by Daniel Harrell
It is odd that one of the most hopeful seasons on the Christian calendar begins in the midst of the darkest days of the year. There are reasons for this. Christmas itself was a relatively late addition to the Christian calendar. It was not celebrated until the 3rd century AD; not until the expanding church began to domesticate competing pagan rituals by assimilating them into its religious life. Just as the contemporary American church regularly incorporates popular music into worship or secular business and marketing strategies into its operations and evangelism; so the early church turned elements of ancient winter solstice Saturnalia into Christmas garland, mistletoe and holly wreaths. This pillaging of paganism explains why many Protestant Christians wouldn’t touch Christmas until the late 18th century. Massachusetts technically outlawed it until 1859.
There was some uncertainty among the church staff a couple of weeks back about how and who would deck the Meetinghouse with boughs of greenery for Advent. A bit overwhelmed given the amount of work required, I suggested that if we really wanted to be Pilgrims about it, we could dispense with Christmas decorations altogether. I was informed that to do that would probably mean getting dispensed with myself.
Still, Protestants do continue to bewail the residues of heathen revelry embedded in Christmas, not to mention the commercialism that demeans its true meaning. We could just move Christmas to the spring and thereby dissociate it from retailers’ year-end profit reports. According to most scholars, Jesus was probably born in March anyway. Moving Christmas to the spring would cut down on some of the commercialism and alleviate a lot of the darkness. However, you’d have the problem in some years of Jesus being born one Sunday only to then rise from the dead the next Sunday on Easter. Some years Jesus could conceivably even die and rise before being born. That could get very confusing. Either way, I don’t think you’d want to move Advent to the spring. Although these four weeks on the church calendar have come to serve as a ramp-up to the Nativity; originally, Advent was intended to remind the church of Jesus’ second coming. Advent emerged as a 6th century wake-up call to bleary-eyed believers who had grown too complacent in their spiritual lives due to Jesus’ delay. Dusted off and assigned to Advent were those Scriptures labeled apocalyptic—passages from books like Ezekiel, Daniel, Revelation, Isaiah and even the gospels themselves. The customary doom and darkness of apocalypse work much better when its already dark outside.
Setting aside 2 Corinthians for the season, I’m stepping into the Lectionary for Advent and focusing on its Old Testament readings, this morning from Isaiah 2. Lectionary readings tie Scripture to the seasons of the church year and incorporate epistle and gospel readings alongside the Old Testament, all of which relate in some way to each other. For the first Sunday in Advent this year, Isaiah’s mention of the days to come are literally the last days, a term understood in the New Testament to denote final judgment and the final return of Christ (advent means arrival). In the gospel reading from Matthew 24, Jesus compares the last days to the days of Noah where people indifferent toward God lived as they pleased “until the flood came and swept them all away.” “So too,” Jesus warns, “will be the coming of the Son of Man. Therefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Comparing Christ’s return to Noah’s flood does give Advent its doomsday hue. Still, as Old Testament professor Walter Brugemann reminds, while the “rush of God’s rule is impending, and Christians are on the alert, ours is not the Orange Alert of fear; it is, rather, glad expectation.” For the Jews of Jesus’ day, suffering under brutal Roman oppression, apocalyptic promises of God raining down fire on evil this time would have been the source of great hope and strength by which to endure. These promises were reiterations of Old Testament assurances, heard there for the first time by the Israelites of Isaiah’s day who suffered under the thumb of Assyria. Advent hope therefore is not the nostalgia of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, but the coming righteous fire of God that both consumes and purifies for the sake of new creation.
Isaiah 2 previews new creation. It is likely an ancient hymn since it is sung almost verbatim in Micah 4. Like any good Christmas music, it’s is a song you’d want to hear over and over again. “In the last days,” says the Lord, code words also understood to mean the first days of heaven, the mountain of the LORD’S house, the heavenly Zion, rises up above all other heights to dominate the landscape as the apex of righteousness. The kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. All nations stream uphill to it, so magnetic is God’s righteousness. Eager to learn and eager to live by it, they say, “Come, let us climb the mountain of the LORD, that he may teach us his ways, that we may walk on his paths.” God’s righteous law emanates from the new Jerusalem: politics are no longer the love of power but the love of service. Economics are motivated by generosity and equity rather than by profit and prejudice. Justice governs with integrity and honesty; there is no corruption or duplicity.
