Sunday, November 20, 2022

Sermon: “A War By Any Other Name”, Isaiah 1:10-20; 2:1-5 (November 20, 2022 - Reign of Christ Sunday)


I’m going start today’s sermon with a confession and a story. The confession is that the scripture readings we just heard were mostly not what the Narrative Lectionary assigned for today. The bulk of today’s assigned readings (which would have been from Isaiah 36 and 37, in case you want to look it up later) recount a wartime exchange between the kings of Assyria and Judah (the southern kingdom of Israel). But half of the words in these passages are difficult-to-pronounce names, and I found it challenging to keep all the characters, their locations, and the metaphors straight. So instead of forcing the liturgist to suffer through all of this, I’ll just summarize it for you myself instead. Storytime!

As was the case in Micah’s context last week, the kingdom of Israel (which had been united during the reigns of David and Solomon) had split into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah since about 975 BCE. The Assyrians had defeated the northern kingdom twenty years before this story takes place, and they were determined to vanquish Judah as well. To that end, the Assyrian king sent his right-hand man to King Hezekiah of Judah with a message for all the people to hear. Since they didn’t have Twitter or 24-hour news coverage back then, the Assyrian emissary broadcast the king’s message in the next best way: he stood up in a public place and shouted at the top of his lungs.

Although his delivery method may have left something to be desired, his words themselves were carefully chosen, succinct, and incisive. He made four different points over the course of his brief, one-minute speech in an attempt to turn the people against their own leaders and their own self-interest. Essentially, he told them, “Here’s what our king wants you to know: first of all, your king isn’t strong enough to save you.[1] Even if he was, the Lord wouldn’t rescue you – God will hand you over to us! [2] But don’t worry; it won’t be as bad as that liar Hezekiah says it’ll be: if you surrender, our king will let you stay in your homes! At least, until he decides he wants your land. But even then, he PROMISES that your new land will be just as good. [3] And by the way, all of this aside, your god couldn’t protect you even if he wanted to. Look at all the nations we’ve conquered – what did their gods do to help them? Oh, and by the way. didn’t the northern kingdom worship the same god as you? How’d that turn out for them, huh?” [4]

This was a very clever speech. It was given it in the language of the people, so that they could hear and comprehend its message immediately. Its rhetoric resembled that of prophesy, lending an impressive air of divinity to the Assyrian King. It described foreign invasion, occupation, and exile in a way that sounds almost pleasant, or at least not the end of the world, while at the same time allowing for few alternatives. This speech was clearly an act of military aggression, but the messenger presented it as something else. These words are coercion disguised as logic, threats disguised as prophecy, war disguised as peace.

Human beings are adept at disguising war, giving it the appearance of something less objectionable, occasionally even something virtuous. We disguise war as patriotism, as benevolence, as justice. And I’m not just talking about military conflict, either. Thousands, if not millions, of people throughout history have died in struggles between social and economic classes, and even today some of our fellow citizens are blatantly calling for a race war. There are biblical examples of each of these types of warfare, too – although in those days, the line between social warfare and military warfare was much less clear.

But one of the most common disguises of war, both in Isaiah’s time and in our own, is that of piety. Whether it ultimately results in military action or not, humanity’s desire to prove our righteousness repeatedly drives us to war-like actions. It’s no wonder, then, that King Hezekiah responded to the messenger’s speech by begging God to punish the Assyrian king for his insults – a call for still more war, disguised as devotion. We respond to perceived threats in similar ways still today: we reject and oppose those we view as unfaithful; we deny others their humanity and autonomy in the name of faith; we scream words of hate in the same breath that we invoke God’s name. We perpetrate violence in word AND deed against one another, and then we celebrate our actions, presuming God to be pleased with war that we wage on God’s behalf.

