A Reflection for the First Sunday of Advent, based on 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!
In the book God Has a Dream, the Nobel prize winning former archbishop of South Africa Desmond Tutu writes that “before we can become God’s partners, we must know what God wants for us. God says to us, ‘I have a dream, please help me to realize it. It is a dream of a world whose ugliness and squalor and poverty, its war and hostility, its greed and harsh competitiveness, its alienation and disharmony are changed into their glorious counterparts, when there will be more laughter, joy, and peace, where there will be justice and goodness and compassion and love and caring and sharing. I have a dream that swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, that my children will know that they are members of one family, the human family, God’s family….I have a dream.”(1)
This echoes, of course, the vision given to us by the prophet Isaiah, that the people will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks—in other words they will beat their instruments of death into instruments of life, their instruments of violence into instruments of sustanence, for in God’s dream nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
Christianity, you could say, is for dreamers. Philosopher/Theologian John Caputo likes to say that when Bobby Kennedy used the phrase “There are those who look at things the way they are and ask why, but I dream of things that never were and ask why not,” he was speaking with a religious heart. Christianity is for dreamers, for the people of the why not, the people who hope against hope, those who aren’t just passively waiting on the world to change, but believe that the world can change.(2)
It is dangerous to take the Bible seriously. Noted Chrisitan activist and author Shane Claiborne talks about his friend Sister Margaret, an old nun who he describes as one of his wisest—not to mention wildest—elders. Several years ago, Sister Margaret and some other Christians felt moved by the Spirit to enact this passage from Isaiah in which the nations would beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
They made plans to tour a navy ship, but before doing so they decided to draw their own blood, which they planned to pour on the ship’s missiles as a symbolic lament of the bloodshed the missiles create. And they also put together a bag full of hammers and other tools with which to begin the conversion of the things of death into the things of life.
When they showed up for the tour, Sister Margaret was designated to carry the tools. She was the older nun, which made her the least suspicious and the most likely to get through the metal detectors and bag checkers. As she went through the checkpoint, her bulky bag got stuck on the gate, and a guard came to her aid. He took the bag from her and, of all things, lifted it right through the security checkpoint, no questions asked, and then he helped Sister Margaret, who just thanked him over and over like an innocent old granny. The old nuns then went onto the boat and began climbing up the ladders, all the way up to the top of the ship. There they poured their blood onto the side of a Tomohawk missile launcher. Then they prayerfully began beating on the hollow metal of the launcher. The sound of each hit of the hammer seemed to echo across the entire creation. Sister Margaret describes the time as sacramental. It was as if time stopped. They continued to hammer together, thud after thud reverberating. Sailers bagan to surround them—confused, paralyzed. Officers told the nuns to lay face down with their hands above them on the deck. And they gladly obeyed. It reminded Sister Margaret of the times the sisters would lie prostrate, face down, with outstretched hands in prayer before God. As they lay there, it began to rain, and Sister Margarent said it was like God crying.
The people of God, like Sister Margaret, are called to enact the dreams of God, to believe that another world is possible, that another world is necessary, that another world is here, one that is inturrupting life as we know it and is taking over this earth with the dreams of God, a world that comes unexpectedly, like a thief in the night, turning the world as we know it upside down.
Is it crazy, Claiborne wonders, to get our best scientists together in order to figure out a plan for converting all of our B-52s into tractors for those living in the squalors of third world poverty? Is it crazy to take the Bible so seriously?
What would happen to our security, we might ask? Do we dare find security in the one we proclaim at Christmas time as the Prince of Peace? Do we dare find our security in the one who told his followers to put away the sword, for those who live by the sword shall die by the sword? Do we dare place our security in the one who said, according the Gospel of John, that his kingdom is not of this world, because if it was of this world, his servants would fight?
It is crazy, it is absurd, but it is also what you might expect from a God who decides to change things by taking on skin as a refugee born in the middle of a genocide and who is rescued from the trash bin of imperial executions, all in order to show the world what love looks like.(3)
People will say that such dreams are too idealistic – they sound nice and all, but when things get down to it, you know, this is the real world, and we know how the real world works. The world is in such dissaray, we are told, that change is simply impossible. I mean really, have you taken a look around at how messed up our world is?
Yet when you step back and think about it, the greatest changes our world have ever experienced have taken place when our world was in disarray, when all hope seemed lost. Most of the great changes in our world have taken place when ordinary people started dreaming the dreams of God, in the midst of the chaos, in the midst of a world gone mad, hoping against hope, believing that the world can change. They didn’t wait to change the world when everything looked good, when everything was OK, but precisely when things weren’t OK, when things looked most bleak – because that is when people of faith get on the move.
When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, Moses got on the move, saying “Let my people go!”
When greed was at an all-time high in ancient Israel, the prophet Amos got on the move, calling for justice to flow down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”
When the Jewish people faced horrific massacre, Queen Esther got on the move, believing she was born into the world for such a time as this.
It’s not when the world was together, but when the world was in need of healing.
Later on, in the 16th century, when the church was exploiting its most vulnerable members, a young monk by the name of Martin Luther said “No more, not in my name!”
A couple of centuries later, when the slave trade represented the most lucrative business in the world, English lawmaker William Wilberforce refused to rest until the practice was abolished.
And of course, in the 20th century, when African Americans were still denied their civil rights, the courageous young preacher Martin Luther King Jr. shared with us the most inspirational dream of our time, all the while fully cognizant of the fact that the greatest changes in our world come when we least expect them, when the world as we know it is in disarray:
“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations,” he proclaimed. “Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. [But] Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream…”
Then, invoking another Advent readiing, he went on to say: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
This is our hope, and this is the faith that I [take with me].
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
Christianity is for dreamers, no doubt about it, for those who have the audacity to hope against hope, even – especially – in the face of adversity, when everything seems against you, believing that the world can change in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change.
As one writer has said: “To hope and to dream represents a commitment to continue to struggle even when things seem to warrant surrender, when hope flares, it is what allows us to overcome monstrous difficulties. It allows us to defy common sense and confound conventional strategists. And hope experienced in the extreme, like faith and love, is miraculous.”
And this is the message of Advent, to hope in the one whose coming changes everything, even when things look most bleak.
Some may say we are dreamers, but we’re not the only ones. God is a dreamer as well, the biggest dreamer of them all, and God’s call on our lives will not rest until God’s dreams for the world come true.
(1) See Tutu’s God Has a Dream
(2) See Caputo’s What Would Jesus Deconstruct?
(3) See Claiborne and Chris Haw’s Jesus for President