The Lord himself settles the disputes of all people and all nations. In turn they hammer their swords into shovels and their spears into rakes and hoes. It’s a return to the garden. Nothing causes anyone fear. Life is lived in amity and prosperity—a prosperity not defined by excess and accumulation, but by access and sufficiency. There is no more siphoning away sustenance in order to wage war. Nations do not take up swords to fight or shields to defend, nor do they train for war anymore because war is needless. History no longer repeats itself. There is truly and finally peace on earth and goodwill among all people.
One of the reasons Isaiah’s peaceable dream is so beautiful is because it is so totally out of line with our experience of the world, yet so fully in line with what we want the world to be. Our hunger and thirst for righteousness induce the emphatic resolve of verse 5: “O house of Jacob come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” Jacob’s resolve gives way to reality by the time we get to chapter 9 and another familiar Advent passage: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Jesus identifies the source of that light in John’s gospel. “I am the light of the world,” he says, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” To walk in the light of the Lord is to live Isaiah’s dream come true. According to 2 Corinthians, the marvel of new creation is that for those who are in Christ, the old is gone and the new is come already. For the church, Advent expectations of peace on earth are to be experienced here and now. It’s what Jesus meant by being ready: walk in the light that already shines. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he said, “for you shall be called children of God.” “Peacemakers who sow seeds of peace now,” wrote St. James, “reap a harvest of righteousness.”
Lamentably, seeds of peace fall on rocky soil. Swords and spears remain swords and spears. Even now, the United States and South Korea engage in naval exercises to counter North Korea’s recent provocations, including the deadly artillery attack last week on an island populated by South Koreans in the Yellow Sea. A South Korean marine commander vowed to “put our feelings of rage and animosity in our bones and take our revenge on North Korea.” Who knows what North Korea is thinking. Clearly memories of carnage and misery from the last Korean War fail as deterrents against more carnage and misery. Why can’t people “sow seeds of peace” or “study war no more?” You’d think that the carnage and misery just the past ten years in places like Rwanda, the Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, India, Israel, Angola, Bosnia, Guatemala, Columbia, Liberia, Kashmir, Algeria, Burundi, Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Bali, Turkey, Washington and New York alone—would have taught humanity a lesson by now. But peace is hard lesson to learn. Maybe it’s a lesson nobody wants to learn.
Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Christ Hedges asserts in his still-popular book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning that war is, in fact, a powerful addiction. It is a drug “peddled by mythmakers—historians, war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists, and the state—all of whom endow it with qualities it often does possess: excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has a grotesque and dark beauty. …Even with its destruction and carnage, war can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning and a reason for living and dying.”
Sometimes war is necessary. There are times when force wielded by one immoral faction must be countered by a faction that, while never moral, is perhaps less immoral. Even God himself declares war at times—though that’s another sermon. War occurs as both theological and political necessity at times—even for the sake of peace. But war too often perpetuates beyond necessity, fueled by personal compulsions that are addicted to it—accounting for the persistent failures in peace negotiations and the fragility of peace agreements. This is true internationally and interpersonally. We fail to make peace in the lesser wars fought in our families, our churches, our communities and our companies.
Hedges writes of a woman named Lilly whose father was killed during the Bosnian War. Described as beautiful and young, Lilly’s own endurance of the war had exacted a severe toll. Her cheeks were hollow, her hair dry and brittle. Her teeth decayed and some broken into jagged bits. Lilly lived in fear and hunger, emaciated, targeted by Serbian gunners on the heights above as she operated resistance below. While not wanting those days back, she readily admitted those days were actually the fullest of her life. Peace exposed the void that the rush of war had filled. Lilly and her friends now felt alone, no longer bound by that common sense of struggle, no longer given the opportunity to be noble, heroic, no longer sure what life was all about or what it meant. “Many of us,” Hedges writes, “restless and unfulfilled, see no supreme worth in our lives. We want more out of life. And war, at least, gives a sense that we can rise above our smallness and divisiveness.”
