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Isaiah 2:1-5 "Bombs and Bullets into Schools and Scholars"

 (Click on the image to hear excerpt of Eisenhower on military spending.)

In the 8th century before Christ, when the majority of people were farmers, having more iron for plows and pruning hooks, instead of swords and shields was a very hopeful message.  When Isaiah wrote his prophecies, the iron age was in full bloom, having begun in about 1200 BCE, and the Hebrew people were enjoying the benefits iron plows brought to farming.  They now had an excess of food from the countryside, Jerusalem was prosperous and they had built a great Temple under Solomon.  But iron was literally a double edged sword because it made warfare more destructive and costly.  Once the iron age came, you could no longer send an army of farmers out with their homemade weapons, you needed a serious industrial production of iron weapons, which meant having iron mines and forges and taxes for a military-industrial complex. 

 

Israel was not a great power like Assyria or Egypt, but they were significantly advanced for that era and had a nice piece of the arms trade, selling chariots and horses to all sides.  Solomon did not get all that wealth to build the Temple out of nowhere, much like the United States today, they were a major arms dealer for other peoples’ conflicts.  So Isaiah’s prophecies are not just poetic language hoping for peace in the face of Assyrian threats, it was also prophecy speaking for the majority of people who were farmers, versus the wealthy minority who made money from iron and war. 

 

As I read Isaiah 2 I am reminded of a nearly forgotten speech by a great American General and President, Dwight Eisenhower.  I have always thought well of Eisenhower because his wife Mamie, was from my hometown in Boone, Iowa and my Baptist church owned the house she was born in for their Sunday School classrooms.  We all know Eisenhower was the Allied Commander in World War II, but his family felt that his most important legacy was his 1953 speech, “A Chance for Peace.”  On his tomb are words from that speech:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

In the details of the speech he noted:

  • This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.
  • The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.
  • We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

His words have mostly gone unheeded in the 50 years that have followed.  I won’t bore you with the reams of statistics about military spending today, because I think one statistic will suffice.  The United States, meaning you and I, spends more each year on the military than all the rest of the 120 some nations of the world combined.  I find myself baffled that we hardly talk about this when we talk about our budgetary problems today.  Congress is debating how much health care we can afford, whether we can extend unemployment benefits, our national infrastructure is woefully underfunded, social services are being cut back drastically.  Our homeless shelter lost $80,000 in the County Budget for next year.  But hardly any member of Congress is saying we can’t afford to cut the next generation fighter plane, the F-22, or the new programs to research and build weapons in space, or more predator drones.  Eisenhower would have been brought to tears or perhaps rage by a recent military report that noted “75 percent of young Americans, between the ages of 17 to 24, are unable to enlist in the military today because they have failed to graduate from high school, have a criminal record, or are physically unfit.”  We have built a great war machine, but are we building a great nation?

 

This study was quoted Last Sunday by Thomas Friedman wrote an interesting article in the NY Times, who started this way,

When I came to Washington in 1988, the cold war was ending and the hot beat was national security and the State Department. If I were a cub reporter today, I’d still want to be covering the epicenter of national security — but that would be the Education Department. 

 

Friedman makes a compelling case that our national security is more dependent on quality education than on our military might and he proposes that this be our primary national challenge and commitment, to the extent that we should fund a national education academy similar to our military academies that put emphasis on training excellent teachers. 

 

Here again the words of Isaiah 2,

Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths….nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

I am not a pacifist and I don't think we can naively disarm and end warfare.  I honor the courage of soldiers and the courage of peacemakers.   I do not have all the answers for what we should do in the future to seek an end to warfare, and Isaiah did not have them either.  But I do believe that we must follow the prophet spirit of Isaiah who did not give up on the possibility of a different way of life than an emphasis on military power and warfare.  In conclusion, I want to share one hopeful historical parallel.  A few year ago I was speaking with a man who was a Navy veteran from World War II.  He had fought in the Pacific theatre and he admitted to me that it had taken years to be able to see a person not only of Japanese descent, but almost any Asian, and not feel anger and hostility.  There was a time during many of our lifetimes when American culture saw anyone from Japan as the evil enemy.  We were astonished by Kamakazi attacks, where pilots would knowingly go out on suicide missions and try to fly their planes into American ships.  Islamic jihadists were not the inventor of suicide missions, they just brought them to our shores.  But ask our young people today what they believe about Japan.  Japan is a major trading partner and ally, their young people are exchange students at our universities and no one can imagine ever going to war with them again.  This outcome did not happen by accident.  It was the outcome of many people who were shocked by the atrocities of war, and the terrible possibilities of atomic warfare and chose a different future.

