The one who is coming into the world, in this, the first coming, has more immediacy than those of us who are already in the world. We are nearer to the brink, even if we don’t know it. In Advent, we await what will bind together the helpless and the powerful, what will find their meaning. We await the second coming, whenever that might be; we await the coherence of the new kingdom. And how do we live in the waiting?
The readings for today speak of powerful contrasts, of a time when everyone will beat their swords into plowshares, and that tells us two things: It tells us that there will come a time when we have progressed beyond swords, a time when we will study war no more, a kingdom in which violence is never the answer. And it tells us that in such a kingdom, there will come a time when we respond instinctively to the needs of the world, to the hunger that each of us holds down deep inside of us, and our response will be to plow, to harvest, to feed the hunger that we find in others.
In the contrasts, we find a duality: God not only enters into us – we enter into God. An infant comes into the world full of possibilities, full of everyone else’s hope. When the Christ comes into the world as an infant, he comes with the hopes and fears of all the years, and yet this infant, this helpless newborn, will bear all our burdens with his infinite grace. Because he will enter into us, we may well find our need for swords diminishing. Because he will enter into us, we may well find, to our surprise, that violence is no longer the answer. We may even get to the point where we may feel led to beat our swords into plowshares.
And that, maybe, is what it will feel like to live in the readiness that the Gospel lesson recommends: to be ready, to keep awake, is to find ourselves transformed in the moment. One minute we are reaching for our swords, and in that moment, in the heft of the steel, in the swing to bring violence upon our sister or brother, something checks the movement: something has changed. What was true just a moment ago is no longer true. That is living awake and alert in the time between, in the kingdom between the first coming and the second.
One will be taken and one will be left. What if, in this period of waiting, in this season of growing darkness and anticipation, what gets taken is all the false gods of the world that promote violence as the answer: the idea that our needs, our desires, our priorities are more important than others’ – what if what gets taken away is the way of the sword? The way of violence, the way of deciding when to end someone’s life, the way of cutting down, cutting off, cutting short. What if the promise of the Christ coming into the world is the promise that with that arrival, all that holds us back will be taken?
And then what will be left? If the way of the sword gets taken from us, we are transformed, ready or not. We are stripped of violence and the thinking that glorifies it. We are invited to lay down our swords and shields, to lay down the hatred, lay down the greed, lay down the sense of entitlement, lay down the anger, lay down the fear that is at the heart of all violence. When the sword is taken, what goes with it is the glorification of the individual. The sword is a solitary weapon, one that props up the fears of the individual. And what gets left is the plowshare, the tool of community, that which plants and sows, reaps and harvests with the idea of providing the bread of life for everyone.
One will be taken and one will be left. The coming of the Christ child, breaking into the world of the sword, transforms the world, not with violence but with peace, not with anger but with understanding, not with hatred but with love. And what is left? When all that limits us is taken away, what is left is the reality of relationship, the reality of a new world in which we need not swords but plowshares – to plow, to gather, to harvest, and to feed. What is left is a transformation of ourselves so that in the time of waiting, in the time between the first coming and the second coming, we find ourselves equipped for the new kingdom.
The coming of the Christ child into the world, the first coming, breaks in on our daily routine, shaking us up, making us ready for the second coming. And this second one is not a vengeful coming, but a coming of love, healing and redemption for all creation. We have all we need right now to be awake and present and participate in the bringing about of a new world.
We believe that faith is rooted in action and presence, in showing up and responding. And this is what the Gospel is about this morning. Jesus is calling his disciples into a new kingdom, one that the first coming has transformed. In the time between, the way of the sword, of self-centeredness, of greed, of fear, of individualism, of violence, gets taken. And the way of the plowshare, of trust in the future that is yet to come, of patience, of nurture, of community remains. And with it is the invitation to remain calm, to remain grounded and centered in the promise that God is with us and for us right here in reality – no matter how uncertain it seems.
The goal is not to meet the challenges of this world with reflexive violence, with fear and division, to respond to the growing darkness with more darkness. The idea is to accept the challenges of this world by remaining awake and fully present to them. In the time between, on the verge of the first coming that will usher in an interim kingdom, one will be taken and one will be left. And the one to be left is the one who will usher in the way of peace and plenty.