But this is not what God wants. We may read certain stories of the Bible and conclude that God is (or at least was, at some point) a vengeful, nationalistic deity, but while we certainly do need to wrestle with those texts that depict God commanding wholesale slaughter and genocide, we also need to look at the Bible as a whole. When we do, what we see again and again in both testaments is a divine insistence on peace, reconciliation, and coexistence. And not just among God’s chosen people, either, but among all nations throughout the entire earth.

In Isaiah 1, we hear God condemning the spilling of blood, the thinly veiled displays of prosperity and dominance, the empty offerings of destruction disguised as piety. Instead, God insists, the offerings we bring should be offerings of justice: help for the oppressed, defense of the orphan, advocacy for the widow. We shouldn’t be fixated on bringing down those we perceive as threats; we should be lifting up those who are the most vulnerable. THAT is the sacrifice most pleasing to God – not one that excludes and destroys, but one that includes and gives life. Piety and war are mutually exclusive.

If this is the case, then you’re probably wondering how God managed to resolve the clash between the two kings. Was the Assyrian messenger right? DID God give Judah into the hands of the enemy? Or did God strike down the Assyrian king for his insults and hubris? The answer is…neither. God chose not to take part in OR perpetuate the aggressions between the two nations. Instead, according to Isaiah, God would cause a rumor to compel the Assyrian king to return home, at which point he would be “cut down by the sword in his own land.” God refuses to take part in war, even on behalf of God’s chosen people, and demonstrates conclusively that those who live by the sword will, indeed, die by the sword – often, hoisted by their own petard.

No matter its disguise, war is anathema to God. In all its forms, war works against the divine kindom. We may consider war a “necessary evil”, but Isaiah insists that it’s not at all. In the world that God intends, we don’t need war to live holy lives. On the day that all nations listen to God’s Word, war will no longer make sense to them. When God’s instruction is fully embraced, there’s no reason for conflict. When God’s judgement is the only one that matters to us, there’s no room for human bias. In those days to come, humanity will no longer have any use for swords and spears, so we’ll repurpose them into tools of creation and life-giving. Our hearts and minds will be so busy studying God’s ways that we won’t have any time (let alone desire) to study war. A life of genuine faith will naturally beget a world of peace.

Now, don’t mistake this as a call to mass global conversion; it’s not. We can’t bring about a warless world via coercion or manipulation – that’s just another one of warfare’s many disguises. But this also isn’t an excuse to wait around for God’s kindom to appear somewhere far away, whether in a distant future or an existence beyond the physical. This is an invitation to take part in the creation of this post-war kindom that God is doing right here and now. We are being called to trust in this promised version of the world so much that we chose to beat our swords into plows and our spears into pruning hooks even before war stops making sense to us – although today, it might look more like beating our firearms into gardening equipment or editing our declarations of war into legislation about healthcare or housing. That day is not yet here, but it’s also not beyond our grasp.

True piety isn’t about dressing our wars up as righteousness. It’s not even just about stopping war. It’s about living in such a way that war of any kind doesn’t even make sense anymore. Today, as we stand at the edge of a new liturgical year, we proclaim that Christ is our king – but we also remember that he’s not like any king the earth has ever known. Christ is a king that rejects violence of any kind, that destroys the boundaries keeping people apart, and that has much more important things to teach us than how to make war. Not everyone is ready to accept this sort of king, but that won’t stop him. It’s time for us to recognize the wisdom of his reign and to submit to his way of life – one in which war has no place.

So, let’s reject the disguises of war in every form, and instead work towards Christ’s kindom of true peace. Let’s invite those from every nation, from every ideology, from every class and race and age and culture to join us, even before this kindom is fully realized here on earth, saying, “Come, let’s go up to the Lord’s Mountain, to the house of Jacob’s God, so that he may teach us his ways and we may walk in God’s paths.” Let us go, not to conquer with our swords and our spears, with our laws and our legislation, with our words and our wallets, but to trust that God WILL make this world of peace possible. Come, house of Jacob, let’s walk by the Lord’s light, and study war no more. Amen.

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