 

We are many years away from this kind of future relationship with predominantly Islamic nations today.  But our past history shows us that it is possible.  I hope some day we can get on an airline and sit next to someone from the Muslim world and not even wonder if they are a terrorist in disguise.  I hope airport security lines are a quick 15 minute breeze and that our young people are sweating out math tests rather than perspiring in armored vests in Afghanistan.  I hope in ten years we are building bullet trains rather than more bullets, and that former military barracks are being converted into affordable housing for the homeless.  Currently we are still beating our plowshares and pruning hooks into shields and spears, but we must dream of the alternatives Isaiah wrote long ago.  

 


A Gift From Long Ago - NYTimes.com

I’ve been surprised by the lack of media attention given to the golden anniversary of that pivotal campaign, one of the most celebrated of the entire post-World War II period. With Kennedy, the door to the great 1960s era opened a crack, and it would continue opening little by little until the Beatles flung it wide in 1964.

via www.nytimes.com

I think there are parallels in style between Isaiah's hopeful prophecies and Kennedy's style of calling the nation to better things. Take a look at what Bob Herbert has to say.


Luke 21:5-19 "Not a Stone Left"

Hayez_TheTempleOfJerusalem This week I was trying to get a feel for what the disciples were thinking and seeing as they walked through the great Temple in Jerusalem.  Through the power of the web I was able to find out a great deal about the size and layout of the Second Temple, which had been renovated by Herod during Jesus’ lifetime.  The Temple complex, which is considered most holy ground by Jews, Muslims and Christians today, contains the Western Wailing Wall, and the Al Aksa Mosque.  It all sits on a leveled out mountaintop that Solomon had built up with stone to make room for the first great Temple destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC.  Herod built great walls surrounding this area and in Jesus day the walls enclosed an area about 36 acres, which is the size of seven high school football complexes with quarter mile tracks surrounding them (about 5 acres each), laid out side by side.  The Wailing Wall is what remains of Herod’s walls and it is about 187 feet high.  For perspective, that is about the height of Giant Stadium in New Jersey or the height of a 12 to 15 story building.  So this was a huge open air complex that would have swallowed Giant stadium.   For historical comparison, this is larger than the Coliseum in Rome, which ironically was built in 70 AD, the year the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. 

 

So this truly was one of the wonders of the ancient world and the disciples were justifiably in awe walking into the outer courts.  So in the presence of such grandeur on holy ground which is revered and fought over by three great religions of the world, why is Jesus so unimpressed?  For clue number one let’s start with who built it-Herod.  If you remember your Christmas stories, Jesus had reason to not hold Herod in high esteem, since his family had to flee to Egypt to escape Herod and the slaughter of the innocents.  So Jesus may have a few left over issues with any landmarks of Herod’s grandeur.  Where others gaze in wonder, Jesus sees blood money, taxes pilfered from people who can’t afford it, national wealth spent on Herod’s glory while people suffered in poverty.

 

Think for a minute when this episode takes place in Jesus’ ministry.  This is the day or so after the cleansing of the Temple, when Jesus took a whip and drove out the moneychangers and turned over their tables.  Are you surprised they let him back in?  If you did that at Walmart or Rockefeller Center, you would probably be banned.  But the Chief Priests feared the crowds, who were enthralled with Jesus at this point.  So Jesus is now back at the Temple, warily eyed by moneychangers ready to defend their piles of shekels, and probably a few bouncers at the ready.  I like Mark’s Gospel better for this episode, where one of the disciples blurts out, “Teacher, look at these buildings and huge stones.”  The wiser and more sophisticated of Jesus disciples were probably thinking, “What a moron!  Were you paying attention yesterday?  Jesus does not like the Temple or the Priests, because they want to kill him.  They are the bad guys.  Try to keep up, OK?”  Mark’s Gospel is much more anti-Temple than Luke, and I’ll say more about why in a minute.  In Luke, the scene is more like a huge offering time, where lots of people are putting in gifts to the Treasury, and apparently many wealthy people are making a great show of their lavish gifts to the Temple.  Jesus makes note to his disciples that a poor widow drops in two copper coins, perhaps her last ones, and says to his disciples, “She has put in more than all of them, for others gave of their abundance, but she gave all out of her poverty.” 

