The anthem the choir sang as an introit this morning, named Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory has been in and out of several of the last Presbyterian Hymnbooks. You might remember it as being called The Battle Hymn of the Republic, but battle hymns are not in vogue these days and many people requested the hymn to be placed in the newest hymnal again so the committee assigned to create the new book accepted it in this one. Like others in our new hymnbook, we might not like the military imagery in the words, but it was felt that there was significance to the hymn in its history.
Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory has been acclaimed as one of our countries most patriotic songs. Like others we are singing this morning and that we will sing as we celebrate Independence Day this week and other national holidays during the year, it was written during a time of trial and war in our country. The words to this hymn were written by Julia Howe during the Civil War and it has been written that it was sung as a solo at a large rally attended by President Abraham Lincoln and that he was so moved by the words that he cried out that it be sung again.
The music to the song, which I understand was written by an ancestor of Bryan Page’s, was familiar to people in the abolitionist movement. When the abolitionist John Brown was executed in 1859 the words John Brown’s Body were written and it was sung as a marching song for the Union during the Civil War. Hymn writer Julia Howe, thought that a song about a now dead person was not an uplifting way to march into battle and that the catchy camp tune should have new lyrics. Her words to the song first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly Magazine in 1862 and quickly became the new words for the old tune.
The hymn is a part of our countries history and the history of our church. I am telling you the rich history of this as I think it is important to point that out before I read this morning’s scripture passage from Micah as it is a vision of action as well….. but it is not a battle cry of a weapon wielding God to be sung by those waging war, even if it is a so called ‘just war’ that people thought was a battle for the good of others…. this is an action passage of the importance of waging peace and God’s vision of Shalom.
Listen now of the words fund in the Book of the Minor Prophet Micah in one several of my favorite Bible passages are found. Listen now to Chapter 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,
2 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.
3 He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
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 anymore;
4 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.
5 For all the peoples walk,
each in the name of its god,
but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God
forever and ever.
(The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.)
The words of the prophet Micah have made a significant impact on public life even in this past century. When Jimmy Carter was sworn in as President in 1977, he had the Bible open to the Book of Micah and quoted the words from Micah 6:8 which I have found inspirational throughout my ministry and by which I aim to live. They are written on the stole I am wearing this morning, a symbol of the yoke of my ministry and the work that I do. The verse says, “He has told you, O Mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.’
Other well-known verses in Micah are the ones I just read from the 4th chapter and have inspired peacemakers as well as artists. If you travel to New York and visit the United Nations you will see a huge bronze sculpture given to the United Nations by the Soviet Union in 1959 of a man beating a sword into a plowshare. It represents the universal hope for peacemaking and shalom. These verses were also said by the prophets Joel and Isaiah. The imagery is powerful.
We will get back to those verses, but first I wanted to share with you a bit about the book about the minor prophet Micah.
This 7 chapter book can be divided into three parts which all start with the imperative for us all to “Hear”. Within these three parts there is a pattern of Micah talking about the doom that is upon the people of Judah and Samaria and then words of hope that will follow. His concerns are with issues of justice and he admonishes the people of wealth and power, the land owners. This, as you can imagine, does not win him popularity. He is actually asked not to preach. His message was not one the people wanted to hear. People want sermons that are positive, that are fun and make you feel good… what we now call preaching from a Gospel of prosperity, not ones that are meant to challenge and change and sit uncomfortably in your seats. Let’s just say Micah was not an Oral Roberts or a Joel Osteen of his day!
But Micah believed that God’s people were sinful, and there might be bad times ahead in the near future because of the people’s sins. But Micah also believed that destruction is not God’s final word. God cares for us, forgives us, and will bring God’s shalom to creation. God’s rule on earth might not bring about individual wealth, but is concerned and will bring a peace and well-being for all. And this has to do with the image found in our scripture for today….. the image of a time when we will beat our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks and we will not learn of war but will sit together, unafraid under fig trees. The image speaks volumes.
When I was first ordained, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons was an issue mostly between our country and our enemy…..the then USSR, I took classes in peacemaking. The stockpiling of weapons that could not be used made me unable to sleep at night and I thought that if I educated myself on peacemaking and disarmament, I could be a part of the solution and in the end, it would make me feel a bit more secure. And what I first learned was that peacemaking is not a solitary issue but an issue of justice and equality. To create peace, we needed to know each other… to know, understand, and love the enemy we feared and then we will begin to care for each other on this small planet.
The vision of turning swords into ploughshares made sense. If you look around the globe, it is easy to see that war leads to poverty and hunger. Nations that must pour their resources and people into waging war are well… wasting their resources. The sword is a tool of war and the ploughshare is a tool that feeds. They are similar in shape but opposite in their use. The message is to turn those same resources of warfare into resources for the good of all people… that is peace and shalom. Shalom is more than a lack of war. It is the wellbeing of the people.
I know, it seems so naive of me… This vision found in our Hebrew Scriptures is a silly. We people of faith, who take these messages and allow them to guide our ethics and goals, are not in step with the culture around us. The words found in our anthem today of God’s glory coming in warfare as in a mighty swift sword seem much more acceptable and easy. They seem to sound the American way!
But no one said this peace thing was supposed to be easy. No one said that being a disciple of a God of Love was to be a walk in the park. No one said that we were called to sit comfortable in our chairs as a people of faith. Micah was told to be quiet when he spoke his words of discomfort…..
But, hear this as well…. in the discomfort we hear, is also a promise. There is a promise that God, who loves us, will be with us always and that God’s realm will come with our help.
Let me end with Micah’s words of hope for the world as he shared a statement of God’s compassion and steadfast love:
Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession?
God does not retain God’s anger forever, because God delights in showing clemency.
God will have compassion upon us;
God will tread our iniquities underfoot;
God, you will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.
God, you will show faithfulness to Jacob and unswerving loyalty to Abraham, as you have sword to our ancestors from the days of old. Amen.