Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
Peace. It’s a word that we hear so often at this time of year. Christmas carols that play in the background at malls and grocery stores speak of peace - “Hark! The herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king, peace on earth and mercy mild....” “Silent night, holy night...Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.” And as Christmas cards start to arrive in our mailboxes, notice how many of them offer wishes for peace.
But who are we kidding? Where in the world is there any peace these days? Bombs explode on almost a daily basis in Iraq. Rivers of blood flow in the streets of Israel and in the Palestinian territories. And every time Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge appears on our TV screen, we wonder what new kinds of horror are just around the corner.
Over in the Holy Land, because of the lack of peace, Christmas celebrations are often cancelled in Bethlehem. And prospects for a silent and holy Christmas this year in Bethlehem don’t look too promising. With suicide bombers in Jerusalem and Israeli missiles blasting away at the Gaza strip, “peaceful” is about the last word you would use to describe this world that we live in.
Or is today, on this second Sunday of Advent, a good time to hear the words of Isaiah. We hear him speaking of a day that is coming when complete and total peace will fill the earth. He speaks of a day when there will be such peace that even all the animals will finally be able to live side by side without having to be afraid—a day when lions and lambs will become best buddies!
We hear what Isaiah says, but we have to wonder: what was he thinking? It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there! That’s something we learn from our earliest days. When we are little kids and we’re watching cartoons, we see that Wilie E. Coyote’s mission in life is to catch and eat the Roadrunner. He doesn’t want to be friends with him. Likewise, all that Sylvester the Cat wants to do is make a snack of Tweety Bird.
Of course, it’s not only in cartoons that animals are like that. No, we get to school and every once in a while, the teacher will show one of those National Geographic movies, those films where the narrator says, “Here’s an antelope. And here’s a lion eating an antelope.”
Practically every day of our lives we’re reminded that animals don’t live at peace with each other. We walk outside to pick up our morning newspaper, and we see a robin sucking down an earthworm. When we take a closer look at the cobweb that’s been spun on our mailbox, we see a spider devouring an unsuspecting fly. Or out in the backyard, we see an alley cat with bird crumbs stuck to his whiskers.
Not only don’t animals get along with each other, but they don’t even live at peace with us. Every summer we learn about sharks attacking swimmers in the Atlantic Ocean. We have to worry about whether that mosquito that’s buzzing around us is carrying the West Nile virus. Or if we take a hike in the woods, is some tick going to give us Lyme disease?
But here is Isaiah saying, “Peace! Peace is on the way! The day is coming when all people and all animals are going to live in peace!” We hear what Isaiah has to say. But as we look at the world around us, we know that if we’re going to believe that peace is on its way, we need a little more evidence than Isaiah’s words.
In Myanmar, the country that used to be known as Burma, something happened that the people interpreted as a sign that peace was at hand. In the northeastern jungles of that country, hunters found a white elephant. According to tradition, a white elephant is a sign that peace and better times are on the way. That’s a message that the Burmese people desperately wanted to hear, considering they had suffered through years and years of poverty, starvation, and civil war.
Why can’t God give us something like a white elephant? Why can’t God give us a sign to back up those words that peace is on its way? “OK,” Isaiah says, “God will give you sign. Look for a stump. Look for a stump with a shoot coming out of it.” But what does Isaiah mean by that? What kind of sign from God is a stump? A stump is what’s left when someone has cut down a tree. A stump means that the tree has been reduced to almost nothing.
In particular, Isaiah speaks of the stump of Jesse. Jesse, of course, was the father of King David, the one to whom God had promised that one of his descendants would always rule over Israel. But the kingdom that had once been like a huge and mighty tree under the reigns of David and Solomon had been reduced in Isaiah’s day to a mere stump. The enemy was at the gate. The country was in disarray. The people were demoralized. Isaiah says that even though all we have at the moment is a stump, we should pay attention. One day, out of that lowly stump a shoot is going to come forth, and that shoot will bring you the peace that you’ve been waiting for.
As Christians, of course, we believe that shoot from the stump of Jesse is Jesus. The Gospels go to rather great lengths to drive home the point that Jesus was a descendant of David, the son of Jesse. They show us Jesus’ family tree to prove that fact. The Gospels likewise hammer home the point that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the town where King David was from.
It’s true—when Jesus walked this earth, he didn’t bring about that perfect peace that Isaiah spoke of. But he did announce that that peace is on its way. Through his cross and resurrection, Jesus showed us that despite what we might think at times, hatred and violence do not have the final word. Rather the final word, the only word that will be left standing at the end of time, is peace.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” in 1864, at a time when the Civil War was at its bloodiest. It was a time when it was very easy to think that the kind of universal peace that Isaiah spoke of was nothing but a fairy tale, nothing but a lot of silly, wishful thinking. But Longfellow wrote his poem to remind us that despite all the hatred and fear and violence that fill our world, nothing can hold God back from accomplishing what God intends to do.
