Wednesday, December 21, 2016

December 18, 2016 Building Peace

One of my favorite places to visit is Washington, DC. I must confess, however, that on our first visit I was a rather reluctant traveler. Washington is a city of which I have often complained, in terms of the politics that take place there. My response to the idea of visiting Washington was something along the lines of, what’s wrong with visiting a beach? Are they all closed? Upon arriving in Washington, I was hooked. It is a fascinating city to visit. Wandering around the city, visiting the monuments, it struck me that so many of them commemorate war, suffering, and death. The pinnacle of this is certainly the Holocaust Museum. If you have visited there, you know what an overwhelming experience it can be. To encounter the history of hatred and violence on such a scale is an incredibly sobering moment. I have visited that museum on two occasions, and I can’t get that experience out of my head. To walk through one of the train cars that carried people to the concentration camps, to see the piles of shoes that came from those camps, and to see the entrance gate to Auschwitz are sobering experiences. As you walk through the Holocaust Museum there is a phrase that often appears – Never Again.
Never Again is a powerful phrase, but it is one that carries some measure of indictment, because there are predecessors of the Holocaust all through history and echoes of it until now. At the time of the birth of Jesus, the Roman Empire maintained their control by a brutal use of force, and they were the most recent in a long line of empires up to that historical moment. As they found it necessary, the Romans would use force with such efficiency and brutality that all of those under their power had no doubt about who was in charge. The Romans did not hesitate to exercise absolute force and they did so in such an unflinching manner that it is hard to fathom how any power could treat other human beings in such a way. 
Closer to our own time, World War I was supposed to be the “war to end all wars.” Some of the statistics from that war are incredibly sobering: half of all French men who were aged 20 – 32 at the beginning of World War I were dead by the end. Half! More than one third of all German men between the ages of 19 – 22 were killed. As tragic as World War I was, the “war to end all wars” was surpassed by World War II only 21 years later. Never again happened again. Never Again happened again when the country of Yugoslavia disintegrated, it happened again in Rwanda, and it is happening again, now, under the watch of the entire world, in Syria. 
War, with its violence and genocide, has been a scourge throughout history, and that it continues to take place on such a large scale drives home to us just what an entrenched and disturbing problem it continues to be. And the most difficult question of all is: what do we do about it? 
As we continue through Advent, we come today to the message of the angels to the shepherds, the message of peace.
Luke 2:8-20 – 
8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
10 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.
15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.
18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.
20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.
Peace means to – 
1. Fear not.
The first words from the angels were fear not (verse 10). I’m going to assume the shepherds had seen a lot of things that made them fearful. They lived in a world where life was very fragile and tenuous. Life was lived under constant threat. We live with the miracle of antibiotics; they lived in a time and place where they could easily sustain a cut, out on a hillside, dealing with sheep, that could lead to the end of their lives. They were exposed to the weather that could bring to them a deadly case of pneumonia. They could be injured. And, certainly, there was always the danger of what the Romans could do to them. The shepherds lived with the constant fear of the precarious nature of their lives.
And then comes the appearance of the angels. And, in considering the angels, doesn't it seem that they should have appeared in Rome, the seat of the power of the Empire? Why appear to a bunch of shepherds, who could do nothing to bring about peace? Why not send the angels to the seat of the world's power? That's how I would have done it, but obviously, God had another plan, and a much better plan. I would imagine that the appearance of the angels to the shepherds would be more than a bit disconcerting, don’t you? How often do we have such an experience? But I think drastic times call for drastic measures, and the appearance of the angels was certainly a dramatic measure for a dramatic time. The appearance of the angels was God taking dramatic action and saying, it’s time for a change. In the midst of the uncertainty, in the midst of the fear, in the midst of the violence, in the midst of so much struggle, God showed up, as he always does. Now there’s a good reason not to fear!
