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Guided in the Way of Peace

Sermon - 12/10/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 1: 68-79

The passage this second Sunday of Advent is known as the 'Benedictus'.  It is the song of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.  And if you remember that story, when Zechariah learns that his rather elderly wife is pregnant and he doesn't quite believe what is happening, he is struck speechless.  His is silent, then, for the entire period of her pregnancy, and it's not until the birth of his son that his mouth is opened, so to speak, by the Lord.  And then he gives us this beautiful, poetic passage.  From the first chapter of Luke, verses 68-79:

‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
   for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69He has raised up a mighty savior for us
   in the house of his servant David,
70as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71   that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
   and has remembered his holy covenant,
73the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
   to grant us 74that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, 75in holiness and righteousness
   before him all our days.
76And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
   for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77to give knowledge of salvation to his people
   by the forgiveness of their sins.
78By the tender mercy of our God,
   the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
   to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

As many of you know, my daughter Paulina is a senior this year at Sheldon High School, and she is taking a course called "The Theory of Knowledge".  In that course, the teacher said to the class something to the effect that all religions fundamentally teach peace.  And one student in the class said "That's not true.  Christianity teaches that the world will end in a cataclysmic war".  To which my well-trained daughter, who has been properly brought up and taught never to speak until spoken to, you know, raise your hand in class and all of that, burst forth:  "That's nonsense!".  

In the pandemonium that ensued, the class decided that she should (as penance for her crime) have to bring back a report to the class on an alternative vision of the reading of the Book of Revelation and such.  And so she's been re-reading all of my sermons on the topic [check the April/May 2004 sermons] and several books that I gave her.  Hasn't delivered that yet, maybe we'll get to hear it ourselves here, should be interesting.

As I heard her tell that story, it hit me how tragic it is that youth in our community are brought up in the Christian faith being taught to believe that this is the vision of Christianity that God has for our world.  That it will all be destroyed.  And that everyone who is an enemy of God will be destroyed.  And I think that's tragic.  

I called up Dennis Lindsay because Dennis teaches New Testament at Northwest Christian College.  I've had this idea for some time, I just haven't acted on it -- that I think it's time to have some kind of public event to portray a different vision.  To get that message out, that there is another vision.  That the Left Behind series and all of that is one wing of Christianity, but that we do not hold to that.  We have a different interpretation.  So, stay tuned to see if we come up with something to get that word out.

Here's my thesis this morning:  peace is not a by-product of Christian life, a side benefit.  You know, if everyone becomes Christian we'll learn to love one another and get along.  No.  Peace is the Christian life.  To be a Christian is to live a life of peace, or, as this text says, to 'guide our feet in the way of peace'.

The Benedictus, as it is known, especially in certain Catholic disciplines, is said daily as a spiritual discipline by some, and it is striking how it links the promise of salvation and redemption -- inseparably, says Southern Baptist New Testament scholar Alan Culpepper -- inseparably to the achievement of peace.  "God's people", says Culpepper, "cannot have redemption without peace, for each is necessary for the realization of the other".  Peace and redemption go hand-in-hand.

To put it differently, we might think of salvation as having two realities, two different forms.  There is that inner salvation, and there is the outer.  And don't think of one as being spiritual and the other fleshly.  They are both very spiritual.  Both are the work of God's mercy.  Both, we are told, will come through God's anointed, the messiah, for whom John is the prophet.  The mark of inner salvation being that sense of forgiveness, the mark of outer salvation being peace, being saved from the hands of those who hate us, Zechariah says.

Now, it's one thing to believe that we have been saved from sin.  Hopefully that's something that we all know in our hearts.  Perhaps there are times when we doubt it, but it is not something that can be contradicted by the external world.  Even that person who sits on death row can find that peace, can know that they have been and are being forgiven.  

But how can we speak of being saved in Christ from our enemies, in that external world?  Being a Christian does not make us any more impervious to bullets and bombs than anyone else.  

When I struggle with such difficult questions as that, I always find it helpful to go back and look at the historical context of the passage.  There are two different contexts that are relevant to this passage, that of when it occurs and that of when it was written.

The passage occurs in that context of the start of the first century, when Augustus was Caesar, under whom, as you know, the Roman rule achieved that infamous 'Pax Romana'.  Which brought about great peace and prosperity to the entire Mediterranean world.  But at an enormous cost, and especially those who lived in conquered territories deeply despised Roman rule.  This is certainly true of those in Judea, who hoped and dreamed of that time when a messiah would come and overthrow the Romans.

Immediately after this passage, after the Benedictus, the author tells us that it was under the reign of Augustus that Jesus is born.  Now it's interesting that he does not tell us that when John was born.  A couple months before the birth of Jesus, Augustus was on the throne then, had been for several years.  He waits until the birth of Jesus to throw in that little fact.  And then, as you'll recall, after the birth of Jesus the angels come and sing what?  Peace on earth and goodwill to all.  And I think this is very deliberate on the author's part--to make a contrast between the Pax Romana, and the Pax Christi.  Between the way of the empire, and the way of the gospel.  Between the rule of Caesar, and the rule of God.

