The Spirit of Peace

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This is a vuvuzula. It is a long, narrow horn that really caught on in World Cup soccer matches a few years back.

These simple horns can produce up to 120 decibels of sound when you are standing just three feet in front of them. That is as loud as a rock concert or a jet engine. It’s kind of hard to believe that such a little piece of plastic can make all that noise!

At that level of sound, there can be permanent hearing loss, damage, and actual pain from the noise that is involved.

So, if we imagine 300 men, surrounding the Midianite army in the middle of the night, blowing horns and smashing pots and creating the noise of 300 rock concerts going off in the middle of the night – maybe, just maybe, we can understand why the Midianite army turned around and fled before a rag tag bunch of soldiers under the command of a man named Gideon.

As children, when we hear the stories of God’s victory in the Old Testament, we might be reminded of how Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and made the walls come tumbling down with marching and shouting.

We might think of the shepherd boy David and how he took down the giant of a man Goliath and thus saved the day.

Or we might think of the story we heard this morning about Gideon’s defeat of the enemies with a bunch of horns and smashed pots.

As children, we hear these tales of God’s victory… but rarely do we go into the harsh realities of battle and war. We conveniently skip over the parts of the story where men, women, children, and animals are destroyed in the name of God.

As adults, when we reread these familiar and inspiring stories I know I start to wonder what kind of a God the Old Testament describes… how could this be the same Prince of Peace that we find in the gospels? Where is the God of mercy and love?

I know that more than one of you has come up to me after some of these difficult bible passages and you have asked what we should make of these stories of war and destruction. We don’t understand the genocide that we read on these pages that accompany God’s victory. We can’t comprehend the loss of life.

Or maybe we can.

Maybe these battles seem so real to us because of the wars that we engage in.
We, as a nation, have been fighting in Afghanistan for fifteen years.
In your lifetimes, we have been a part of war on five continents.

And in a week like this, when we have celebrated our nation’s independence, we know that so many of our battles were entered to preserve and defend the truths for which we stand.

At the same time, we are tired of all the fighting.

We took my niece and nephews to a parade recently and as the procession turned the corner and we caught a glimpse of the color guard, the kids began to sing – “you’re a grand old flag.”

We have lots of patriotic songs, but their school had spent some time in the past year with that particular one. At ages 5 and 8 they knew every single word and shouted them out proudly. You’re a grand old flag. You’re a high flying flag and forever in peace may you wave…..

And forever in peace may you wave…

those words jumped out as me as these children sang them.

Forever in peace…

I once believed that the opposite of peace was war.

I believed that we would finally have peace in our lives when men and women… but mostly men… laid down their weapons.

I believed that peace would come when all of our brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and sons and daughters returned home.

But I’m not sure that is true anymore.

Anyone you ask will tell you that we have a lack of peace in our world, but we also lack peace in our nation, in our state, and in our families.

Even if all the swords and guns in the world were destroyed does not mean that peace will come.

Peace, you see, must be bigger than a lack of war.

Peace must encompass more than the fights we find ourselves in.
The peace that we seek is like the peace of Isaiah in chapter 65….

I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
will be heard in it no more.
20 “Never again will there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not live out his years;

21 They will build houses and dwell in them;
they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
23 They will not toil in vain
or bear children doomed to misfortune;

25 The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox…

In the Hebrew Scriptures THIS VISION, lifted up by the prophets, is Shalom.

Shalom is a Hebrew word that means peace, not only in terms of fighting and conflict – but it describes the wholeness of life. As one commentator put it, “everything fits together, the relationships work like they were designed to, and things just work right.” (http://listeningtoscripture.com/Textual_Studies/Isaiah/12isaiahspeace.html)

Paul Hanson says that shalom is “the realm where chaos is not allowed to enter, and where life can be fostered free from the fear of all which diminishes and destroys.”

Doesn’t that sound amazing?
A life free from the fear of all that could destroy us?

That is the peace that we seek.

For those of us who are farmers or gardeners… when the usual flow of the seasons and the weather doesn’t cooperate… we fear that drought or too much water could destroy our crops and our livelihood.

When we work with machines, like in a factory, there are constant safety protocols to keep the terrible from happening… we are constantly regulating the chaos and trying to prevent spills, injuries, and death.

When we are a part of families, we try to manage our time and our schedules, fearing we won’t have enough time with one another and that our relationships will suffer because of it.

The opposite of peace isn’t war… but chaos.

And chaos is a life where there is no freedom from fear. A life where any and everything takes away from our ability to live and live abundantly.

How many of you know chaos in your lives today?

In Ancient Israel, chaos was the norm. Nation states were constantly fighting for land and power and dominance. There were no programs for social security. A single drought could wipe a family out. That was if they had anything left after the rulers took away their goods.

In the time of Gideon, the people were afraid. Their crops were being confiscated, their lands were being consumed by the Midianites and they cried out for help.

And God responded… NOT by sending them into war… but by reminding them that God was and always has been on their side.

My favorite part of this story is when God whittles away the army of 32,000 able men to 300.
Three hundred individuals take nothing but jars and torches and trumpets and scare away a whole army.

And God does this to remind them that while human warriors can’t defeat the forces that destroy shalom and bring chaos… God can.

The Israelites have no need to raise a standing army and to set a king over them… they have one God who reigns over them.

