and dirt and indignity. Why? Because boundaries separate us and Jesus came to reconcile not separate.

So. No crown, no sceptre, no sword. Not the easiest way to build a kingdom, but it works. It works, not just because it brings God together with humanity, but with the marginalised, the oppressed, the ostracised. These are the people Jesus sought out. God’s glory isn’t revealed through external trappings of power, it’s revealed through love, grace and compassion for the poor.

And that’s why organisations like the Restore Project are following in the footsteps of Jesus. Discipleship that doesn’t have concern for the most vulnerable members of society isn’t discipleship because it doesn’t go where Jesus goes. That’s challenging for me – I like my comfort zone after all – but the serving kingship of Jesus should be the defining characteristic of the church. Without that we’re chasing the wrong majesty and esteem; our beauty is tarnished.

There is glory on the margins. Maybe a prayer for Lent would be for the eyes and the courage to recognise this glory, to see the King talking to those who are ignored; to hear his voice and to know his heart.

Repair the Ancient Walls (Isaiah 58:12)

Nehemiah1It’s Britain in the 21st century, and so it’s all about online retail and out-of-town shopping malls.Walk down the high street nowadays and you can’t miss the empty store fronts surrounded by charity shops and payday loan companies. There’s a certain desolation to this, both economic and cultural, the former bookshops and restaurants with their windows now covered in posters advertising tribute gigs played months ago. That’s if the windows have survived, of course, because one gets broken, things tend to snowball. It could almost be a metaphor for something.

This is nothing compared to Jerusalem during the Exile; there’s a whole book dedicated to that and it ain’t pretty. That’s the context of Isaiah 58, which culminates in the prophet enthusing over what true faith can achieve – an end to desolation.

The rebuilding of Jerusalem is a theme throughout the prophets, the actual return to the city as told by Nehemiah and Ezra also becoming an image of God’s work of redemption and the restoration of the nation’s spiritual life. That spiritual aspect is key – this particular restoration comes as a result of truly following God. This passage isn’t just a message of hope – it includes an element of condemnation of religion that’s purely about ritual and not a matter of the heart. It’s a rant against fasting that’s nothing but surface – while all these rituals are being carried out in the name of religious respectability, workers are being oppressed and mistreated. You’re not going to hear from God if that’s your attitude, and that’s why Isaiah goes on to explain what true religion should look like – honour and love God, fight oppression, feed the hungry, treat others with respect.

Those deserts caused by broken lives, broken relationships, broken communities, broken bodies? Following God means bringing his words of hope into hopeless situations. That’s what the church should all be about. Too often we get caught up with the rituals and the rule-keeping, but that fails to produce much in the way of fruit. It never will if the right heart isn’t there, and too often the church has found itself promoting oppression – that’s when things start to break down. That’s when we’re adding to the desolation. All those rituals don’t fix anything.

A relationship does.

And yet the key theme running throughout the Bible is restoration, achieved through the Cross – the story that starts in a garden ends in a city, a city built by God himself. That gives the name given to followers of God in Isaiah – Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets With Dwellings – an extra frisson, calling us to spend more time building things up than tearing them down. Heck, even Jesus was a builder.

Christ steps into a world that appears desolate, shattered and broken for generations, and brings healing and hope in his wake. And we’re called to follow him. And as big and as terrifying as it is, it’s also a beautiful, rewarding, world-changing mission. Those shattered places, those shattered lives? They can be rebuilt. They can be restored. It happens.

Let’s fix some broken windows.

What Bezalel and Isaiah Would Do With Nasty Emails and AK47s (Isaiah 2:3-4)

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So, over at The Simple Way community, Shane Claiborne is learning to weld so that he can make farm equipment out of old guns. Meanwhile, Rachel Held Evans is learning origami as a way of creating something positive out of hate mail.

I guess that illustrates the transformative power of the “swords into ploughshares” idea seen in Isaiah. The concept of taking weapons and turning them into tools or art isn’t just an act of repurposing or recycling, it’s an act of transformation – transformation of attitudes, transformation of the world.

Bezalel is one of the earliest people said to receive the Spirit of God and he wasn’t a leader or a priest, he was a craftsman, an artist. He was the guy responsible for transforming a desert into a place where God lived, a tent into the throne room of the Lord. Maybe he’d have a few imaginative ideas about what to do with swords and slings.

In that sense swords into ploughshares is a work of art – it forces us to reimagine the assumptions we’ve held for so long. That letter isn’t a venom-soaked missive, it’s a swan; that AK47 isn’t an assault rifle, it’s a rake.

That cross isn’t a tool of execution, it’s an act of grace and reconciliation.

The fundamental creativity that’s part of God’s character is seen there on Calvary’s hill as he transforms Rome’s most brutal deterrent into a message of peace, hope and forgiveness. Empire’s sword became a ploughshare and no-one even saw it coming.

As we head down that Lenten path towards the cross again, I pray that I’d have the creativity to transform the weapons I wield into something more constructive, more beautiful, more holy.

Update: It turns out that someone has coined a name for a gun that’s been transformed into a guitar – Escopetarra. Invented by Columbian peace activist Cesar Lopez, there’s a video of his work over at Cultures of Resistance.)