Saturday, December 6, 2008

My Sermon on Peace - December 7th

Here you go! It might help to read Isaiah 40:1-11 first.
Today is the second Sunday of Advent, when we light the candle of peace in anticipation of the coming of the Prince of Peace. But today is also December 7th, a day that still lives in infamy. 67 years ago on this very day, Pearl Harbor was suddenly and devastatingly attacked. Four Battleships were sunk, four more were damaged, 188 aircraft were destroyed and over 3600 people were either killed or wounded. Today is not a day when we usually speak about peace. Today is a day when we purposefully remember – we remember the grief and loss, the anger and betrayal, the shattering power of evil in those days. We remember the shattering power of evil in these days. Today, the peace that we beg for seems very far away.

But then again, peace seemed very far away for the people of Israel as well. They are suffering in exile – the small remnant who escaped the destruction and pillaging of both Israel and Judah, the remaining few who were displaced from their homes and forced to march to Babylon through the ruins of their kingdom, their culture, and seemingly their God. Peace was not on their lips or in their hearts. Their guilt for the betrayal of their covenant with God hung over them like the angel of death himself, and they mourned and cried out for forgiveness.

And that is where our scripture begins today. Israel is mourning still, writhing in guilt and regret and a deep need for God’s healing – for his peace. And our Isaiah passage will teach us that, God’s peace affects not only ourselves – but the whole world.

Many times when we speak about peace, we mean the peace that comes after a cease-fire of weapons. Our scripture today, however, reveals that peace is much more than the time between battle – peace has to do with the state of our souls. For Israel, Peace was the knowledge that they had been forgiven; God’s Peace, was the Peace of Reconciliation.

Cliff and I had only been married 7 months when we discovered that he needed to have some minor surgery. I was nervous about the prospect – his brother had had the same surgery and after complications (that included jumping over fences and playing football) ended up spending lots of time in the hospital. Cliff assured me that it would be fine – he even planned on having friends and family over after only a day or two. I was skeptical – surely he needed more time to heal than that?! And as it turned out….unfortunately I was right. The surgery didn’t go as planned, and ended up being more invasive than we thought it would. He was home from work for the whole month of January, and it was hard for him to walk, sit, drive…it was hard in general. Every time we went to the wound care technician they told us that he was healing quickly and that everything was going well – but it still seemed to take forever. We wanted him to heal – but we wanted the healing to come quickly! He was so uncomfortable and the only thing that would bring him comfort was time.

The people of God were also in need of comfort – in needed of healing. Hear again our scripture reading: Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins. Remember that the exile of Israel and Judah was not some arbitrary punishment by God – the people of God had long been warned by prophet and priests that they were breaking their covenant with YHWH, that they were guilty of grave injustice, of religious hypocrisy, of continual and unrepentant sin. They had been told – justice will come. Punishment will come. And it did - by the hands of Babylon and Persia. And Israel and Judah languished in exile, paying for their sins over and over. For generations they repented in exile, unsure that God would ever really forgive them. Unsure that God would ever really love them again. So they waited on God. They waited for a sign. And Isaiah finally gave them one. God told our prophet – Speak tenderly to them and tell her that her sins have been paid for. After so many years, after so many tears – they were forgiven. Their hard service was completed. They were at peace with God.

Christmas isn’t usually the time that we talk about the sin, but it seems to me that it is one of the most important times to talk about it. Just because we are Americans in the 21st century doesn’t mean we are completely removed from the experience of Israel in exile. Out amongst you right now, someone is struggling with the guilt of their own sin. Amidst all our cheerful banter and happy faces, at this very moment some of you are crying out for the comfort of God, begging for your sins to be forgiven, your hard service to be completed. Perhaps you aren’t crying out at the top of your lungs or even writing out long poetry like we have in the psalms, but you feel the same need. Forgive me GOD! Let me have peace! And God says to you the same words “Comfort. Comfort my people.” Through his son who will soon be born into this world, the peace of reconciliation is available to you.

But that peace is not just one of reconciliation for the person. Our scripture reveals this morning that the Peace of God is Peace that Transforms the World.

It seems that the world has become a more dangerous place than it was when I was a child. Every year there is some sort of devastating fire or earthquake, tsunami or hurricane, tornado or mudslide. I used to think that the weather was nothing to worry about, that we would eventually control it, but now it seems that this world is a tougher and meaner old broad that I thought. Things don’t seem to be going our way when it comes to the world and weather. In fact, now you can add a new item to your list of things to be worried about: Desertification. That’s when fertile land becomes Desert. Not Dessert. According to a study done by the United Nations University in 2007, some 50 million people could be displaced within the next 10 years if the desertification of the world is not halted. One-third of the Earth's population - home to about two billion people - are potential victims of its creeping effect. Don’t believe me? In Nigeria alone, the Sahara grows by .6 kilometers every year. The world is being transformed – and it seems to be for the worse.