So, listen to a portion of what Longfellow wrote: “And in despair I bowed my heard: ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said. ‘For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men.’ Then pealed the bells louder and deeper: ‘God is not dead: nor doth he sleep; the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men.’” (lyrics in public domain)
May that be our prayer this Advent season—that the wrong will fail, and the right will prevail. And at last God’s peace will come into our world. That might not be an easy thing to believe. But God has given us God’s word on it. And God won’t let us down.
The winds of change and uncertainty blew across the Middle East in the second half of the eighth century like a hot, desert wind. After a half-century of peace and prosperity, the rise of Assyria under Tiglath-pileser III had destabilized the entire region and brought all nations under the threat of Assyrian dominance. Unlike their predecessors, Assyria no longer built empires simply by international extortion. Their mode of conquest sought to destroy the very infrastructure of society and culture, which is what happened to the northern kingdom Israel in 722.
The situation in Judah proved no less perilous, and the future of the Davidic dynasty seemed much more precarious. Isaiah’s prophetic ministry seems to have begun in “the year in which King Uzziah died” (6:1), after a long and prosperous reign. The economic boom in the middle of this eighth century is reflected in the earlier chapters of this first major section of the book of Isaiah (1:11; 2:7; 3:18; 5:8–23). However, even with Uzziah’s son Jotham already in place as co-regent, the “house and lineage of David” would face at least two generations of decline and uncertainty. Threatened by a coalition of Israel and Syria to join their defensive alliance against the rising power of Assyria, Ahaz actually became a vassal of the dreaded and pagan enemy Assyria (2 Kings 16:7; Isa. 7–8).
This insecurity which now characterized the throne of David, threatened both from without and from within, stands as a powerful backdrop to Isaiah’s words in chapter 11. Against both the threat of foreign nations and the timidity of the Davidic king, Isaiah has already offered words of divine comfort, assurance, and promise. Concerning the nations, Isaiah has asserted that they stand under the ultimate power and control of Yahweh, the God (and true King) of Jerusalem. In the “latter days” (i.e., the eschatological future), the nations will even flow (uphill!) to Zion, there to be instructed in Torah and the word of Yahweh (2:2–4). Even mighty Assyria lies under the control of Yahweh, first as a rod of angry discipline against God’s own people Judah (10:5) and then under God’s direct wrath and judgment for Assyria’s arrogance and asserted independence (10:12–15).
Concerning the future of the Davidic dynasty, Isaiah has already been reminded that the kingdom of David is really the kingdom of God, and that the true king is alive and well, seated on the heavenly throne even as he touches his earthly kingdom in the temple throne room (6:1). The earthly Davidic king rules only at the good pleasure of this heavenly king, yet Yahweh’s promise of 2 Samuel 7 (vv. 12–16) remains in force. In spite of words of judgment and punishment even against the house of David (Isa. 7:18–25; 8:6–8), the literary unit of Isaiah 2–12 concludes with words of promise and security, of a future and a hope. Assuming that the Immanuel child is, in fact, a Davidic scion (although the identity of the child is much debated in the commentaries), the birth (or coronation) of the royal child in 9:1–6 and now the powerful words of hope in chapter 11 all indicate Yahweh’s faithfulness to the Davidic kingdom over which he himself remains as king.
Textual notes. Even if cut down, the family tree of the house of David will retain life in its roots, sending out a shoot from the “stump” of Jesse (cf. 6:13). It may be that the reference to Jesse is simply an allusion to the family tree, but it may also suggest that the hope of the Davidic line does not lie simply in another son of David but in a “radical” return to the very roots of the family, to a new and second David. The central theme of this entire text speaks not just of a restoration of a righteous and faithful David in contrast to the faithless Ahaz (7:9b), but rather of a much more glorious day and a kingdom described in terms of perfect righteousness, justice, faithfulness, and peace. In terms of biblical theology, this is the eschatological new age, announced both by John the Baptist and then by Jesus himself in their inaugural proclamation that “the kingdom of God is at hand.”
At the time of Isaiah, these words stood in sharp contrast to the realities of the kingdom as they knew it. Hopes for a utopian kingdom may well have accompanied every royal birth and coronation, but they were probably dashed rather quickly (perhaps within the “first hundred days” of his tenure!) by the realities of yet another self-serving human king. Even the Davidic kings were all too often much more “like the nations” than an under shepherd/king to the great and good shepherd/king who was Yahweh himself (Ps. 23:1).
