The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 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." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. —Isaiah 2:1 –4
“Learn war.” That’s an interesting phrase. When I was little I just assumed that we would always be at war. By the time I was old enough to be aware of what was going on we were in Vietnam. When we lived in Alabama I remember hearing that our next door neighbor’s son was killed in Vietnam. We would stay in Vietnam throughout most of my childhood; it was on the front page of the newspaper every day and on the news every night. There were war shows on T.V and WWII movies in the theaters.
Then I went to school and learned American history, and it seemed that America just moved from one war to another with just little pauses in between: the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, WWI, WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam. And when Vietnam ended and we were no longer at war, I learned about the Cold War. The Cold War? You mean even when we weren’t at war, we were at war?
So you can understand as a kid I just assumed that we would always be at war, that peace was just a temporary lull between wars, an exception to the rule, the brief time when the audience clapped while the orchestra switched music and got ready to perform the next piece.
And when in Sunday School these verses from Isaiah were quoted, about swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, and nations not learning war anymore, I just figured that was some idealistic utopia that wouldn’t really happen except in heaven, when all the good people would gather together and there wouldn’t be any war anymore because all the bad people would be in hell. But on earth? On earth we learn war, because there are lots of bad people out there, and until God kills all the bad people, we gotta learn war or else the bad people will kill all the good people. That’s how one child growing up in the ‘60’s made sense of things. Can you blame me? Is that a childish way of looking at things?
Then would come Christmas, every year, and among all the feelings and experiences—feelings of anticipation, of excitement, of joy, all of which climaxed on Christmas Eve, the hardest night of the year to fall asleep—on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the one feeling that was most present was a feeling of peace. I mean, my brothers and I never fought on Christmas Eve. We were united in our excitement, united in our plot to get Mom and Dad up as early as possible. We never were jealous when one of the others got a cool gift. We played together with each other’s stuff, we shared and played nice with each other. Oh, we might have argued on the 26th of December, but never on the 25th. All hostilities ceased. My brothers and I beat our swords into plowshares.
Christmas is like that, isn’t it? I mean, you can’t read the Christmas accounts in Matthew and Luke without encountering this longing for and promise of peace. It’s in the prophecies about the Messiah’s birth. The angels proclaim glory to God and peace on earth. Messiah is called Prince of Peace.
We don’t think of peace at this time of year, not when the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus is front and center on our calendars if not in our minds. But as important as it is that we not “learn war” anymore, it’s equally important that we learn peace, and peace is not something that can be learned in the absence of “all the bad people.” Peace is something that can be learned only in the presence of enemies. So among all the things that the cross teaches us is how to be people of peace in the presence of our enemies. Jesus told Pilate, “If my kingdom was of this age, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over. But my kingdom is not of this age.”
Jesus didn’t come into Jerusalem with an army. With an army, he probably would have died; without one, death was a certainty. But the cross teaches us that there is a death that leads to more death, and there is a death that leads to resurrection, life—and peace. We need to learn the lesson of the cross, for it’s the only way we can learn peace.