Sometimes, when we look around at our lives, they feel a bit precarious, don’t they? We feel as though we are teetering on the edge of disaster, as though at any moment life is going to come apart at the seams. And the fear sinks deep into our very bones. Though we do not face what the shepherds faced, we still live with a great deal of fear. But then the peace of God enters into our lives, so that when we feel that deep sense of anxiety and that deep sense of fear, God says, fear not. When you think life is overwhelmed with uncertainty, God says, fear not. When you fear for the future your children and grandchildren face, God says, fear not. When you are tempted to believe that instead of getting better the world will only get worse, God says, fear not. 
Fear not!
2. Be a peacemaker.
You would probably be surprised to know that when I was much younger I had a bad temper. You would probably be more surprised to know that for a time I was often in fights, generally on the losing end. Actually, always on the losing end, but that didn’t seem to deter me. One day, however, the futility of fighting became obvious to me. One of my friends was the middle linebacker for our high school football team, and for some reason, which I can’t remember, I tried to provoke him into a fight. It was very foolish, as I was absolutely no match for him, but I continued to provoke him. I remember him saying, over and over, Dave, I don’t want to fight you, but still I continued to provoke him. I provoked him one time too many and when I did, I knew it was time to run. And I ran. Really fast. But not fast enough, unfortunately, and so I learned the futility of fighting and the importance of working to live in peace.
Why is it so hard for humanity to live together in peace? Why must we provoke and fight one another?
On earth peace (verse 14), proclaimed the angels. Peace is one of the great hopes of humankind; it may, in fact, be the greatest hope. It is also one of the most elusive of all hopes. The Scriptures have many references to peace, one of the most famous coming from Isaiah 2:3 – "He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore."
The temptation is great to live by knee-jerk reactions in life. React in anger to the person who treats you poorly. React in bitterness to the person who hurts you. React in violence to the person who brings violence. Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). Paul wrote that as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:18). Jesus and Paul walked this earth at a time when it was very difficult to be a peacemaker and to live in peace with others. It was a tough, difficult, mean, and violent world, where any sign of weaknesses could cost you dearly.
But being a peacemaker is not weakness; it is strength.
3. Peace is here.
I know that statement sounds strange and may makes you wonder, "is Dave crazy? Peace is not here! What are you talking about?" The coming of Christ into the world brought many hopes, and certainly the hope for peace was paramount to many. World history had been one long story of empire after empire, wreaking havoc on millions of people, tearing asunder families and taking countless innocent lives. The people of God had certainly seen their share of violence, and in the coming of the Messiah many hoped that peace would finally come and that violence would cease.
It did not. But though peace did not come as hoped, it did not mean that it was absent. I know that sounds like a contradiction, but it is not. In the coming of Christ, I believe, we find that the seeds of peace were planted. Once those seeds were planted, it became necessary for humanity to water, nurture, and nourish those seeds. Peace is not truly peace unless humanity pours itself into the peacemaking process. Yes, God could enforce a peace of his own, but would it be true peace? No, it is only peace when it is accepted and practiced by humanity. 
So, in that sense, peace is here. Peace is all around us. It merely has to be embraced and practiced. Peace is not missing from our world; what is missing from our world is the willingness to lay down our provocations and fighting and warfare and to take up our embrace of peace.
I tried to write a column recently about the tragedy taking place in Aleppo and struggled with what to write. I tried to write about my belief that something should be done, but all I could think was, what do we do? The solution that seems to rise to the top is military force, which doesn’t seem to be much of a solution upon further examination, as force only begets more force and violence and aggression only beget more violence and aggression. And o while we watch, our Never Again has once again been proven to be a time and again. But last week, our Week of Compassion approved its largest ever emergency grant for relief efforts to those displaced by the war in Syria. That’s something! That’s sowing the seeds of peace, that is working as a peacemaker, and that is seizing the peace that Christ brought into the world in order to make it a reality for those who are suffering in that terrible conflict.
Two weeks ago I spoke about hope; perhaps the greatest act of hope is to believe we may one day have peace in the world. The promise of Advent, the promise of Jesus entering into the world, is that peace not only will come, but that peace has come. It is ours to take hold of and live. May we do just that, not only at Advent, but all days!

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