He asks the question, rhetorically, "which one will guide our feet?".

Of course by the time Luke is written, is the second historical context -- some 70 years later.  Jesus has been killed by the Romans on a Roman cross, and Jerusalem has been destroyed by Roman troops. And in that later context the contrast between Pax Romana and Pax Christi is starker still.  Remember the lament of Jesus over Jerusalem -- 'O that you would know the way of peace'.  And I think the message could hardly be clearer:  use the way of empire, the way of violence, and you will fail miserably.  Salvation lies only in the way of peace.

I cannot help but note the events of this week, and the last few weeks.  A bi-partisan commission with its report, Baker-Hamilton.  And now Senator Gordon Smith, a very traditional, conservative Republican, who made a speech on the floor of the Senate, and he chose Pearl Harbor day as the occasion to make that speech.  It was recorded in the paper on Friday.  Senator Smith said that he was rising to speak from his heart.  From the tone of his voice, I believe indeed that it was very heartfelt as he basically confessed that he had been wrong in his support of the war, and it was based on faulty intelligence.  Had he known there were no weapons of mass destruction he would not have voted to go to war.  I want to play for you one snippet out of that, because it conveys in that tone of voice something that cannot be easily conveyed just by quoting him:

"I for one am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets, in the same way, being blown up by the same bombs, day after day.  That is absurd.  It may even be criminal.  I cannot support that anymore".  

I was very touched by his speech.  You can listen to it or read the entire thing on the Senator's web site.  But even more striking that just that little bit was his use of the phrase 'cut and run' at the end of his speech, which you will recall was being used by his fellow Republicans against those who opposed the war.  You know, we can't 'cut and run'.  And here now is Senator Smith saying the time has come for us, if not to 'cut and run', at least to 'cut and walk'.

As many of you will recall, I was very public in my opposition to the war.  I spoke at a rally at the Federal Courthouse in October in 2002 in opposition, and delivered my sermon against it in February of 2003 (Daryl gave a response).  As I heard Senator Smith, I went back to re-read that sermon that I gave.  And I tell, I feel totally vindicated.  And it's not that Senator Smith agrees with every point that I made, by no means.  But more that I think we see what this war has done.  The cause of peace has been set back by decades.  So I don't feel good about feeling vindicated -- to the contrary, I'm in grief over it.

I only want to reflect with you this morning on the last point, the most important point, that I made back then.  That this war in particular, if not all war, is contrary to Christian faith.

A few weeks ago, Mary Roth, Carl Isle's sister, a member of our church in Springfield, and a member of our Sojourners group that meets on Tuesday mornings, sent me an article by Howard Zinn, who is a World War II veteran, a bombardier.  He wrote in the Progressive magazine, and he makes the case that now is the time, especially in light of what we have learned in Iraq, to think seriously about putting an end to war itself.  He says we talk a lot about the war on terrorism, but we need to recognize that war is terrorism.  And war itself is the enemy of the human race.

I believe that Zinn is right.  The time has come for us, as Christians, to use an image often cited by Martin Luther King, to be the headlights, instead of the taillights, of this movement.  To be out front and lead.

So hear again the words of Zechariah when he says:

By the tender mercy of our God,
   the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
   to guide our feet into the way of peace

If we are going to give light to those who sit in the shadow of death, then we need to be clear in articulating why we believe war is contrary to Christian faith.  I find it very striking that All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena is being investigated by the I.R.S. because their preacher, on the Sunday before the election in 2004 (George Regus, retired rector of the church) did precisely that -- articulated why this war is contrary to Christian faith.  And even though he specifically said that he would not tell is congregants how to vote, he did tell them to vote their values as peacemakers.  And so now they are in danger of losing their tax-exempt status as a religious organization.  People, if they do, we are all in trouble -- thousands of churches like ours are in trouble.  Indeed, religious liberty itself will be in danger.

For when the church is prohibited from speaking truth to power, it may not cease to be the church, but it will cease to be followers of Jesus Christ.  

So as a committed follower of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, I believe we are called more now than ever, as the old gospel tune proclaimed, to study war no more.  Now more than ever, we need to hear and to heed that call of the prophet Isaiah and Micah to turn our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks.  Now more than ever, we can see the truth proclaimed by Martin Luther King that the ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.  Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.  Now more than ever, we need a vision for our country and for our world as we heard our general Minister and President recite for us:  "When the wolf shall live with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid and they will not hurt or destroy.  This is the light of God's new dawn and our hope that God's ultimate judgment is love for the world made visible in a vulnerable infant".

I concluded my sermon back in 2003 with these words -- Jesus put it this way:  You have heart it said 'Love your neighbor, hate your enemies.  But I say to you 'Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you'.

This is the way, the only way, to fight evil.  We need to put that way into practice.  Now, more than ever.


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