Monday, December 10, 2007

In the Meantime: Be at Peace

(A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent based on Isaiah 11:1-10 & Romans 14:4-13)

Here in the meantime—the meantime between the First and Second Advents of Jesus Christ—we who belong to the Lord are to be at peace.

And that seems very, very hard to accept and even harder to live.

When I say that we are to be at peace I run the risk of sounding like one of those ancient prophets of whom Jeremiah declared, “They preach ‘Peace, peace’ when there is no peace!” It sounds like I’m saying that we should act like everything is all right when we know good and well that it isn’t.

No one sitting in this room has ever known a time when there were not “wars and rumors of wars.” Oh, there were times when our nation was not actively at war but we all knew that we were at risk.

I grew up during the Vietnam era. From the time I was eight years old the evening news broadcasts brimmed with reports on the battles of that long war. Once a week Walter Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley would give us the weekly casualty count. I remember wondering—and I was very literal in my wondering—if we would be fighting that war for the rest of time.

Now we are engaged in protracted wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan. I am praying that our leaders will not deem it necessary to expand our military presence into our areas. When will those wars end? And even if they do end anytime soon, our leaders keep reminding us that we are engaged in a war against terrorists that has no end that they can perceive. Those terrorists hang over our heads like nuclear weapons used to do.

Then there is the threat of mass destruction. I have watched and read many of the works of fiction that have treated the theme of potential nuclear annihilation. Works like the novel On the Beach and the television movie The Day After were terrifying to me. Even Dr. Strangelove, which played nuclear war for laughs, was chilling. We don’t think about that much anymore, although maybe we should. Just this month Scientific American’s cover story reported on the move to upgrade America’s nuclear arsenal that is underway. We worry about other nations like Iran and North Korea acquiring nukes and we worry about an existing weapon falling into the hands of terrorists.

I haven’t even mentioned the fact that there is a dearth of peace in our personal relationships. People live in fear of one another. People are afraid to speak the truth to each other. We all want to categorize each other so that we can say, “There, I’ve got her labeled. She’s one of those and now I don’t have to go to all the trouble of dealing with her as a troublingly unique individual.” Even within the fellowship of the church we tend to pass judgment on one another and compare our righteousness with somebody else’s.

When I make that comparison my righteousness always comes out on top, naturally.

But I say again: here in the meantime between the First and Second Advents we who are Christians are to be at peace. The prophet Isaiah spoke of the peace that was to come. That’s the way that we think of peace, too; it is something that will come one day, when Jesus returns. There is nothing improper about that way of thinking. It will come, indeed.

Interestingly, Isaiah spoke these words when peace looked very unlikely for Judah. Conflict was raging all around. Wars and rumors of wars threatened to reduce the Davidic monarchy, which had once stood as a mighty cedar, to a pitiful stump. Indeed, Isaiah said that it would be so. In that context, Isaiah, seeing life with God-inspired eyes, said, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (11:1). Isaiah envisioned a time when that pitiful stump of the monarchy of David would bring forth a new king. That king would, because he would have the spirit of God and thus the heart of God, bring about perfect righteousness and perfect justice not just to Israel but to the whole world. He would judge the wicked and vindicate the righteous. Everything he did would be done in God’s way.

And what an era that king’s coming would usher in! Nothing less than a return to the paradise of Eden would be realized. All of creation would exist in harmony. The very nature of nature would be transformed. Perhaps most significantly, ancient enmities would be abolished; rather than living with the old hatred between people and serpents, a baby would be able to play with a poisonous viper and not be harmed. And if that could happen, then what other enmities could be brought to an end? There would truly be peace on earth—a peace brought about the Prince of Peace, a peace based on God’s law which after all is the law of love.

But, Isaiah, said, that did not exist in his “now”; it had to wait for God’s “then.”

God’s “then” did come; the Prince of Peace who came from the stump of David did break into this world. He came preaching and teaching and living out God’s ways of righteousness and justice and peace.

And we killed him. That’s the way of the world—we kill the Prince of Peace.

But he rose again and he will come again one day. So we still talk about how this prophecy of Isaiah will be fulfilled out there one day, still in God’s great “then.” That is proper talk. Obviously, our world is nowhere near a scene like the one painted by Isaiah.

Yet—we live in the here and now. Yet—we are the children of God right now. Yet—we are the followers of Jesus Christ in the present.

So I say again: in the meantime, we are to live in peace. How do we do that?

Here is one way: let us receive and live in the word of peace. The words of the prophet are for us. The words of the good news are for us. The words of Jesus are for us. There will one day be utter, final, and complete peace. We must live in that hope that is born from the truth to which we hold. But the Prince of Peace has already come. He is present in our hearts. He is present in this world. The peace in which we live in Christ is a far greater truth than the truth told by the broken, conniving, warring world. Let us receive the word of peace in faith and live it in hope.

Father Alfed Delp was a Jesuit priest who was imprisoned as a traitor by the Nazis. Listen to these words that he penned just a short while before he was hanged in 1945.

The horror of these times would be unendurable unless we kept being cheered and set upright again by the promises that are spoken. The angels of annunciation, speaking their message of blessing into the midst of anguish, scattering their seed of blessing that will one day spring up amid the night, call us to hope. These are not yet the loud angels of rejoicing and fulfillment that come out into the open, the angels of Advent. Quiet, inconspicuous, they come into rooms and before hearts as they did then. Quietly they bring God’s questions and proclaim to us the wonders of God, for whom nothing is impossible. [Alfred Delp, "The Shaking Reality of Advent," in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), p. 88.]

Another way we can live in peace is to share and live out the word of peace. We do not in fact cry out “’Peace, peace’ when there is no peace.” We in fact have peace with God through Jesus Christ and we can bear witness to that peace with our words and with our lives. We know that while peace is already it is also not yet. We know the foretaste of glory divine that comes from having Jesus Christ in our hearts and having him change our relationships with other people. We have the blessed privilege of being the people of peace in a broken and warring world.

Hear Alfred Delp again. He said that if one wants to be truly alive during these trying times, one must “walk through these gray days oneself as an announcing messenger.”

So many need their courage strengthened, so many are in despair and in need of consolation, there is so much harshness that needs a gentle hand and an illuminating word, so much loneliness crying out for a word of release, so much loss and pain in search of inner meaning. God’s messengers know of the blessing that the Lord has cast like seed into these hours of history. [Delp, p. 89.]

In short, we need to be the messengers of peace in a world filled with conflict.

Thus the Prayer of St. Francis is an appropriate prayer for us:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

In the classic Christmas poem that we sing as the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” Longfellow spoke of how the Christmas bells proclaimed “Peace on earth, good will to men.” Then he said,

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

But then he affirmed,

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Yes, hate is strong and mocks the song. And yes, the wrong shall fail and the right prevail and one day there will be peace.

In the meantime—we are the bells.

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