And God will fight for them.

They don’t need to be afraid of those things that might destroy them. They only need to trust.

But you know what, that trust in God doesn’t last long amongst the Israelites.

They keep demanding a king. They keep crying out to be like the other nations and to be able to demonstrate their strength through armies.

Finally, God relents and allows them to set a king over themselves.

But as Bruce Birch reminds us, “Israel, in the belief that it could create its own security, was in reality flirting with chaos.”

If you read through the books of Chronicles and Kings and the prophets you see how time and time again, the kings went to war – with God on their side or not – for power and territory.

They brought chaos upon themselves, because they were trusting in their ways and not God’s ways.

It would be tempting to say that if we simply trusted in God more, chaos would disappear.

The rains would come more regularly.
Our paychecks wouldn’t be so sporadic.
Fights between parent and children would diminish.

I’m not sure that God promises us that… at least in this lifetime.

The peace offered to us by Christ is a peace that is different from the one the world offers.

It is the peace that comes from relationships returned to their rightful balance through forgiveness and mercy.

It is the peace that comes when we learn to trust in God more than our pocketbooks.

It is the peace that comes when our priorities are realigned and family comes before our jobs.

It is the peace that comes when we remember that while this moment or this present struggle might be difficult, in the end, God is in control and those forces of chaos will not have the final say.

Jesus calls us to be peacemakers and to be a shining city on a hill, an example to all.
And I think the core of how we do that is to trust in him.

To allow the Spirit of God to enter our lives and transform them.

To set us right inside.
To set us right with one another.
To set us right as a people.

And when the chaos of fear leaves our family… or our church… or our city, then people will look at us with wonder and say – what is it that they have figured out?

And when they do, we can point to the One who brought peace… shalom… into our lives and we can tell them all about it.

Amen and Amen.

Light of the World

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The prophet Isaiah is a difficult person to pinpoint.

Unlike some of the other prophets we have covered so far, where we understood who they were and when they were speaking, there has been great debate about whether the entire “Book of Isaiah” was in fact written by one person.

Whether the book is all written by one person, who wrote before and after the Babylonian exile… or if it was written by different prophets all within the school of Isaiah, may not entirely matter.

What is important is that we can divide the book of Isaiah into distinct sections that have some distinct messages.

 

Go ahead and open that pew Bible that is in front of you… or open it in the app on your smart phone.

 

First Isaiah, or the “Isaiah of Jerusalem” was a prophet about 700 years before the birth of Christ.  He was called to be a prophet in the Southern kingdom of Judah.

The message of First Isaiah can be found in chapters 1-39… although there are a few chapters that include material by the other “Isaiahs”.

Second Isaiah’s work focuses on chapters 34 & 35 and 40-55 and take place after the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem around 540 years before the birth of Christ.  The prophecies come near the end of the time of exile and captivity and these chapters are full of words of comfort and reassurance that they will soon return home.

Third Isaiah’s work focuses on chapters 24-27 and 56-66 and take place when the exile ends.  They remind the people that returning home will not be easy or simple.

 

For today, we are going to focus on First Isaiah, chapters 1-39.  First Isaiah understood that God’s home, God’s favor, God’s delight was Jerusalem.  And as such, the kings of the Davidic line that ruled from the capital of Judah, Jerusalem, were also divinely favored.

If you remember from last week, the Northern Kingdom, Israel, had rejected the heirs of David and Solomon and had set up their own capital at Samaria and temple at Bethel.

But the Southern Kingdom, Judah, remained true to the line of David and the temple and capital at Jerusalem.

One of First Isaiah’s central beliefs was that, “while Jerusalem and its king may suffer punishment for sin, God’s chosen city will never be utterly destroyed, nor will King David’s dynasty fall.” (The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, 955)

 

And punishment abounded.

As First Isaiah was called to proclaim:

“How the faithful city has become a whore!  She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her – but now murderers!  Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts.  They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause doesn’t come before them. “

“Therefore says the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes!” (1:21-24)

First Isaiah finds himself called by God to remind the Kings Uzziah, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, to return to the Lord, to repent of their ways and turn to God.  If not, the wrath of God would be felt in the land.

The Lord was their only source of protection and only by trusting in God would they be saved from attacks from outside their borders.

But time and time again, the Kings chose to find security in weapons and alliances instead of in the Lord. They sought protections from Assyrian against Aram and Israel, and eventually found themselves as a vassal state instead of their own nation.  The land was ravaged. Jerusalem was preserved only by God’s grace… but barely… and only because it is the delight of the Lord.

 

It is in this context that First Isaiah speaks the prophecy we find in chapter 9:

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish.  In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.

This small corner of the land – the tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali – were some of those ravaged by the wars of Aram and Israel.  There wasn’t much there, and one scholar notes it was a place where they “fought their wars so ‘nothing important’ was disturbed. (http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/third-sunday-after-the-epiphany4)

As later conquerors came in, the culture of this place was so diluted and transformed by the influx of peoples and languages so that there was no unity.  As Rev. Dawn Chesser writes: “Keep the mix of languages and cultures there mixed enough, and oppressed enough, and no one of them will have the strength or the urge to resist the new overlords.”

This is why it is “the land of deep darkness.”

It is a place that was hopeless.

