Study War No More – Enrolling in God’s University of Shalom

(Note: Sermons can be heard in audio format at https://millersburgmennonite.org/worship/sermon-audio/)

Scripture:

Isaiah 2:1-4 (NIV)

This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:

In the last days

the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
    as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
    and all nations will stream to it.

Many peoples will come and say,

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
    so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
    the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
    and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war anymore.

Introduction

This past Wednesday marked the thirty-third anniversary of the massacre of six Jesuit priests and their caretaker’s wife and daughter at the Central American University in San Salvador by Salvadoran army troops.

Exactly one year earlier I had visited the Mesagrande refugee camp in Honduras where I listened to stories from Salvadorans who had fled the civil war in their country.

As I looked over my journal from that experience, I rediscovered a poem I wrote that includes the words a priest in the camp had tacked up to the wall of his shack.

“For the conversion and healing of those
taught to slaughter and torture,
let us pray to the Lord.”

(pause)

“For the conversion and healing of those
taught to slaughter and torture,
let us pray to the Lord.”

Those taught to slaughter and torture is a direct reference to the Salvadoran military whose extrajudicial killings and torture had impacted many in the camp and would affect many more in the years to come. And yet, this priest was reminding himself and those around him to be in constant prayer for the conversion and healing, “a reteaching,” of the enemy. In our scripture passage this morning Isaiah alludes to this conversion and healing, the inbreaking of God’s shalom, where, as the King James Version translates the final line, nations shall not “learn war” anymore. Or you may be more familiar with the phrasing of the African American spiritual Down by the Riverside. The song, reflecting on these words from Isaiah, begins:

Gonna lay down my burden
Down by the riverside

I ain’t gonna study war no more
Study war no more
Ain’t gonna study war no more

So what does it mean to study war no more? What is to be our posture as a people of peace in a world not that much different than the world of Isaiah? How can we be better students and teachers in God’s University of Shalom?

May God’s Spirit be our guide as we gather together around God’s Word. Let us pray:

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen

Homily

Earlier this month, I described the wars and rumors of wars that the kingdoms of Judah and Israel were inundated with as one empire after another rose to prominence and vied for control of the region. Last week, Rachelle noted that the prophet Isaiah was a contemporary of Micah. Isaiah ministered to the kingdom of Judah. The familiar words we read in our scripture passage this morning are part of a larger narrative that occurs when the kingdom of Judah under King Hezekiah is besieged by the Assyrians.

Isaiah 36 and 37:

In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah’s reign, Sennacherib king of Assyria attacked all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them. 2 Then the king of Assyria sent his field commander with a large army from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem.

13 Then the commander stood and called out in Hebrew, “Hear the words of the great king, the king of Assyria! 14 This is what the king says: Do not let Hezekiah deceive you. He cannot deliver you! 15 Do not let Hezekiah persuade you to trust in the Lord when he says, ‘The Lord will surely deliver us; this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.’

16 Do not listen to Hezekiah; for thus says the king of Assyria: ‘Make peace with me by a present and come out to me; and every one of you eat from his own vine and every one from his own fig tree, and every one of you drink the waters of his own cistern; 17 until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards. 18 Beware lest Hezekiah persuade you, saying, “The Lord will deliver us.” Has any one of the gods of the nations delivered its land from the hand of the king of Assyria? Who among all the gods of these lands have delivered their countries from my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem from my hand?’

37 When King Hezekiah heard this, he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and went into the temple of the Lord. 2 He sent Eliakim the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and the leading priests, all wearing sackcloth, to the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz.

5 When King Hezekiah’s officials came to Isaiah, 6 Isaiah said to them, “Tell your master, ‘This is what the Lord says: Do not be afraid of what you have heard—those words with which the underlings of the king of Assyria have blasphemed me. Listen! When he hears a certain report, I will make him want to return to his own country, and there I will have him cut down with the sword.

I share these verses not only because they are part of the narrative lectionary this morning but to provide a context for the words of Isaiah and because they offer some powerful clues as to how we can study war no more.

First, as those who wish to be diligent scholars in God’s University of Shalom, we must know the voice of our Deliverer. The field commander of the Assyrians, even though the representatives of King Hezekiah ask him not to do so, speaks in the language of the people of Jerusalem as a way to try and convince them to surrender.

It is easy I think to see the obvious ways that evil is at work in the world. As we read in 1 Peter:

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

But we must remember that Satan not only roars, he is also a master of the subtle whisper, the slow burn, the hidden sin, the white lie, the gradual erosion of our faith. Satan is the Great Deceiver, the father of lies as John describes him.

We must be a people so in tune to God’s voice that we can discern truth from lies.

We know the voice of our Deliverer by being diligent scholars of God’s word so that we are not deceived by voices filled with empty promises, or those who claim that violence solves problems. We remain open to God’s sometimes uncomfortable prophetic words. We are not the kind of people who succumb to just any “good news,” a so-called prosperity gospel that looks out for our own needs at the expense of others. We resist the urge to demonize anyone. We refuse to gossip or put anyone down. We do not add our voice to the voices of critique and violent rhetoric around us.

The field commander of the Assyrian army stands outside the walls of Jerusalem and promises, in the language of the people, easy answers or quick rewards, “plenty of beer and wine.”

“Make peace with me by a present and come out to me; and every one of you eat from his own vine and everyone from his own fig tree, and every one of you drink the waters of his own cistern; 17 until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards.”

