In Days to Come: Waiting on Peace and Justice.
Signs are all around us,
though I have to admit, they befuddle me sometimes.
A sign by a road in Roosevelt, Utah, I’m told, says:
“Rest Area Next Right,”
but the next right leads you straight into a cemetery.[i]
A sign in the local convenience store says,
“If you are going to steal, then smile for the camera.”
A sign in a grocery store reads:
“Snickers, five for a dollar (limit four)”
Or this one
A sign on a dock in Juneau, Alaska, says:
“Safety ladder, climb at own risk.”
Closer to home, perhaps,
in the coffee shop where I do a lot of my pondering over sermons,
they have the sign:
“Unattended children will be given an espresso and a free puppy.”
Here’s one that says: no trespassing, without permission
How’s that for confusing?
Or then there’s the story about the man,
standing on the corner in front of a Burger King.
His sign read “will work for food.”
Had he only looked up, he would have noticed
that the Burger King sign directly above him read “Now Hiring”…
Signs are everywhere, all around us.
And the signs of the times these days
can be quite bewildering and discouraging, sometimes.…
The great theologian Karl Barth used to say
that a modern Christian should have an open Bible in one hand
and a copy of the daily newspaper in the other.
I’ve always thought that was good advice,
and I followed it, figuratively if not literally this week.
when I was working on my sermon,
looking for signs of advent
by reading the texts we will be using in worship with my first cup of coffee.
I read from the eleventh chapter of Isaiah—
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie with down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them. . . .
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain
That’s what the prophet Isaiah said 700 years before the birth of Jesus.
Then I got online, and started reading the papers.
Here are the headlines in the newspaper this week that stood out:
Anniversary of the Sandy Hook Shootings Approaches
Jury Urged to Keep Deliberating
in South Carolina Police Shooting Case
Cuba Mourns Fidel Castro
Islamic State Girds to Defend Syria Outpost
It is indeed a season of dramatic contrasts for those of us who will celebrate the birth:
Between the bright lights of the cultural year-end festival
and the quiet, poignant Advent hymns about lonely exile;
Between the urgency to work overtime to get it all done by December 24—
every present purchased,
cards addressed and mailed,
trees decorated, parties attended—
and the invitation to wait quietly and hopefully
for something that is not yet here.
But perhaps no Christmas contrast is more profound
than the biblical Vision, biblical Dream of God’s peace
and the reality of the world in which we live.
For more than two thousand years,
Christians have been telling the story and celebrating the birth
of the one called the Prince of Peace
in particularly NON-PEACEFUL circumstances.
Take Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Nazi prison cell, in 1943,
writing to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer:
My dearest Maria, . . . by the time you receive this letter
it will probably be Advent, a time especially dear to me.
A prison cell like this, in which one watches and hopes
and performs this or that ultimately insignificant task,
and in which one is wholly dependent on the doors
being opened from the outside,
is far from an inappropriate metaphor for Advent.[ii]
Or a generation earlier, in the Great War,
German and American and British troops
observing a cease-fire and singing across the desolate,
devastated space between the trenches—
known as No Man’s Land—
“Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht,” “Silent Night, Holy Night.”
Or Confederate and Union troops meeting after dark
to sing carols and exchange gift souvenirs around a common campfire.
Or how about Jimmy Carter, who wrote about spending Christmas at sea,
aboard an American submarine,
patrolling in the Pacific Ocean on Christmas Eve,
and meeting with a few other officers and crew members
to read the Bible story of Jesus’ birth,
sitting between the forward torpedo tubes,
loaded as they were with lethally powerful weapons of war.
Among the CONTRASTING SIGNS of this amazing season,
none is more striking, nor more unsettling,
than the biblical motif of peace—
peace on earth,
goodwill among all people,
the Prince of Peace—
and the reality of the world in which we live.
This is made even more striking as our country, this Advent,
as it has for fifteen straight Advents now,
as we remember American service personnel
who stand in harm’s way,
who are wounded and killed,
as we experience our nation on war footing
and self-reflection about what that means
and how our values are being affected by it…
We read this morning the Dream of God’s peaceable kingdom
in the book of the prophet Isaiah.