It was a place that desperately needed good news.

 

First Isaiah firmly believed that in spite of the cycle of sin and punishment, wrath and forgiveness, God would never forsake Jerusalem.  Even if this was a time of struggle and conflict, God’s ultimate plan was that the line of King David would reign.

And that promise, that hope, was a light shining in the darkness.

 

John Wesley, a founder of the United Methodist Church, said that the scripture is twice inspired… once when written and again when it is read.

And I think that is a good reminder to think of when we read these prophecies from the Old Testament.

The prophets were by and large speaking to the people and context, the situations of their day.

In this beautiful hymn about light in the darkness, about a son being given for us, about the endless peace for the throne of David… First Isaiah was probably not thinking about the birth of Jesus.

This was likely a hymn written for the coronation of King Hezekiah, who First Isaiah believed would return the land to God.

First Isaiah, if you remember, had this really high view of the monarchy. He believed the kings were divinely called and eternally chosen by God.  And these words were full of hope and promise that the forsaken lands of Galilee, indeed ALL the lands, would be reunited under Hezekiah’s royal leadership.

 

But if we take seriously the idea that God can inspire the people as we read the scriptures, too, then it is understandable how early Christians, notably Luke and Matthew, remembered these words, remembered this prophecy, and saw it being lived out once again in the birth of Jesus Christ.

And so we find in the gospel of Matthew that this text is quoted and Jesus symbolically begins his ministry in that once and again occupied land of Zebulon and Napthali… before by the Assyrians and in the time of the gospels by the Romans.

And we find in Luke the promise this light in the darkness, this child that is born for us will deliver us from bondange and will uphold the Kingdom of David forever.

 

Even today, whenever we open these pages of scripture, God speaks.

You can read the same passage twenty different times in your life and every time you might have a new insight or learn something new about yourself or about God.

And that is because these words are alive.

These promises were true yesterday and they are just as true today and they will be tomorrow.

 

We are tempted to leave these old prophecies on the shelves, to forget about their harsh words and judgements, to leave the wrath of God with the prophets and to instead focus on the gospel.

But these words, though spoken to a particular context, still have meaning for our context today.

As we watch political ads on our televisions, I am reminded that we live in a time of political unrest and deception.

As I heard news that Iowa is now ranked last in our care for the mentally ill, I am reminded that we live in a land that has forgotten the most vulnerable.

As we watch the fallout from Brexit, some might say that we, as people of this earth pursue our own self-interest ahead of the needs of others.

Whenever we fill out houses with things we don’t need instead of generously letting go, we are putting greed ahead of compassion.

Our weapons, our security systems, our locks are reminders that we rely upon our own strength instead of relying upon God.

First Isaiah’s words need to be spoken into our midst today just as much as they did 2700 years ago.

And the call to be God’s people from Isaiah chapter 2 is a call that still echoes across this land today…

Come, let’s go up to the Lord’s mountain,     to the house of Jacob’s God         so that we may be taught God’s ways         and we may walk in God’s paths.” Instruction will come from Zion;     the Lord’s word from Jerusalem. God will judge between the nations,     and settle disputes of mighty nations. Then they will beat their swords into iron plows     and their spears into pruning tools. Nation will not take up sword against nation;     they will no longer learn how to make war.

Come, house of Jacob,     let’s walk by the Lord’s light.

The Gift of Peace

How many of you watched the world cup this year?

How many of you know what a vuvuzula is?

To roughly describe it, a vuvuzula is a long narrow horn – about two and a half feet long – that is a part of South African soccer culture. Perhaps no one quite expected them to catch on as much as they did and the soccer games this year had so many vuvuzelas that there was a constant noise in the background as fans across the world watched the matches.

These simple horns can produce up to 120 decibels of sound when you are standing just three feet in front of them. That is as loud as a rock concert or a jet engine. It’s kind of hard to believe that such a little piece of plastic can make all that noise!

At that level of sound, there can be permanent hearing loss, damage, and actual pain from the noise that is involved.

So, if we imagine 300 men, surrounding the Midianite army in the middle of the night, blowing horns and smashing pots and creating the noise of 300 rock concerts going off in the middle of the night – maybe, just maybe, we can understand why the Midianite army turned around and fled before a rag tag bunch of soldiers under the command of a man named Gideon.

As children, when we hear the stories of God’s victory in the Old Testament, we might be reminded of how Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and made the walls come tumbling down with marching and shouting. We might think of the shepherd boy David and how he took down the giant of a man Goliath and thus saved the day. Or we might think of the story we heard this morning about Gideon’s defeat of the enemies with a bunch of horns and smashed pots.

As children, we hear the tales of God’s victory… but rarely do we go into the harsh realities of battle and war. We conveniently skip over the parts of the story where men, women, children, and animals are destroyed in the name of God.

As adults, we often reread these familiar and inspiring stories only to wonder what kind of a God the Old Testament describes… how could this be the same Prince of Peace that we find in the gospels? Where is the God of mercy and love? we wonder.

I know that more than one of you has come up to me, either after Bible studies, or even after last weeks’ message about the defeat of the Egyptians and admit that your hearts are heavy with the war and destruction. We don’t understand the genocide that we read on these pages that accompany God’s victory. We can’t comprehend the loss of life.

