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Ploughshares and Swords

Sermon on 
Exodus 20:1-17;  Joel 3: 9-16; John 2:13-22
preached by
The Reverend Jeremy Arthern
23rd March 2003

I am sure that you normally expect the preacher to base their sermon on the set lectionary. Everyone knows where they are and it's a good discipline to preach on the scriptures which are presented to you in an orderly and comprehensive fashion rather than just choosing the ones that allow you to preach about the bees that are buzzing in your particular bonnet. Today, though, I felt that I couldn't ignore the events that we are living though at the moment and I want to preach from a passage that isn't part of today's lectionary. That explains why you have got two Old Testament readings. 

I came across this passage from Joel a few weeks ago and it came as a great shock to me.

"Beat your ploughshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears."

I expect most of you are familiar with the very similar passage in Micah (4:3) which you can also find in Isaiah (2:4) 

"They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks"

similar words but with a totally opposite meaning. 

We have taken comfort from Micah's picture of a time when God's rule will mean an end to war, when people from different nations will live contentedly at peace with each other. Joel takes these words of peace and, turning them round, he gives them the ominous ring of the imminence of war. The tools of peace will be taken and turned into weapons of war. Just as, many of you will remember, our iron railings and other metal work were cut away and melted down in the war effort in the nineteen forties. 

Joel's words are shocking but they describe the situation that we are in today. 

"The Lord has spoken. Proclaim this among the nations: prepare for war"

-although many of us might think that it is President Bush who has spoken rather than the Lord. 

With the ending of the Cold war we had hoped that it would be Micah's version that we could live with - when the swords could be beaten into ploughshares. But New York on September 11th 2001 changed all that. In spite of all the efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis we are once again we are at war with new deaths to mourn, new threats to face and the prospect of many more deaths in battle. And I am not of course just thinking of British or American deaths.

Beating the ploughshares into swords gives us a war that many people are deeply unhappy about. I was in Bedford on Thursday and saw the anti-war demonstration there - a demonstration that is being echoed across the world. Can you imaging demonstrations like that at the beginning of the first or Second world wars? 

The unhappiness and the anger are not just because of the horror of any war but about the justness of the cause. Self-defence or going to the aid of an oppressed victim have always been seen as justifiable reasons for going to war. The Second world war in 1939; the Falklands, the Gulf war and perhaps Afghanistan . If attack has happened, or if it is certain, it is common sense to remove the threat. 

But was it certain? Did Saddam Hussein genuinely present a threat to the whole world? Is the likely death of thousands of civilians and troops, both your own and the enemies, a justifiable price to pay? And even if it is will it succeed in removing the threat to the Western way of life? Could it not deepen hatred and make things worse? Can violence be overcome by greater violence in retaliation?

But is there any other way? If, as Christians, we put a high priority on the teaching of scripture does the Bible have anything helpful to say to us? There is a lot in the Old Testament, including today's passage from Joel, that suggests there isn't any other way. There may be times of peace but there will always be times of war. That is the message from a famous passage in the book of Ecclesiastes (3: 1- 8) 

"There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven. A time to kill and a time to heal, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace" 

That is obviously a realistic way of looking at things. Anyone with any knowledge of history would surely agree with it. But, as Christians, should we allow our lives and our expectations to be controlled by that reality? When Jesus was being interrogated by Pilot during his trial he said ."My kingdom is not of this world. If it were my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place" 

Jesus encourages us to lift our eyes from the temporal, material world - the world which is inseparable from conflict and war- to a different dimension of time, to eternal values. These are the values of the sermon on the mount. The values of humility, of righteousness and justice, of peace, of the importance of reconciliation; of acceptance that it is better to suffer and to be a victim than to inflict violence on others. 

These are values that we do well to try to live by in our private lives but why are statesmen and politicians so reluctant to try them in international relations? Self-interest always seems to dictate aggression. But what would happen if Israel offered justice to the Palestinians rather than retaliation? What would happen to the politics of envy and aggression if the West offered terms of trade that were genuinely in the interests of the developing countries - if we were prepared to make real sacrifices in our standards of living. What would happen if the West listened to what others are saying about their needs and altered the priorities from exploitation to support? Is thinking like that, na├»ve idealism or would some of the reasons for conflict and violence be reduced? 

To expect self-interest to go away is probably totally unrealistic but doesn't enlightened self-interest mean that some of these things would be worth doing? We have heard so much about President Bush's war on terrorism. It is tragic that we haven't heard more about efforts to understand the causes of terrorism and to remove the injustices that allow terrorists to gain acceptance and support. Fear lies behind most conflict ( eg considering United States as a country that has always been in the grip of fear) There needs to be so much more effort put into promoting understanding and trust and to removing the causes of envy. To encouraging forgiveness rather than dwelling on the battles of the past.

There is so much good work done, so much love and compassion shown by thousands of aid workers in all the deprived areas of the world. It is tragic that there isn't more publicity for their efforts and more action by governments to support their efforts rather than, as so often happens, to frustrate them. Think what good could be done with the resources and the money that is being put into making war at the moment. 

I know there is no easy path. Where there is fanatical fundamentalism, whatever its motivation, it may be that showing greater force is the only way to overcome it - we read this morning of Jesus himself using violence to attack exploitation and godlessness - but a greater and wider practice of love, compassion and justice would greatly reduce the opportunities for fanaticism to gain a foothold. 

Sadly, we have seen that mass demonstrations have not deflected the march towards war but those demonstrations may yet have there influence on politics and policy in the longer run. Society is made up of individuals and the way each of us behaves can have a bearing on the world we live in 

What influence can we bring on those who make the political decisions? What sacrifices can we make that will make the world a fairer place? What love and compassion and forgiveness can we offer that will help to reduce fear and misunderstanding in the communities where we live and work ?

Bible Readings and Notes, and intercessions for 23rd March 2003

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