“Peace: Don’t Say It’s Never Happened”
Advent One: 12/1/2013
If you have spent more than one Advent season in a church pew, there are some things you already know without being told. We hold off on the carols until closer to Christmas. We don’t put the tree up right away. The crèche scene is not completed until Christmas Eve. Our scriptures are about the need for watchfulness. The themes of Advent– peace, hope, joy, love– unfold slowly, week after week until the birth of the tiny king on Christmas.
So, yes, we know that Advent is all about waiting. Advent is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter. We are preparing for an earth-shaking event, but in the case of Advent and the second coming, we don’t know exactly when that event will occur. Isaiah seems to think it will be the day when we learn war no more, and we pound swords into plowshares. God will judge between the nations, settle all disputes, arbitrate for many peoples. Not only does that sound pretty far out…it also sounds pretty far off in terms of when this transformation will occur.
For us to lay down our arms, and for nation to not lift up sword against nation, certain specific things would have to happen. At the very least, we would have to abolish the root causes of war: fear, greed, resentment, retribution, and envy; and as we like to say, good luck with that. And then, we would have to embrace a very different vision for our place in the world.
We try to read Isaiah with ears ready to hear this amazingly beautiful vision, but let’s face it, we are a little bit jaded. The idea of people streaming to the house of God, learning the teachings of wisdom, and then walking in the paths of God, just seems so very far-fetched. We yearn for peace and harmony, even as we feel like saps for believing it could ever happen.
And yet Isaiah takes us up on a mountain to show us a “vision of the true.” If it is truly God’s will for us to live in peace, how preposterous a concept can it be? As I’ve said before, if it’s in scripture…my impression is that we are to at least entertain the possibility of it being true! Actually, beating swords into plowshares has happened, within the memories of many sitting here today. We were recently reminded of this, with the movie, “Emperor,” which I highly recommend.
After victory in Europe in 1945, the war raged on in the Pacific. Japan still had a massive standing army fully prepared to fight to the last man. And Japan’s civilians were prepared to defend their homeland against the certain Allied invasion. Even after the terrible effects of the bombing of Tokyo and other population centers, the fervent nationalism of the ruling militarists ruling Japan made surrender unthinkable. And then the unthinkable happened…the detonation of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Wikipedia notes: The combined shock of these events caused Emperor Hirohito to intervene and order the Big Six (his Supreme Council) to accept the terms for ending the war that the Allies had set down in the Potsdam Declaration. After several more days of behind-the-scenes negotiations and a failed coup d’état, Emperor Hirohito gave a recorded radio address across the Empire on August 15. In the radio address he announced the surrender of Japan to the Allies. The Emperor, regarded as a god and infallible by his people, did so at great personal cost and risk to his own safety.
The formal surrender occurred on September 2, 1945 when representatives from the Empire of Japan signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender in Tokyo Bay aboard the USS Missouri. General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Allied Commander, arrived in Tokyo on August 30, and immediately decreed several laws: No Allied personnel were to assault Japanese people. No Allied personnel were to eat the scarce Japanese food. MacArthur and his occupying army surveyed the devastated country, millions homeless and starving…and began the work of re-building the nation of our bitter enemy.
Thanks be to God that in victory, the allies and MacArthur in particular, were wise enough to know that retribution would only bring about endless bloodshed. The cycle would have gone forever and the scales of justice never balance. When one considers the occupying troops, it cannot have been easy to put aside a desire for revenge against the Japanese army, for all the atrocities committed. And we were confronted by the magnitude of the suffering caused by allied bombings, both conventional and nuclear. Somebody had to push the reset button to begin a new era of nation-building after WWII. And in the rebuilding of Japan, swords were indeed beaten into plowshares as the industry of war was put aside, in the interest of a modern economy that could provide for its people, and allow Japan a place among respected modern nations. The same was done in Germany.
So we can’t say that we’ve never seen peace on earth…it’s just that it never lasts, and it is never universal. By 1950 we were embroiled in Korea. It never lasts because we continue to learn war, instead of wisdom. When it comes to scripture and its teachings, we have a big problem with obedience! One of the most stunning things about the culture in Japan was the absolute obedience of the people to the Emperor. He was after all, like a God. When he told his people to lay down their arms and surrender, they did so…pretty much without question…just as they went to war pretty much without question.
Would that we had the same sense of unwavering obedience, not to a human emperor, but to a real living God, Jesus Christ. Isaiah invites us to come to the mountain of the Lord’s House, Zion, raised above all the hills, so that he can teach us his ways. When we learn the Lord’s ways, surrender our agenda to his, the first thing to drop off our agenda is war. That’s how Scott Hoezee puts it, and he goes on to say that war is the best emblem of everything that has gone wrong on God’s good earth and God’s intention for creation. Imagine how God weeps over the broken bodies coming back from this disastrous Long War in Afghanistan and Iraq. Imagine how God weeps over the devastation in those countries and the suffering of the innocents living there in those war-torn countries. Surely we all desire shalom, or at least we would if we learned God’s wisdom.
One concordance defines shalom as completeness, wholeness, health, peace, welfare, safety, tranquility, prosperity, perfectness, fullness, rest, harmony, the absence of agitation or discord. Shalom comes from the root verb meaning to be complete, perfect and full. In modern Hebrew the obviously related word Shelem means to pay for, and Shulam means to be fully paid. It brings to mind an image of prosperity where all flourish, because we desire the best for one another. That sounds pretty simple, and really, isn’t that how we walk in God’s paths?
O House of Jacob, come let us walk in the light of the Lord! This is a present day invitation to walk toward shalom, peace, and away from war. This vision is possible when we obey our “better angels” and do like Jesus did: make enemies our friends, overcome the sword with love, and always desire the best for one another. After church today our mission committee will meet to consider how best to use a surprising amount of money left in our mission fund this year. It won’t bring peace on earth, but it could bring shalom into a few lives. We aren’t MacArthur rebuilding a nation, but we can start with our own community, we can start by walking in the light of the Lord.
I’m told that at St. Louis University there is a small Jesuit chapel that is lit with unusual light features. The fixtures are made of empty artillery shell casings, converted and emptied of their lethal contents. They now hold light by which people can pray and offer praise to God. Just a glimpse of the mountain of the Lord can light the way forward. Just a glimpse of God’s glory may embolden us to be peacemakers, bringers of shalom. Come, let us go up to the mountain.