December 6, 2010

If I Had Stuck to My Notes for the Message on Peace

In Leviticus God makes some very bold and wonderful promises to His people (Leviticus 26:3-9):

If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees their fruit. Your threshing will continue until grape harvest and the grape harvest will continue until planting, and you will eat all the food you want and live in safety in your land.

“‘I will grant peace in the land, and you will lie down and no one will make you afraid. I will remove wild beasts from the land, and the sword will not pass through your country. You will pursue your enemies, and they will fall by the sword before you. Five of you will chase a hundred, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand, and your enemies will fall by the sword before you.

“‘I will look on you with favor and make you fruitful and increase your numbers, and I will keep my covenant with you.
God was promising them peace, but even if you just skim the Old Testament, you will discover that they did not follow His decrees or obey His commands, and so their history is littered with wars, violence, and captivity. Some have read the Old Testament and seen an angry or vengeful God, but I think that is wrong. What we see is a gracious and loving God who loves His people and give them chance after chance to do what is right while they stubbornly refuse. He postpones their punishment time and time again until eventually it can be restrained no more; so they suffer the consequences of their actions.

I mean listen to the sorrow in God’s statement in Isaiah 48:17-18
“This is what the LORD says—
your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
‘I am the LORD your God,
who teaches you what is best for you,
who directs you in the way you should go.
If only you had paid attention to my commands,
your peace would have been like a river,
your well-being like the waves of the sea.’”
All they had to do was obey God’s commands, and they would have had this amazing peace. But, the Israelites are not alone. They couldn’t obey God’s commands and laws. They couldn’t keep His covenants. And so they didn’t have peace.

We have the same problems. We can’t keep God’s commands and laws. We can’t keep His covenant. And so we live in a world that without peace. The world is desperate for peace. Wars, riots, crime, political unrest, gang violence, terrorism, genocide, jihad...on a more social and community level we struggle with family dysfunction, alcoholism, spousal and child abuse, arguments, depression, all adds up to a world without peace.

And yet we keep looking. We keep hoping and believing that somewhere, somehow, sometime we will find peace.

Governments make peace treaties. People protest for peace. Militaries fight to restore and keep peace. And still peace slips through our fingers like sand at the beach.

But we keep looking. Many people are optimistic that peace will happen. I believe it will, but not for the reasons they think peace will come. Because they believe that the human spirit will eventually win out and peace will come. Many others are tempted to be pessimistic about the possibility of peace, because they they look at the human spirit and see the darkness and evil that human beings are capable of causing one another.

Neither of these are an option for those of us seeking to live out the Gospel. We cannot be optimistic because of the power of the human spirit...because we recognize that we are a fallen humanity. We are stained and damaged by sin and separated from God. So peace, true peace is not a possibility on our own. But if we are truly focused on living out the Gospel, we can’t be pessimistic either because we know that God has promised peace, and ever promise He makes He keeps.

So lets take a few steps back, start from the beginning, and build a framework.

First, biblical peace is not like our peace.

The biblical word we translate as “peace” is a word you may have heard before. It is the Hebrew word shalom. In the New Testament its Greek equivalent is eirene. These two words represent one of the most theologically significant ideas in the entirety of Scripture.

The root of the word means totality or completeness. But there are additional nuances the Bible gives to the word. These nuances include fulfillment, completion, maturity, soundness, wholeness (both individual and communal), community, harmony, tranquillity, security, well-being, welfare, friendship, agreement, success, and prosperity.#

You see peace is so much more than just an absence of conflict. It is this all consuming, complete tranquility and security with God and our fellow human beings. This requires justice. This brings about success and blessing. This is wholeness for both you and I individually, and you and I as we live in community together.

Shalom became a standard greeting for Israelites because in wishing shalom to another person you were praying a blessing over them that God would bring wholeness to their physical, emotional, psychological, relational, and spiritual lives. This was more than just a standard greeting, it was a prayer for the person being greeting.

When most people think of peace, they think of an absence of conflict. If war stops...there is peace. If gangs don’t shoot each other...there is peace. If one country no longer bombs another country...there is peace. We speak in terms of “keeping the peace.” Someone once asked, “Can’t we all just get along?”

And the answer is “No!” we can’t all just get along because the problem is much deeper than just removing the conflict. But biblical peace is deeper. It is shalom. It is not the absence of conflict. It is the the presence of justice. It is the presence of wholeness in people’s physical, emotional, psychological, relational, and spiritual lives.

I hate confrontation, and will do almost anything I can to avoid it. I begin to sweat, my heart beats faster, I get this nervous and unsettled feeling, and I get this strong desire to run away. I’m fat so anything that makes me feel like running has to be a strong emotion...or the last piece of something. But I have found that somethings need to be dealt with; because when I avoid the confrontation I have only postponed the problem, and most likely made things worse. I think I am keeping peace, but I am actually undermining true peace by removing conflict with bringing justice.