A few years after 9/11, Dawn and I visited the World Trade Center site where the reminders of that horrendous day remained vivid. While there were vivid signs of revitalization, it was impossible not to be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of absence; the engulfing hole in the middle of that vast and dense city. A couple of blocks away is St. Paul’s Episcopal Church where an extensive memorial commemorated the ways in which this small little congregation became the sanctuary for rescue workers whose diligence in the aftermath was legendary. Table after table displayed mementos of camaraderie and unity, replete with video stories of the impact this unity had on individual lives. There was a palpable sadness for the horrific loss of life—but also for the loss of community that transpired once the dust settled, once the rescue work was done; once the anger and fury lessened.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church returned to its routine worship and programs, but the sense was that it’s not the same; that ironically, as Christians, the essence of our faith, the simple praise of God and regular acts of charity toward our neighbors, they’re just not enough.
All that humans experience as meaningful aspects of war—community, shared purpose, dedication, loyalty—these are all to some extent counterfeit. They do not endure because they do not tap into their authentic source. It was Augustine who so persuasively argued how the power of evil is derivative power; evil sucks its power off the goodness it parasitically perverts. People prolong international as well as interpersonal conflict; we nurse hatred and bear grudges because of the energy and passion they evoke—an energy and passion we like because of its eerie, twisted resemblance to the energy and passion of love. Evil perverts love into the junk food of vengeance with which we feed our hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Chris Hedges concludes that the only antidote to the intoxication of war is the sobriety of genuine love. “Love,” he writes, “has both the power to resist in our nature what we know we must resist and to affirm what we know we must affirm.” Unfortunately, his conclusion comes off pat, like the admonition to “sow seeds of peace.” It sounds nice but it’s just not realistic. However, could it be that the reason such Biblical admonitions as “love your enemy” and “plant seeds of peace” come off as unrealistic is not because they are unrealistic but because we choose not to practice them as such? The problem is not that love and peacemaking can’t work. The problem is that too often we have no interest in letting them work. We pay lip service to their ideals, but when it comes right down to it, we like the way that hatred, envy, anger and conflict keep us so jazzed.
Which is why the apostle Paul wrote that the peace of God must guard our hearts, and not only from the dangers outside. The peace of God is a peace-keeping force, and like modern day peace-keeping forces, it operates deep within country. The evils that threaten our borders threaten the heart of your own soul too. The peace of God guards your heart but it also changes your heart. Peacemakers shall be called children of God because that’s who they already are.
Granted, to actually walk as a child of the light; to actually follow Jesus, invariably makes you part of a marginalized minority, written off by the world, shut out from the halls of power, considered naïve by those who insist we have to be realistic. Nevertheless, this afflicted and marginalized minority—what Isaiah will describe as a faithful remnant—is identified throughout Scripture not as leftovers from the past, but as harbingers of the future; not as castaways but as co-heirs with Christ, the foretaste of heaven on earth, the prefigurement of Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom to which all nations delightedly stream.
If the church is to be this God-shaped remnant, it will find itself an increasingly marginalized minority that opts for peace on earth and good will among people as more than greeting card platitudes. Why would we choose to walk in this way? If our reasons are shaped by Scripture, we are not motivated by the utter horror of war, nor by the desire to save our own skins and the skins of our children, not by some general feeling of reverence for human life, nor by the naïve hope that all people are really nice and will be friendly if we are friendly first. No, if our reasons for choosing peace are shaped by Scripture, we choose peace out of simple obedience to the God who willed that his own son should give himself up to human humility and human death on the cross for the sake of peace. We make this choice in hope and anticipation that God’s love will finally prevail through the way of the cross, despite our inability to see how this is possible. This is the dream toward which Scripture bends. It will happen, Jesus promised, “at an unexpected hour;” unexpected because no one expects war will ever end. Therefore we must be ready, which means we must be faithful and tangibly serve as signposts of peace beginning with our own enemies, prefiguring Isaiah’s peaceable reign of God where war is no more and every person has enough; and because every person has enough, war is no more.