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Based on the Lectionary readings for The Second Sunday of Advent (Peace Sunday)
Mark 1: 1-8
Isaiah 40: 1-11

2002 December 8
Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

Peace

Two thousand, five hundred and ninety years ago this coming March 16, Jerusalem was captured by Babylon. And the prophet Isaiah confronted an evil empire. And he wondered, did God's people fall to Babylon because of faithlessness? Or did this happen so that they could learn for the future? Isaiah said yes to both questions. But above all he said that when we live in God's ways God is with us; and when God is with us, we live in new ways.

If you don't know why I'm speaking of Babylon, or don't remember where it was, it sat atop the Persian Gulf. It included the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, and the great city of Ur, Abraham's home. Babylon was where Iraq is today. I contemplate it because the people of God have been struggling with the rulers of this area for a long time. And for all that time we have had several questions before us: what does our role in this relationship reveal about our faith? Is there anything we can learn from our experience to guide our practices and keep us close to God? Or, can our history and faith teach us how to act just now?

These are important questions in worship because today is the U.N. deadline for information from Iraq, today is peace Sunday in churches around the world, and any day now America could be called to war in Babylon. And we must think and pray and talk a bit about war and peace and faith first, so that our mistaken past is not our future path.

It is not simple for me to speak of these issues, because they scare me. War terrifies me. Making difficult faith decisions unsettles me, too. And, honestly, disagreeing with any of you about these issues troubles me as well. Although perhaps as we listen together we will find that we don't disagree, because of our common faith and hope and love.

What I say today is not offered as an absolute or a mandate. It is what has been revealed to me, and my faith is that your revelations are important, too. And to share these, to talk of war and peace and Iraq we must recall some background.

Since ancient times war has often been accepted as a fact of life. Sometimes it has been praised. Hericlitus taught us that war is "the father of all and king of all." In the fifth century B.C. he wrote that "all things come into being and pass away through strife." In the 1200's Thomas Aquinas wrote how war could be "just" in a Christian model: if it was under the authority of a sovereign, followed a just cause, and was well intentioned for the advancement of good. In the 1500's a cleric (named Francisco de Vitoria) added that "proper means" must be used to conduct a war. Around 1900 Nietzsche wrote that "a good war hallows every cause," and he condemned what he called the slave mentality of Christians who preach humility and turning the other cheek.

The 1900's also brought a new technology to war, leading many theologians to say that now there can never be a just war, because bombs hit civilians, so there can never be "proper conduct" in battle.

Before the time of Hericlitus the Hebrews, who were no strangers to battle, began preaching the new value of Shalom, translated as peace or wholeness. This wholeness was given by God. This peace revealed the presence of God. Think of Moses' benediction in Numbers when he says "the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace." (6:26) Or think of how peace is the opposite of wickedness in Proverbs and Psalms, or as Isaiah writes, "there is no peace, says the Lord, for the wicked." (48:22) The Hebrews valued God's shalom.

In the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, Zecharia says that the point of the realm of God is "to guide our feet in the way of peace." (1:79) And the name of the savior is prince of peace. But you know all that. Along with the blessing for the peacemakers and the words of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane to put away the sword, for if we live by it we will die by it. You know all that. And it takes more than a recitation of the scriptures to answer our questions here, although we need them with us, too.

We need them today to answer the question, what do we do now? What do we do if an aggressive tyrant threatens peace? Assuming he does. Isn't war justified then?

There is not an easy answer for me. There is only a hard answer, which figures. It is an answer living in the shadow of the cross, the light of resurrection and of Advent's promise of new life. It is an answer which we apprehend only in part, although we need it fully. My answer is that war is wrong. And that not to say so is wrong. And that good people, Christians, do wrong things. We are sinners. Which is not a defense. It is something to confess in humility as we earnestly strive to live anew. For Christians are called to be peacemakers.

Therefore we should not initiate war. If we go to war we must do so with confession and the commitment to penance, which means repair.

On the night that the Gulf War began in 1991 Robert Novak, the conservative columnist, signed off his program saying please remember, there is no glory in war, not ever. He was paraphrasing Eisenhower who said people wanted peace so much one day the generals might have to get out of the way and let them have it. He was sensitive to Christian theology, which says that every person is created in the divine image and that no person has the right to choose who lives and who dies. Only God has that authority. Yet we have the power. And it is a terrible power.