Homiletical application. The text clearly speaks words of hope and promise to the people of God at a time when they were threatened by hostile forces from without and by fear and faithlessness from within. Such characteristics are hardly unique to the people of God in the latter half of the eighth century B.C. As an Advent text, the lectionary makes the Christological connection to the person and work of Jesus the Christ, the greater and final David who came both as David’s son and David’s lord. With his advent the kingdom of God has indeed come, even as it continues to come whenever the Word of Yahweh goes forth among the nations. In Christ, the righteous rule and reign of God has come to earth in a kingdom yet “not of this world” and certainly not “like the nations.” A restoration of God’s perfect peace and the privilege of unclean sinners standing on God’s holy mountain come only through atonement and forgiveness of sins (cf. Isa. 6:5–7), accomplished once for all by God’s new David, a king who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom. (Bartelt, A. H. Second Sunday Of Advent, Year A. In The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis For Sunday’s Texts [2001, Grand Rapids] Vol 1pp. 320–323)
The second part of this passage presents a vision of the world that has stimulated the human longing for the peaceable kingdom, as seen in the painting known by that name of the famous American Quaker artist Edward Hicks (1780–1845). This painting obviously portrays Isa 11:6–9, but off to the side of the beasts and little children playing together there is a scene of William Penn and other leaders making a treaty with the Native Americans, perhaps illustrating Isa 11:1–5 as well. Is this peaceable kingdom a realistic hope? It goes beyond the prophetic concern with history to hope for a new creation.
Within the context of the Bible’s persistent affirmation of the goodness of creation, Isa 11:6–9, with its proclamation of a dramatic transformation of life among all creatures, could pose a serious problem. “Natural” enemies in the animal world will live together in peace, even changing their diets. On the one hand, as so frequently in the prophetic literature, the poem stresses the relationship among justice, mercy, peace, and harmony in the natural order (see Ezek 34:25; Hos 2:18). Who does not long for a world without fear and violence? But on the other hand, the lines seem to suggest that the world may have been created good, even very good, but not quite good enough. The text presumes a negative evaluation of the world as it is, filled with predators and prey, violence and death. One implication of the passage, to put it bluntly, is that there will come a time when the world will be made safe for domestic animals and for children. This is the vision of that peaceable kingdom.
In view of the comprehensive statement that ends the unit, it is common to conclude that this vision of the change in nature is cosmic, reaching to all creation. But there are two ways in which the scope of the vision is limited. First, as noted in the Commentary, it does not encompass all the animals, but only those of the land (not those of sea and air), and it is based on the important distinction between wild and domestic animals. Its concern focuses on human security and peace. It is a genuinely “pastoral” concern for the safety of flocks for the sake of humankind. Second, although the “knowledge of God” will fill the earth, it is only on “my holy mountain” that “they will not hurt or destroy” (11:9). Certainly, this mountain is Zion. Even if—as seems likely—the mountain stands for the whole of the land of Israel, the envisioned peaceable kingdom is a particular sacred territory, and not the whole earth.
There is, to be sure, no explicit criticism of the world as it is, with some animals living by killing and eating others. The imagery is employed to characterize peace and security under the ideal ruler. In its context, the envisioned future is within history and falls short of an apocalyptic transformation of the world. However, the prophecy of the peaceable kingdom clearly is an expectation that could not be fulfilled within the framework of the creation. Still, such an image of peace may fuel people’s hope for a just and secure existence. (Tucker, G. M. The Book of Isaiah 1–39. In L. E. Keck (Ed.), New Interpreter’s Bible [1994–2004, Nashville] Vol. 6, pp. 138–144)
It is easy to reduce the text to silence by genetic arguments and to condemn it as mere wishful thinking, in so far as it is based on the conception of a happy primal period, while at the same time calling upon nations and every individual to do all in their power to make sure that there is at last more justice on this earth and that nature loses its terrors. If we ask how both these things can in fact be achieved, we are confronted with a choice between spirit-inspired anarchy and a totalitarian state. The former presupposes the miracle of the endowment of all men with a new heart and a new spirit, and is thus overshadowed by vv. 1–5, even if it would like to do away with all rule. Without human renewal, anarchy can only be chaos and will not produce any lasting world peace. Until this eschaton, therefore, we must soberly keep to a policy of small steps, the attempt to become personally more just and do more justice to our own world. For those who have thought things through to the end, with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, a totalitarian world is a daydream. To the degree to which it is inevitable as a result of technical pressures and an increasing population, the important thing is to regain a feeling for the primal vitiation of our lives, to recognize that our own life is always made possible by the sacrifice of other life and is fulfilled only by surrender to other people. The result of this would be a new reverence for life, primarily for the life of other people, and then, by virtue of the ultimate unity of all life, reverence also for the life of animals. That alone could set clear limits to what we do with the life of others. So it could succeed in making sure that the life of animals and of human beings continued to be worth living.
