Peace on Earth this Advent

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Isaiah 11:1-10

11:6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

11:7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

11:8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

11:9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

If scripture is that which gives us an indication of God’s good intentions for our world, we heard from two scriptures this morning. The first is from the book of Isaiah, the second from MGM studios. One was written with the Babylonian captivity looming overhead in the 500’s BC. The other was written in 1939 as World War 2 was beginning to unfold.

Both are apocalyptic in that they are envisioning a radical rupture in history, where the old world passes a way and a new world, marked by peace and justice comes to pass. Both use animals as harbingers of this new world to come. Animals are often seen as doing what God intends for them. It’s us humans that must spend a lifetime to figure such things out.

“They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” The knowledge of God and the way of peace are one in the same in Isaiah and for the animals in the MGM cartoon short, they discover the peace passages of the Bible and build a peaceful existence from that.

Both are aware of the world as it is. A world marked by violence, by war, by oppression. And both are trying to envision a new world marked by peace and good will. Some of that imagining is to flip the script of how things are done today. In Isaiah it is the peaceful existence of animals that indicate the new world to come. In the cartoon, the army helmets the soldiers wore were re purposed to create houses for the animals.

It’s harder to imagine a conflict like World War Three happening, a big conflict among armies. In a 1950’s short from MGM it was nuclear weapons that did humans in. Today, we might look at climate change as the apocalyptic end. 60% of the world’s animal population have been destroyed since 1970, basically within my lifetime.

And we have the rise of scapegoating the other. In Chechnya, gay and lesbians are being put in camps. In China, it’s Muslims being put in camps, in the US we have the horrific conditions of refugees coming across the border, with news of another teen age boy dying in US custody Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, in Europe, armed guards must protect synagogues from threats of violence.

So if we were to flip the script, to imagine a new world, where the knowledge of God was so widespread that no harm of violence were to happen to one another, what would it look like?……

Some of this is to take what we do now and do the opposite. That’s what Isaiah does. Another is to take a magic wand and imagine if we could start from scratch. That is what MGM studios does.

Another is to take a single moment in time, in our past, where we experienced peace, good will, shalom which is often identified “as to be safe in mind, body, or estate.”, freeze frame it and take that as an indication of God’s good intentions for our future.

I have been learning personal coaching through the Montana Northern Wyoming Conference and one of the questions we’re recommended when someone is struggling with a current situation is to ask, when in the past, did things look right, when did it work out.

I think of the Christmas story as that moment, in our collective past, where we remember when things were right, when God’s intentions became evident in the birth of a child

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Those intentions were captured in a moment and we go back to those moments to remember what God would have for our world. But that vision of peace in that moment became the meaning of the life of Jesus the Christ as Paul writes in the second chapter of Ephesians

“For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us that we might be reconciled to God “

There, Paul describes a current activity afoot, not simply a one-time event long ago but a reality we can experience today. One where our relation to God in Christ reconciles us in peace to one another.

Or as Edgar Brightman, MLK’s adviser at Boston University, puts it in 1937

If the individual finds God..he finds the universal God of all. It is henceforth impossible for him to think of his religion as a mere relation between himself and God; it is necessarily a relation to all of God’s children. It is no Privatsache, no private affair. It is the most public and social thing about him, binding him with ties of love to every person in the world.

In the season of Advent, we remember the three-folded path of Bernard of Clairvauxin anticipation the coming of Christ, of peace and good will, “In the flesh in Bethlehem, in our hearts daily, and in glory at the end of time.”

Which is to say we imagine the world to come, the world God would have for us, by looking at those moments in the past where peace and good will was real.

For some it was a public event like the 1963 March on Washington, the Berlin wall being torn down in 1989, a species coming back from extinction but maybe it’s more personal… the birth of a child, a wedding, church camp, whatever moments operate for you where the world began to make sense again. We go back to that time and again. And it never loses its impact, just like Christmas, we can celebrate every year again and again through the ages, and it can hold that same power

We also look to the world around us now, in the present, in our life and in the events that mark our world were reconciliation and peace and good will are a reality in the midst. I look at Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager, alerting the world to climate change. The Parkland teens working at gun violence.

Maybe it’s closer to home, someone you admire in this congregation that does the work to make life better for other people. We need those moments if we would hope for a new world to come

And we dream for a future world. We look to the future, trusting God’s good intentions for it.

“For lo!, the days are hastening on, By prophet bards foretold, When with the ever-circling years Comes round the age of gold When peace shall over all the earth Its ancient splendors fling, And the whole world give back the song Which now the angels sing.”

And that means not accepting the world as it is but envisioning it anew. That nothing destructive we do now has to be repeated, that a new way of organizing our common life is possible. Isaiah, the MGM film, maybe it’s the poets, our writers, our films, our theorists, our scriptures can envision a new world.

“See, the home[a] of God is among mortals. He will dwell[b] with them; they will be his peoples,[c] and God himself will be with them;[d] 4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” 5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.

That three-fold movement of seeing God’s work for peace and good will in Bethlehem, in our past, in our hearts, in the world today, and in dreams of a new world to come, that becomes the basis for our hope, this advent season and in all times.

Let me add one more piece though.

This semester I’ve been teaching a course on the meaning of life at MSU Billings. And as we’ve been wrestling with the texts this semester a theme has emerged. The ability to dream ideals means these ideals lay a claim on us. They act in a way that governs our actions, give meaning to all of our doings, and give us a direction in life and through that, an identity.

As Christians we are asked to dream of a world to come, to remember those moments we’ve seen inklings of that world in the past, to be attentive to those God moments in the here and now, but I’d also add, and then we’re responsible to take that vision and work to make it real in our world today. To have an ideal is to have an obligation to make it so. If we dream of peace, we give ourselves the challenge to make the world more just, more peaceful, more reconciled. If we see the star, we must follow that star if we are to become a people of peace. That is our task today. May it ever be so. Amen

Dwight Welch is the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at Montana State University Billings

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