Stand As a Signal
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A few weeks ago, I heard a doctor speaking on the news. This was around the time that the issue of mask mandates was being raised. “We need to figure out a way to get people to care about one another,” she said. “Mmm,” I agreed because I like to talk to the tv, “And I wonder just exactly what that way would be.” To whom should we look, and I say “we” because this is something we’re called to do together, this looking.
We’re not going to come close to exhausting the topic of peace this morning. That’s ok, though; we don’t have to. It’s not so much about exhausting a subject as it is living in a particular orientation toward something, or better yet, someone. What is it that we need to hear about peace today? The biblical concept of peace goes beyond the absence of conflict. It goes so far as well-being for all, security, goodness. Each Advent, we devote a Sunday to peace. Every year for the past several years, I have come back to those lines from “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”:
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, goodwill to men
I don’t need to describe to you the ways in which peace is not known in our world. Actual wars that are being fought. Ones that get the headlines, like the war in Ukraine. Ones we rarely hear about, like Myanmar, Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan, Mali, Somalia, and Ethiopia. Increasing polarization politically, socially, economically. An increasing division between people. We all get the idea that something has gone very wrong. At the same time, we long for something different, don’t we? In the midst of all of this, at this time of year, we’re reminded of the seemingly impossible being made possible. Charlie Brown’s scraggly tree is transformed into something else. The Grinch’s heart grows three times its size in one day.
Is this kind of transformation beyond us? I would say yes, it is beyond us. There is someone through whom we are not beyond transformation. Paul writes near the end of his letter to the Romans about scripture – “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” (Rom 15:4) Who are we to talk about peace this Christmas, and what should we do with talk of peace this Christmas? We’ve already made a good start by hearing God’s word.
Isaiah knew what it was like to live in a world of threats to national security. Isaiah knew what it was like to live in a world of invasion and desolation. Isaiah knew what it was like to live in a society where the poor were devoured by the rich, in much the same way lambs would be devoured by wolves. Isaiah saw the word of God. God who calls into existence that which did not exist. God who brings forth life even from death. God who brings newness even from devastation. “A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Life where there is seemingly no life. Jesse is David’s father. The seeming end of the Kingdom of David will not be the end. The destruction of Jerusalem and the carrying away of the people into captivity will not be the end of God’s promise that the throne of David would be established forever. This is the new life to which we look back at Christmas. “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge (personal intimate union) and the fear (awe, reverence) of the Lord.” (Is 11:2-3) Righteousness (justice) and faithfulness will be so much part of him that they will be like the clothes he wears. “Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.” (Is 11:5)
We look back at Christmas, of course. We look back to how this promise was fulfilled in new life when a baby’s cry was heard coming out of a manger in Bethlehem. Jesus the Christ. Son of David, Son of God. Prince of Peace. We look forward too. The Divine Vision, or the Divine Dream as I like to call it, we’ve looked at it before together. The wolf lying down with the lamb. The leopard lying down with the kid. The calf and the lion and the fatling (the calf that is literally ready to be eaten) together, led by a little child. Bears grazing. The lion eating straw like an ox. The vision is one of not just situational togetherness but generational transformation. This transformation is permanent and for all, as we read about the young bear and cow lying down together as the knowledge of God (intimate union with God) goes out from the holy mountain (which we heard about last week) and covers the earth as the waters cover the sea.
Is this Divine Dream just a pipe dream? Is it something we could ever hope to bring about on our own? Just give it a chance.
One of the writers I was looking at in preparation for today talked about the animal situation in his household. The discord among his two cats, one of whom just wanted to be left alone and his three-legged rescue terrier who at times likes to terrorize and just generally cause mayhem. As he says, “Maybe it is all a show. Maybe they really are friendly beasts and could live together in peace and harmony, holding paws and singing the animal version of kumbaya.” This is the problem with Kum Ba Ya. We’ve become rather cynical about Kum Ba Ya. It’s a song that’s thought to have originated among the Gullah Geechee of the Georgia Islands. Descendants of Africans who were enslaved on those islands. It’s a song that is a prayer. Come by here, my Lord, come by here. It was popularized by many singers in the folk era (Pete Seeger, Odetta). It was prominent among those working for civil rights reform in the US in the 1950s and 60s. Things took a turn, though, for the song. People began to speak of “Kumbaya moments,” which largely meant false expressions of unity in the midst of a lot of disunity. Meaningless expressions of togetherness. We’ll come back to it, though, because I want us to have our own Kumbaya moment in the truest sense of the word. An turning toward God and expression of a longing for God’s peaceful unifying presence.
