Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 1:1-17
I am grateful for Barbara’s willingness to tackle the long list of names that comprises the genealogy of Jesus through Joseph. I wonder what you noticed as she read through all those generations, besides the fact that her pronunciation was flawless and you were amazed I would pick such a text and expect a lay reader to read it! That aside, is this the way into Advent and the story of Jesus’ arrival we expect? Matthew does not lay out a family tree that is neat and tidy, wrapped up with a bow. He also doesn’t lead us into the season of Advent the way the other gospel writers do.
Mark gets right to it with John the Baptist in the wilderness and by 9th verse of chapter one, we have Jesus’ baptism. John reminds us that in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Luke eases us in as we hear the story of Zechariah and Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, both of whom “were getting on in years” and were without children. That is, until one day when the angel of the Lord Gabriel visits Zechariah and tells him Elizabeth will bear a son and they will name him John. By the 26th verse, Gabriel is visiting Mary and telling her that she, too, will bear a son and name him Jesus.
Matthew does get us there later in this first chapter, describing that “the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” Mary is engaged to Joseph and an angel of the Lord comes to visit him in a dream, but before we can arrive there, we have the account of Jesus’ family lineage in 42 generations, one that moves through Joseph’s line, not Mary’s.
We don’t often hear Matthew’s genealogy read because it can be cumbersome and there just isn’t the action and imagery of the other Gospel writers at the outset. Diana Butler Bass, however, reminds us that the list of names is far from boring. She argues that they tell the very story of our belonging, in our sacred location with God as we hear of Jesus’ story. She feels that in knowing and understanding Jesus’ roots, we can come to know ourselves. Matthew makes a claim about “Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” that is big and bold. Butler Bass says this message is “directed toward a Jewish audience seeking both political liberation and spiritual empowerment during a time of oppression.”
So, what does it mean to begin the season of Advent with this lineage traced through Joseph, a genealogy full of imperfection and messiness? In the lives of all of these ancestors, there is a vastness in the stories. There are stories of trauma and hardship, triumph and beauty. All of this complexity leads us into Christ’s story, and our own. If we pause to listen and wonder, we might ask ourselves how these complex stories inform our own story as God’s beloved. How do they inform our movement through Advent this season?
As I studied both the Matthew and Isaiah texts, I found myself drawn into a conversation about what it means to live with a different vision as we anticipate Jesus’ arrival among us this Advent. This is an opportunity to reflect on the world around us, to hold together what is currently happening in the world, and how this might be transformed by God’s light through us.
In Advent, we are invited to imagine what God’s hope for peace might look like, and how this shapes our lives today.
For those who received the prophet Isaiah’s words, their context was that of God bringing a legal suit against the people of God because they broke the Mosaic code, as heard in the first chapter of Isaiah. The contrast between the first and second chapters could not be more different. In chapter 1, the people of Israel have war, destruction, and death cast upon them because of their sinfulness. Isaiah 2 is anchored in this reality, and scholar Fred Gaiser believes “It’s a scene set in an imagined future, rather than the present – that ‘in the days to come,’ this vision of togetherness might be fulfilled. This coming together does not seem to mean the absorption of all people into one, but that many groups, each bringing their distinctiveness, might gather as ‘many peoples’ and ‘nations.’ Crucially, underpinning all of this is peace.” Gaiser makes the point that the call from the prophet in Isaiah 2 is a calling of the imagination. “In the midst of war and devastation,” he says, “the people of Israel are called to thinking beyond what surrounds them and believe that there is hope for change in God’s kingdom. The message becomes that God promises the genuine hope of restoration. In God’s mercy, the devastation of Isaiah 1 does not have the final word.”
Here Isaiah is imagining a majestic future for the city of Jerusalem, a future of peace, a future that commits to engaging in God’s purposes, and we can hear that future-tense language over and over throughout the text. The word “shall” appears ten times in these five verses!
As followers of Christ, we hold onto the truth that he has come to bring peace to God’s people, but there is still much peacemaking to do before he comes again to settle disputes with justice and mercy. In a war weary world filled with cynicism and despair, we have the opportunity today and this season of Advent to hold before us this magnificent promise of world peace, of all the nations streaming to the highest mountain, to let our imaginations move us to action. With the war in Ukraine continuing to stretch on, individuals in the LGBTQ+ community violently killed in Colorado last weekend, and a report that at least 607 mass shootings have occurred in the US so far this year as of this past week, we might ask: “How can this imagined peace ever possibly come into being?” Scholar Stan Mast answers this question by saying, “The good news and bad news is that it can’t if we leave it all up to ourselves to accomplish God’s purposes of peace and justice for all the nations, for all individuals. The point of Isaiah’s prophecy is that only God can do this, and only we can do it, with God’s help.”