However, with this we have not arrived at the horizon of the ultimate future which confronts us all. The question where our life comes from, on what it is grounded, along with all our world, and in which direction it is going, is still as open as ever. Has it been demonstrated that God is no longer the goal of the common origin of life or our own goal, and at the same time the transforming power which he already shows himself to be to those who receive their days in trust from him? (Kaiser, O. Isaiah 1–12: A Commentary. (P. Ackroyd, J. Barr, B. W. Anderson, & J. Bright, Eds., J. Bowden, Trans. [1983, Philadelphia, PA] Second Edition, pp. 252–261)
One of the great wonders of Christmas is hope. One of the greatest hopes is peace on earth and good will to all. This Sunday is a celebration of that hope.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
Declaration of Christmas Peace is announced in several Finnish cities on Christmas Eve. The oldest and most popular event is held at noon at the Old Great Square of the former Finnish capital Turku where the declaration has been read since the 1320s. The most significant exceptions to this are thought to be the years of the Greater Wrath when Finland was under Russian occupation which lasted from 1712 to 1721, and the single years missed during both the 1917 militia strike and the Winter War year of 1939. There may also have been a break between 1800 and 1815.
The Turku declaration has been broadcast by the Finnish Broadcasting Company since 1935. National television broadcasts started in 1983 and the Turku declaration has also been seen on the Swedish television since 1986. The event can be viewed via the internet as well. Besides Turku, the declaration is also announced in some of the oldest Finnish towns like Rauma, Porvoo, Pori and the Estonian city of Tartu.
Music has been a part of the event since the 17th century. Traditional instruments used include the bagpipes, timpani and various string instruments. The current format was established in 1903. It starts with the hymn "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" and is followed by the declaration which is announced by a city official at midday. As the declaration is read in Finnish and Swedish, the public sings the Finnish national anthem in both languages afterward. The event ends with March of the Men of Pori which is usually played by a local military band, usually from the Finnish Navy.
“Peace on earth” is a phrase you see everywhere around Christmas time. For many of us, we have to wonder where that peace is. Whether we're trying to find peace in the chaos of our own lives or trying to wrap our heads around hope for political peace, “peace on earth” sure seems elusive.
A quick glance around will remind us that we live in a far from perfect world. In our own lives, we struggle to find peace with ourselves. We regret past mistakes, struggle with our present weaknesses, and worry about the future. We try to “find ourselves” in different ways and search for our purpose in life through relationships, work, leisure, and travel pursuits.
We seek and long for peace in our relationships with others. Some search for the perfect person to date. In our present relationships, sometimes we avoid conflict and run the other way in fear of doing something we’ll regret. Other times we take for granted those closest to us and experience the not-so-nice daily realities living in close proximity with them. We become frustrated and angry over the mistakes of others.
We struggle with the uncertainty of tomorrow and the turmoil going on in the world around us. World news brings few positive reports, if any. We wonder if “peace on earth” is even a possibility.
Optimists would say that things are better now than they were even several decades ago. But why do we still long for a better world? Even when we long for it, no matter how hard we try, reality seems to get in the way and ground us quickly. Sure we are progressing, but if we as human beings have so much potential to be good, why are we not consistently living up to it? Even with the best of intentions, our human effort to be good and make this world a better place seems to fall short.
So where can we turn for hope of peace? Have you ever considered looking to see what Jesus Christ says as a solution for peace?
He taught people to love each other as they love themselves (not a self-serving kind of love, but a self-respect kind of love). He taught people to love their enemies. Imagine if every single person, group, culture, and country in this world learned to love each other and their enemies; there truly would be world peace.
Not only did He teach people how to be at peace with each other, Jesus Himself served to make peace between people and God — a peace that was broken because of our imperfection, and our rebellion to go our own way and live life apart from God (otherwise known as “sin”). This separates us from God who is holy, perfect, and loving. It also prevents us from having access to the love and power from God that would enable us to truly realize and experience peace.
God revealed Himself to people through the person of Jesus. Jesus came to earth in a peaceful way as a baby in a humble circumstance of a manger and proceeded to live a humble life (imagine being God and putting yourself into the limitations of a human body!)
Jesus came to restore our broken relationship with God so that we could first experience wholeness and peace with ourselves, and then extend it to others around us.
Through a personal relationship with Jesus:
We find peace with God. He came to live life perfectly and died in our place to pay the consequence for our sin. His death made peace between our sinful nature and God’s holy nature. His coming back to life gives us hope of living in peace with God.
We find wholeness and peace with ourselves. Our esteem is based on what God thinks of us — something that never changes — instead of on the fluctuating foundations of others’ opinions, fleeting accomplishments, or changing circumstances. Our identity is based on who God has made us to be, not on the things that we do.
We find wholeness and peace in our relationship with others because we begin to change and see people through God’s eyes. We remember that God first loved us, and we grow in wanting to extend love to others.
We can bring healing and wholeness to others around us, in the communities, the cities, and the world we live in. We begin to see hope for change in others and the world around us.
Coming into a relationship with Jesus by faith and following Him does not mean a life free of conflict. But He offers a promise of hope of something better to come, and a power to bring some of that better world here and now. He offers a strength to persevere until that time a new world comes.
“Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled,” is a line in a Christmas carol that gives a picture of Jesus as God’s gift of peace to us. “Shalom” is a Hebrew word that signifies “peace” or “more than well.” Jesus was the perfect example of “shalom” lived out; He demonstrated the kind of peace we all long for. Being the Son of God, Jesus was at complete peace and unity with God (“I and the Father are one,” is a statement He made about Himself). He always treated people with respect, wisdom and love. He brought peace to those around him, and He ultimately wants to bring peace between you and God.
As the ancient meaning of “shalom” as a greeting signifies, “May you live in anticipation of the day when God makes things whole again.”
Take a look at your life. How would you describe it? Contented? Rushed? Exciting? Stressful? Moving forward? Holding back? For many of us it’s all of the above at times. There are things we dream of doing one day, and there are things we wish we could forget. In the Bible, it says that Jesus came to make all things new. What would your life look like if you could start over with a clean slate?
You can receive Christ right now by faith through prayer! (Prayer is talking with God) God knows your heart and is not so concerned with your words as He is with the attitude of your heart. The following is a suggested prayer:
Lord Jesus, I need you. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Savior and Lord. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of the throne of my life. Make me the kind of person You want me to be. Amen. (https://thelife.com/christmas-peace)
The Advent season is upon us, the period after Thanksgiving and leading up to Christmas in which we anticipate the celebration of the birth of Jesus, our Lord.
It’s a special time of year, a sacred time, a simple time. But these days, it usually ends up being a time of busyness and stress and chaos—even panic.
If that’s true for us, I bet it was even truer for the central figures in the first Christmas. Especially THE central figure, at least until the baby Jesus arrived. Mary.
After all, the angel Gabriel appeared to her with the news that her life was about to be turned upside down—irrevocably—and yet her response was, I am the Lord’s servant…May it be to me as you have said. (Luke 1:38, NIV)
Wow. Somehow, she found a way to let go of fear. And doubt. And control. She surrendered herself, her plans, her future, her hopes and dreams, to God.
Though much has changed since that fateful annunciation, that is still the way to Christmas peace—letting go of fear, doubt and control. And the only way I know how to do that is through prayer. Perhaps repeated prayer. Maybe even unceasing prayer.
So let me suggest a method of prayer that might just lead you into Christmas peace. It involves doing something with your hands. Just as when kneeling, you bow your heart, this is a way to reflect with your hands what you pray in your heart.
Start by holding your hands in your lap with your palms up, open, to symbolize that you’re presenting your requests to God. You’re bringing to Him the things you’re afraid of, things you’re worried about. In your mind’s eye, put those things in your hands. Then pray something like this:
Father, I come to You today in Jesus’ name,
with these things,
these cares and worries in my hands.
I hold them here before you.
My fear. My future. My success and my failure. My hopes and my dreams. My... [fill in the blank].
Take your time. Name it. Name your worry, your fear. Name the person, name the situation. Tell God what you’ve been holding onto.
Then take a deep breath and turn your hands over. Picture all of those things you were holding now falling out of your hands.
The Christmas season has not always been celebrated in the most peaceful ways. In The Battle for Christmas, Stephen Nissenbaum describes an early American tradition called “Barring Out the Schoolmaster.” Apparently, the practice originated in England in the seventeenth century, and its first recorded occurrence in the American colonies was in 1702. The basic idea of “Barring Out the Schoolmaster” was for the students to arrive at school early some day prior to Christmas and lock the doors, so that the schoolmaster would be prevented from entering the building. The schoolmaster would then have to negotiate with the students, promising them a certain number of days off for a Christmas break before the students would agree to let him in. When students engaged in that prank at a grammar school in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1702, it seems that the schoolmaster wasn’t particularly interested in playing along with the stunt. But when the schoolmaster repeatedly threw his body against the school doors in an attempt to break them down, the students inside ended up firing pistols at him to discourage him from doing so. Finally, the schoolmaster relented and gave them their desired Christmas break. (Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas [New York: Vintage, 1996], p 113)
Historians and political commentators continue to debate the cause of violence in the world. In one of his earlier books, Shame, Salman Rusdie suggests that the real battle of history is fought not between rich and poor, communist and capitalist, black and white, but between what he calls the Epicure and the Puritan. Rushdie contends that the pendulum of society constantly swings back and forth between the Epicures who say, “Anything goes,” and the Puritans who respond, “Oh, no you don’t!” (Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995], p 260)
Violence can erupt over the most insignificant things. The New York Post (3/23/04) reported about how a flight from New York to Florida had to make an emergency landing because two of the passengers got into a fight. The two passengers happened to be twin brothers who were seated next to each other. Shortly after take-off the pair got into a shoving battle with their elbows over who would get to use the arm rest situated between them. At one point, a flight attendant offered to re-seat them so that they could both have their own arm rests. The brothers declined solving the problem that way, apparently preferring instead to settle their dispute by engaging in a knock-down, drag-out brawl.