We’ve become cynical about “Kumbaya moments.” If I thought that peace was up to us I would be cynical about it too. What is it that we need to hear about peace this morning? This peace for which we long will not be manufactured by us, not even us in the church. Left to our own devices, we can’t even live at peace among ourselves, can we? A leader won’t lead us to peace. Not even Solomon could do that, and peace was his very name. Psalm 72 is listed in our NRSV Bibles as a song the King Solomon. David’s son. Listen to the song/prayer of Psalm 72 again – “Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son. May he judge your people with righteousness and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity (shalom) for the people and the hills in righteousness…” (Psalm 72:1-3) Even Solomon, who started out so promisingly, would end up being an oppressor to his people. The Davidic dynasty would come to an end when King Zedekiah is carried off to Babylon in chains. This is not the end of the promise made to David that his throne would be established forever. Look at the notes of hope sounded at the end of the Psalm – “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things.” Wondrous things like announcing to a young woman that through her, the promise made to David would be fulfilled. The promise was fulfilled in the one called The Prince of Peace. Paul writes that these things written in former days were written for our instruction so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures, we might have hope. Listen to the description of the Psalm – “May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations. May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.” May the Spirit of Christ fall on us like rain that falls on mown grass, like showers that water the earth.
We don’t need to manufacture peace ourselves. We’re called to be a people who look to the Prince of Peace – people who allow ourselves to be embraced by him and embrace him in turn. I’ve shown the painting by American artist Edward Hicks before. It’s called “The Peaceable Kingdom.” It depicts the latter part of our reading from Isaiah 11 this morning. What I didn’t know what that Hicks painted over 60 versions of “The Peaceable Kingdom” throughout his life. In the earliest ones, we see the animals looking quite peaceful; primitive is what they call the style. When I spoke to Dan about this once, I said, “It reminds me of a cartoon,” which shows the extent of my own art appreciation. I’m learning, though. In the earlier depictions, we see the animals quite peaceful and looking out at us and the child who will lead them there among them. As he went through his life, Hicks saw hope for peace fading as barriers were built, animosity rose (and we know what the Preacher of Ecclesiastes meant when he said there is truly nothing new under the sun). In the later painting we see the animals looking more vicious. Teeth and claws bared. This did not lead to despair for Hicks – not at all. Look at the child in the later paintings. He’s no longer passive but actively holding on. Someone has put it like this – “Hicks, though he began losing hope in the workings of the human community, began to cling even more tightly to Christ. In Christ, Hicks would put his hope.”
Which brings us to our final reading. It’s not simplistic to say “Jesus is the answer” because we never come to an end of understanding in our hearts just what that statement means. To know Christ was Paul’s personal goal. To know the Prince of Peace. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death…Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal, but I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Phil 3:10,12) Jesus is home for Paul. Home base. The key of C. They still point in the centre of a turning world. The Son of David/Son of God in his introduction to Romans. In this latter part of Romans (which we’ll take a good look at, God willing, in 2023), Paul writes of what life in Christ looks like for us – how the people of God are called and enabled to stand as a signal of God’s peaceable kingdom.
What might it look like for us to stand as signals of peace this Advent and beyond? I want to look at two practical ways this can look based on Paul’s words. Firstly let us signal our desire and our intent to be such a people. “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus (because we can’t do it alone), so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 15:5-6) We’re talking about an eminently practical act here which should not be beyond us. Participation together in an active life of praise and worship – “so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (15:6) In the original Greek Paul writes of “one mind” and “one mouth” NT Wright describes the result this way – “‘With one mind’ and ‘with one mouth’ go closely together, describing that glad unanimity of praise and worship which indicates both to the watching world and to the Christians themselves that they are not worshipping a merely local deity, the projection of their own culture, but the One True God of all the world, the God now known as the father of Jesus the Messiah.”
Here is practical matter #2. “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (15:7) This Advent, let us ask the question, where are we being called to create welcome space for others or step into welcome space into which we are being invited. There are two required parts for a welcome, after all – an invitation and the acceptance of an invitation. Where are we being called to make a hospitable space and invite others in or accept an invitation into a hospitable space? It might be in a home. It might be in a seating area at a crowded mall. It might be at Seeds of Hope in a room or on the sidewalk. It might be at a Friday night at a Christmas Carol Concert or even a church service with lunch afterwards (or no lunch at church that day, and you go out for lunch afterwards).
It's the 2nd Sunday of Advent and the 1st Sunday of December, and we have what I pray is a welcome opportunity to accept an invitation to a table; to declare our desire to live in the peace of Christ. May it be one we all accept here this morning. Amen