Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Peace at Christmas?

Sermon preached in South Wales Baptist College Chapel, 10/12/08.

Dan 7:13-14
As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

Peace at Christmas! Doesn’t it just make you feel all warm and fuzzy? With images of toasty firesides, chestnuts roasting, and snow a-glistening. Or countless Christmas card scenes, with Mary and Joseph peacefully at ease in their stable and the gentle oxen looking on with large, peaceful doe-eyes… And what could be closer to the true meaning of Christmas than a heartfelt wish for ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all’?

Except, as we all know, there is a dark underbelly to the assertion of peace at Christmas

In the first world war, the initial hope that they boys would be home by Christmas foundered in the killing fields of Flanders and the Somme.

Jona Lewie, in ‘Stop the Cavalry’, one of the few Christmas songs I actually like, sums up the failure of the ‘Peace at Christmas’ hope, as he mumbles:

Hey, Mr. Churchill comes over here
To say we're doing splendidly.
But it's very cold out here in the snow
Marching to and from the enemy.
Oh I say it's tough, I have had enough,
Can you stop the cavalry?
Wish I could be dancing now,
In the arms of the girl I love.
Mary Bradley waits at home,
She's been waiting two years long.
Wish I was at home for Christmas.

And, more recently, the rock group U2 explicitly brought Jesus into the equation of the hope for peace at Christmas, singing:

Jesus can you take the time
To throw a drowning man a line
Peace on Earth
To tell the ones who hear no sound
Whose sons are living in the ground
Peace on Earth
Jesus in this song you wrote
The words are sticking in my throat
Peace on Earth
Hear it every Christmas time
But hope and history won't rhyme
So what's it worth
This peace on Earth?

Peace at Christmas, I want to suggest, is such an evocative symbol to our world because it represents the hope for that which is missing in so much of our normal experience of life. Whether through war, terrorism or assault we are constantly confronted with violence and we are constantly reminded that we live in a violent world. In our relationships with others: our families, friends, acquaintances or strangers, conflict remains an ever-present possibility with too many of us for comfort experiencing violence within the home at some stage in our lives. Our world, it seems, is caught in an endless cycle of violence as violence is met with more violence, aggression with retaliation, and hostility with vengeance. Is it any wonder that the dream of peace at Christmas represents such a compelling and enduring hope?

But what does it actually mean, to speak of peace at Christmas? Does the Christmas hope of peace on earth and goodwill to all actually make any substantive difference to our world? I think that to find an answer, we need to rewind slightly and take a few steps back from Christmas day itself to discover one of the themes of that time in the year known as ‘Advent’. For many of us, Advent is simply the warning that we’d better get on with buying our Christmas presents and writing our cards. But there is actually a deeper wisdom in this season and it revolves around issues of waiting and hoping.

At one level, Advent is the time of waiting for the arrival of Christmas day; a time for considering the implications of Jesus coming into the world as a baby, born into poverty and danger and fleeing his native country as a refugee under threat of death. But at another level, it’s also a time for turning our minds to the second coming of Jesus. It’s a time that invites us to ask the question of how Jesus ‘comes again’ to those of us who live on this violent, un-peaceful earth. And it’s with this in mind that I want to turn to a short reading from the book of Revelation:

Rev 1:5b-7

To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.

In this passage, John gives us a vision of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, as the one who comes again to the earth, and we see him coming with the clouds, in mystery and majesty, we see him coming as the pierced one, the one who has suffered violence, we see him coming to reveal the kingdom of God on the earth

John’s description of Jesus as ‘coming with the clouds’ is a direct reference to Daniel’s vision with which we started, in which ‘one like a human being’ is seen ‘coming with the clouds of heaven’ to be presented before the Ancient One in order to receive ‘dominion and glory and kingship’ over all peoples nations and languages. And we are told that his ‘dominion’ will be an everlasting kingdom which will never pass away.

It’s this image which John has in mind when he describes Jesus ‘coming with the clouds’… He’s casting Jesus as the ‘one like a human being’ of Daniel’s vision, and is giving us an image of the in-breaking kingdom of God in which Jesus exercises his kingly rule over the earth. This claim that Jesus is the true king of the earth presents a direct challenge to all other earthly claims to power. If we think of the most powerful people or institutions on the planet, we tend to think I am sure of those with the most power to instigate violence. But this image of Jesus coming with the clouds tells us that his dominion and glory and kingship is far superior to those who seek to claim power through violence, intimidation and force.

So when we hear news of the all-powerful multinational corporations controlling the livelihoods and destinies of billions of people living in economic slavery, or when international bankers generate suffering around the globe to ensure their shareholders’ profit margins remain in the black, or when we hear of wars or rumours of wars as nations forge alliances against each other and send in the troops on civilian populations, or when we see tragic pictures of civil wars in Africa, or hear worrying news of those who control weapons of mass destruction, or those who seek to use terror in the name or religion or ideology. When these things and so much more come to our attention, where, in all this, can good news be found?

Well, John says it can be found in the one who comes with the clouds because, against all the evidence to the contrary, Jesus, the one who comes to us in mystery and majesty in some way holds glory and dominion and kingship which is far superior to all other earthly claims to power. Multinational corporations, nation states, international bankers, and political ideologies, all these are powerful and violent, yes, but they also exist within time, and as such are not eternal.