Or maybe we can. Maybe these battles seem so real to us because of the wars that we engage in. We, as a nation, have been fighting in Afghanistan for almost nine years. In your lifetimes, we have been apart of war on five continents.

And while on a day like today, when we celebrate our nation’s independence, we know that these battles were entered to preserve and defend the truths for which we stand… at the same time, we are tired of all the fighting.

Last night, during the parade, my niece and nephews came and watched the festivities. And as the procession turned the corner from North onto Western and we caught a glimpse of the color guard, they started singing – “you’re a grand old flag.”

Now – of all the patriotic songs for them to choose, that was the one they started singing. And at ages 5 and 8, they knew all of the words. You’re a grand old flag. You’re a high flying flag and forever in peace may you wave…..

And forever in peace may you wave… those words jumped out as me as these children sang them.

Forever in peace…

I once believed that the opposite of peace was war.
I believed that we would finally have peace in our lives when men and women… but mostly men… laid down their weapons.
I believed that peace would come when all of our brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and sons and daughters returned home.
But I’m not sure that is true anymore.

Anyone you ask will tell you that we have a lack of peace in our world, but we also lack peace in our nation, in our state, and in our families.

Just because swords and guns are no present, does not mean there will be peace. Peace must be bigger than a lack of war. Peace must encompass more than the fights we find ourselves in. The peace that we seek is like the peace of Isaiah in chapter 65….


I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying

will be heard in it no more.

“Never again will there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,

or an old man who does not live out his years;
They will build houses and dwell in them;
they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit…
They will not toil in vain
or bear children doomed to misfortune…

The wolf and the lamb will feed together,

and the lion will eat straw like the ox

In the Old Testament… this vision that is lifted up is a dream of Shalom. It is a Hebrew word that means peace, not only in terms of fighting and conflict – but peace in terms of a whole vision of life. As one commentator put it, “everything fits together, the relationships work like they were designed to, and things just work right.” (http://listeningtoscripture.com/Textual_Studies/Isaiah/12isaiahspeace.html)
Paul Hanson says that shalom is “the realm where chaos is not allowed to enter, and where life can be fostered free from the fear of all which diminishes and destroys.”

Doesn’t that sound amazing? A life free from the fear of all that could destroy us?
That is the peace that we seek. When we are farmers and the usual flow of the seasons and the weather doesn’t cooperate… we fear that drought or too much water could destroy our crops and our livelihood.
When we work with machines, say in a factory, there are constant safety protocols to keep the terrible from happening… we are constantly regulating the chaos and trying to prevent spills, injuries, and death.

When we are a part of families and we try to manage our time and our schedules, we fear that we won’t have enough time with one another and that our relationships will suffer because of it.
The opposite of peace isn’t war… but chaos. A life where there is no freedom from fear. A life where any and everything takes away from our ability to live and live abundantly.
How many of you have some measure of chaos in your lives today?
In Ancient Israel, chaos was the norm. Nation states were constantly fighting for land and power and dominance. There were no programs for social security and a single drought could wipe a family out. That was if they had anything left after the rulers took away their goods.

In the time of Gideon, the people were afraid. Their crops were being confiscated, their lands were being consumed by the Midianites and they cried out for help.

And God responded… NOT by sending them into war… but by reminding them that he was and always has been on their side.
My favorite part of this story is when God whittles away the army of 32,000 able men to 300. Three hundred individuals take nothing but jars and torches and trumpets and scare away a whole army. And God does this to remind them that while human warriors can’t defeat the forces that destroy shalom and bring chaos… God can.

The Israelites have no need to raise a standing army and to set a king over them… like they try to make Gideon do… they have one God who reigns over them. And he will fight for them. They no longer need to be afraid of the things that could destroy them. They only need to trust.

But that trust doesn’t last very long. Their clamor for a king, their cries to be strong like the other nations will not be quieted. And so God allowed them to set a king over themselves. And as Bruce Birch reminds us, “Israel, in the belief that it could create its own security, was in reality flirting with chaos.” If you read through the books of Chronicles and Kings and the prophets you see how time and time again, the kings went to war – with God on their side or not, for power and territory.
They brought chaos upon themselves by trusting in themselves and not in their God.
It would be tempting to say that if we simply trusted in God more, chaos would disappear from our lives. The rains would come more regularly. Our paychecks wouldn’t be so sporadic. Fights between parent and child would diminish.

I’m not sure that God promises us that… at least in this lifetime.

But the peace that is offered to us by Christ is the peace that will get us by. It is the peace that comes from relationships that are returned to their rightful balance through forgiveness and mercy. It is the peace that comes when we learn to trust in God more than our pocketbooks. It is the peace that comes when our priorities are realigned and family comes before our jobs. It is the peace that comes when we remember that while this moment or this present struggle might be difficult, in the end, God is in control and those forces of chaos will not have the final say.

When we are called to be peacemakers by Jesus in Matthew… when we are called to be a shining city on a hill – an example to all… I believe Christ is calling us to trust him. To allow the Spirit of God to enter our lives and transform them. To set us right inside. To set us right with one another. To set us right as a people. And when the chaos of fear leaves our family… or our church… or our town, then people will look at us with wonder and say – what is it that they have figured out?

And then we will point to the One who has come into our lives. And we will share the peace of our hearts with others. Amen and Amen.

