MICAH 4:1-5

In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it,
and many nations 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 many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
The grass withers and the flowers fade,
but the word of our God will stand forever.
Thanks be to God.

This morning I want to reflect with you for a few minutes on the subject OF war and the hope of peace. This may seem heavy for a July Sunday. But, we are in the prophets, and the prophets talk often about war. And, these days, so do we.

For the first time in decades, our nation is not actively at war anywhere on the globe. But, in recent months, we have supported Ukraine in the defense of their nation against the invasion of Russian forces. And the ripple effects of that conflict have led to global economic shocks, food shortages that have nearly 50 million people on the brink of starvation, and a strengthening of military alliances and budgets around the world.

But that’s the high-altitude view; let’s get closer to the ground. This week, I heard an interview with Ukrainian citizen and advocate, Hanna Hopko. On the one hand, Hanna is an extraordinary individual. She is a pro-democracy activist and a former member of the Ukrainian parliament. When the war came a few months ago, she made her way out of the country and has traveled for months in various world capitals pleading for Ukraine’s cause and their military needs. She is extraordinary.

On the other hand, though, Hanna Hopko is a mother, wife, sister, and very ordinary person. When the war started, her husband went to fight, and she sent her daughter to live with her parents and her sister, and then eventually to get out of the country. They have a family guinea pig, who went to live with a neighbor. A couple of weeks ago her friended texted Hanna a picture of the guinea pig, with the message “Nefanya is missing you, and wondering when you will be back so you can take care of him?”

She said, about what has happened in the last few months, “It seems like the previous life doesn’t exist anymore. Like, this normality, when you sit in the kitchen with your daughter, husband, with the guinea pig… probably the saddest moment [is to realize] that you don’t know when, actually, you could be reunited.

Even though they are separated by nearly 3000 years, Hanna Hopko shares much in common with the prophet Micah. The book of Micah, known as a minor prophet, was written about 750 B.C.E. Israel was a nation about the size of Vermont, located in the Syria-Palestinian corridor—and the surrounding nations always coveted their land. Egypt in the south and various Mesopotamian empires in the north saw that territory as a buffer zone to protect themselves from armies bent on conquest and pillage.

It is hard for us to imagine what it must have been like for this nation to live with the prospect of large, invading armies on their doorstep on a regular and unrelenting basis. The Assyrians, who loomed to the north during this time, were renowned for their brutality. I won’t go into the gory details, but contemporary archaeologists have uncovered miles of stone reliefs that, depicting the brutal torture of Assyria’s enemies, decorating the dining halls and the bedrooms of Assyrian palaces.

The prospect of war was a constant and brutal fact of daily life for Israel. One Old Testament scholar writes that Israel’s preoccupation with war, as it shows up throughout the Hebrew scriptures, casts about them an “aura of somber realism and a sense of the fragility of human life.” Some prophets, like Amos, concluded that sin and corruption were so rampant in society that destruction must be the only outcome. We heard that “bad news” last week. Other prophets like Micah and Isaiah cast breath-taking visions of peace. They agree on the corruption, but they hold out hope that one day warfare will be replaced by peace, no one would be afraid, and people will build fruitful lives with confidence.

Let’s look closely at Micah’s vision. Micah uses imagery shared by Isaiah, and with it he touches on the hopes and longings of Hanna Hopko – with her husband, and daughter, and guinea pig – and millions of others whose lives are disrupted by war.

He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away.

In Micah’s vision of the future, differences between nations are settled peaceably by God, who is an arbitrator with the wisdom and goodness to settle the question, and the power to make strong nations accept the agreement. Micah does not believe that might-makes-right, or my God-is-stronger-than-your-God. He sees a vision of a just and fair God who will decide with equity.

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;

This summer, our oldest two children, Isla and Luke, went to blacksmithing camp and learned how to make things with the forge, hammer, and anvil. Hooks and a candle holder made from rebar, a knife made from a railroad spike, even a small sword. I know nothing about blacksmithing, but I learned from them the process of heating, hammering, heating, hammering, heating, bending, heating, hammering – slowly, one strike at a time, how a metal of one shape is made into a different tool.

It is slow and labor-intensive. A nation that can beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, is a nation that is safe and unafraid. It takes time to convert a factory making tanks to one that makes tractors, a shipyard making aircraft carriers to one making cargo ships; and it takes the confidence that those tanks and carriers will not be needed in the future.