 

Then someone notes all the great memorial gifts to Temple, all the beautiful stones and gifts that adorn the Temple walls, and Jesus has had enough of the opulence of the Temple.  He says, “The day will come when all of this will be thrown down and not one stone will be left upon another.” 

 

Now Jesus is getting everyone’s attention.  He really likes to poke the hornet’s nest. “When will this come about?  Look around Jesus, this is a big place.  Those stones are humongous.  This will be here forever, like the Great Pyramids of Giza (which we had a hand in by the way).  What has God revealed to you about the future?”   Jesus then has to calm everyone down, before one of the Chief Priests listening in has an aneurism on the spot.  Jesus then delivers this warning:

 

Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.  Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.

 

 Here is my paraphrase of what Jesus would say today, “Everyone needs to relax.  Quite a few terrible things happen in life.  I know it is scary, but you should see the opportunity to serve others.  Don’t be led astray by leaders who offer easy and simplistic answer and blame other people for our problems.  Pull together in the hard times, that is how you get through.  I’ll be with you too, and I will show you the way.  Things will get difficult, but stick together and remember what is important in life – to love one another.”

 

I also want to say a few words about the context of the first readers of the Gospel.  They read this episode after the Temple had been destroyed by Roman armies in 70 AD, just a generation after Jesus had said these words.  I read the account by Josephus, the Jewish historian who was present at the destruction of the Temple and sack of Jerusalem.  The Roman soldiers were so frustrated by the tenacious defenders of the Temple, that when they finally gained the upper hand, the troops went wild and killed everyone, raping and pillaging, much to the embarrassment of Titus, the commanding general.  Josephus said Titus tried to restrain the slaughter and the burning of the Temple, but he was too late to stop the atrocity.  The world was probably appalled, much like we were when we heard stories My Lai coming out of the Vietnam War. When Titus was offered the traditional wreath of victory by the Roman Senate, he reportedly refused it and said, “There is no glory in destroying a people whose God has forsaken them.”

 

I believe Mark’s Gospel was written right after this terrible atrocity, so it is no wonder that he has the sharpest contrast between Jesus and the Temple Priests.  Mark is making clear that Christians had nothing to do the Jewish rebellion that lead to the destruction of the Temple.  In fact, they were oppressed by the Temple aristocracy as well.  Jesus warned them and see what they did to him.  Mark is saying to Rome, “We aren’t them, so don’t kill us too.”  Luke is writing later and is more circumspect.  His message is to not lose heart or be lead astray during terrible times, for Jesus will guide you through.  Don’t be impressed by wealth or grandeur because it does not last, but also don’t be overwhelmed by tragedy, because that will not last either.

 

This is an important message in our uncertain times.  I said to Jeanne this week that these days feel like my youth during the farm crisis.  I watched a way of life end in bankrupcy for many friends.  I wonder if today a way of life for the suburban American middle class in ending as well.  The days of working for IBM your whole life and comfortably retiring are over here in the Hudson Valley.  Ever increasing prosperity and the American Dream of owning your own home are under threat.  I think we need to find a way between the doom and gloom of expecting the next Great Depression and thinking that everything is going to return to normal.  Life as we know it in America may be completely altered, but maybe it is a chance for new dreams, a vision of life that is more sustainable and not as harsh on our planet and natural resources, a way of life that is less materialistic and more oriented to community.  As Jesus reminds us, tough times can be an opportunity for the church.  Don’t cringe in fear at all the change and financial uncertainty.  The world has need of us.  Remember Jesus was more impressed with the widows two coins than the grandeur of the Temple, so let us not diminish what we too can give our world.

 


Back in the swing next week...and please offer prayers

My sermon writing has been last minute and not up to my standards for something to post the last few weeks.  A series of family crisis have absorbed my thoughts and energy.  My youngest son, Michael, has struggled since his Mom died 18 months ago, and he went to a long-term substance abuse rehab on Monday.  It is a great relief to me to have him in a safe place and a good program.  

 

Jeanne and I have two parents in the hospital.  Her mother, Anne, is in the hospital in Switzerland with symptoms of dizziness.  My father, Lowell, has been fighting cancer for months, and is in Des Moines.  He has numerous side effects from chemotherapy, including stomach ulcers that started to bleed.  

 

So life is full and sometimes the journey seems long, but I am grateful that all three family members are in a place with good care and in good spirits.  "Via con Dios" to all.