November 27, 2016
William G. Carter
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples 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 the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; 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 any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
The Christmas cards will begin to arrive soon. Many will announce the grand wish of “peace on earth.” Peace is a Christmas word. The angels appeared to the shepherds on Christmas Eve. They announced the birth of the Savior and sang of peace. It comes to us when the candles are lit and we sing “Silent Night.” Peace is a Christmas word.
But peace is also an Advent word. Advent is the season of longing and anticipation. For the four weeks before the birth of the Christ, we listen to our hearts. What does the world need? For what do our souls hunger? What do we want for ourselves and for our planet more than anything else? At the top of the wish list is peace.
It’s what we want. “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation any more.” That is a beautiful hope. We can hang the picture in the gallery of all our hopes.
What comes to your mind when you hear about peace?
I recall how one of the young adults in our church was serving in the army. He was deployed to a far-off land, to a dangerous place. His mother was worried. When he came home, he showed up with a buzz cut and a big grin. We met for coffee and I asked if he had any good stories. He showed me a picture of him holding a happy Afghan child in his arms. The little girl had a fluffy toy in her hands. That’s peace.
There’s a picture in my memory of a police officer with a group of teenagers. They were in a rough neighborhood. The sky was dark, the streets were littered. And here’s this white police officer and four or five African American kids. They are playing basketball together, shooting hoops and laughing. That’s peace.
Or imagine this: a picture surfaced from the late winter. Here is a family that we know, gathered in a kitchen on a Sunday night. But they are not sitting in front of the television, watching football and eating chicken wings. They are serving up supper in a winter shelter for people who have no roof of their own. Perhaps they could have stood back and considered the difference between themselves and the people they served. But they knew those differences aren’t important. They stood with the hungry and the homeless, and everybody had something to eat. That’s peace.
Peace is possible, says the prophet Isaiah. People can come together, despite all that keeps them apart. The prophet says, “All the nations” will stream into the house of the Lord. He does say all the nations. Presumably that includes all the people of all the nations. This is a really big vision.
Peace is the will of God. It is what God desires and what God makes possible. The prophet says peace comes as all the nations go up to, and through, the house of God. God’s ways are not the ways of war. God’s paths are the practices of peace. And when all the people are filled full of God’s instruction, they will get along. The nations will cooperate, rather than infringe, invade, dominate, or plunder.
It’s a big vision, a universal vision of what God values most of all: for people to live in peace. It’s so big that the prophet Micah pretty much copies the same words in his own book. As an old friend once said to me, “If a sermon is worth preaching once, it’s worth preaching again.” I believe that. I don’t do that very much, but I believe that.
Someone said this is the kind of text to be read aloud in public, and often. “There is no shortage of occasions in the cycle of the year, and in the life of nations, for which such a reading would be appropriate: Memorial Day, Veterans Day, the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, the signing of peace treaties, or visits to the Vietnam War Memorial.” (New Interpreter’s Bible, p. 70). Because if we don’t keep alive God’s vision of peace, all we are doing is merely remembering war.
So the church gives it to us to read on the first Sunday of Advent, as we look ahead for the coming of Jesus Christ. The question, really, is how we turn the vision into reality.
Some might say, that’s none of our business. If there is a promised time of peace, it will be God’s doing. It won’t be our doing, because human beings are incapable of making peace and keeping it. Do you agree with that?
It’s true that our species has a continuing preference for division. We hold onto hurts and nurse grudges. When a man came along and told us to forgive one another, we put him on the cross. We don’t do well when it comes to living in peace.
After we went to war with Afghanistan, one of our members dropped by to see me. An older woman, she had lived through her share of wars and rumors of wars, and she declared she had enough. “Good for you,” I replied. Then she gave me a book and said, “Maybe you can preach a sermon on this some time.” The book was titled War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.
It was a good book. Well, actually, it was a difficult book. Chris Hedges, the writer, had been a war correspondent. He survived ambushes in Central America, imprisonment in Sudan, and a beating by Saudi military police. A former divinity school student, Hedges had seen what war does to people – and how conflict entices them. His conclusion is that war is like an addiction. We can’t help ourselves.
One of my teachers tells about visiting Jerusalem. One day the guide took him to see the Wailing Wall, the last remaining remnant of the great Jerusalem Temple. It’s a holy site. The women cover their heads and step off over here. The men put on yarmulkes, wash their hands seven times as a ritual, and then they can step up to make their prayers.