Praying for Peace

I’ve been thinking a lot about peace lately.

I’ve been praying a lot FOR peace lately.

While this isn’t a family that is facing conflict – many of you know that there is conflict in my family. I am wrestling with the distractions that it brings and must admit that there are days it is all I think about. I wish that there could be some kind of reconciliation or forgiveness between family members, but at the same time I deal with my own hurts and betrayals and wonder if I can forgive. My desire for my grace and healing and yet my holding of grudges and pain are incompatible. They war within me. And all I can do right now is pray for peace.
And then there is another struggle between war and peace that is a reality for us all.

A couple of weeks ago, our president spoke before the nation and an audience at West Point to announce a surge in military personnel in Afghanistan. This on the heels of being named the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.

The two are in so many ways incompatible. From his acceptance speech in Oslo, Obama himself stated:

Still, we are at war, and I am responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land. Some will kill. Some will be killed. And so I come here with an acute sense of the cost of armed conflict – filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace, and our effort to replace one with the other.
Some in this congregation have relatives who are serving our country right now in other nations. Others of you have friends and neighbors that they have said goodbye to far too many times. Many of you have lived through wars and have the memories of sacrifice and bloodshed ingrained deep within your souls.

The reflections of Steve Goodier have been very helpful to me this week and he includes the letter of a man who was serving on a ship anchored in Tokyo Bay in September 1945. Navy chief radioman Walter G. Germann was writing to his son to tell him that the formal surrender of Japan would soon be signed. “When you get a little older you may think war to be a great adventure take it from me, its the most horrible thing ever done by (humans),” he wrote. “Ill be home this Christmas…”

That man knew – as so many of you do – that peace is hard to come by. And even though he would be coming home for Christmas to a world at peace – he wasn’t at all sure if the ends justified the means. He, like many who serve our nation, probably came home broken on the inside – at war with himself as he tried to justify his actions in battle and the horrors he had seen.

I think of the letter of that man, who saw the day of peace dimming brightly in his future, and then I think of the faces of all of the young men and women who were in the audience for President Obama’s speech at West Point – men and women for whom the future is cloudy.

There is not one among us who doesn’t long for peace. And we are unsure whether what we are doing as a nation will get us there. We pray it will. We hope that peace and stability will come quickly in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We want our sons and daughters and sisters and brothers and fathers and mothers and neighbors to come home. We watch another Christmas come and go without peace.

As Eleanor Roosevelt wrote at Christmas in 1942, “I could no more say to you a Merry Christmas without feeling a catch in my throat than I could fly to the moon!” We look around us at families with a loved one missing and we recognize that as long as there is war – there will not be peace.

This week, I read from Luke’s gospel the story of Mary going to greet her cousin. I was amazed with how Elizabeth recognized that the child in her cousin’s womb was the longing of all Israel. She was absolutely overjoyed…. and in her joy and in Mary’s song they recognized that the promise from Micah – the promise of the one of peace – was being fulfilled.

Our hearts in contrast… are jaded and worn and disappointed.

The strange counterpoint of the Nobel Peace Prize and our current wars that tells us we cannot look for peace to come from any national leader.

There was no triumphant singing after Obama’s West Point speech… and while there may have been music in Oslo at the Nobel ceremonies, Obama’s own speech tempered any bit of joy and celebration. It has been a sobering reminder that they are not our saviors and that true peace only comes through Christ. No matter the obeisance paid to our president, he is not the one we are waiting for. He, nor any other leader within our world, is not our savior. He is not the Prince of Peace.

No, We are waiting for another.

The prophet Micah describes this one in this way:

And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace. (Micah 5:4-5)

Mary and Elizabeth and the child in Elizabeth’s womb cannot contain their joy as they encounter this promise of God – yet unborn. They have been longing and waiting and hoping for so long.

As Elizabeth greets and praises her cousin, she exclaims: Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.

Blessed is she who not only believed in a miraculous birth… but blessed is she who believes that this child is the fulfillment of what God has promised.

Blessed are we who hope and pray and wait and believe in what God has promised.

I know that it is hard to do. We live in a world of cynicism and violence, a world of confusion and hatred.

And yet, we come together as people of faith and we light the fourth candle on the advent wreath because we dare to believe that the Prince of Peace will reign.

We dare to hope that there will be day when nation will not rise up against nation.

We dare to wait for the day when the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up.

Steve Goodier, also tells the story of a monument in Hiroshimas Peace Park. This particular monument is in memory of a young girl who died from radiation-induced lukemia after the dropping of the bomb. After hearing a legend that a person who makes 1000 cranes will have their wish granted, she tried to fold 1000 paper cranes. As Steve tells it, “with each crane she wished that she would recover from her illness. She folded 644 cranes before she left this life.” The monument in memory of this young girl named Sadako reads: This is our cry, This is our prayer, Peace in the world.

Now as much as ever, our cry is for peace in the world.

That might be peace in Afghanistan, or peace between you and your neighbors. It might be peace among loved ones, or peace between you and your inner thoughts.
In this season of Advent, we stand in the face of war and suffering and distress and we look for the coming of peace. We stand like Elizabeth, pregnant with hope, that God’s promises are real.
The reality that we long for this and every Advent – The miracle that we wait for this and every Christmas – is that we might wake up one morning and run outside to discover that God is with us – Emmanuel – and that the Prince of Peace rules the earth.

