1st Sunday of Advent
Texts: Matthew 24:36-44;
Isa 2:1-5; Rom 13:11-14
NONVIOLENCE OR NONEXISTENCE
If you ever visit St. Louis University — which is an excellent Catholic University in St. Louis; I have a good friend from college that went to Med school there — if you ever visit, I recommend stopping in the beautiful Jesuit chapel. There’s much to take in with its gorgeous gothic architecture. But there’s one detail which you might unless it’s pointed out to you: many of the lighting fixtures are fashioned out of artillery shells from the World Wars. Swords beaten into ploughshares, so to speak. ‘Emptied of their lethal contents, they now hold light for people to pray by. In such light we are called to pray and live. Having laid our own weapons down, we bear witness to the promise of greater transformations to come — a way of being human that nonviolently resists the deadly ways of empire.’1
This is the word of the Lord which the prophet Isaiah saw. As a poet, he chose his words carefully — a word not just heard but seen. He saw a vision of a Peaceable Kingdom, of a time when human beings no longer learned to make war, beating swords in ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks, artillery shells into lighting canisters for a church. We might be tempted to hold back our laughter from such a portrait. Peaceable Kingdom? Who thinks that that can really happen? Believe it or not, I think that Isaiah really envisioned it happening. In this First Sunday of Advent, this is just the first dose of his vision. Next week, we will hear about the so-called ‘lion lying down with the lamb’ — another image from which we might need to stifle our laughter.
Happy New Year, by the way. Let’s take a moment to talk about church-time and how it is that we will get a heavy dose of Isaiah’s Peaceable Kingdom in the coming weeks. In our secular calendars, New Year’s Day doesn’t come for another six weeks. In our sacred calendars, the New Year begins today as we take four weeks to prepare for Christmas in the Season of Advent. We have this thing attached to our sacred calendars called the Lectionary, where we assign readings for every Sunday in the Church Year, on a three-year rotation. Each year in the three-year lectionary features one of the first three Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, with John’s Gospel sprinkled into all three. We just finished Year C last week, the year with Luke’s Gospel. This morning we begin Year A, the year featuring Matthew’s Gospel. Happy New Year!
In the lectionary journey, though, too, it’s not just about the Gospel stories of Jesus. It’s also in our First Readings about how the Hebrew prophets and the Jewish scriptures anticipate the coming of God’s Kingdom into the world through Jesus the Messiah. Then, for our Second Reading each week, it’s about how Jesus’ reading of his own scriptures was begun to be lived out in the early church, glimpsed especially through the letters of the first apostles like St. Paul. We believe that the Word which Isaiah saw has ultimately become true through Jesus — and then, through the work of the Holy Spirit, continues to come true through those who faithfully follow in the Way of Jesus.
As I’ve emphasized with you, in telling my own story of conversion, I don’t believe this comes about through the start of a new religion called Christianity — especially if that means just another way for human beings to be divided, just another religion for us to fight over. No, Jesus came to establish nothing less than a new Way of being human, the true Way of being human — the Way which begins to reconcile all our divisions, which includes redeeming our existing religions into the way of peace. To the extent that Christianity has become a religion that divides us, it, too, now needs redeeming. We need to experience and practice our religious faith in ways which bring the human family together instead of continuing to divide it.
So I see the Christian Nationalism which is currently on the rise in the so-called Religious Right to be the opposite of what Jesus came to do. Jesus came to unite the human family — to create one new humanity in place of the two (as Paul says in Ephesians 2:15). Christian Nationalism is basically a justification for declaring war on everything and everyone who is not one of Us; it has truly become a justification for political violence in our own country. Did you know that many of the those who led the insurrection on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, 2021, prayed prayers of Christian Nationalism when they took over the Senate chamber. No, I firmly believe that Jesus did not come to simply give us another reason to be divided. He came to be the Word which Isaiah saw of the Peaceable Kingdom, God’s way of reigning which brings all human beings into reconciliation with nature and with the whole creation. In Year A of the lectionary, we prepare for the coming of the Christ Child, the Prince of Peace, by featuring Isaiah’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom.
Not going to happen, you say? I can’t blame you . . . really, I can’t blame you. Because given human history it does sound absurd, right? But, my friends, on this First Sunday of Advent, we also need to consider the alternative. As our weaponry keeps getting bigger and more destructive, what is our ultimate end if we don’t believe in the Peaceable Kingdom? Is our only positive alternative that we go to heaven after we destroy ourselves in our earth home?
Let me digress a moment into the lectionary again. In all three years of the lectionary, the second-to-last Sunday of the year (e.g., see Proper 28C), and then two weeks later on the first Sunday of the New Year — today!, the First Sunday of Advent — on those two Sundays only two weeks apart, we read from the same long prophecy of Jesus that is recorded for us, in slightly different versions in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. Two weeks ago we read the first part of that prophecy from Luke 21. Today we read from the end of that prophecy in Matthew 24. It is the prophecy about his Jewish people choosing the age-old option of fighting oppression and injustice through military revolt.