Peace between people sometimes breaks down because of simple misunderstandings. In Multicultural Manners: New Rules of Etiquette for a Changing Society, Norine Dresser observes how hard feelings arose when an Armenian American gave a bunch of yellow flowers to her Iranian American friend as a sign of affection. The Iranian American, however, was outraged when he received those yellow flowers, because while Armenian tradition says that yellow means, “I miss you,” Iranian tradition interprets yellow flowers to connote hostility. (Mark Caldwell, A Short History of Rudeness: Manners, Morals, and Misbehavior in Modern America [New York: Picador, 1999], p 62)
The challenge of peace, as illustrated by Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom, is to negotiate the proper way to relate to those around us. Edward O. Wilson, a pioneer in the field of sociobiology, often cited an old German fable. The tale spoke of how a group of porcupines massed together to shield themselves from the winter winds. If they stood too far from each other, they froze. Yet if they came too close too each other, they pricked one another. When they finally worked out the precise degree of proximity that kept them both warm and unstabbed, they called that good manners. To a large degree, in every age peace is a matter of discovering the good manners that we need to abide by to live well with those around us. (Mark Caldwell, A Short History of Rudeness: Manners, Morals, and Misbehavior in Modern America [New York: Picador, 1999], p 62)
It often seems that we’re much more focused on the things that divide us than we are on the things that make for peace. Gregg Easterbrook observes that during the twentieth century, there were 8,166 scholarly psychological articles published on the subject of anger, while only 416 such articles were written on the subject of forgiveness. (Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse [New York: Random House, 2003], p 220)
All true and lasting peace comes from our relationship with God: “What peace can they have who are not at peace with God?” (Matthew Henry)
Despite what we often think, God’s peace does not come through human bloodshed: “A good portion of the evils that afflict mankind is due to the erroneous belief that life can be made secure by violence.” (Leo Tolstoy)
Isaiah’s vision is more to our liking than John’s offending rudeness, especially as we consider a lengthy new war against a ruthless but faceless enemy; Isaiah’s hope contains the code words we all agree upon until we discuss the practical details; but Isaiah reminds us that ‘delight in the fear of the Lord’ is the precondition for new growth.
Jesus showed us what is necessary to create Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom by the virtues he infused in his life: wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, righteousness, equity and goodness. Jesus infused these virtues in his teaching: wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, righteousness, equity and goodness. If we would be peacemakers, we must become bearers of these virtues and do them in the face of violence and scorn. Otherwise, we’re just so much dead wood.
Here’s what it is like being a bearer of God’s peace in today’s world: giving cats a bath or teaching pigs to sing. Shortly after becoming the owner of two cats I recognized they needed baths; fleas were making all three of us uncomfortable—they were scratching and I was worried about their well being. Having bathed dogs I knew this might be a difficult but not impossible job; after all—I’m big and strong and neither cat weighs more than four pounds. So after assembling the flea shampoo, a small collar and what turned out to initially be more courage than common sense, I gathered up the most docile cat. Whispering softly into her ear, I stepped into the bathroom and shut the door. All was well until I turned on the water in the bath tub. Lesson One: I suddenly had 500 pounds of claws in my hands! Teaching a pig to sing is much easier! Now here is Lesson Two: we both immediately agreed she wasn’t going to get a bath! I placed a call to a local veterinary office, made an appointment for each cat, purchased some kitty carriers and dropped them off. I don’t know if the cats were exactly happy but they’ve been free of fleas. By the way, in a reprise of Lesson One, I periodically wash with what remains of the flea shampoo!
We are not the first generation to long for God’s peace, as Isaiah illustrates. Nor are we are not the first generation to deal with character flaws, sins and wreckage caused by bad habits. The life-long treatments for these are pretty well known. They require patience, kindness, diligence and love from others as well as from our own soul. Most importantly, if we’re going to truly stay well...or slowly get better...we have to keep focused on the health we want to achieve and the peace that Isaiah promised is ‘on the way.’