After the detonation of the first atomic bomb Winston Churchill wrote that "the stone age may return on the gleaming wings of science, Beware," he said, "time may be short." Which worries me today. Because the weapons that we use and the authority that we usurp repeat an ancient pattern of domination and destructiveness. And that is the way of death, not life, which is our call. And our hope, as we've heard.

The rich, passionate passage that we receive from Isaiah today begins a new section of hopeful prophetic inheritance. It is a call to new life. It looks back on the Babylonian exile and toward the restoration of the people of Israel. And it knows that a new time demands new understandings. One of the most radical of these suggests that Israel's hope does not require the control of land or even the temple. But that God could be present in new and different ways, calling the people to new and different lives of faith. And among these are four calls to servanthood -- four servant songs spread out across ten chapters. We know them because they speak of the servant being a light to the nations, despised, rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, wounded for our transgressions, and much more that has made its way into Christian theology and music. Yet we must not let their poetry eclipse their priority: Israel, the Jews, Jesus, the Christians will not triumph by being dominators or entering the same ancient cycles of death and death. God calls us, says Isaiah, to a cosmic re-ordering: make straight in the desert a highway for our God, every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill made low. A cosmic reordering to draw all flesh, which I think means everyone, together. And (this prophecy concludes) there will be an intimacy here, as God will carry us at his bosom, says the prophet. That is, we've been given a new way to live. We can stop rejecting it by usurping God's authority, and must accept both some humility and some new ethics to live in restoration.

These are not easy lessons to apply. And this is not an easy time, these weeks of gathering war. But we are called, at a time of international difficulty, to an ethic of humble peace. This is a hard ethic. It angers some people. It doesn't arrive in a moment.

If you ask me what Jesus might think of Saddam Hussein and his tyranny I suspect he would say that he is a hostile sinner. But if you ask me what Jesus might think of America who in the last conflict with Iraq killed tens of thousands of non-combatants, and whose bombs the Pentagon reports missed their targets 70% of the time, I suspect the word sin might show up in that report, too. This is not even remotely a condemnation of veterans or soldiers or many Americans. It is a condemnation of violence and a recollection of the truth that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And all of us are called to so much more!

The poet Theodore Roethke wrote "in a dark time the eyes begin to see." Perhaps darkness has not yet fallen and I am preaching too soon, or not clearly enough. Or perhaps this peace Sunday in Advent somehow compels us to speak of all this, pray of all this, and open our hearts to what God is sending us this season which will yet surprise and renew us. John Stendahl, a preacher from just up the street, writes in the current Christian Century that our Gospel message which speaks of the beginning has a simple, wonderful point: to be at the beginning means that we are not prisoners of the past. Maybe that is promise enough to get us going. That and the many words for which I do not have time, and which you have yet to share. Yet let me end with these.

Fifty-four years ago Mahatma Gandhi was shot in New Delhi. In eulogies to him General Douglas McArthur said that he proved a way to change the world without battle, and England's warrior Lord Mountbatten said that after Gandhi, war was obsolete. Gandhi based his ethics on Jesus'. And then Martin Luther King, Jr. learned from Gandhi, and Jimmy Carter learned human rights from King and we sit here in this room with folks who work in education and law and heath care and family life and business and government and more and perhaps we can disperse new life, too. Perhaps this seed is spreading already.

A moment's visit to this theology won't solve all of the questions of peace forever. A single sermon here won't be the voice for all of us. Some issues have been with us since the time of Isaiah and beyond. But our voices are important. Our ethics, our faith, are important. Our prayers for peace and wholeness are important, and our humility, service, and hope are important. The word comfort that the prophet quotes today means "strength with." Comfort means strength with. All I pray for is God's strength be with us, that we may work for peace. All I pray is that we try.

Comfort, comfort my people, says our God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is over. Prepare a way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain made low. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed. All flesh shall see it, together.  Amen.

Back to topCopyright 2002 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.

http://www.nhcc.net/sermons/Sermon20021208.htm

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