A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va.
December 1, 2013.
In Farmville, I had in our bedroom an overstuffed chair that Beth and I bought when we got married. It is quite comfortable, and as you sink into its cushions, the chair just seems to envelope you in its welcoming embrace. I have spent many an hour just sitting in that chair reading books, writing sermons, surfing the internet and just vegging. As I’ve shared with you before, I’m actually an introvert by nature, which means that, while I like to be around people, eventually I need to be by myself, to have some peace and quiet, in order to recharge my emotional batteries. After an especially exhausting day at work, I’m ready to plop myself down in that chair. When the kids are rambunctious, running around screaming and shouting, I’m ready to retreat into the sanctuary of that chair. When the house is a mess, and Beth is approaching me with a long “honey-do” list, I suddenly feel a strong magnetic pull to go and attach myself to that chair. That chair is a place of peace for me. It’s my man cave!
I wonder if you have “a place of peace” in your life? It doesn’t have to be a chair. It could be a mountain trail that captivates you with its breathtaking vistas and bracing air. It could be the beach that calms you with the rhythm of the waves as they wash over your feet. It could be the kitchen that comforts you with the wafting aroma of baking cookies. It could be a hot, bubble bath that caresses you with its luxurious warmth as you sink into it and sigh like that woman in that old commercial: “Calgon, take me away!”
It’s good for us to have a place of peace in our lives, because the world that we live in is anything but peaceful. There are eight “major wars” underway in the world today—a major war being defined as “military conflicts inflicting 1,000 violent deaths per year.” We are still fighting a war in Afghanistan, and troops deployed in other hotspots around the world. But if those conflicts seem too distant from our day to day life here in Charlottesville, consider that just this week, many of us spent time with extended family members over Thanksgiving. I’m not going to ask for a show of hands, but for how many of us are our families a source of tension and conflict? For some, during this holiday season, our hearts are broken because we grieve for our loved ones who are no longer with us. So every day, as we watch the news or read the newspaper, and as we live our everyday lives, we are reminded again and again that we live in a broken world, where our relationships with our world, our relationships with our family and others, our relationships to God and yes, even our relationships to ourselves are fractured, broken and incomplete. Every day, we have reminders that the world is not the way it is supposed to be.
Our longing for a world where peace reigns is not a new one. In our Old Testament reading this morning, we have a record of the oracle of the prophet Isaiah as he envisioned a place of peace amidst a world of conflict and turmoil. Written about seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, Isaiah was living in a time when the glorious kingdom established by David was no longer. The kingdom itself was divided, and both kingdoms were on the brink of war.
During this time of war and rumors of war, Isaiah proclaimed a vision of the last days, when Mt. Zion, the mountain where Jerusalem and the LORD’s temple were located, will become a place of peace. Isaiah says that Mt. Zion will be established the highest of the mountains. I don’t know whether Mt. Zion will literally become taller than Mt. Everest, but at the very least, I think Isaiah was trying to say that, in the last days, the mountain of God will take on added significance. Here, I love the image that Isaiah used to describe Mt. Zion: “it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.” We have the image of all the nations of the world “streaming up” or “flowing up” to the mountain of the Lord. Now, have you ever seen water flowing up a stream to the top of a mountain? Me neither. But in the last days, all nations will behave in such a way that is seemingly against the laws of nature, to flow “up stream” to the mountain of God.
With this image of nations “streaming up,” Isaiah suggests that this place of peace will overturn our expectations. We often joke that “hell will freeze over” before there will be peace in the Middle East, before Republicans and Democrats will work together, before cats and dogs will stop fighting, and before oil and water will mix, before your mother-in-law will actually treat you like a human being. We just can’t imagine such a thing happening, for that goes against the flow of everything we’ve seen and experienced. It also goes against our “natural” human inclinations NOT to seek revenge when wronged, NOT to curse our enemies and to doubly harm those who try to harm us. And to imagine otherwise? Yeah right, we say, rivers will flow upstream before that will happen. But that’s exactly the vision Isaiah gives us. And it is a reminder that as impossible as we think this peace might be, with God, nothing is impossible.
Furthermore, this place of peace will not only overturn our expectations, this place of peace will be freely chosen. Verse 3 says: Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” Notice that no one is coercing or forcing these people to go up the mountain of the LORD, to follow in God’s paths. In the last days, Isaiah proclaims a vision in which all nations will freely choose to learn from the teachings of God and follow God’s law that will go out from Zion. These nations will freely submit to the authority of God as the judge between the nations who will settle disputes for many peoples.