And so, God calls us to be peacemakers, as we “walk in the light of the Lord.” The nations have yet not beat their swords into plowshares or their spears into pruning hooks. As we light candles again in the coming weeks, as we move into our practices of the season, we name that strange longing and yearning for what we cannot see and can only barely imagine.
The sculpture titled Guns into Plowshares, stands 16’ feet tall and weighs four tons and was first placed in front of Police Headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C, near the Capitol and Judiciary Square. It is the creation of mother and son artists Esther and Mike Ausgburger, conceived of during what has been called “the District’s murderous 1990’s,” and is a literal interpretation of Isaiah 2:4. The sculpture is a massive plow covered with 3,000 handguns welded together that were once in circulation on the streets, collected during DC’s no-questions-asked-buy-back program. Esther contacted the DC police when she heard of the program and convinced them to donate the safely-disabled weapons to her for a sculpture that she said, “would serve as a statement on the streets of our capital city.” Esther and Mike spent months welding the thousands of guns onto a massive metal structure representing Isaiah’s prophetic imagination.
This simple plow announces a longstanding hope of peace for a time when God will get God’s way that, as Peter Marty describes it, when we will see gunpowder turn to grain to feed those who are hungry, when “nations will be infected with love for each other. Armies will develop amnesia and forget how to fight.”
Guns into Plowshares now stands on the campus of Eastern Mennonite University, where the Augsburgers have deep connections, with the hopes that it will one day return to Washington, DC. “Daryl Byler, formerly director of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite, said Esther and her son Mike ‘dared to imagine a day when, rather than destroying enemies with guns and weapons of war, humans would find the God-given strength and courage to feed their enemies with the produce tilled and grown in our fields.’”
Esther and Mike Augsburger opened themselves to God’s imagination and their own, and put that into action to represent a peace born of violence and destruction. While we may remain stubbornly unimaginative in our pursuit of justice and peace, in our relationship with a hopeful and joyful future, God’s promises stretch our imaginations. If ever there was a season to dream beyond our imaginations, it is Advent. If ever there was a time to pray and act boldly for peace, to practice what we can barely dream during these weeks of waiting, it is now.
On December 8, Dr. Chris Blattman will speak here in the Sanctuary for the final Town Hall Forum of the Fall season. Dr. Blattman is an internationally known economist, speaker and peacemaker, and has served as a consultant and advisor to the United Nations, the World Bank and governments in Liberia, Colombia, Uganda, and the United States. His presentation will include reflections on his latest book, Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace. His underlying premise is that war is not the norm and that small, incremental movements toward peace are possible. He believes that peace is ultimately what groups seek. According to Blattman, “As we walk through failure after failure, it will be easy to forget the core message so far: war is the exception, not the rule. Amid all this misery, however, try not to lose sight of the world’s robust constitution, the tools at hand, and the pull of peace.”
Isaiah prophesied about the tools at hand and the pull of peace. We have the tools at hand and even if we remain stuck in our pursuit of peace, God’s imagination toward peace pulls us forward. It takes imagination to redeem the weapons of war. Change requires not just practice and changed behaviors, but changed imagination. God’s people, in all of our messiness and complexities, must be part of the plan of Advent, of bringing about the peace that is promised. God’s people must give of themselves for God’s hope for the world, for God’s justice.
The opening verses of Matthew’s Gospel lead us into Advent in perhaps a different way, and that may be just what we need in this season, to flip the script a bit. In the roots of Jesus’ lineage there is an imagined future that has come into being, that has grown into the Prince of Peace in Jesus Christ.
There are big weapons to lay down: guns and bombs, but also sanctions, restricted voting efforts, laws that limit civil rights…but few of us wield much power or control on a daily basis with such weapons.
But we carry other implements that can be destructive to ourselves, to community, and to peace. For some it may be economic, racial, or gender-normative privilege. For others it may be an educational status or physical abilities. Are we willing to lay down these spears and swords? Are we willing to practice in this season as part of a reshaping and a reimagining of peace?
Advent is thought of as the season of waiting, of anticipation and preparation, and it is that, but it is a season of imagination based in action, an imagination that looks beyond the present dismay through God’s point of view.
There are incredible people in Christ’s lineage, but there are also regular, unremarkable people as well. Together, they are part of God’s wide imagination and the hope of restoration and peace. And this Advent, and always, so are we. May it be so. Amen.