In his song Mighty Trucks of Midnight, Bruce Cockburn sings that: ‘Everything that exists in time runs out of time someday’. And it is in contrast to the powerful, violent and temporal kingdoms of the earth that John presents us with a vision of the kingdom of heaven which comes to the earth with the one who comes on the clouds and we are invited to realise that this is an eternal kingdom, one which will not pass away because it exists beyond time.

The kingdom of God in the here-and-now might be small, insignificant and hard to see! But those who work for its establishment, those who commit themselves to seeing its coming on the earth as it is already in heaven, can be assured that they are devoting themselves to something of eternal value.

The question, though, is what does this eternal kingdom look like? And in what way is it an alternative to the violent and imperial kingdoms of the earth which are so familiar to us as they take up their weapons against each other?

The clue here is found in the way in which Jesus is described… He is not just the one who is seen coming with the clouds he is also seen to come to the earth as the ‘pierced one’ – the one who has suffered violence. We might expect the ultimate king of creation to come in might and power, with an angelic army lined up behind him. We might expect the Lord of the eternal kingdom to come in violent judgment on all those who have challenged his Lordship, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake as those who have opposed him finally get what’s coming to them!

But actually, when he comes to us, he comes not as an avenging monarch but as one who has himself suffered violence. And here we see the genius of the cross: It is the cycle of violence being broken! Instead of meeting violence with more violence, aggression with retaliation, and hostility with vengeance, Jesus meets violence with… nonviolence! He comes not to pierce others for their wrongdoings but as the one who has been pierced by the wrongdoings of others.

The great French philosopher RenĂ© Girard says that: ‘A nonviolent deity can signal his existence to mankind only by becoming driven out by violence – by demonstrating that he is not able to remain in the kingdom of violence.’ And in this he gives us a profound insight into the way in which Jesus comes again to the earth. By his entering into the cycle of human violence Jesus has acted to break that cycle. His crucifixion at the hands of humanity represents his judgment on the kingdom of violence. And his inauguration of the kingdom of God on the earth represents the nonviolent alternative to retribution and vengeance.

The only solution to the violence of the world is for God to take that violence upon himself… To enter into the depths of violence and so point the way to a peaceful future for humanity. The coming kingdom of God, which arrives with the pierced one who comes on the clouds is the peaceful alternative to the kingdom of violence.

So, where is this peaceful kingdom? What does this mean for those of us who still live in the midst of the kingdom of violence? Well, there’s good news and bad news here for us, I’m afraid! The good news is that this kingdom is already breaking in upon the earth! John speaks of Jesus ‘coming with the clouds’ in the present tense… This is something which is happening in the here-and-now! It’s not something which is reserved solely for some future transformation… There is already an alternative available for humanity to the age-old pattern of continually meeting violence with more violence. There is already available to us all another way of being human where peace rather than violence is the order of the day!

But the bad news, or rather, the difficult news, is that this peaceful kingdom breaks in upon the earth through the faithful witness of those who have already transferred their citizenship from the kingdom of violence to the kingdom of peace. That is – through us, the followers of Jesus… And the difficult part of this is that we who seek to follow Jesus, we who have committed ourselves to his path we who pray ‘your kingdom come... on earth as in heaven’ we are called to follow the example of Jesus through breaking the cycles of violence as we encounter them.

This means that we are called to live our lives very differently from the ideology which surrounds us every minute of every day! We are called to meet violence with Christ-like nonviolence. We are called to resist the temptation to enter the oh-so-tempting, oh-so-compelling cycles of violence, retribution and retaliation. We are called to be those who might have to join with Christ in taking up our own cross and sharing in his supreme rejection of violence.

For some this will mean persecution and martyrdom and for many around the world this Christmastime, that is exactly what they are facing and they, of all people, need our prayers. But for all of us it means a rejection of the ideology of violence, and an embracing of a peaceable alternative. Do we genuinely want peace at Christmas? Well, then it begins with us, the people of Christ… It begins with us, as we learn what it means to live in the Kingdom of God, rather than the kingdom of violence. It begins with us, as we explore creative nonviolence as an alternative to retribution and retaliation.

But the difficulty we face is that this is not our natural state! It certainly isn’t mine! Push me, and I’ll push you back. Bite me and I’ll bite you too. Cut me up and I’ll cut you up as well. Each of us faces daily pressures to enter once again the cycle which leads to violence, and choosing the nonviolent path is never an easy option. Walter Wink has said: ‘I don’t regard myself as a pacifist. I see myself rather as a violent person trying to become nonviolent.’ And in this he strikes at the heart of the challenge before us… Jesus did not say ‘blessed are the peaceful’ but ‘blessed are the peacemakers’!

Peace at Christmas is not about the absence of violence, it’s not about the suppression of violence, it’s not about some pacifist utopian dream where we all love each other. Rather, peace at Christmas is about turning our eyes once again to the one who comes to us with the clouds of heaven, in mystery and majesty, to the one who comes to us as the pierced one, the one who has suffered violence, to the one who comes to us as the prince of peace to reveal the kingdom of God on the earth. It is about turning our eyes once again to the one who comes to deconstruct all human power claims, to the one who comes to transform the human tendency for violence, to the one who offers the nonviolent alternative to the cycles of violence which oppress and distort humanity.

Peace at Christmas is about turning our eyes to the in-breaking kingdom of God as the future hope for humanity becomes realised in the present through the faithful witness of those who pray for the coming kingdom

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