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A Homily for the First Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 2:1-5 Advent 1, Year A

Dennis Bratcher

This is the first Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Expectation and Hope. The Old Testament Lectionary reading for this first Sunday of Advent is Isaiah 2:1-5.

2:1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2:2 In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 2:3 Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 2:4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 2:5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

"Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." Israel had a troubled history. She was a tiny nation wedged between huge and ambitious empires that were constantly vying for superiority. Israel had few times during her 700-year history in which she did not live under threat. Wars were almost constant, some were devastating. For much of her existence she lived under the sovereignty of some other nation, unable or sometimes unwilling to establish her own existence in the world as God's people.

In the time of Isaiah of Jerusalem, Judah was a vassal state of Assyria. During Isaiah's lifetime the Assyrians would sweep in and totally annihilate the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and threaten to do the same to the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Judah had weak leaders who saw it more politically expedient to appease the Empire than to be faithful to God.

And yet there were those like Isaiah who could envision a different reality, who could hope for a time when Israel would be faithful and allow God to be God. Israel was weary of war and threat, weary of the divisions that had torn her country apart after Solomon, weary of the instability of a world in which power and the oppression that it brings were the controlling factors in the world. Some like Isaiah knew that God's vision of the world was much different. They knew that the God they served was the same God who had heard the cries of oppressed slaves in Egypt and entered history to relieve their oppression. And they knew that because God was such a God, he would not forever tolerate oppression in the world.

And so they hoped. And they dreamed. They dreamed of a time when God would enter the world and bring an end to war and suffering, when he would establish his reign on earth and restore all creation to what he intended it to be. They dreamed of a time when the division that had torn their people apart and divided them into north and south might be healed, and they could once again be a whole people under God. They dreamed of a time when "nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

I have been in Korea for a couple of months now. I have visited the National War Memorial in Seoul that chronicles the 1,400-year struggle of the Korean people for freedom and independence. I have attended the annual United Nations Day at Independence Hall near Cheonan where I live, and saw and heard about the same dream of a future when a divided people can once again be reunited. I have driven along the Han River in Seoul where thousands of people died trying to swim the river to escape from the North Korean invasion. I have visited the DMZ and the UN Mission at Panmunjom, and seen in graphic reality the division that swords bring, and at the same time the hope for Peace (see A World Parish and a Catholic Spirit). I have heard sermons where Korean pastors dreamed of a time when the Gospel can be openly proclaimed north of the 38th parallel in North Korea.

With all of that, I think I understand, in ways that most of us in the Western world at this time in history cannot comprehend, the deep cry of a people for Peace. "Neither shall they learn war any more."

For many of us, at least in the church culture in which I grew up, this was for the future, sometime out there in the "new Jerusalem" when God would fix everything. There is no question that this is part of the vision of Isaiah. But maybe, as I remember the graphic scenes of refugees fleeing Seoul and the one heartbreaking photo of a young boy screaming over the body of his dead mother, I wonder if we have worked hard enough at making that dream of peace a reality for today. Maybe we have depended a little too much on God transforming our spears and swords while we are still swinging them, instead of laying them down long enough to start making a few plowshares.

I recall a pastor who had told his congregation to do just some little thing in their small corner of the world to make a difference. Now of course, there is a need for that. But is it possible that sometimes our vision is far too small, that it needs to transcend our own little corner of the world? Sometimes we need to dream the big dreams, to believe in a big God, and then live in the world as if He really were that big! Maybe we really can change the world, with God's help! Maybe Peace really is our responsibility in our world.

And yet, Isaiah knew that finally we would not be able to bring Peace. He knew that even as we do our best, the world will not yield to our efforts. Still, he believed that it would come. He still believed in a future that was God's future, a future in which the world would be restored to God's intention for his creation.

Advent. The Coming. Peace on earth has already come 2,000 years ago. But it has not fully come yet. It has only come as a glimpse of what can be. The fulfillment of the promises has become new promises and expectation. And so we dream Isaiah's dream again. We dream the dream of a divided people that God will bring wholeness, even as we hammer on our swords and spears trying to make plowshares.

When? How long? When will that day come? We do not know. But we hope and wait expectantly. We live today in the reality of what he has already showed us, and what he has promised. And we cry out for his coming. And we know that as He has come, so He will come. When he comes, may he find us hard at work hammering our swords into plowshares, and our spears into pruning hooks.

I have heard the story of a wise old Rabbi who instructed his students by asking questions. He asked, "How can a person tell when the darkness ends and the day begins?" After thinking for a moment, one student replied, "It is when there is enough light to see an animal in the distance and be able to tell if it is a sheep or a goat." Another student ventured, "It is when there is enough light to see a tree, and tell if it is a fig or an oak tree."

The old Rabbi gently said, "No. It is when you can look into a man's face and recognize him as your brother. For if you cannot recognize in another's face the face of your brother, the darkness has not yet begun to lift, and the light has not yet come."

Even so come quickly, Lord Jesus. And while I'm waiting, somebody hand me a sword! I have plowshares to make!

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2018, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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