Exactly 100 years ago - give or take a few weeks - some men got together and played soccer. But this was no ordinary soccer match; this might be the most interesting soccer game that has ever been played. The players were from England and Germany, but it was not the World Cup or even the Euro Cup.
This soccer game happened during World War I. England and Germany were on opposite sides, dug into trenches in the French country side. Both sides were sustaining heavy losses, but it was only 1914, and the losses were destined to much get heavier.
The things that caused WWI are complicated: an assassination, complex royal family ties, crisscrossed national interests and nationalistic pride, the dying gasp of European colonialism, etc. Whatever the reasons, none of them make a good enough reason in my view for a war that ended with about 17 million people either dead or missing.
Yet on Christmas Day, 1914, soldiers from both sides set up goals and boundaries in No Man's Land - the area between the two battle lines - and they played soccer. This was a part of what later came to be known as the Christmas Truce of 1914, an informal ceasefire that took place along some sections of the Western Front. In the middle of one of the most violent - and also, pointless - wars in human history, soldiers crossed the supposedly uncrossable lines of conflict to remember things that went even deeper than the conflict.
Unfortunately the peace didn't last forever. A few days later they went back to killing each other, and the commanding officers on both sides made sure there was no Christmas truce in later years.
Nonetheless, this story reminds me of one of my favorite passages from the Hebrew Prophet Micah:
But 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 mountain of the LORD,
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
and the LORD’s word from Jerusalem.
God will judge between the nations
and settle disputes of mighty nations,
which are far away.
They will beat their swords
into iron plows
and their spears
into pruning tools.
Nation will not take up sword
they will no longer learn
how to make war.
All will sit underneath
their own grapevines,
under their own fig trees.
There will be no one to terrify them;
for the mouth of the LORD of heavenly forces has spoken. (Micah 4:1–4 CEB)
In Micah 4:1-4 the nations are drawn to God, God judges them and settles their arguments, and fighting and war become obsolete. What a wonderful picture!
But then they respond by doing something incredible. They aren't just drawn to God; their lives are totally changed. Their outlook, their circumstances, the way they see and experience the world have undergone a total transformation. So they take the tools that they used to use to destroy things, and they modify them into tools that foster life.
They turn their swords into plows. Instead of cutting into peoples’ bodies, instead of killing with swords, they turn them into plows. A plow is also a tool that cuts, but it cuts into the earth in order to bring forth life and food. Then they turn their spears into pruning hooks. Instead of stabbing and killing, these tools will strategically trim a plant in a way that will cause it to live more fully and bear more fruit.
This is God's plan for war and for all of our fighting: swords into plows; spears into pruning instruments. Our instruments of destruction get turned into instruments of life. But this isn't just God's plan for our tools, this is God's plan for us too.
We are like swords and spears. Our words and our actions destroy, and they cut and stab. We break things, and we mess stuff up, but God wants to make us into plows and pruning tools. God wants to make us new, and God wants to make us into the kind of things that make other things new. God does just that through Christ. In the words of John Calvin, commenting on this passage in Micah 4:
...the fruit of the doctrine of Christ …[is]... that men, who were before like cruel wild beasts, would become gentle and meek. Forge then shall they their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks.
The end result of Christ is that we are totally transformed into something new: God becomes our God, and we become God's people. Which brings us back to the Christmas Truce of 1914. How appropriate that it was at Christmas! Christmas is where God comes down in Christ and crosses all of our battle lines, clearing space in our world and in our lives and in our hearts for peace and joy, clearing a playing field where there once was only a battle field.
To become this playing field - this space for peace and joy that God clears for the sake of the world through Christ - is the calling of the church. We gather Sunday mornings for worship so that God can reshape us and transform us from instruments of violence into instruments of life.