But the Peace of God means transformation of a different kind. Listen again to our mornings’ scripture: A voice of one calling: "In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it.” There’s some transformation for you! As God is revealed and as his Day and Peace come the world will be changed unalterably – what was high is low, what was rugged is smooth. The people of Israel and Judah are being prepared for great change – not only will they be allowed to rebuild Jerusalem; not only will their temples and houses and culture be rebuilt; but as God travels from Babylon to Jerusalem with them, the view is going to be much different. The peace of God isn’t always quiet – sometimes it’s the booming echo of the shifting earth.

This passage is probably using metaphor – though I’m not going to say God can’t mess with the Himalayan mountains if he wants – to get a point across. The coming of God and his peace is transformational; the coming of God and his peace is cataclysmically world changing. The coming of God and his peace will create a new world. Are you ready for the world to be transformed by the peace of God? Are you willing to admit that the world needs this transformation? We’d like to think that things are fine the way they are, but as God enters into our lives and our worlds, some rearranging needs to happen. What mountains in your life does God’s Peace need to make valleys out of? What rough places in your heart does the Peace of God need to make smooth plains? Look out of the windows into the world around you! Where does God need to change the landscape of Waco with his Powerful Peace? You know – you know.

This Peace – this powerful, transforming, healing, reconciling peace sounds wonderful – but too many times the peace that we have known in our world seems transient, fleeting. Remember though – God’s Peace is a Peace that Lasts Forever

The first time I realized that I could be hurt was when I burned my hand on a stove when I was little. The first time I realized that pets get sick was when my favorite cat had to be put to sleep when I was 11. The first time I realized that my grandparents would get old was when my great grandmother started using a walker. And the first time I realized that I could die was when I was 20 years old at my 16 year old cousins funeral. I never thought I was immortal – but I never really thought I was mortal either. Forever was an easy word to throw around – and I’m not the only used to throw it. Song lyrics, Car commercials, Cosmetic treatments continually speak of always and forever – Goodridge Tires, in fact, promise “All Goodridge products marked accordingly on the packaging are guaranteed forever.” Those must be some tires. But really – I’ m not sure we know what forever really looks like – especially when God says it.

Listen again to this morning’s scripture: A voice says, "Cry out." And I said, "What shall I cry?" "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever." That sounds a bit depressing. God says that men are like grass or flowers – they wither and fall. And we all knew that. But the last part is the part I like the most – grass withers and flowers fall but the word of God stands forever. God stands forever. So why does God bring this up? Because the people of Israel and Judah are in need of a reminder. Remember – they’ve been in exile for generations. Their children have grown up bilingual, surrounded by the cults of Asherah and Baal. YHWH was the failed God of Israel. But Isaiah brings them a word of promise, renewal, return, and Israel and Judah needs to be told – this return, this renewal, the promise of peace and transformation – this is forever. Babylon is not. Persia is not. Exile is not. Punishment is not. God – his word, his peace – that stands forever.

The same promise goes to you – your troubles are momentary. Your struggles are fleeting. Your pain is like the grass that whither. Your shame and regret are like the flowers that fall. God is forever. His word is forever. His promise of forgiveness is forever. His peace – his healing, reconciling, transforming peace – is forever. And by forever, I mean that as much as we can understand it. And we can trust that because forever has already come – and is coming in the form of a child who will be born into a manger and will end up on a cross. Forever has pushed its way into time, has been revealed in this world, and we all are asked to become a part of it. Does that scare you? And does that give you hope?

Isaiah ends our passage today with a stirring and beautiful image: "Here is your God!" See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and his arm rules for him. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart he gently leads those that have young. This is your God! The shepherd, the sovereign, the mighty warrior. It is he who forgives your sins, who heals your wounds, who transforms your life and your world and will never, ever let you go. This is your God! This is your Peace! When the violence and terror and transience of this life overwhelms you – remember God’s Peace. When the uneven landscape of your life and world disappoint you – remember God’s Peace. And when it seems like your life and hopes are so fleeting –remember God’s Peace. We lit a candle today. A candle of Peace for a Prince of Peace. O Israel! O Lakewood! Here is your God! See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power in a manger. He gathers you in his arms and carries you close to his heart and gently leads you, young and old. Peace. Peace – the Peace of God that not only affects us but the whole world – Peace Be Unto You. Let us Pray

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