If they will just give up. If they switch their allegiance from Hezekiah to Senacherib. If they refuse to believe and trust in God’s deliverance.

The kind of peace the messengers promised is not God’s shalom which can never be brought about by earthly weapons. We must not be deceived. In a world that trusts in weapons of war, we, as soldiers of the Cross must wield the sword of truth as described in Ephesians, the Word of God.

Which brings me to my next point. We recognize that only God can deliver true peace.

37 When King Hezekiah heard this, he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and went into the temple of the Lord. 2 He sent Eliakim the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and the leading priests, all wearing sackcloth, to the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz.

Hezekiah’s response to hearing the words of the field commander is to adopt a posture of lament and prayer. He puts on sackcloth and goes into the Temple of the Lord where he prays. Then he send his representatives and priests also in sackcloth to Isaiah in hopes that the prophet has a word from the Lord.

The Assyrian army has invaded his kingdom, has captured all the fortified cities of Judah, and is now on his doorstep ready to enter Jerusalem. What does Hezekiah do? He falls on his face before God. As scholars in God’s University of Shalom, that needs to be our posture as well.

One of my discomforts with my academic peace studies was what I perceived as a lack of emphasis on the power of prayer as a catalyst for peace and as a way to prepare our hearts as well as our minds for the work of peace. I felt that perhaps those of us learning and teaching peace were trusting too much in our human knowledge and theories and forgetting to acknowledge the less tangible work of God’s Spirit moving within people.

To be peacemakers is especially difficult I think now in the midst of the war in Ukraine, when it may seem obvious who is on the right side and who is on the wrong side. We may be tempted to cheer on one side or the other, like arm chair quarterbacks watching a game, forgetting the brutal reality of the incredible suffering and horror that war visits on all involved. As American Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman said, “War is hell.” Or in the words of the recently liberated residents of Kherson, Ukraine, “If there is hell on earth, this was it.” Hence, our spirit of lament and mourning. We mourn the loss of life on both sides. We do not as Menno Simons reminded us “consider the blood of another to be of nigh equal value to swine’s blood.” We pray in the words of that Mesagrande priest “For the conversion and healing of those taught to slaughter and torture, let us pray to the Lord.”

We are in the words of St. Francis to be channels of God’s peace. Prayer is a recognition that God is the true deliverer.

As Isaiah predicts, Jerusalem will be delivered by God.  And, in this instance, that is exactly what occurs.

Senacherib’s field commander stands before Jerusalem and mocks the God of Judah. He lists the nations that have fallen to Assyria and points out that their gods did not save them so why should Judah’s God be any different?

We know better. Or we should anyways.

We are approaching the holidays and with the season comes the performances of Handel’s Messiah. One of my favorite songs from the Messiah is “Why do the Nations,” the text of which is taken from Psalm 2.

1 Why do the nations conspire

and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth rise up
    and the rulers band together
    against the Lord and against his anointed,

4 The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
    the Lord scoffs at them.

6 “I have installed my king
    on Zion, my holy mountain,” he says.

10 Therefore, you kings, be wise;
    be warned, you rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear
    and celebrate his rule with trembling.

This language is very similar to the words in this morning’s text.

In the last days

the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
    as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
    and all nations will stream to it.

Our God is sovereign over all of the nations of the earth and it is to God alone, not to any earthly kingdom, that we owe our allegiance. Christian nationalism, be it connected to this nation or any nation, is anathema to God’s gift of shalom for the WHOLE world. We are to be followers of the Prince of Peace, Jesus, who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. We build bridges between people rather than walls. We recognize that every single one of us in the ministry, for we all are ministers of reconciliation. Sometimes I think the church has got its mathematics wrong. We’re a whole lot better at division than we are at multiplication.

So how do we study war no more?

We become excellent scholars of God’s Word so we are not deceived by empty promises or tempted to believe that violence can solve the world’s problems.

We infuse the work of peace with prayer in a spirit of lament for those suffering under the horrors of war. We let prayer be our guide to fill us with God’s spirit of Shalom so that we can be channels of God’s peace.

We recognize that only God can bring about true peace, in our lives, in the lives of those around us, and in the world. As peacemakers, our allegiance is to Jesus alone, the Prince of Peace.

These are just a few of the ways we can be better students and teachers in God’s University of Shalom.

In closing, let me add one more.

Terry mentioned the Augsburgers turning guns into a sculpture in Washington DC. I did some research and I discovered that there are many artists the world over who are quite literally turning swords into plowshares, or in our context, creating art out of guns or weapons. Google “guns into art” when you get a chance, and you’ll see what I mean. What beautiful and powerful acts of creative peacemaking!

One of the most remarkable gifts that we have been given by our Creator is the ability to create. Far too often, humanity has chosen to destroy rather than build up. I would offer that one of the ways we can more fully participate in God’s great reconciliation is to allow God to more fully use our imaginations and creativity.

With scripture, through prayer, and in the knowledge that true peace comes from God, let us open our imaginations to God’s beautiful spirit of Shalom.

We can only imagine the amazing work God can do when we choose to study war no more.

Let us pray,

Great God,

Make us better students and teachers in your University of Shalom. Make us better scholars of the Prince of Peace. Make us better channels of your peace in all that we say and do and imagine. Amen

Benediction

From Psalm 34

Whoever of you loves life
    and desires to see many good days,
13 keep your tongue from evil
    and your lips from telling lies.
14 Turn from evil and do good;
    seek peace and pursue it.

Go in peace.

Images created with AI server starryai @peacegroover on Discord.

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