The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Attack Drones into Solar Arrays?

Is it better to preach the promise of peace or to proclaim the reality of its long-standing absence?

by Russell Rathbun

Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 2:1-5

For Sunday, Nov. 28, 2010: Year C – Advent 1

In contrast to the Gospel reading for Advent 1, the Old Testament text is more universal and less threatening. It is a vision of the end of days that promises peace. Actually it more than makes promises — it reports peace as a fact.

Swords to Plowshares

It is a report about how the Lord will establish the Lord’s house in a new holy place that is neither theirs nor theirs − all will be invited. It’s not about me, my house, or how I better be ready for the sneak attack or else. The Lord will arbitrate any differences and all will respond by turning instruments of war to implements of cultivation. Swords to plowshares.

I don’t have a sword and I don’t have a plowshare. What would be a contemporary equivalent? They shall transform their MQ-9 Reaper Drones into 500 Mega Watt Solar Arrays. It lacks the poetry of swords and plowshares. It is the text’s poetic nature that makes it feel more universal and less immediate than the Gospel text.

Sneak Attack

Matthew’s text feels like it might take place tomorrow. Yeah, a sneak attack. That immediacy that causes me to question its meaning. It seems that the Gospel writer is trying to alert his reader to a perilous event that is impending, which drives me to some historical-critical place.

And then I think, given that these texts are veiled allusions to something that was going to/or did happened thousands of years ago. But how do I feel about appropriating Isaiah as an Advent text, as a reference to the completion of time?

It feels so much less problematic to say, one day God will bring peace to everyone and the lion will lie down with the lamb. It’s a nice idea that no one expects to actually happen, not, like, in any real way. Right?

The Hardest Question

So is it better to treat the promise of a coming peace as a feel-good message that we can all rally around, endorse, mention in a prayer and raise a glass to, or to proclaim along with our hope the reality of its long-standing absence?

Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Matt says:

    This text is always a challenge when it comes to our context. One only needs to turn on the news to see that we haven’t forgotten how to train for war. But I am hesitant to go full bore and highlight the reality of the unfulfilled promise as much as I am to highlight a feel good message that no one can touch and hold. Perhaps this text, and our context, force us to preach both because right now aspects of both are certainly part of our reality. There is a now but not yet feel to this and so many other prophecies. I don’t mean we highlight some spiritualized nature of the text that we read into it because this text isn’t talking about a spiritual peace but a very physical one. Rather we do see glimpses of peace in our world. We see nations that dont prepare for war. There are little glimpses all around us but it is not yet this peacefilled world of the text. It’s now but not yet. What do you think?

  2. Dave Horsman says:

    This text and many other prophetical writings that point to the next age when Jesus has returned to the earth to reign (I know. I’ve already lost you) in perfect peace and righteousness is the central hope of our faith. Restoration and Resurrection. Gen 3:14 gives us the first of many messianic prophecies that scream loudly, “Things will not always be like this!” The earth will not be forever under the tyranny of the curse. The present suffering that we see in our lives that we see so blatantly all around us will not always be like this. The poor and oppressed, the afflicted, the earth itself is groaning for a deliverer. The good news of this passage from Isaiah and of the entire Advent season is that a deliverer has been appointed. Jesus has been anointed to rule the earth and bring the long waited peace we long for. The central hope of our faith is RESURRECTION. Restoration will happen! This passage just points to that day.

    As far as the sneak attack goes, it seems to me that the whole “thief in the night” thing is reserved for those that are not watching. Not the entirety of the earth.

  3. Rev. Russell says:

    Matt, I think you are right that we don’t have much choice but to preach the “it is now, but not yet” message. That is what we have. We have the witness of scripture and the traditions of our faith, we have our own experiences that tell us that love is a transforming force that operates in the world, our relationship and history. But it is clear that Peace is not breaking out in some overwhelming way, suffering keeps up a steady pace. I guess what we proclaim is that we will continue to try to live in love of the One whose promise of peace with celebrate at Advent/Christmas—I’m just saying though….any time now would be good.

  4. Deb says:

    Have you read Eugene Peterson’s take on this poem? In verse 4, he puts it like this: “Come, let’s climb God’s mountain, go to the House of the God of Jacob. He’ll show us the way he works so we can live the way we’re made.”

    Man, I see Jesus/incarnation there! He’ll show us the way he works so we can live the way we’re made. I know that Isaiah was poem-ing/prophet-ing to his immediate situation and not so much talking about a future Jesus. But man — it’s the same God! Our God, who wants more than anything to have us river up the mountain so we can spend some quality time discovering him and then living like we were made to live. I’d rather live like that for the next four weeks than shop/party/run errands/make lists/decorate this/clean that. (Wait. I read that over. I DO want to party. Because, as you all have said, the current warring/suffering is not the end of the story.)

  5. Warren says:

    I’m horrible at quotational attribution, but suffice it to say this is not my own (Richard Rohr maybe), “Before the Gospel is Good News, it’s not.”

    That points me to answer the hard question in this text with the latter response. We’re more than a bit delusional and on the cusp of complete lunacy to go about during this time (or perhaps any other for that matter) claiming that ‘all right with the world and God is in God’s heaven.” In fact, I’d argue that if that ever were the case there would have been little purpose in the Incarnation and Jesus’ message for a coming Kingdom in the way that we’ve recorded it and tried to live it (haphazardly at best) as his disciples.

    I guess I’d have to give a nod to Paul’s call for us “not to grieve as those who have no hope.” (1 Thess. 4:13).

    We deal with what is, because we choose to live in the hope that a redeemed creation will be and that Jesus (and the whole Trinity for that matter) are to be taken at their word and will not abandon us in the time of trial.

    I guess we have to deal with our call as Jesus’ followers to be a faithful remnant in this ‘already but not yet’ Kingdom that we are bound to proclaim.

How do you read?