Isaiah has a vision. A vision of the world renewed. A vision for the redemption of all things. A vision for the salvation of all life. “The nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2:4).
At the beginning of this book, the book of Isaiah, in chapter two, Isaiah prophecies the transformation of weapons into tools to grow food. Swords into plows for the ground. Spears into hand shears for gardening. Instruments of death will be converted into tools for the garden, all as part of God’s plan to renew life, because God is committed to life. God is devoted to our lives, to the lives of all the nations, our neighbors near and far.
God is the creator, the one who creates, who wants to sustain the world, the one who never gives up on what has been made. That’s what God wants. And that’s what Isaiah wants. And that’s what we want.
The prophecy comes from a dream from the beginning of time, lodged in our imagination—a poem, recited around fires, remembered from what was passed down from ancestors, memories spoken by elders long before the written word, then pieced together in that opening scene of the Bible, those first pages of Genesis, where there’s a world full of life, the sun and moon, trees and grass, fish and birds, rivers and people.
In the beginning, there’s a garden. At the center of the world, the Garden of Eden, with human beings as the first gardeners—there to till and keep the land, to offer themselves in service of life, for creation to flourish.
The end will be like the beginning. That’s what Origen of Alexandria said in the early years of the church, in the third century. The end of all things will be like beginning of the world. The peace at the beginning is our hope for the future.
God’s work today is the labor of restoration, of repairing what has gone wrong, of renewing the world. The Greek word is apocatastasis—it’s there in Peter’s sermon in Acts; we could call it the first sermon of the church, the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples in Jerusalem. In that first sermon, Peter tells the crowds about an ancient vision, a vision of hope—a hope for, as he puts it, “the time of universal restoration,” an apocatastasis, where the end will be like the beginning, “announced long ago through the prophets” (Acts 3:21), prophets like Isaiah, and like Micah, who offers the same dream, the same hope, with the same words as Isaiah: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (Micah 4:3).
That’s from the prophet Micah, offering the same vision as we heard from Isaiah: Swords into plows for the ground. Spears into hand shears for gardening. Weapons converted into tools for the garden, all as part of God’s plan to renew life. In Hebrew, Jews pray for the Tikkun olam, the “repair of the world”—it’s a prayer to God, and an invitation for the faithful to restore what has been broken, to heal wounds, to do the work of hope.
In the second half of the book, Isaiah says all of this again, but the image shifts a little, the angle changes slightly. In the first part of Isaiah’s prophecy, the nations are invited to give up their weapons of war and to take up gardening tools instead, to repair the world, Tikkun olam, so that the end might be like the beginning, the world restored to the Garden of Eden. That’s what we heard in those earlier passages. But now, in this later part of Isaiah, the people of God become the garden—this is Isaiah 58:11, “You shall be like a watered garden.” The people aren’t called to pick up the plow and pruning shears and get out there and do God’s work in the world. Instead, the people themselves are the garden—their lives together, their fellowship, their existence is a garden. “You shall be like a watered garden,” Isaiah prophesies—You shall be “like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.” The people are transformed into a garden. Their common life becomes a place in the world where life grows, where the life of God pours out for others, like a spring, like a river.
There’s a homelessness written into these Bible passages, a homesickness, a longing for return, for reunion. These prophecies were written in exile, the people of God living under oppression, their lives controlled by their enemies. Day to day they worked for their oppressors. And night after night they dreamed of their homeland. Everything about their lives told them that God had abandoned them. All the evidence—the injustice, the corruption, the cruelty—all of it seemed to say that God had abandoned their world, that they were all alone, that they had no reason to believe in anything anymore, that all of life was meaningless, their lives thrown into the trash heap of empires, that they were a disposable people.
And, somehow, they had hope—not only that God would restore all things, that the world would be remade into a garden again, but also that they would be that garden, now, that God would nourish the world with the goodness from their lives, that God would refresh the world through them, that they would be a sign of God’s care. They would be a living testimony, bearing witness to another reality happening in the midst of the ruins, a senseless hope: that God is repairing the world.
That’s our world. That’s where we live. As people living in a world beyond our control, yet dreaming of hope, and striving daily to live into that vision.
Hope is a spring of water, bubbling up within us, sustaining our lives.
Hope is what we do, here, together—speaking life to one another, caring for each other. And all of this is God flowing through us, streams of living water.
We become a garden for hope to grow, as we bear fruit, sustenance for ourselves and our neighbors, the love of God for the world.
We are gardens, God’s gardens, full of life, bearing God’s beauty. And God is the gardener, making sure we have what we need to survive.
During our worship service today Catherine Lee was licensed for ministry—a formal recognition of the fruit we’ve seen in her life, an affirmation of her ministry as a chaplain, that her ministry is an extension of the life we share as a congregation. If the church is a garden, then Catherine is one of our vines, a branch, a limb, reaching out to people we don’t know, God’s people in communities beyond our own. And her ministry affects us because she brings those people back to us when she tells us their stories. She reminds us of what God is doing elsewhere.
Gardens happen anywhere. Some need lots of cultivation, with plowshares and pruning hooks and irrigation. And other gardens pop up on street corners, in abandon lots—with a tomato seed somehow finding a patch of soil in the rubble. I’ve seen a squash plant turn a deserted lump of ground into vines of green and yellow, unexpected and uncontrollable life. That’s how God works.
Professional ministry is a lot of things to a lot of people. Lots of grandiose things are said about ministers, about their role in the world, about the significance of their calling, of our calling. If there’s one way to describe the job, I’d put it this way: We bear witness. We bear witness to God’s love, those streams of living water bubbling up in gardens all around us. And we share that good news—we tell the story of God’s life in the world, the story of God written in the lives of the people we meet.
To be a minister is about bearing witness—to pay attention to the loveliness of the world, the beauty of God’s people, and sharing with others what we’ve seen of God’s grace, of God’s mercy, of God’s love holding all of this together, this precious life, this astonishing world.
Catherine, as your ministry reaches out toward other gardens, keep on telling us what you see of God’s life. So we can cultivate hope together. Because that’s what all of us need—the wildness of God’s life, like vines growing through the ruins, like the flowers in Yehuda Amichai’s poem, his words as our prayer:
Let it come
suddenly, because the field
must have it: wildpeace.