Moltmann Conversation – Session 4 Justice

• War and Peace = 3 options 1) chance swords into Christian swords and become a dragon killer – the evil kingdom is oppressed, the axis of evil eliminated, etc. HCE option and atomic bombs into Christian atomic bombs; 2) leave the swords to the unbelievers – this is an option outside of the perfection of Christ, but the wars are going on and on and on; 3) change swords into plowshares and change war industry into an ecological industrial complex and this is is not to become a peaceable man but a peacemaking man – this would be my option to try to change swords into plowshares. Take swords out of the hands of the violent and make them into peace, because mankind will not survive with swords. For this we need a double strategy – communities which anticipate this peaceable kingdom and on the other hand communities who work for peacemaking in the world. We need peace-makers!

• The anticipation piece, with the piece of resistance- if we embrace hope we live in the peace of resistance. Interested in examples of where are the concrete practices/rhythms/values that we can live as we anticipate. Within the global social movement, resistance only takes us so far before people look for alternatives – where does the church create “landing places” for the future? These movements are not always Christian churches! But many Christians take part in these movements. Some of them are very effective – ie: the green party in Europe, they were an extraparliamentary opposition groups – they formed a party and were bringing the ecological questions to the public. After 20 years, we already see how they pressed these topics/questions of ecology into the other parties – so now they all talk about the environment; same with social justice in Germany – even in free market neo-liberal thought. Showing an alternative life was effective! Many people in Europe don’t join political parties anymore, because that is limited to a nation, while groups are global (like Doctors without Borders).

• Basic communities – different kind of home church – but they tend to embrace practices different from the system – how do they touch you? To live a community life in the slums – to show people how mutual help will bring them out of the misery. The contrary of poverty is is community – b/c in community we are rich in ideas, energies, we can help ourselves. Only the individualization, commercialism that makes people powerless. In community we are strong! Social justice should remind us of the first Christian congregation – Acts 4 – there was not a needy person among them, they had everything in common. This is a promise… but also a commandment in our churches. The church is alive when in the congregation there are communities – smaller groups live together. A lot of churches in Germany are only ½ filled – because you can’t enjoy the service, there is nothing to enjoy – there was a church in Tubingen that is overfilled every Sunday because they consist of smaller communities who meet in houses and work for issues on behalf of the poor, feeding the poor, etc, and then in the service, these groups say what they have done and each speak where they need help and a person who they engaged, etc. (WOW!) This is an old knowledge that a community exists of communities (Wesley class meetings?)

• American public theology has lost a lot of space – the church is relegated to the margins, personal spirituality. Public debate about justice is left to politicians/social services. We wonder in our congregations where is the place of the church? We try to take back some of this public conversation but it’s difficult because the public conversation about justice and goodness is not based on God but is secular. What kinds of vision do you have for the church in relation to that conversation (political theology)? 2 tasks for the church: diakonia – serve the poor and the sick and the homeless and the jobless; prophetic task to say to the powerful and the public “Look! To those who are in the shadows” and without the prophetic voice, the diakonic service would just be reparation and without the diakonic the prophetic would be shallow and empty. Words & deeds. Every person has this experience – if you visit a sick member in the hospital and they say, how nice is it that you are coming b/c my family has forgotten me, you will turn around and go to the family and ask why do you leave your family alone in that hospital?! Same is true for the church at large! We need the silent work and the prophetic voices. You cannot make this – prophets are called and sometimes against their will.

• When I read your work and the work you are asking us to engage into – living the prmise right now… are we becoming co-creators of the kingdom or is this something that we are just to expect to come and to happen? We prepare the way for the righteousness of God to come in our possibilities and our potentialities ,which are certainly limited. Otherwise the kingdom would be the kingdom of man and not of God, so we should have in minds the difference, even if we can and must anticipate the justice of the kingdom. 20th century was called the Christian century – but divided by the colonial powers of the west, and the abyss of WWI, the end of this belief in progress. Now this belief in progress is returning in this idea of globalization – finance/goods/products – this is approaching already with an impact on the environment so we have a globalization without the globe! We need a globalization of social justice, peace-making relationships

• Abu Ghirab – thought of Moltmann’s story and how he said the main thing that helped you follow Jesus was that you experienced so much grace at the hands of your captors – you went back to the camp where you were a prisoner… interested in tension between those two stories. Talk about grace and tragedy: I share with you the anxiety about what your own country can do to other people – it is terrible. We never expected this to happen from the hands of Americans. We had other experiences with Americans after the war in Germany when they started the Marshall plan and the care packages coming, so it’s more convincing to love your enemy than to hate and kill the enemy! So what happened in this prison and Iraq was outrageous and I cannot understand an administration that allows this to happen. But let me stop b/c I don’t want to interfere with your internal affairs – 20 years after the close of the camp I was in, we surviving inmates came together in the same place where nature had taken over the camps and we had worship outside under the oak trees and invited the camp commander to the meeting and he said he had never heard about prisoners who voluntarily came back to the place where they were imprisoned and praised God for what they had experienced! But that is what happened to them and it was a great and gracious gift of the Brit. Govt. and the YMCA to give the former enemies a new chance for life and we will never forget that . After WWI different story, but after WW2 we experienced only help to stand up, to get away from the ruins, to rebuild Germany – reinvented their country with the help of the English, Amerians and the French. This is a much wiser policy when you are against enemies.