It is a peace and tranquility that so captivated the imagination
of the nineteenth-century American artist Edward Hicks
that he painted the scene—the Peaceable Kingdom
—at least sixty-two times.[iii]
Here’s one of them:
Hicks as he was painting, grew increasingly discouraged
By the conflicts of his own day and age,
Particularly those within his religious community.
So each time he painted it anew,
the wild animals and predators became more vicious
But still, in the end, Hicks drew them at peace
Under God’s peaceful spirit…
It is a vision of God’s creation, RESTORED:
a wolf resting beside a lamb,
a leopard lying down with a kid,
a calf and a lion together,
an INFANT plays over the den of a poisonous snake.
In Hicks’s paintings, the eyes of the animals,
perpetual enemies, predators and prey,
are large, wide open, innocent, vulnerable, in amazement—
as they should be—at this unlikely arrangement.
It is one of the most persistent themes of the Bible.
God means for people to live in peace
with one another and with the whole creation,
God means for the foundations of peace—
righteousness and justice—
to fill the earth.
God has given creation the means to establish peace.
God will not rest until the cause of peace CAPTIVATES
the hearts and minds of everyone—all nations.
God will never cease working for peace in the world.
God’s own son will be called the Prince of Peace.
And in the meantime, in OUR meantime,
there is Syria, and ISIS, and Iraq,
and Israel, and Palestine, and Iran, and North Korea, and the Sudan
there’s random shootings at schools or shopping malls
there is daily life in our cities and towns here in Kansas and Missouri.
In the meantime, in OUR meantime, Woody Allen once observed,
“The lion and the lamb may lie down together,
but the lamb isn’t going to get much sleep…”
This gap between vision and reality has been there from the beginning.
Please note: the Bible does not ignore it.
The Bible is not glib about peace and the human prospect.
No, the Isaiah passage of the peaceable kingdom BEGINS
with a scene of desolation and devastation,
perhaps a battlefield,
perhaps the battlefield
on which the soldiers of Isaiah’s own nation
were overwhelmed by the powerful army of Assyria,
perhaps the very place where his countrymen,
his own friends, were killed or captured.
There are no buildings left standing.
There are not even any trees left—
one of the desolate signatures of war:
all the trees are gone.
There is only rubble, destruction, ugly dry stumps.
The prophet is WALKING on that battlefield, perhaps.
There are tears in his eyes.
He is thinking about God’s peace
and the tragic reality of human history all around him.
His eyes fall on a stump—
and look! Incredibly there is a tiny green shoot emerging.
There is something new happening.
There is new hope,
He hurries to his home and sits down and writes,
700 years before the birth:
A shoot shall come from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
Jesse, the father of King David, the dynasty that the people believed
bore the PRESENCE and BLESSING and PROMISE of God
to a world ACHING for hope, for peace, for life…
The Prophet Isaiah offers for us his DREAM,
his vision, his HOPE for a new world,
one that will heal and mend and bring together all creation
on this hurting rock we call home…
The contrast between the vision and the reality is as old as that.
The struggle for us, for people of faith, has always been:
what do WE do with that contrast?
It is a really easy thing to do what Barth says,
to read the news next to the promises of scripture,
and to then conclude that its not worth it.
That the troubles and the conflicts of our world
are too entrenched, our efforts against it, too meager.
Are we going to look at this contrast and throw up our hands
And say “eh, there really no chance for THAT kind of peace”
“Its too idealistic, its too IMPLAUSIBLE.”
Here’s what I know:
This dream, and this vision has inspired countless believers
to grasp a hold of God’s desire for this world and to
work tirelessly to make it a reality.
And it gave voice to Martin Luther King, Junior
From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC
The DREAM of the peaceable Kingdom
It Inspired Desmond Tutu in South Africa,
Whose Truth and Reconciliation commission
Healed a deep, deep rift going back
Hundreds of brutal years
And I’d like to think that maybe something of the same spirit
Inspired Nelson Mandela to Dream too
Mandela, who famously said
In the face of such daunting opposition:
“It always seems impossible, until it is done.”
That lion shall lay down with the lamb,
That out of desolation, God can cause a branch to grow.
That God’s peace and love WILL triumph over all.