The atmosphere of pending revolution had begun at the time of Jesus’s birth and continued throughout his lifetime. Then, thirty years after his death and resurrection the full revolt finally irrupted into the Jewish-Roman War of 66-70 CE. Jesus lived right in the middle of this time when his own people were fomenting for war. And here’s the thing: Jesus was coming to give them a new way of fighting such oppression and injustice as suffered under the Roman Empire, without using armed violence. The prophecy we read in today’s Gospel follows right after he himself models a different way of fighting. At the beginning of his last week before being executed, he disrupts the working of the Temple. He doesn’t kill anyone, or even threaten them by brandishing any weapons. But he shuts down the symbol of their national identity, as a way of making a serious statement of resistance to Roman oppression. The Jewish and Roman leaders interpret this action of resistance as the prelude to armed rebellion, and so they put Jesus on trial for insurrection. They failed to understand that his act of defiance in the Temple signaled a whole different way. He came to give his people another option to fight oppression and injustice without taking up swords and spears. They misunderstood and killed him for it.
But on the third day, God raised him up from death as the promise of a new way to be human, a new way to a Peaceable Kingdom. What’s the alternative? For Jesus’s own Jewish people, it meant the ceasing to exist of their way of life around the Temple in Jerusalem, which was destroyed and never rebuilt. Thousands died and thousands more were homeless and became refugees to other lands. Jesus had come to give them an alternative way to peace and justice, but they had chosen the same old way.
What’s the alternative to believing in the Peaceable Kingdom today? I’d like to give you my answer by briefly telling you about the attending the 2003 ELCA Youth Gathering in Atlanta with my two oldest sons, Joel and Matthew. I remember glimpses of vibrant worship services. I remember some of the speakers — especially Rob Bell, who I had never heard of in 2003, but later came to value his best-selling books like Love Wins. The thing I remember most clearly from that trip, though, is touring the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historical Neighborhood with my sons. We immersed ourselves in the spirit of that great disciple of Jesus, who helped lead the nonviolent movement for civil rights. And after many of the laws changed, King spent the latter years of his life working to end poverty and war. In the last sermon of his life, at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. (which we watched on a video at the museum), King spoke out against war:
It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. . . . I believe today that there is a need for all people of good will to come with a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “We ain’t goin’ study war no more.”2
I remember that last sermon, too, because Joel and I bought these T-shirts [holding up T-shirt with the words “Nonviolence or Nonexistence” across the chest].
Brothers and sisters in Christ, doesn’t Martin Luther King, Jr., get the alternatives right for our time? We either believe in the Peaceable Kingdom of Isaiah, or we will eventually bring about our nonexistence. When Jesus spoke the prophecy of the coming of the Son of Man, the existence of his people was at stake. Today, under the shadow of our Weapons of Mass Destruction, the existence of humankind is at stake. There’s part of me that feels guilty raising the specter of these apocalyptic stakes. But that’s ultimately overridden bu my desire to faithful to Jesus’ apocalyptic message: he came to give us an alternative to destroying ourselves! If we are courageous enough to face this apocalyptic choice, isn’t it ultimately Good News? The kind of Good News Caesar would never utter, because he still believed in the powers of his weapons and armies.
Here’s the thing: when we talk about the importance of believing in Jesus, I don’t believe it means so much things about Jesus — like that he’s truly both divine and human. That has some importance. But, since my conversion experience over these past thirty years, its importance is secondary, in support of believing in the main message he came to offer us: that he came to give us the only true way of peace. A way that looks like the movements we’ve witnessed in the last century, beginning with Mahatma Gandhi in India and Martin Luther king, Jr., here in the U.S. We have the privilege of actually glimpsing the word Isaiah saw! Mass movements of people who give up their swords and spears to learn nonviolent resistance instead of war! We have the good fortune of beginning to see the word of the Peaceable Kingdom in our world. That’s Good News precisely because what’s at stake was expressed by King just before he himself was martyred, that the alternative is nonviolence or nonexistence. In short, Jesus came to save us from our violence. Jesus came to show us the way of being human that leads to peace, to New Creation, to the flourishing of all life on earth. As we prepare for the coming of the Prince of Peace at Christmas, we are challenged with the word that Isaiah saw: do we believe in the Peaceable Kingdom? Can we look to the movements of nonviolent resistance and participate in the coming of God’s reign of peace? “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth!” Amen.
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, November 27, 2022
1. Paul Simpson Duke, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1 (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 7.
2. Martin Luther King, Jr., from a sermon entitled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”; A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington [Harper San Francisco, 1986], 276-277.