• The sweeping up of you into the Hitler Youth and there are young people in other countries who are likewise getting swept up into these movements – any perspective on that? The resistance movements against the Hitler regime were strong in other places because the Germans were an occupation force – to form a resistance in your own people makes you an alien in your own people. To resist apartheid as a black man, was to resist on behalf of your people, but the whites who resisted became isolated in their own people and alienated from own families. This is much more difficult and painful – but one should not… in Germany after WW1 – patriotism was so strong that only a few could go into resistance against your own father – after a time of being alienated in this way – there is no fathership in dictatorship and tyranny! I said to myself when I returned home I will never serve in a german army again – but if I have the chance to kill the german dictator I will do it. I was committed to peace and killing the tyrant. I told this to Mennonites and they said “oh, that’s okay”

FF: Fork in the Road

For today’s Friday Five, share with us five “fork-in-the-road” events, or persons, or choices. And how did life change after these forks in the road?

1. the first that comes to mind is a choice in high school. I agreed with the decision of a teacher instead of sticking up for one of my best friends in the whole wide world. It was a choice that caused lots of heartache and distance for a while, but I’m thankful that God and our other friends kept us together so that we came through on the other end.

2. The second is where I chose to go to college. I had a lot of places I could have gone – lots of places where I was accepted and who were offering scholarships. I didn’t feel called to go to the small liberal arts college only an hour away (where communication would have been my focus). I really wanted to go to the large private university four hours away (where science would have been my focus). I ended up applying after graduation to a small Methodist college where a bunch of youth ministry friends were headed, got in, and God told me that’s where I was supposed to be…. which led me through science to religion as a major and the rest is history.

3. The beginning of the war in Iraq. This was a major fork in the road for me, because I had strong feelings about it, both personally and spiritually. And I knew there were lots and lots of people who disagreed with me. I was in college at the time and in community with a group of people however who helped me to use my voice and my hands and my feet to make a statement about the war publicly. We created a memorial of crosses on the lawn in front of the chapel – in honor of those who had died, both soldiers and civilians since the conflict had begun in the week before. Overnight, the crosses were torn down and the broken pieces used to spell “God Bless the USA.” As a Christian, I was heartbroken and ashamed of my neighbors. As someone who always though that there was a way to find agreement, I lost a piece of that in myself.

4. Exploration in 200something – The speaker for the day was Hispanic and she recounted the story of Samuel’s calling in the temple. For the first time, I felt called into ministry and it was because Samuel kept thinking the voice of God was just his master. I thought before that time that the voice of God speaking to me was just the voice of my youth pastor, or pastor, or a friend, never did I think it was actually GOD speaking to me. Until she spoke those words, “Samuel, Samuel” with the hispanic pronunciation. It stays with me until this day.

5. My friend Nicole – in the airport in Nashville – convincing me to go to Vanderbilt. I was kind of torn at that point and I really wasn’t sure what I was going to do until I sat down in the airport at that silly little food stand with Nicole. By the time I got on the plane (and I was almost late!) I was convinced that I needed to go to seminary there. And I haven’t regretted it for a millisecond. It was where I needed to be to grow and thrive and find my place. It brought me into contact with tons of amazing people at my church there… I am so grateful for that conversation in the airport!

Priorities

This morning’s gospel passage is not one of those that tend to make us all warm and fuzzy inside. On the surface, it appears to offer no real “good news” at all.

But that is because the gospels have this fantastic ability to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable all at the same time. To those who are facing persecution and pressure because of their faith – this passage from Matthew offers encouragement, and offers hope – it is a reminder that while those around them might be able to destroy their bodies, their lives in the fullest sense, rest with God and not man. Jesus tells those who are persecuted three times in this passage to not be afraid. As our missionaries minister to people in China, a place where there are real persecutions because of the name of the Lord, this message is one of comfort.

But here in the United States, we don’t typically face that kind of conflict. As much as we hear it being lamented on television these days, Christianity really isn’t under attack in this nation. There are isolated instances where someone is forced to confess or deny their faith under threat of death, like the young woman whose admitted faith in Christ propelled another young man to kill her in the Columbine shootings. And those events stay with us – but they are not our daily experience.

Brian Stoffregen is a Lutheran pastor in Arizona and in his weekly reflections upon the scripture, he brought these questions forward: “Does the lack of opposition to our faith mean that it is strong or that it is weak? … If we aren’t suffering in some way, why not? Is it because we are surrounded by people who are already in Jesus’ “household,” or because we are failing to be witnesses?”

Let me repeat that: is it because we are surrounded by people who are already in Jesus’ “household” or because we are failing to be witnesses?

I think the answer to that question is both. We are not daily facing persecution because we are both surrounded by people who are already “in” and because we fail to be witnesses.

For a long time, we have thought of ourselves as a Christian nation. There is a strong Judeo-Christian ethic and language that is used in politics and government and in the culture in general.

In these last few decades however, that unity between Christians and the nation has started to unravel a bit. The United States today is one of the biggest mission fields in the world with many who are not only unchurched, but to whom church is a strange and scary place. And the alliances between various flavors of Christianity and political parties is beginning to dissolve as many evangelicals find themselves looking at both moral and social issues.

