December 2, 2007

First Sunday in Advent

"Dirty Work"
Isaiah 2:1-5

Some years ago I visited Colonial Williamsburg with my family. It was one of those southern summer days when the temperature and the humidity are both hovering around 100. that bothered the adults but my niece who was four or five at the time was completely unphased by it. She loved watching the craftspeople at work, weaving baskets, making pottery, that sort of thing. But her favorite place was the blacksmith shop. A man was at work there with a hammer and anvil, shaping metal into useful tools. He was working over an open fire because the heat was necessary to soften the metal. It had to be a hot fire so occasionally he used bellows to pump air onto the coals and fire them up. I remember him working but mostly I remember how it was almost unbearably hot in that blacksmith shop and there were ashes and soot over all the place. His was a hard and dirty job.

I remembered that blacksmith shop as I read Isaiah’s prophecy: they shall beat their swords into plowshares. It is a wonderful outcome, isn’t it? All the weapons of war transformed into farm implements; no more tools for fighting and killing but rather equipment for planting and growing; no more bloodshed but instead a world at peace. Isaiah’s prophecy is both a hope and a promise, a word of comfort spoken to war-weary people. But I find it a bit disheartening that more than 2000 years later the promise of peace is yet to be fulfilled and the hope lies fragile in our hearts.

And I wonder if that is, in part, because we have misunderstood the nature of peace. I think we almost universally view peace as the absence of war. Certainly that is part of it, but to say that peace is the absence of war is like saying light is the absence of darkness. It is true, but it is only a small part of the truth. And it has nothing to say about the real nature of peace and how it is created.

Making peace is hard and dirty work. It requires the complete transformation of the very purpose of our lives. However it happened, the stuff of our life got shaped into something sharp and dangerous. However it happened, we wounded people we love, as well as those we don’t even know. However it happened, we came to spend our energy on defending ourselves and protecting ourselves and gaining our own advantage. We have been told that we have to attack life if we are to live it fully.

But in God’s holy blacksmith shop, all that gets changed. The essence of our lives remains the same, but our purpose is completely reshaped. Maybe we still have a sharp edge but that blade is now used for opening the ground of our being so that something new and nourishing can grow. Instead of living lives that are focused on self-protection at the expense of the rest of the world, we claim a calling that seeks to serve the other, not ourselves.

And what would that be like? Maybe like this:

In the mid-1990s, a Manhattan carpet store owner named Fernando Mateo had an idea that he thought might make the streets of New York safer. He created a program that gave $100 gift certificates form Toys ‘R’ Us to all those who turned guns into the police. During the 16 days of the program, 1,502 firearms were collected in one New York City precinct. And, guess what? Crime went down dramatically during that time in that precinct and the two adjoining ones as compared to a similar period. Assaults involving guns dropped from 10 to 2, gun possession arrests went from 18 to 11, and armed robberies were down 53 to 28. (“Armed-Crime Dip Recorded During Gun Exchange,” by Ronald Sullivan, New York Times, January 8, 1994) The success of the program has spawned similar ones nationwide.

Guns for toys: swords into plowshares.

Here is another example. This past week, the U.S. military invaded Bangladesh – did you know that? Twenty-four hundred U.S. Marines and sailors moved into the country to help Bangladeshi government provide clean water, medical aid, food and other relief supplies to victims of Cyclone Sidr, the most severe storm to hit the country since 1991. Thirty-six hundred people were killed in the storm and those who survived have almost nothing left to sustain life. So, equipped with 20 helicopters, the U.S. forces have delivered 160 tons of relief supplies to the storm victims this week. The main need is clean water, which is processed aboard US war ships and then delivered by military helicopters to the victims.
(“Storm-Stricken Bangladesh Gets Aid from U.S. Marines, Sailors,” by Phillip Kurata,

The equipment of war used to bring life-saving aid, water rather than weapons: swords into plowshares.

And this kind of transformation is not just something that happens on a large scale, as in these examples. It also happens in the smallest of spaces, in here. I don’t think that I can bring about world wide peace, but that doesn’t let me off the hook. I can work for peace in my world. And I must if I am to be faithful to God’s vision for creation.

But whether in the world around us or in the world within us, this is not easy work. In fact, it may be painful. Consider Isaiah’s image. In the heat of a holy forge, where the breath and the fire of the spirit melt our souls, we are hammered by God into something different. Our hearts are softened so that we can be remade. It is a hard and dirty work that God must do in order to reclaim us and restore us again to our rightful purpose, to recreate us into the people God intended us to be all along.

And -- when that happens, then we, too, must engage in that same kind of dirty work in the world, bringing the power of the Spirit to places of war and conflict, even if those places are in our own homes, within our own families, among our colleagues, our neighbors, the strangers in our streets; melting hostility; reshaping and bringing holy purpose to all of life. We, too, must recast our swords into plowshares.

In these Advent days, we are preparing to celebrate the birth of the one called the Prince of Peace. May we do that by allowing the Holy Blacksmith to beat the weapons we have made of our lives into implements of care and growth. May we be transformed by wind and fire of the Spirit so that we, in turn, may engage in the hard and dirty work of transforming the world.

And may our Advent prayer be the prayer of the poet:

Batter my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee, and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
(John Donne)


The photograph is the sculpture "Let us Beat Swords into Plowshares
" in the United Nations garden. It was a gift from the then Soviet Union presented in 1959 and made by Evgeniy Vuchetich.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

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