Dr. Howard Thurman tells of an undergraduate student who participated in sit-in demonstrations in the south. They went to the drug store to help fill the counter until they were waited on. She sat for about half an hour and noticed that while they were not being served, customers at the other end of the counter were being served. So she went down there. As she began to take a seat a man who had been standing against the wall all along jumped in her face and dared her to sit down. He grabbed her by the wrist and his fingers biting into her arm he pushed her against the wall and held her there. She told Dr. Thurman, “It was my first direct encounter with real violence. We had been trained to be nonviolent, but I was not prepared for the stark panic that moved through me. Anger rose in me, but I held, looking intently into his face.” Dr. Thurman taught, “One is not dealing with the perpetrator of violence, a violent man, but with the stark fact of violence itself. That has to be conquered first.” (Howard Thurman, Disciplines of the Spirit, [Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 1963], p 116)
Just as a shoot rises from a seemingly dead stump, God’s hope and God’s peace are able to arise even in the midst of the most desolate times. During Christmastime, England looks to a particular small shoot to be a sign of God’s presence. Every year the Glastonbury thorn, a pinkish-colored hawthorn known as Crataegus monogyna praecox, blossoms shortly before Christmas, in the depths of winter, at a time when such flora are not normally expected to bloom. First mention of the bush, which grows at the Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset, was in 1502. Tradition calls that bush the Holy Thorn, claiming that it was planted by Joseph of Arimathea when he stuck his staff in the ground and it took root. The tradition further states that Joseph had originally cut his staff from the same bush from which Jesus’ crown of thorns had been made. Modern-day botanists confirm that the Glastonbury thorn did indeed originate somewhere in the Middle East, although, of course, they cannot verify that Joseph was the one who transported it to Britain. Every year, when the first sprig on the bush blossoms, it is ceremonially cut and presented to the Queen, who keeps it on her desk throughout the Christmas season. (Robert Lacey, Great Tales from English History: The Truth about King Arthur, Lady Godiva, Richard the Lionheart, and More [New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2003], p 14)
Effort is often required in order to bring about peace. The citizens of East Timor can certainly attest to that. From 1975 through much of 1999, the former Portuguese colony was occupied by Indonesia. But in May of 2002 the land emerged as a new, independent nation under the watchful eye of the United Nations. The preceding years of Indonesian occupation had been violent and bloody. As many as 200,000 East Timorese out of a total population of fewer than 800,000 were killed. After the people of the land voted for independence in August of 1999, pro-Indonesia forces went on a final rampage, killing hundreds and destroying the homes of tens of thousands. Virtually the entire population was left terrified and ran into the hills. Eventually East Timor convened a Truth Commission, based somewhat on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that had been so successful in South Africa. In East Timor, though, they chose to call their organization the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation. The word reception they used in the title of the commission came from the Portuguese word alcolhimento, which means “welcome” or “refuge.” But the word was particularly significant because of its spiritual overtones, with the term expressing what the father did for his younger son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The citizens of East Timor realized that truth by itself would not lead to reconciliation. Instead they understood that they needed to approach their former enemies with a sincere desire to welcome them back into relationship if peace was ever going to be achieved. (Ellis Cone, Bone to Pick: Of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Reparation, and Revenge [New York: Atria, 2004], pp 112-115)
A folk tale illustrates the way that our indifference to the plight of others can eventually disrupt the peace of the entire community. Once upon a time there was a rat who lived in the walls of a farmer’s house. One day, as he was peeking out, he saw the farmer and his wife opening a package. “What could it be?” the rat wondered. “Might it be some new kind of food that I can sneak out in the middle of the night and nibble on?” Soon the rat discovered that the package they were opening did not contain food. Rather it contained a rat trap. Immediately the rat raced out into the farmyard yelling, “There’s a rat trap in the house! There’s a rat trap in the house!” The chicken looked at the rat and said, “Mr. Rat, I can tell that this rat trap is of grave concern to you. But I’m afraid that I just can’t get involved right now.” So the rat ran over to the pig and shouted, “There’s a rat trap in the house! There’s a rat trap in the house!” The pig replied, “I’m sorry, Mr. Rat, but there’s simply nothing I can do about that. But please be assured that I’ll keep you in my prayers.” Finally the rat went up to the cow and called out, “There’s a rat trap in the house! There’s a rat trap in the house!” The cow stared at the rat and said, “Why are you telling me that? I never go into the house. That’s your problem. I have enough problems of my own.” Eventually the rat walked back toward the house, with his head down and feeling dejected, left to face the farmer’s rat trap all by himself. Late that night, in the wee hours of the morning, a loud snapping sound woke up the whole house. The rat trap had caught its first victim. The farmer’s wife proceeded to go downstairs to see what the trap had caught. But since it was dark and she didn’t to turn on any of the lights, she failed to see that the rat trap had caught a poisonous rattlesnake by the tail. When she got close, the snake sunk his fangs into her leg and bit her. Right away the farmer rushed his wife to the hospital, and several days later she returned home, still suffering with a rather high fever. Well, everyone knows that one of the best cures for a fever is fresh chicken soup. So the farmer took his hatchet, marched out into the farmyard, grabbed hold of the chicken, and turned him into chicken soup. Unfortunately, the farmer’s wife failed to get any better. Soon many friends and family members began to pour into the house to sit with the farmer’s wife day and night. In order to feed all those people, the farmer took his hatchet, marched out into the farmyard, grabbed hold of the pig, and turned him into bacon and pork chops. After several weeks, the farmer’s wife died. So many people showed up for the funeral that in order to provide for all of them, the farmer took his hatchet, marched out into the farmyard, grabbed hold of the cow, and turned him into steaks for everyone to eat. At first, the chicken, the pig, and the cow figured that that rat trap was of no concern to them. Only when it was too late did they realize that it was a matter that they should have done something about.