While many people are feeling very anxious about this separation, about being one religious group among many, about not having the “in” with the state, I for one, am celebrating. I cherish our separation between church and state, not only in politics, but also in our schools, and in the various other places where the state and church act together – and it’s for a very simple reason: I don’t trust the state to do church.

When the state or government and the church are in bed together, things get complicated. You suddenly have multiple duties’ pulling you this way and that, and I think in the end, the church loses. We lose precisely because of this passage from Matthew this morning – we lose because we are already surrounded by people who are supposedly “in” and we also fail to be witnesses – we let the state tell us what to believe and we lose our prophetic voice.

Above all, we get confused about who we are serving.

At the very beginning of this passage from Matthew we find ourselves in the midst of a discussion about servants and masters, disciples and slaves… the question being asked of disciples in Matthew’s community, in Matthew’s time would have been: Whom do you serve? It is a question that is very pointed, very direct and gets us to the heart of the problem.

As we wrestle with that question today, I want us to really think about it personally. And as we start to do so, we need to think about the multiple things that demand time and energy and commitment from us.

At the end of each set of rows, there is a pad of paper and some pencils or pens. Take one of these and pass them down the row and then I want us to take some time to really think about the five things in your life right now that you are called to be faithful to – that demand something of your life. They may be things like your job, your family, the country… or something much more specific to your calling. What are the things that you feel like you have some responsibility to in this world? Write them down and then order them 1-5, with 1 being the thing that is the most important to you.

(5 minutes)

I don’t know about you, but writing down those things was extremely difficult – and tiresome. There are so many things that demand something from us and I think that most of us, most of the time, feel stretched and pulled in so many different directions that it is hard to know which way is up. It is hard to know which is the most important and it seems to change with the circumstance.

We are all here this morning, however, because of a shared commitment to follow God and to follow Christ. Let me just cut straight to the point and ask how many of you have God or Jesus on that list of five things?

This morning’s scripture is about allegiances, it’s about priorities, and it’s also about what happens when those priorities conflict.

Matthew was writing to a community that followed Christ, and they did so at their own peril. Day after day, they kept getting into trouble for the same kinds of things that Jesus did – because they were trying to live out the Kingdom of God in the face of a different kind of kingdom.

Sarah Dylan Bruer writes:

“They believed that only God could claim the kind of power over others that so many [like the Emperor, the family patriarch, the slave owner had taken] — and so they proclaimed Jesus’ teaching, “Call no one father on earth, for you have one father — the one in heaven” (Matthew 23:9). Their belief that God was calling every person — male and female, slave and free, of every nation — led them the build a community in which women and slaves were received as human beings with agency to make their own decisions and gifts to offer the community — and they didn’t ask anyone’s husband, father, or owner for permission to do so. They built pockets of community living into a radical new order that looked more like chaos to many onlookers, and that threatened to undermine the order of the Empire. And so their neighbors, their friends, and sometimes their own family turned them in, hauling them before governors as agitators, to be flogged, or worse.”

In their attempts to follow Christ faithfully, to make that allegiance the first priority in their lives, they came into conflict with the Empire and their roles as citizens, and they came into conflict with their families. But they were clear as to which of those things were the most important, and they were willing to sacrifice, even their own lives to be faithful to Christ.

In my own experience, these kinds of conflicts are messy and painful. In March of 2003, our country started to go to war with Iraq and I was a naïve college student. I kept thinking about all of those things that I had learned from Jesus and felt deep in my bones that this military venture was wrong. And in conversations with my roommates and other friends, we all found ourselves similarly moved. Matthew 10:27 reads “what I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.”

And so, as Christians, we stood in opposition to the war. We kept coming back to the notion that all human beings were children of God, the hairs on all of our heads are numbered and we are all valuable in God’s eyes. If that was true, any life lost, was something to be mourned. A group of us got together and began to erect crosses on the lawn in front of the chapel – as a reminder that there was a real human price to this conflict.

The morning after the crosses had all been put up, we walked onto campus to see one of the most painful things I have ever experienced. The crosses were torn down, many broken apart, and some of the broken pieces were used to spell out “God Bless the USA”

That day, I learned how messy our priorities can be. I learned what happens when we start to equate something like patriotism with faithfulness to God. And I also learned how important it was to be clear on who you serve.

Our campus was torn in two that semester. We learned what it meant that Christ brings a sword not peace. The truth is that we are faced with a choice and that we must choose who we will serve. We must choose which one of those things that pull on us, and that we love, which of those things that are in and of themselves good, which one will be the guiding force for everything else.

And it will cause conflict. Any of you who have chose at one time or another to put your family before your job knows what a strain that puts on work relationships, or vice versa. Priorities and allegiances matter. Who we serve matters. But Christ tells us that if we chose to serve him. If we chose to be known as his followers, then we are in the palm of God’s hand. We should not be afraid, because we have life in Christ. We will find our lives and our fullness, when we follow him.

It will not be easy. And it doesn’t mean that we give up everything else. It means that when we make our relationship with Christ our first priority, all of those other relationships change, and we learn how to witness, we learn how to love, and we learn how to truly live God’s kingdom in this world. Do not be afraid and follow him. Amen, and amen.