Saturday, December 21, 2019

“A Vision of Peace” - December 8, 2019

Texts: Isaiah 2:2-4, 9:2, 6-7; Matthew 1:18-25

It happened on April 11, 1954.  A most notable day in history.  Well, I guess it would be more accurate to say it didn’t happen on April 11, 1954.  A computer researcher at the University of Cambridge, William Tunstall-Pedoe, determined that was possibly the most boring day in history.  A computer search engine that he developed analyzed 300 million facts about people, places, business and events and used advanced algorithms to calculate the most “objectively” boring day since 1900.

On that Sunday, Belgium held a general election and a Turkish academic named Abdullah Atalar was born.  , and a soccer player named Jack Shufflebotham died.  The biggest news event around these parts was that the St. Louis Cardinals traded Enos Slaughter to the Yankees for four minor leaguers.  If you were a baseball fan, that might be news, but if that is the biggest thing that happened, then it was a pretty slow news day.

“Nobody significant died that day, no major events apparently occurred and, although a typical day in the 20th century has many notable people being born, for some reason that day had only one [Abdullah Atalar] who might possibly make that claim,” Tunstall-Pedoe explained.  (I did check and as far as our records go, no one in our church was born on April 11 - in 1954 or any other year.) 

Here in the U.S. on that day, Dwight Eisenhower was practicing putts in the Oval Office and Perry Como topped the pop charts while the cover of the New York Post had a picture of two cops attending a conference on juvenile delinquency.  It was a boring day.

I’m curious: What is your reaction to the idea of an extremely boring day in our world?  I have to be honest: my gut reaction is that it sounds great.  It sounds fantastic.  In a world in which so much of the news is truly awful, boring sounds pretty good.  It sounds wonderful.  I mean, we long for such a day, right?

I know that many of the people here this morning are either too old or too young to appreciate good music like this, but back in the day the Talking Heads had a song called “Heaven.”  It is a very interesting song that I never quite figured out.  It starts out, “Everybody’s trying to get to the bar.  The name of the bar – the bar is called Heaven.”  The refrain, sung again and again, is “Heaven….  Heaven is a place….  A place where nothing…. nothing ever happens.”

I was never sure what this song was about – was it poking fun at traditional conceptions of heaven, with gold streets and angels singing, that just sound, well, boring?  Or is it saying that in a world in which so many awful things take place, that for nothing to happen would be really great, even heavenly?  Or more maybe more likely, something else altogether?

Well - where am I going with all of this, on this second Sunday of Advent, as we consider the theme of peace?  We live in a world that is filled with such harshness, such despair, such pain, so lacking in peace, that utter boredom may sound far preferable to our present circumstances.

When we were in Indiana over Thanksgiving, my family exchanged Christmas gifts.  A week or two before, I received that dreaded text message – what do you want for Christmas?

It’s a common question about this time of year.  How many times do we hear this?  How many times do we ask this?  “What do you want for Christmas?”

I can come up with a list if I have to, but it’s a little different from when I was 8 years old.  But if peace in the world peace could be wrapped up under the tree, I would surely ask for it.  At this point, most of us would be glad to have world boredom wrapped up under the tree.

But in our desire to be free of war and violence, to be free from fear and free from worry, free from the strong abusing the weak, we should not confuse lack of open hostility with peace.  Peace is more than just not fighting.  No matter what the Talking Heads may say, Heaven is not a place where nothing ever happens.

Rather than simply the absence of violence, peace is the presence of trust and good will and concern and compassion.  Peace is a world marked by cooperation and friendly relations.

Isaiah has a vision of a peaceful world.  His vision of peace is more than simply not fighting.  Nations shall stream to the mountain of the Lord to learn God’s ways and walk in God’s paths.  And rather than putting resources into warring and destruction, they will go into those things that build up and nurture.

God’s peace, God’s shalom, is more than finding ways not to argue or come to blows.  Shalom means seeing God’s image residing deep inside every person we encounter.  Shalom means not just passively understanding the fact of our inter-relatedness but of actively wanting to do something to make that relationship better.   We do what we can to make others prosper and flourish.

That’s why Isaiah has this vision of swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.  In times of war, fields are destroyed, crops are destroyed, planting seasons are lost, and people go hungry.  War leaves behind ravaged conditions in which nothing can grow.  In World War II, almost as many Russians died of starvation in cities cut off by the Nazis as did in battle.  After World War II the Russians returned the favor by cutting off Berlin, necessitating the Berlin Airlift to fly in food.

True shalom means that we want to feed one another.  We want there to be enough to go around so that no one will be hungry.  We want lives of plenty to be the norm for everyone, not just for the privileged few.  Maybe it is no coincidence that Jesus, whom we know as the Prince of Peace, was born in the town of Bethlehem, a word that means “the House of Bread.”  Jesus’ coming was about bringing peace, bringing abundance, to everyone.

We can be prone to taking the differences among us and instead of celebrating them as God’s gifts, using them as an excuse to do harm to one another.  That is true whether we are on the battlefield or the playground or on social media.