Just then, a fight broke out. Fists were flying, men were punching one another, and there was blood. Sirens sounded, the riot police were called in. Rival factions were pulled apart. It turns out two different rabbinical schools had gotten into a fight. The reason for their battle? They disagreed over the moment when the Sabbath begins. Does it begin when the sun goes down or at the appearance of the first evening star? This is the reason they fought.
The tour guide turned to my teacher and said, “Are you a Christian?” Yes. “Now do you know why your Jesus didn’t have a prayer in this town?”
There’s just something about being human that won’t let a disagreement drop. Somebody has to be right, somebody has to win, somebody has to prove superiority, somebody has to grind the loser into the dust. And is the will of God? No, of course not. It’s like an addiction that we cannot beat.
So if there is a grand vision of peace, God’s going to have to come in and do it. Some would say we are incapable of peace without divine intervention.
Others would say that’s giving up. Peace is completely our business. Getting along with enemies is our business. To quote the ghost of Jacob Marley, “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.” (from Dickens, A Christmas Carol)
Every day, we can do something to make peace where there is no peace. There is a fence to mend, an enemy to pray for, an apology to make, a kindness to extend. Given the all-too-prevalent addiction to conflict, we must find the human strength to heal, as best we can. And this involves speaking up, even acting up, when there is something wrong that can be corrected.
My friend Rick got himself arrested a few weeks ago in North Dakota. He and ten other Presbyterians drove out to stand with the Sioux people of the Standing Rock reservation. They were part of a gathering of hundreds of religious leaders. They joined with the Sioux people to peacefully and prayerfully protest an oil pipeline that is aimed through sacred land and the water supply.
When there was no response from the capitol, Rick and some others went up to Bismarck to circle the capitol and have a prayer vigil. When there still was no response, he went to knock on the door of the governor’s mansion – and promptly got himself arrested. He told a reporter he did it as a person of faith. “It’s not enough for me to pray for change, when there’s something I might be able to do to help create the change.”
Whether or not you agree with him on that particular issue, the point is well taken. Maybe there is something we can do, to create peace where there is no peace, to right the wrongs, to stand up for those who are cast aside. As the prophet Isaiah says, after the people are instructed in the ways of the God of peace, “they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” We can’t leave peacemaking only in God’s hands.
Down in Mexico, there’s an artist named Pedro Reyes. He had an idea. The city of Culiacan in western Mexico was overwhelmed by gun murders, and the city leaders had tried everything to reduce the violence. Pedro gave them an idea and they tried it together. The city worked with business leaders to create a campaign to benefit the community. If people turned in their weapons, they would receive coupons that could be traded in local stores for appliances and electronics.
They collected 1527 weapons. Forty percent of them were high powered weapons of military caliber. The army took the collection to a military base, and in a public act, they crushed the guns by a steamroller. Then Pedro had the metal taken to a foundry and melted. Then the metal was sent to a hardware factory to produce 1527 shovels. Just like the Bible passage, the weapons of war were transformed into farm tools.
Before we give into the violent impulses of the world, maybe there is something you and I can do.
“Nation shall not rise up against nation.” That is what the Word of God declares as a promise for the world. Some would say it’s impossible for us to pull off, so we pray for God to come and make it happen. Others would say the vision is given to us, as people of faith, and there is something every one of us can do to move us closer to a peaceful world.
For me, I want to hold both perspectives in tension and not let go of either side. Yes, we must be realistic about what kind of world this is, and what kind of creatures we are. True peacemaking seems impossible, and certainly beyond what any one of us can do. Yet, the very fact that we have the vision of the possibility of peace means that it is our responsibility to keep the vision alive. We can do that, because it is God’s vision, and it is given for you and me to live out the promise here and now.
Fifty years ago, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel made their third studio album. It was full of mellow vocal tunes like “Scarborough Fair,” “Homeward Bound,” and “Feeling Groovy.” The album was destined to be a big hit, and went triple platinum. But the final song on that album was a big surprise. It was “Silent Night,” the Christmas carol.
Some of you remember that the big surprise was not only did these two Jewish guys sing “Silent Night,” but that the recording had a voiceover from the seven o’clock news. They were singing “all is calm, all is bright,” while a news announcer reported on the Vietnam War. They sang, “sleep in heavenly peace,” as the news announcer told of race riots and the struggles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“We couldn’t have one without the other,” Paul Simon told somebody. He was exactly right. We can’t sing “Silent Night” without listening to the painful noises of strife and war. And we can’t ever give in to the strife and war on earth without affirming that, at the heart of all things, there is heavenly peace. We hold them together until peace finally wins.
And we do this in the name of Jesus Christ, the One we nailed to the cross, the One whose coming we await. He said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” He ought to know.