In addition to overturning our expectations and being freely chosen, this place of peace will rearrange our priorities. Notice the evocative images that Isaiah presents in verse 4: “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” These images of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks reveal a radical rearrangement of priorities where weapons wielded to inflict death are now transformed into tools wielded to sustain life. In a world where war has been waged in every generation and huge segments of many national economies are devoted to the war machinery, this is a radical vision.
Finally, throughout this description of Mt. Zion and Jerusalem, it is remarkable that Isaiah envisions that this place of peace is for ALL nations. In verse 2, Isaiah wrote that to this mountain of the LORD, all nations will stream to it. In verse 3, Isaiah wrote that many peoples will come and ascend up the mountain of the LORD. In verse 4, Isaiah wrote that God will judge between the nations and settle disputes for many peoples. Isaiah envisioned a place of peace not just for the Jews, but for the whole world!
But the cynics among us might say: this is just a utopian pipe dream that you’re talking about here. Only a naïve dupe would think that Isaiah’s vision would lead our enemies from attacking us. Only an idealistic chump would think that this “place of peace” would stop suicide bombings. Anyone without his head in the sand would know that Jerusalem itself has been the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for over sixty years.
And the cynics would be right. And to their objections, I have two responses. The first is found in the last verse of our Isaiah passage. After his grand vision of this place of peace for all nations, Isaiah writes: “Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the LORD.” This vision of peace does not come while we’re waiting for other people, other nations to get their act together. This place of peace begins with us. Like that song says, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” Let peace begin with me overturning other people’s expectations of me. Instead of retaliating against my opponent, let me go against the flow by turning the other cheek. Instead of cursing my enemy, let me go against the flow by praying for him. Instead of plotting evil against my persecutor, let me go against the flow by doing good to her. Also, let peace begin with me by freely choosing to enter into this place of peace. Let me joyfully learn from God’s teachings and follow God’s paths. Let peace begin with me by letting God rearrange my priorities so that my efforts to retain a grudge will be transformed to release God’s grace. Let the sword of my exertion to further hatred be transformed to the plowshare that fosters forgiveness. Let the spear of my endeavor to exact revenge be transformed to the pruning hooks that extend reconciliation. As Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello once said, “If it is peace you want, seek to change yourself, not other people. It is easier to protect your feet with slippers than to carpet the whole of the earth.”
But as important as it is for this place of peace to begin with me, we must also acknowledge that ultimately, the place of peace is Jesus himself. This is my second response to the cynic. In a world that is broken and fractured, filled with war and rumors of war, as a Christian, I believe the only thing that can fully usher in this place of peace is the coming of Jesus Christ. While we are called to participate in what God is doing to mend our broken world, ultimately, Jesus will be the One who will fully, completely, and perfectly finish the job. Wherever Jesus is, there is peace, shalom, wholeness, and completeness.
On this first Sunday of Advent, as we hang the green garlands, set up the Advent wreath, and decorate the Christmon tree in this sanctuary, we are reminded that Jesus is the Prince of Peace who gives us life . . . fully, completely, wholly. We also anticipate the second coming of this Christ. We wait for the One who is our peace says Paul in Ephesians 2:14. We wait for the One who made peace with us and our heavenly Father. We wait for the One who said in John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.”
In our world, as good as it is to have “a place of peace” in a comfy chair or in a bubble bath, it is just not enough. For what we truly long for is not just a “private peace” for ourselves while the rest of the world wages war. What we desire is not an “escapist peace” for ourselves while millions of others are left behind to suffer. What we hope for is not a “band-aid peace” that only covers over the symptoms while the root problems continue to fester and rot. That is too small a vision and too feeble a dream. What we truly long for is a new order of things where not brokenness but wholeness marks the universe. What we truly desire is a world where not mourning, but joy fills all of our lives. What we truly wait for is an existence where not death but life is our constant reality. What we truly need is “Emmanuel,” the dwelling of God being with us. That is the place of peace, of shalom, of wholeness and completeness that we humans and the whole cosmos long for. And that is the vision that God gives us through the prophetic oracle of Isaiah and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. And so, while we may still live in a world that is lacking in peace and torn by strife, let us live toward that vision of a place of peace by leading peace-making lives at home, in the workplace, and in our community. And let us eagerly wait for the coming of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, to complete and fulfill that vision. Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.