Sunday, December 4, 2022

Living Out the Covenant: Guns and Butter

Assyria’s King Sennacherib marched against all of Judah’s fortified cities and captured them in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah. Assyria’s king sent his field commander from Lachish, together with a large army, to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem. He stood at the water channel of the Upper Pool, which is on the road to the field where clothes are washed. Hilkiah’s son Eliakim, who was the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and Asaph’s son Joah the recorder went out to them.

Then the field commander stood up and shouted in Hebrew at the top of his voice: “Listen to the message of the great king, Assyria’s king. The king says this: Don’t let Hezekiah lie to you. He won’t be able to rescue you. Don’t let Hezekiah persuade you to trust the Lord by saying, ‘The Lord will certainly rescue us. This city won’t be handed over to Assyria’s king.’

“Don’t listen to Hezekiah, because this is what Assyria’s king says: Surrender to me and come out. Then each of you will eat from your own vine and fig tree and drink water from your own well until I come to take you to a land just like your land. It will be a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards. Don’t let Hezekiah fool you by saying, ‘The Lord will rescue us.’ Did any of the other gods of the nations save their lands from the power of Assyria’s king? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Did they rescue Samaria from my power? Which one of the gods from those countries has rescued their land from my power? Will the Lord save Jerusalem from my power?”

When King Hezekiah heard this, he ripped his clothes, covered himself with mourning clothes, and went to the Lord’s temple. He sent Eliakim the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and the senior priests to the prophet Isaiah, Amoz’s son. They were all wearing mourning clothes. They said to him, “Hezekiah says this: Today is a day of distress, punishment, and humiliation. It’s as if children are ready to be born, but there’s no strength to see it through. Perhaps the Lord your God heard all the words of the field commander who was sent by his master, Assyria’s king. He insulted the living God! Perhaps he will punish him for the words that the Lord your God has heard. Offer up a prayer for those few people who still survive.”

When King Hezekiah’s servants got to Isaiah, Isaiah said to them, “Say this to your master: The Lord says this: Don’t be afraid at the words you heard, which the officers of Assyria’s king have used to insult me. I’m about to mislead him, so when he hears a rumor, he’ll go back to his own country. Then I’ll have him cut down by the sword in his own land.”

This is what Isaiah, Amoz’s son, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

In the days to come
    the mountain of the Lord’s house
    will be the highest of the mountains.
    It will be lifted above the hills;
        peoples will stream to it.
Many nations will go and say,
“Come, let’s go up to the Lord’s mountain,
    to the house of Jacob’s God
        so that he may teach us his ways
        and we may walk in God’s paths.”
Instruction will come from Zion;
    the Lord’s word from Jerusalem.
God will judge between the nations,
    and settle disputes of mighty nations.
Then they will beat their swords into iron plows
    and their spears into pruning tools.
Nation will not take up sword against nation;
    they will no longer learn how to make war. --Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20; 37:1-7; 2:1-4 

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God, our Creator; Jesus Christ, our Redeemer; and the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Comforter. Amen.

Guns and butter. Guns and butter. What do you think is the relationship between guns and butter? Anyone? Anyone study business? Or economics? If you could choose one over the other, which would you choose? Guns? Or butter?

There actually is a relationship between these two things - guns and butter. It comes to us from the study of macroeconomics. (Are your eyes glossing over?) The guns versus butter model shows the relationship between how much a nation invests in its security and defense. And how much it invests in butter. Or, more fully, spending on social things, investing in things that improve or increase social welfare, such as schools, hospitals, parks and roads. Every nation has to decide which balance of guns versus butter best fits its needs - a choice that can be influenced by both external and internal factors. And a choice that can have an impact not only on a nation’s people, but also who are elected as its leaders.

The phrase originated around the time of the first World War. In 1914, Chile was the leading world producer of nitrates. What are nitrates used for? Yep. Gunpowder. Chile had taken a neutral stance in the war and, although it continued to provide almost all the nitrates the US needed, it still made us a little nervous that we didn’t have control over the production. This led to the passage of the National Defense Act of 1916. This directed the administration to manufacture nitrates for fertilizer - in times of peace, and munitions in times of war. The media presented this as “guns and butter.” Guns in war time. Butter in peace.

Today’s lesson from Isaiah shows us the tension and complexity in making the choice between guns and butter. As our story opens, Jerusalem is surrounded by the Assyrian army. They’ve ravaged the countryside - knocking off, according to Assyrian history, 46 Judaen cities, all heavily fortified. People from villages surrounding Jerusalem have fled into the city. It’s overcrowded. Resources are stretched. Food is scarce. Water, too. The temple treasury has been depleted by a tribute demanded by the Assyrian king, Sennacharib. Even the king’s treasury - that of King Hezekiah - has been depleted. Jerusalem is under siege. 

At his king’s command, Sennacharib’s field commander approaches the city. King Hezekiah sends out three of his high officials. Yet, it soon becomes clear that the field commander isn’t really interested in talking to them. Instead of speaking to them in Aramaic, the language they request, he speaks to them in Hebrew - a language the people of Jerusalem will understand. Their vernacular. Why? To spread propaganda. Propaganda that is intended to invoke fear in their hearts for what will come. The guns. And propaganda intended to convince them to abandon Jerusalem -- this place of hardship and starvation -- and surrender to him to be taken to a much better place. To a land he describes in eerily familiar words. A land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards. Think “land of milk and honey.” Think butter.

How easy it would be for the people to fall into this trap! Perhaps, this is what terrifies King Hezekiah so, leading him to tear his clothes, to engage in rituals of mourning, to go to the temple. And to send his officials to seek out the prophet Isaiah. He knows how exhausted his people are. So exhausted that, as our text reads, it’s as though children are ready to be born, but there’s no strength left to see it through.

It’s an interesting verse, this birthing metaphor. It brings us back to other water and birthing images we’ve seen over these past many weeks. The birthing of a new creation from the waters of darkness and chaos. The rebirthing of our world in the story of Noah and the flood after its near total corruption. The birthing of a new nation, chosen to be a people to show all nations the way of God. Then, today’s image. Of a mother about to give birth, but so exhausted that there is little hope that the child can be born. 

Perhaps that’s where you are right now. Tired of things in the world as they are. The wars that cause vast numbers of refugees. The corruption that seems to only get worse. The many divides in our world. The lack of agreement around caring for our planet. Perhaps you are tired, too. Exhausted from the many ways we just seem to fall so sort of any possibility of peace. Much less any vision or hope for the future. 

But, there is an alternative view. A way that is not about the guns, but about the butter. A profound vision of peace. Where nations no longer learn about war. Where people are more concerned with cultivating food than producing weapons. A vision of shalom. 

That’s what we hear from the prophet Isaiah as he, literally, sees the Word of God. And sees God’s future for that remnant in Jerusalem. And for you and me, too.

What will the future hold? Guns? Or butter? 

This new age, envisioned by God, pregnant with possibilities, will take us to the mountaintop. A mountaintop that is less about a place than a way of being. That’s not about restoring the temple or Jerusalem, also high up. But, it’s about our citizenship in God’s kingdom - an upside-down kingdom led by an upside-down king. Christ, the King. Who leads not with guns, but with butter. Who comes sacrificially for us. To show us the way. A way of justice, and mercy, and peace. And who leads us to salvation - to that shalom way of life that ensures wholeness in every way for every one. So that all nations might flourish. So that all people might have fullness. So that we - you and I, included - might live. Forever. With all the butter we can imagine!

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Preached November 20, 2022, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Prospect, with Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Christ the King Sunday
Reading: Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20; 37:1-7; 2:1-4

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