Sunday, December 18, 2016

Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Advent, "His Name Shall Be Called: Prince of Peace," Isaiah 52:7-10, Micah 4:1-4, Matthew 5:9

Sermon 12/18/16
Isaiah 52:7-10, Micah 4:1-4, Matthew 5:9


His Name Shall Be Called: Prince of Peace*


“His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” This week I read an article by Michael Kellerman in the New York Times about the horrors of war in Syria, and particularly its impact on children. In particular, he was moved by a short video of a 7 year old Syrian girl, Bana, who said simply: “Please, save us. Thank you.” Kellerman writes about how disinterested, or at least how distracted from the humanitarian crisis we have been. He says, “… [A]ll we do is watch, helplessly, as Syrians refuse to go quietly, determined to get us to know them, their lives, all that has been lost. Some of the public’s indifference can of course be chalked up to compassion fatigue and disillusionment with a war in its sixth year … There were assurances about popular uprisings. Social media today supercharges protest movements, which burn out almost as fast. Such movements used to require a slow … construction. They didn’t rely on Facebook videos and … photos. Truth be told, no sane person wants to see these images anyway. What’s happening in Aleppo is almost unbearable to look at. But that’s the point. Bana looks us straight in the eye and asks us to save her, please. We have done nothing to help. The very least we should do is look back.” (1)
            I have been trying to look back. And as I have been looking, I’ve been thinking about this fourth title for the Christ-child that we’re studying today. We call him Prince of Peace. Of all of the titles we’ve talked about, I think this one slides most easily onto Jesus. It makes sense. We often think of Jesus as Prince of Peace, even outside of the Advent season. And during Advent? There are images of peace everywhere. We love the idea of peace. But do we really love peace? What are we willing to do to make peace a reality in our world?
During his last days before his crucifixion, Jesus heads to Jerusalem, and after he arrives, when Jesus is greeted with a parade and fanfare by the people, he heads out to look over the city. As he surveys everything before him, Jesus beings weeping. He says, “If you, even you had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes … because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:42, 44b) What do you think? Do we recognize the things that make for peace? What are they? And do we choose them, the things that make for peace? I look at that video of young Bana and think: I’m not sure we know anything about peace at all.
            The story woven through the scriptures tells us that God’s people have long struggled with knowing how to make peace. In Isaiah’s oracle, when he talks about the Prince of Peace, the word he uses is shalom. Shalom means not just the “absence of hostility”, but more broadly the maintaining of the whole social system, with the intent of “the promotion of the general welfare” of all people.” (52). It’s the same idea we get in Psalm 72, which we shared together in worship a few weeks ago. For there to be peace, there must be justice practiced for the poor and needy. Prosperity for all, not just an elite group. (53) As we read in Micah today, “disarmament is a prelude to peace.” Violence and peace are not compatible. (54)
            Yet, disarmament can’t be a “coercive activity enforced by the victor.” Peace that is imposed by the winning side is not true peace, not when there is no other choice for the loser. Walter Brueggemann writes, “Peace makes a better political slogan than a credible political reality.” (56) The prophet Jeremiah lamented in his writings: “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (6:13) The peace of God cannot come about through force by the mighty over the weaker.
            Consider this: Jesus, Prince of Peace, was born in a nation occupied by the Roman government during the time in history known as the Pax Romana – the Roman Peace. And yet, we know from the accounts of scripture that God’s people in Israel did not consider it a time of peace, but a time of oppression, a time when they were living under foreign rule, a time when people lived in fear. If we’re settling for this kind of peace, it’s a shallow peace, a false peace, clinging to a notion of peace when there is no peace. When people are living in silence because they are afraid, when there is injustice and oppression and yet we say we are at peace – this is not the vision of peace God has. This is not the peace that the Prince of Peace ushers in.
            Maybe we do not know the things that make for peace. But we do know Jesus, or we are coming to know him, invited to come and know him. And he knows about peace. Jesus carries in his being a peace that “defies all ordinary expectations, [that is] a peace that is wrought in vulnerability, [that] does not impose its own way.” He is a Prince of Peace whose vulnerability confounds us. (61) When Jesus is born, God’s messengers declare that his birth signals that peace is meant for all the earth. When Jesus heals people, he tells them, “Go in peace,” not as a trite farewell, but as a way of saying that person has been restored to God’s vision for their life. (62) When he sends out the disciples to preach the gospel, he tells them to seek out people and homes who “share in peace,” suggesting that peace is a personal and interpersonal relationship, a way of being that we can claim, counter to the culture around us. He practices nonviolence, refusing to defend himself, even to the point of his own death. When he is resurrected, the first words he speaks to his disciples are words of peace.
            Some might think that Jesus is just naïve. But I think that we’re the ones who don’t know the things that make for peace. I think sometimes we’ve confused peace with safety and security. But they aren’t synonyms. Peace is not safe! Working for peace, is risky, because God’s vision of peace for the world means that the whole world order gets turned upside down. If God’s vision of peace prevails, then some will lose power and status and wealth and position. If God’s peace means a world where the well-being of all people is top priority, then some will fight tooth and nail to keep the status quo. If we insist on working for God’s vision of wholeness for all, then we have a hope of experiencing the peace that passes understanding but can abide in our hearts and change our lives, but we also take risks when we commit to the way of peace. Jesus, Prince of Peace, invites us to follow him. And his path leads into some dangerous places. He knows this. He goes this way anyway. And he asks us to follow anyway.          
What are the things that make for peace? I think peace comes from the inside out. We don’t know about peace when we think that peace is beyond us, that we aren’t a part of making peace. When my brothers and I would get into arguments growing up, (which we never do anymore, of course) my mom would say, “How can we expect there to be peace in the world if we can’t have peace in our home?” This would induce some eye-rolling in us – at least we agreed on that – but I’ve always remembered it. How can we have peace in our home if we don’t have peace within? Peace within comes from our relationship with God, from God dwelling in our hearts. That’s the work of Advent – preparing room in our hearts for the Prince of Peace.
            We don’t know about peace when we think that peace won’t cost us. Brueggemann says that “Peace requires the capacity to forgive. Peace requires a readiness to share generously. Peace requires the violation of strict class stratification in society. Peace requires attentiveness to the vulnerable and the unproductive. Peace requires humility in the face of exaltation, being last among those who insist on being first and denying self in the interest of the neighbor.” (64)
            We don’t know about the things of peace when we pretend we have achieved peace while others are suffering. Peace is not the absence of something. It is the presence of something. It is not simply the absence of war, the absence of violence, although we seek after such things as a part of peace. Instead, peace is the welcomed presence of God’s reign in our midst, which results in the well-being of all of God’s creation. And if peace is the presence of something, not the absence, then we can only live in peace when we are active, not passive in pursuing it. Peace will not just find us, settle on us, wash over us. We must seek peace, cultivate it, spread it, carry the message of it, claim it in the midst of every opposing message.
            When we do these things, when we seek to learn the things that make for peace, when we make it our life’s work to practice them, maybe then we will be able to look back at little Bana and hold her gaze steadily, really seeing her, ready to work for a world where she experiences wholeness. We’re waiting, longing for the Christ-child. Let us not miss this visitation from God. Let us be God’s peacemakers, God’s children. Come to us, Prince of Peace. Amen.
Song – Dona Nobis Pacem.


(1) Michael Kimmelman, New York Times,
http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/12/14/world/middleeast/kimmelman-images-of-aleppo.html?emc=edit_th_20161215&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=76025005&_r=0


*All references in this sermon come from Walter Brueggemann’s Names for the Messiah, Chapter 4, “Prince of Peace,” unless otherwise noted. 
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