A sign of how lacking peace is in our world can be found in a new line of clothing that recently came out. According to Reuters (7/22/04), parents in Japan can now buy their children clothes that are knife-resistant. The clothing was developed in response to recent gruesome attacks on young people. In December of last year an intruder attacked primary school students with a knife in western Japan, and in June of this year an 11-year-old schoolgirl murdered a classmate by slashing her throat—this happening in a land known for its extremely low crime rate. The sweatshirts and coats look like regular waterproof wear, but they are made from the same fibers that police and military knife-proof and bullet-proof vests are made of. A major Japanese child-care provider immediately purchased a shipment of the jackets so that the children in their care would be safer. The knife-proof clothes come at a price, though. Coats cost about $420 and sweatshirts start at approximately $350.
During the Advent season, as we prepare for Christmas, we often think of this time of year as the ultimate time to experience peace. For many people, however, peace is the last thing they feel. According to the BBC (12/4/03), thousands of store workers in Austria claim that they face “psychological terror” during the holiday season. In particular, the salesclerks object to the non-stop playing of Christmas carols. Somewhat ironically, the workers in Austria say that “Silent Night” is the carol they find most annoying—”Silent Night,” of course, was composed nearly 200 years ago by an Austrian pastor. As a result, the employees are demanding that stores cut back on the amount of Christmas music they are forced to listen to, asking that it be limited to an hour or so each day.
Although Isaiah speaks of a day when even the animals will experience the fullness of peace, researchers suggest that most animals don’t find that peace during the Christmas season. According to Reuters (12/10/03), cases of pets biting people go up by about 10% during the holidays. Animals experts say it is probably due to the flood of visitors coming into the pet’s home, upsetting the routines the pet is accustomed to. Dogs also face additional dangers during the holiday period from such things as poinsettias and mistletoe, both of which are poisonous. Also, pet authorities say, dogs feel the added stress of having to be careful to not topple the family Christmas tree and not knock down ornaments.
The prophet’s vision of the ideal time demonstrates that peace is not merely an individual possession. Rather true peace involves coming together and living in peace with others. A sixth-century monk named Dorotheos liked to use this illustration. He asked people to imagine themselves standing in a huge circle, with God at the center. Then he invited people to realize that as everyone attempts to draw closer to God, the circle becomes smaller and smaller. The result is that as people strive to move closer to God, by necessity they also must draw closer to one another. (Philip Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000], p 170)
Throughout history, one of the hindrances to peace has been the belief that terror is a good thing. In 1792, the Jacobins rose to power in France by instituting what we call the Reign of Terror. The leader of that group, Robespierre, called terror “an emanation of virtue” and asserted that “terror is nothing but justice, prompt, severe and inflexible.” In the months that followed the Jacobin uprising, the severe and inflexible justice of the guillotine brought death to somewhere around 12,000 counter-revolutionaries before it eventually brought death to Robespierre himself. (Geoffrey Nunberg, Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times [New York: Public Affairs, 2004], p 51)
“If everybody in the world says that they want peace, how can we have bombs? Someone in the world must be lying.” American 10-year old quoted in “Our Faith, Our Vote” resource from the United Church of Christ, 2004.
Hope is “the ability to see that God’s future stretches beyond one’s own generation, where we are therefore willing to risk our resources in times of despair to invest in God’s reign.” From an unpublished sermon by Yvonne Delk.
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: Blessed be the Lord,
People: Who alone does wondrous things.
Leader: May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
People: And the hills, righteousness.
Leader: Blessed be God’s glorious name forever;
People: May the glory of God fill the earth.
All: Let us worship God.
Lord, in this season of anticipation, we confess that we are sometimes cynical about celebration, devoid of hope, or numb to your Spirit. We expect nothing new, and fall into a dull routine. Have mercy on us, and by the gift of forgiveness, renew us in hope, through your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Generous God receive these offerings and gifts which we give in a spirit of gratitude. Multiply them in your life-giving love, that others may come to know You, and live grateful, joyful, and loving lives. We ask this in the name of your Son Jesus, the greatest gift of all. Amen.
Loving God, in uncertain times, we pray for the certainty of your steadfast love. Open our ears and hearts to the good news of your Scriptures, that we might have hope. As we struggle to align our lives with your purposes, teach us by your Spirit, that we may have a strong witness to your love and justice.
Celebrate with us our joys and turn your great heart toward our concerns. Strengthen this congregation, that we may be a community of faith, hope and love. Let no hypocrisy be among us, but in simplicity and honesty, may we be your faithful, servant people.
Guide the leaders of our nation, and indeed, of all the nations. May the quest for peace and justice guide each nation, that we may overcome strife and seek the welfare of the poor. Let justice reign among us, that we may rejoice in your peace, through Christ our Lord. Amen.