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore;

The weapons of war can be refashioned into instruments of peace because of God’s wise law and fair justice. The way and the will to bring peace and the good news will be shared by everyone. No need for war colleges, or standing armies, or a military industry any more.

They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.

Normality, peaceful normality, is what Hanna Hopko is trying to remember and this is the promise of the prophet. They will sit at home in the shade of the tree, or at the table in the kitchen: they will play games, and read books, and have picnics; they will play with children, and guinea pigs and puppies. And they will dream of the future, and build houses and schools and plant gardens and orchards, and no one shall make them afraid.

This vision of peace and safety is all the more stunning because it bears such little resemblance to the world that Micah and his people knew. Where did Micah’s hope come from? He was not naïve, he was not dreaming, he was not out of touch. Micah’s hope was centered in his faith in God’s promises and God’s messiah. In our lives, where we may not find much reason for optimism, we too can lay hold of Micah’s vision and hope.

I want to briefly suggest three ways we can claim Micah’s hope as our own and live into his vision of peace in a world where war is always around the corner.

The first is something Micah has in spades: imagination. We can develop an imagination for a world where swords will one day become plowshares. Yesterday, I had a chance to talk with a person who is visiting Asheville and is the policy and program manager at an organization in Dublin, Ireland called Scholars at Risk. Their mission, he told me, is to help evacuate scholars in war-zone and resettle temporarily to do their work until it is safe to go home. He said they have recently resettled many scholars from Ukraine and Afghanistan.

I asked him about Afghanistan, knowing how bleak that situation is: Do scholars who are resettled and doing their work in Europe or the US really ever want to go back? He said yes, most of them do. He said, even as bleak as it might seem to us, to them it’s home – where their family and friends are, and memories are. That’s the “vine and fig tree” they want to sit under. And more than that, he said, they care about the future of their nations. They want to educate future generations, they want to rebuild the schools, and plant seeds for the future.

They have not given up on their imagination or what the future can look like when swords become plowshares, and neither can we. Laying hold of Micah’s hope means cultivating an imagination for peace.

The second way we can live into Micah’s vision is to support. Support institutions, organizations, and individuals that work for compromise and peaceful settlements. In his wonderful book The Wise Men, Walter Isaacson describes the work of a small group of people (who are mostly forgotten now) who worked in the wake of World War II to build institutions that could cultivate peace. In their life-times, they lived through the devastation of two world wars, they saw the consequences; and they dreamed of creating organizations and structures that could arbitrate disputes between nations, provide for common defense, and build societies that could mutually flourish. When many in the United States were calling for national superiority, they resisted that urge and worked for structures of peaceful cooperation. The formation of NATO, the Marshall Plan, and the development of the UN were part of their work.

In times of peace, it is easy to criticize the failings of these institutions and take them for granted, even to walk away from them. But in the presence and aftermath of war, we realize their importance. As people of faith in Micah’s vision, we must support those who do the work of peace and peacemaking. That is not to say that war will never happen or never be justified. But they can be a last resort, fewer and farther between, and only when all else has failed.

Imagination; support; and finally, hope in God’s promises. The prophet Micah had no reason for optimism that peace would break out in the world he lived in. He had every reason to be skeptical and pessimistic. The historical truth is that very soon the Temple in Jerusalem, that Micah envisioned would be elevated one day, was in ruins – a hill of weeds and shrubs. Micah had no reason for optimism, but he had hope because of his confidence in the promises of God.

We can believe by faith that the world will one day emerge by decisive action into a wide and spacious place of life and peace, but we must nurture that faith. We cannot hold onto this hope because we are naïve, or blind to reality, or trust in the better angels of human nature. We can only hold onto this hope because we trust in the goodness and faithfulness of God. And we do not hold onto this hope only for our own lives and families – though it is our hope – we hold onto this hope for, in Micah’s words, all the peoples of the earth. For Hanna Hopko, and scholar refugees, and millions of others: one day every person will sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the word of the Lord has spoken.

This is the faith that will sustain an imagination for peace, and the faith that will strengthen our support for peacemaking, even when the going gets tough. It is God’s promise that, one day, with Jesus Christ as Lord, all shall be will and all will be at peace.

Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church
Asheville, North Carolina

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