We’re in Advent – and this year each Sunday up to and including Christmas has Isaiah as the OT reading. Isaiah is a visual prophet. He thinks in pictures. He uses his imagination. And he doesn’t hear the word of God. He sees it and describes it. If he was around today, you imagine he’d be making great use of social media and doing pop-up art installations in the middle of town. Anything to catch attention.
And it would be remiss of me not to try and do the same. So, here’s the nearest I can get to a pruning hook. A plough was a bit beyond what I could get in the boot of my car.
But thank goodness I wasn’t here for next week’s reading from Isaiah since I’d need to bring in a tree stump – or the week after where I’d somehow need to recreate a river flowing through a desert along the centre aisle.
It would have been worth the effort though. You would have been unlikely to forget the sermon that week because strong images stay with people. And that’s just what Isaiah was looking to do with our verses today.
We’re in chapter 2. But chapter 1, graphically lays out a picture of what Isaiah saw of the holy city, Jerusalem, and of the chosen people. And it wasn’t pretty. Corruption, violence, unfaithfulness, bribery, desolation and trampling on the poor. It’s like some post-apocalyptic disaster movie where law and order have completely broken down. And we’re just waiting for a Marvel super-hero to come and sort everything out.
But chapter 2 is a fresh start. It’s an imaginative vision of a blue sky and fluffy cloud future that was yet to take place. And is still yet to take place.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
Isaiah sees the words given to him in ways that still capture our imagination today. The finale of Les Misérables has:
They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord.
They will walk behind the ploughshare,
They will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their reward.
And across the street from the United Nations building in New York is a bronze statue of a man beating a sword into a ploughshare. It was to represent the wish to end all wars by converting the weapons of death and destruction into peaceful and productive tools that are more beneficial to mankind. Ironically it was donated in 1959 by the then Soviet Union.
And there is our dilemma, isn’t it? These are fine words in Isaiah. Inspiring words. But if we look around our world today, who can believe them? We only have to think of Ukraine or Syria or Yemen. There are ongoing conflicts in many parts of the world today.
Isaiah is not naïve, though. You only have to read chapter 1 again to see that. Our verses are not pie in the sky but a vision of ‘days to come’. They are to help us dream dreams of a point still in the future. And it’s Advent where we look both forward and back. We remember events that have happened and are still happening in places like Ukraine, but we also remain hopeful of a fresh start in time to come.
There’s also an implied warning to the people of Israel in this text. This future isn’t just for them, it’s for all nations. If Israel doesn’t grasp it, then others certainly will. Even here, Isaiah is using visually arresting language. Water normally flows downhill but we’re told the nations shall stream up a mountain.
Visions are there in the Bible to capture our imagination and to give us a longing. To give us the desire and yearning for what might be in the future, so that we can change our reality now.
And there are practical examples:
- The world’s first chemotherapy drug in the 1940’s was developed from a chemical weapon used in World War 1.
- GPS, the Global Positioning System, which we use in car sat nav’s was first developed by the US for long range missile strikes.
- The Megatons to Megawatts Program, agreed in 1993 by the United States and Russia, successfully converted 500 tonnes of fuel from Soviet-era nuclear warheads into fuel for nuclear power plants.
Our passage does not call for weapons to just be abandoned or robbed of their power to cause harm. There is human skill and ingenuity needed to transform and upcycle them into new tools & new technology that cultivate and bring life.
But if you read through Isaiah, you’ll see that his vision for the future goes hand-in-hand with judgement. Saying yes to turning death-dealing weapons into life-giving agricultural tools inevitably means saying no to guns, for instance. That’s easy to say here in the UK but harder if I was preaching this sermon in the United States. This text leaves no room for manoeuvre, however.
Here, it’s knife crime that’s the bigger issue. Channelling my inner visual Isaiah, I have a picture here of the Knife Angel. You should have a smaller version that was given out with your hymn books – but you may have seen the sculpture for yourselves either in person or on the TV. It’s made of 100,000 knives collected from knife banks, amnesties and police seizures. They were blunted and put together in a construction standing 27 feet tall. It was made to highlight knife crime and the harmful effect of violent behaviour on communities in a way that people are unlikely to forget. It’s almost permanently on tour and was in Blackburn Cathedral last November. Isaiah would have been proud of it.
Last Sunday we thought of Christ as King and ruler. After the recent death and the funeral of the Queen, thoughts of monarchy have been more in our mind than for some time. And at Christmas we recall Christ’s first arrival as a vulnerable baby in Bethlehem. It’s impossible to think of either Christ as King or Christ as a baby without our imagination popping a variety of pictures into our head.
But in between we have Advent. It holds a tension between the two. There is no chance for God to make all things new without judgement on the old things that make for destruction.
So, let’s embrace this time of Advent before grabbing hold of Christmas. Embrace the putting aside of all the destructive things that hold us back from new life in Christ. And let’s each think how best we can spark other people’s imagination and bring to life, that same possibility, that same offer, of new life for all those that we meet. Amen
‘The imagination of Isaiah’ was delivered at St Stephen’s, Elton by Ian Banks on 27th November 2022. It was based on Isaiah 2:1-5
- For more on the Knife Angel https://www.britishironworkcentre.co.uk/the-knife-angel-official/