A few years ago,
A pastor I know named Hugh was preparing on a Saturday Morning
To do what he does every Saturday morning: feed the hungry
In a city park in Raleigh, North Carolina.[iv]
He and his church members gathered 200 hot breakfast sandwiches
And some coffee and headed out to their normal spot
Where they had been doing this for years,
When they were greeted by the police.
Now, they were a friendly bunch
And they cleaned up after themselves
And their patrons weren’t unruly.
But someone (the story is a bit murkey) had decided
That the group shouldn’t be encouraging the homeless
To congregate at that part
And the police were there to enforce a decades old ordinance
That could be used to stop them.
Hugh admitted to being discouraged by this.
But he told his story to friends, and they told others
And soon social media got involved
And people all over America were aware
That their group—Love Wins Ministries
Was being kept from feeding the hungry.
And people wrote and people called
And the city council….they changed the ordinance
“Our primary work is not changing the City, or policy, or the Laws”
“Our work is to be with those who have no hope.
Our work is to bear witness to the goodness of God
in a world that has legitimate reasons
to doubt that goodness.
That the world changes for the better
Is just a benefit…”
This is a season of signs, and a season of dreams.
Isaiah, 700 years before the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem,
Layed out his vision for God’s peaceable kingdom.
What is your dream for this world? Our world?
As we wait on peace and justice?
What is your vision for how the peaceable kingdom
might look and act and love in our world?
Seven Hundred Years after Isaiah’s vision,
a man dressed in wild clothing
And eating wild food,
assembled a people together
For baptism and for repentance.
John the Baptist took seriously his call to prepare the way for the Lord.
He challenged the people of his day
Whether they thought they were not quite worthy…
Or that they were heirs of Abraham…
John challenged them to look anew at their hearts
And to get on board with God’s pending movement
In the coming King.
By the time of John,
Things were rather dire:
Excessive and oppressive rule
No real future in sight.
But in their hearts, the dream of Isaiah was still alive
They couldn’t see who was coming
But they knew someone was.
John had some notion,
But not even he understood what Jesus would portend.
He too would have to watch and wait.
What is your vision for how the peaceable kingdom
might look and act and love in our world?
This season when we read the newspaper
We could choose to see signs of despair all over the place:
Syria and Afghanistan overseas
An uptick in hate crimes and the rhetoric of intolerance
Random mass shootings or incredible numbers of people
Who are hungry or hurting
A creation groaning to be made whole again…
But we know that God is the sort of God
To keep hope alive
And not only that, we can SEE it
In the faithful lives of those around us
Who refuse to grow despondent
And who refuse to let the dream die.
My prayer for us this day
Is that we keep our eyes and our hearts open
To the signs of God all around us
In the ordinary women and men
Who stand up to speak hope
And inspire acts of love and peace.
That we find ways of making their dreams our dreams
And prepare in our own hearts
The coming of the prince of peace,
The shoot of Jesse.
May it be so, and
Thanks be to God…
[i] Adapted from one of many online joke sites about keyword “signs,” such as this one: http://countystarnews.com/news/2013/081513/pageA3.pdf (Accessed December 7, 2013)
[ii] Recorded 21 November 1943 in Love Letters from Cell 92: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Maria von Wedameyer, 1943-1945 (Fount, 1995) p 118.
[iii] As noted by Paul Simson Duke in “Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Year A. Volume 1 Advent Through Transfiguration (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press) p 31. 2010.
[iv] See http://www.lovewinsministries.org/2013/12/it-always-seems-impossible-until-its-done/ (Accessed December 7, 2013)
Images: Mandela crossposted from Church World Service’s Facebook page, origin/credit unknown. Accessed from https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151869544736985&set=a.403123346984.169226.30079936984&type=1 on December 7, 2013
Hicks’ The Peaceable Kingdom from Wikimedia here: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b1/The_Peaceable_Kingdom,_circa_1833,_by_Edward_Hicks_(1780-1849)_-_Worcester_Art_Museum_-_IMG_7682.JPG
Picture: Rosa Parks on the Bus from Wikimedia
Shoot from the Stump of Jesse found at http://prayersofthepeople.blogspot.com/2016/11/prayers-of-people-branching-out-second.html