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
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
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"
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
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
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.
© 2002 Kenneth F. Baily. Used by permission.
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.