In Advent we consider the One who came and who will come again to make the Bread of Life available to all.  Jesus came to our world and comes into our lives to bring peace. 

In World War I, trench warfare lasting months and months meant that soldiers from opposing sides were often in close proximity to one another.  This kind of war was horrific.  The British lost so many troops in World War I that Winston Churchill said afterwards that theirs was a victory “scarcely distinguishable from defeat.”

But on Christmas Eve 1914, the proximity of the trenches led to something very different.  British soldier Captain Robert Patrick Miles wrote about it:

We are having the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable.  A sort of unarranged and quite unauthorized but perfectly understood and scrupulously observed truce exists between us and our friends in front…  The thing started last night – a bitter cold night, with white frost – soon after dusk when the Germans started shouting 'Merry Christmas, Englishmen' to us.  Of course our fellows shouted back and presently large numbers of both sides had left their trenches, unarmed, and met in the debatable, shot-riddled, no man’s land between the lines.  
British, German, French, and other troops sang Christmas carols, shared Chocolate, champagne, and brandy, and shared photos of loved ones.  They even played soccer.  For a time, at least, they reveled in their shared humanity.

This of course made their superiors furious, not just because the troops were disobeying orders, but because it is much harder to harm someone with whom you have formed some sort of relationship.  Getting to know people, especially people who are different from you, is a way to build peace. 

Isaiah foresees a time when we will come to the holy mountain of God.  And when we do, we will learn war no more but instead we will walk in the light of the Lord.  Sometimes we can see glimpses of this even in our broken world, glimpses like that Christmas Eve ceasefire.

Dwight Eisenhower, who knew more of the cost of war than most of us, said “Ever gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.  The world in arms is not spending money alone.  It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, and the hopes of its children.”

To acknowledge the all-consuming appetite of violence is not being pessimistic or unpatriotic; it is simply the truth about the world in which we live. 

That was the kind of world in which the prophet Isaiah lived.  It was a violent world.  It was also the kind of world into which Jesus was born.  Matthew recounts the birth of Jesus with a brutal honesty and forthrightness that doesn’t fit with many of our beautiful Christmas traditions.  In Luke, most all of the major characters at some point burst into singing, led by the angels.  The story in Luke focuses on Mary, who upon hearing that she will bear the savior breaks forth in praise to God.

There is no singing in Matthew.  Jesus is born in to a fear-filled world dominated by the Roman military, and in the end children are slaughtered because of Herod’s brutality.  It’s no wonder we tend to prefer Luke.

But Matthew contains a word that we need to hear.  When Joseph discovers that Mary is with child, he plans to divorce her quietly, but an angel appears to him in a dream and says “Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”  Do not be afraid.  That is what we need to hear.  It is a message of peace.

And Joseph does as the angel says, taking Mary as his wife and naming the child Jesus.

Joseph was able to see what others could not.  He could see in this child the gift of God’s presence, the gift of God’s power, the gift of God’s peace.  He dared to believe that in this confused, conflicted, and broken world, God was sending a child to lead us.  He dared to believe that Jesus was the one who could save his people and lead us in the way of peace.

We live in a world filled with conflict – political conflict, religious conflict, military conflict.  Conflict between neighbors, conflict within communities, conflict within families.  And sometimes, the conflict we feel most deeply is within ourselves.

I recently attended a conference and the speaker, a seminary professor in California, told about running with a friend who convinced him to do an Iron Man triathlon with him. 
The Iron Man is serious business.  You swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and then run a marathon – 26.2 miles. 

They went to this Iron Man competition in Canada.  And the night before, there was a big dinner, a kind of pregame party.  Lots of pasta, everyone was carbo-loading.  And they had a speaker.  Madonna Buder, who was then 82 years old.  She is a Roman Catholic sister who is known as the Iron Nun.

She got that name because she has run in over 340 triathlons and in 45 Ironmans.  She started all of this when she was 52 years old.

Buder kept setting the record for oldest woman who had completed the Iron Man, and then as the oldest person who had completed the Iron Man, finally setting the record at age 82.  You have 17 hours to complete the course; typically it all begins at 7 am and you have until midnight to finish.  Once she finished too late by a matter of seconds and another time she was 2 minutes late, but this did not deter her from competing again.

So, this 82 year old woman known as the Iron Nun spoke to the other athletes on the eve of the competition.  And this was her message: “You are loved.  You are wonderful just the way you are and God loves you.”

Events like the Iron Man tend to attract people who are trying to prove themselves – maybe to someone else and maybe to themselves.  People who despite being incredible athletes may have a deep sense of dis-ease, of nagging anxiety, a sense of not being good enough.  A lack of peace.  Her message was, you don’t have to prove anything.  You are enough and God loves you.  It was a powerful message of peace.

God sent Jesus to bring peace into our hearts, peace deep into our souls.  Jesus came to lead us in the ways of peace and to give us a vision of a world in which God’s peace prevails.  May it be so.  Amen.

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