I found this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr."The Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice."

It isn’t those who are actively fighting against a cause that are the most dangerous. The most dangerous people are those who just want things to settle down and go away. So in the name of seeking peace they have actually subverted true peace, and made things worse.

If we want shalom for our lives and for our world we have to find something deeper than the flimsy substitutions for peace the world offers. We have to seek after true peace.

After years and years of struggle and turmoil, the Israelites knew that only the Messiah could bring true peace.

Isaiah 9 holds the famous words prophesying the Messiah: Isaiah 9:2-7
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this.
God’s desire was to bring blessing, grace, and peace to His people and to His world, and they knew the Messiah would be the one to bring that peace. So when the angels announced in Luke 2:14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” The shepherds knew they were being invited to see the Messiah.

Everyone in Israel longed for the day when the Messiah would come and bring peace, but they misunderstood how He would do that and many missed Him entirely. They expected a mighty warrior and they got a defenseless infant. They expected a Triumphant King entering the city on a white horse, and they got a misunderstood prophet and teacher riding a donkey. They expected a warrior to overthrow the Roman government, and they got a suffering servant who defeated the kingdoms of this world by establishing His own kingdom with His death.

It was this sacrifice, this unexpected Messiah, that brought the possibility of peace by reconciling us to God (Romans 5:1-2). We can’t even begin to fathom true peace much-less try to bring peace about until we have found peace with God. It starts deep within us.

Jeremiah 31:33 hints at the problem, “‘This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,’ declares the LORD. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”

We, like the Israelites try to fix the problem from the outside. We use peace treatise, protests, negotiations, and force to bring about peace. On a personal level we use rules, organizational structures, or we avoid the conflict and keep our mouths shut...but all of these are external. They exist outside of us, and so they are insufficient to bring about peace...because until we have peace within, with God, we cannot have peace.

That is why the Great Commandment starts with love the Lord your God and then moves to love your neighbor. One of the commandments is not greater than the other, it is just a reality that you must be developing right relationship with God in order to develop right relationship with your neighbor.

Yesterday I posted the rest of this quote from Vatican II on my blog. If you want it, I can give you that web address, but I wanted to share this quote because it ties this point in with our next point...

“Earthly peace which arises from love of neighbor symbolizes and results from the peace of Christ which radiates from God the Father. For by the cross the incarnate Son, the prince of peace reconciled all men with God. By thus restoring all men to the unity of one people and one body, He slew hatred in His own flesh; and, after being lifted on high by His resurrection, He poured forth the spirit of love into the hearts of men.

For this reason, all Christians are urgently summoned to do in love what the truth requires, and to join with all true peacemakers in pleading for peace and bringing it about.”
When we allow Christ to bring peace into our lives, then we must become instruments of God’s peace to the world.

I used to pray asking God to do certain things. God please make this or that happen, and it wouldn’t. Please meet this person’s need or that person’s need. Then I realized that God has always used human beings to bring about His will. He blesses and multiplies their efforts and results, but He will not do the work for them.

God will bless the crop and the harvest, but He expects the farmer to plant the seed. God will bless the results of a person’s labor, but they have to actually show up to work and clock in each day. God will bless our work toward peace, but He expects us to be peacemakers.

St. Francis of Assisi, speaking to the brothers in his monastery, said, “Brothers, we have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.”

Peace will not come unless we work to bring it about through the power of the Holy Spirit. And we need to be people of peace. The world doesn’t trust us as a church to do that. They see us bickering over theological differences. They hear us talk disparagingly about people in “that church over there.” They see us protesting in judgment of people. They see us supporting war and violence as a way to bring about peace. And so they don’t trust us to be agents of peace.

There is a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. It probably wasn’t his, but it certainly reflects his life and the point of this message...
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

We in the Vineyard understand the idea of the “already and the not yet.” There is a sense in which the things of God are made available to us here and now...and there is a sense in which, because God has not fully restored everything, that we are still lacking. And our search for peace is a prime example.

We catch glimpses of peace, but it will not be until Christ returns and fully restores this world to the way He intended it to be that we will find peace in its fullness.

In Advent the church reenacts the preparation for the coming of the Messiah into our world. We spend four weeks in a preparation mode waiting in expectancy for the coming of the Messiah as an infant on Christmas Day. But there is a second aspect to it...Advent serves as a reminder that we are preparing for coming again of our Messiah. Just as the coming of the Messiah in Bethlehem initiated the peace process, there is coming a day when peace will reign, when swords will be beaten into plowshares and lions will lay down with lambs...and so I say “Come Lord Jesus, make it so...and in the mean time, enable me to work for your peace wherever I go.”

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