There’s a statue in the North Garden of the United Nations Building in New York City of a man beating a sword into a plowshare. The man is muscular; he has set his feet in stride and raised his hammer high. It is no small thing to convert a tool of war into a tool of farming. You can see that the edge of the sword is becoming the edge of the plow that will cut through the earth to prepare for planting.
This image from early in the book of Isaiah, “swords into plowshares,” has inspired peace movements of many kinds. It has supported the repurposing of all kinds of military equipment for civilian use, and it appears in countless poems, songs, and stories. It is a wonderful and rich image that captures our deep longing for an end to violence and conflict of all kinds, not just in war.
Now this chapter of Isaiah has a curious introduction: “The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.” The word that Isaiah saw. At the risk of breaking your Advent heart, let me suggest that the rest of what Isaiah saw and reported in Chapter Two is neither peaceful nor celebrative. Isaiah brings all of his prophetic observations of the nation of Judah: he calls out the diviners and soothsayers, the ones who are preoccupied with silver and gold, with horses and chariots, and those who worship the idols they have made with their own hands. He brings harsh words from God about all of these. The first five verses of this chapter may be suitable for launching the Advent season or decorating the UN or putting on Christmas cards; the rest of it—not so much.
All of which is to say that when Isaiah looked around his nation, he saw a lot of the same kinds of things that we see when we look around our nation. According to former Treasury Secretary, three multi-billionaires now own more wealth that the bottom half of American—160 million Americans. We have mourned seven mass shootings in the last two weeks: at least 22 dead and another 44 wounded—not to mention the trauma to all of the families and bystanders (and maybe all of us). You know the rest of the list of the troubles that beset us.
So it is worth noting that Isaiah saw all of it. He saw the human shortcomings of his country mates, and he also saw the promise of a world with leaders willing to set aside weapons and devote themselves to learning the ways of God. At the time these beginning chapters of Isaiah were written, the people of Israel were widely scattered geographically. Isaiah’s words (the ones he saw) were a way of giving them a center, a home. And to do that, he had to tell the truth about both the lofty vision and the sometimes very un-lofty reality.
That’s pretty much what we are called to do in our time, too. We are called to tell the truth about God’s longing for compassion and justice and stewardship (as Jane says every week), and about the ways that we fall short of that longing.
I don’t know if Isaiah was wearied by these tasks—the tasks of really seeing what was in plain sight, of speaking it with power and persuasion, of repeating it again and again. But I know that we are tired. Even setting aside all of the pivots and re-pivots we have made during the Pandemic, we have been engaged in the exhausting work of uncovering the ways our culture victimizes and marginalizes some of our neighbors, and trying to imagine and create an alternative social covenant that is based on generosity and trustworthiness and hope. We are tired. We need to rest.
In their wisdom, the church board has discerned that our faith community needs to focus on the practice of Sabbath. The worship team (also full of wisdom!) has discerned that this Advent we need to turn our attention not so much to preparing or actively waiting, but to resting.
Yep. Resting. Doing less. We know how to do that, and we don’t do it very often.
Fortunately, rest can mean much more than just stopping what we are doing. I’m going to sound like a dictionary here, because the dictionary deepens and broadens the ways we can enter into resting.
- We can rest by letting ourselves be supported. Just as our elbows can be supported by resting on the arm of a chair, we can be supported by companions who listen deeply, who honor our struggles, who provide hot dishes and rides and cups of sugar when we need them.
- We can rest by letting ourselves be supported by holiday memories and traditions. These gifts from the past provide a framework in which we can celebrate Christmas without having to invent it all every year.
- We can rest by trusting that others can carry on the work while we take time to refresh and renew our energies.
- We can rest by being grounded. It is hard to rest when the ground is moving under us. Nurturing a sense of what is behind us and beneath us frees us to stand (and sit) comfortably.
- We can rest by pausing. Creation teaches us to invoke a rhythm to our lives. Hearts beat and pause. Trees grow leaves and then drop them, alternating between green and bare. Animals breed in season, gather in season, rest in season. Humans have done the same for most of our time on earth.
- We can rest by being silent. Music teaches us that notes and rests work together to make melodies. For many of us, the constant flow of words—our own words, printed words, spoken words—is exhausting. Being silent, even for a few moments, can connect and harmonize our thoughts.
- We can rest by offering rest to others. Resting is not only a solo activity, it is also a way of being together in family or community. Holding space for one another helps us to rest together.
- We can rest within the spiritual disciplines that invite us to rest in God. And not surprisingly, these are the very same practices
- Recognizing, and basking in, God’s support under and around us,
- trusting in Divine love
- grounding ourselves as children of God
- pausing to feel the pulse of creation around us
- sitting silently in the presence of the Holy,
- and offering all of these to the people around you—including those you don’t know and those you don’t like!
Isaiah saw the word of God. The man portrayed in that statue at the United Nations was working hard, and he saw both the sword and the plowshare. Isaiah was working hard, and he saw both the dream of a peaceful future and the corruption of his nation. And we are working hard, to see it all, to hold together a vision of God’s shalom with the daily grinding evidence of greed, violence, and inequity. If we are going to continue this hard work, if we are going to continue to see it all with clarity and hope, we are going to need God’s help. And this Advent, that means resting in God.