Making Sure You’ve Got It in the Right Order
Peace Sermon Preached on Dec. 8th, 2013
by Rev. Derek Penwell, Douglas Blvd. Christian Church
A lot’s been going on in the world recently.
Pope Francis released a controversial encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, denouncing trickle-down economics and urging global leaders to fight poverty and growing inequality. He’s taking a lot of flak for putting that out there in an environment used to the Pope reserving his political comments to matters sexual.
And if you weren’t paying attention the night before, you probably woke up on Friday to the news of Nelson Mandela’s death. A huge loss for the world, one that has—rightly, in my opinion—garnered almost non-stop attention from the media. Well-deserved tributes for a man who stood tall for justice and equality against the racist predations of Apartheid. A man who walked the way of justice and peace.
But more on all that in a moment.
The other important news item you might have caught if you persevered through the testimonials to
Mandela: unemployment levels dropped by three points to 7.0%—the lowest level since the great recession began in 2008.
“’The headwinds are fading and the tailwinds are gaining strength,’ said Michael Hanson, senior United States economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, ticking off sources of growth like pent-up demand for automobiles, a rebounding housing sector and the surging stock market.”
In fact, if you drilled down in the news a little further on Friday, you might have seen that one of the other issues on the political to-do list in Washington is getting a budget deal done by December 13th.
And guess what? More good news: It looks like negotiators are close to a deal to replace the sequester with higher spending levels.
Once again, you may be forgiven for cheering a bit.
At this point, you may be saying to yourself, “I thought this was supposed to be a sermon, and not the weekend political update.”
Hang with me for a moment.
Notwithstanding the exit from the stage of Nelson Mandela, that seems like a lot of good news, doesn’t it? And even Mandela’s death has provided an opportunity to lift up images of courage and vision.
But In the midst of all this economic glad tidings we ought to take a moment to consider just who this is in a position to hear all this as good news. Not everybody’s throwing streamers and confetti.
In that same New York Times article that announces the decrease in the rate of unemployment, Nelson Schwartz cautions that:
despite the overall improvement in the employment picture, the situation remains desperate for many American workers and those seeking jobs.
For people with less than a high school diploma, for example, the jobless rate last month stood at 10.8 percent. For African-Americans, it was 12.5 percent, or nearly twice what it was for whites.
And if regular unemployment wasn’t bad enough, the news for the longterm unemployed was even more discouraging. Schwartz notes that unemployment for those who’ve been without work for more than 27 weeks actually rose, affecting over 4 million people.
Indeed, though the prospect of a budget deal that does away with the imprecise and harmful sequester cuts looks pretty great, one thing the deal doesn’t include is an extension of unemployment benefits that are set to expire. On December 28th, if an agreement isn’t reached, 1.3 million people will lose unemployment benefits.
No question that a lot of people are well situated this Advent season. The stock market’s up. The housing market is rebounding. And some people are finding jobs.
But there are a lot of folks all this good news has failed to reach. It’s difficult to feel hopeful when the system seems to be rigged against you, calibrated to keep some folks from ever getting ahead. Hard to live in peace when it feels like the folks in charge are only looking out for themselves.
So, all is not settled in the land of Oz.
But this isn’t a new phenomenon. Bad times have happened before.
All was certainly not settled in the land of Israel. Way back in the 8th century, Assyria—that ancient Near Eastern Military juggernaut—roamed about the Fertile Crescent, flexing its muscles—kicking sand in the faces of its scrawny neighbors.
Israel, who by the time Isaiah writes, has a whole beach worth of sand it’s trying to spit out of its parched mouth. Things are bad for the people of God, whom Isaiah describes as a tree that’s been hacked to the ground. They’ve been at the mercy of the ruthless Assyrians, who’ve laid waste to the country and sent thousands into exile.
Isaiah says in chapter 9 that “the land was burned, and the people became like fuel for the fire” (19).
Not much left standing. Pretty barren. A stump is how Isaiah describes it—the barest reminder that the children of God have ever known glory or good times.
Isaiah comes to a dispirited people with an announcement: Look, things are fixing to change.
A shoot will come forth from the stump, a branch will grow out of the root of the tree of Jesse that the Assyrians have devastated.
A ruler is coming—one who contrasts with the brutality to which the children of God have grown uneasily accustomed. And upon this ruler the spirt of Lord will rest.
Indeed, this ruler will have all the characteristics lacking in a land in which the people are viewed merely as tools of labor (at best) or potential threats (at worst): wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and a fear of the Lord.
However, not only will this ruler differ from the bloody tyrants of Assyria, but also from the unjust kings in its own history.
That’s just the thing, the children of Israel are suffering the indignities of the Assyrians—in large part—because they have blood on their hands. All the way back in the first chapter Isaiah lets us know that God is disgusted because God’s people have left off doing good, have repeatedly failed to seek justice.
Twice in chapter one Israel is chastised for failing to defend the orphan or to plead for the widow. You know, the people at the bottom of the pile, the ones who don’t have any voice, the ones who can’t afford a lobbyist.
The folks on the fringes have repeatedly gotten the short end of the stick, which is why the Assyrians have moved in, put their feet up on the coffee table and started people out of their own house. God, according to Isaiah, has raised up this vicious bunch of ruffians to teach a wayward people a lesson about justice.
But in our text today, Isaiah says that the lesson is over, and there is going to be a new leader who rules with justice—who judges the poor with righteousness, and decides with equity for the meek of the earth.
Unlike the corrupt bullies of the past, this ruler isn’t going to pay attention only to what he can see and hear—which is to say, he won’t rule only by consulting the well-heeled counselors who have the interests of the rich and powerful in mind.
Unlike the merciless kings of the past, who ruled with the rod of violence, leaving in their wake a desolation of misery and suffering, this ruler will “strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked”—which is to say, he will vanquish his foes not through bloodshed and savagery, but through the force of his words.
And when this ruler finally prevails and establishes the justice that has been absent, impossible things will happen—”the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the falling together, and a little child shall lead them.”
Now, I hope you were paying attention to the order of things. This passage is best known as the source of the imagery of the peaceable kingdom—that utopian vision of a world where natural enemies live together in harmony, and violence is a thing of the past.
But notice what precedes the glory of a world without violence—the establishment of justice.
Unfortunately, human beings tend to get peace and justice reversed.
How often are we confused when violence breaks out somewhere, and somebody ventures to suggest that maybe we should first figure out why the violence erupted before we retaliate?
Violence isn’t a thing unto itself: it’s merely a weapon to achieve a goal. So, putting an end to violence by the application of a greater show of violence doesn’t solve the problem; it merely postpones the violence.
The way the world works is that you crack down hard, establish peace, and then justice will follow. But what that fails to take into account is that Biblical peace assumes justice as a precondition.
The shalom of the Bible isn’t just a cease fire, an absence of hostilities. The peace that Isaiah envisions is a place where everyone flourishes, where everyone has enough, and everyone gets to live the life that God intended.
The problem with this passage, according to most streetwise folks, is that it’s too naïve. “The picture Isaiah paints is impossible,” the cynics say. “It can’t happen. Too facile. Wolf and lamb together? That’s just not how the world works–and no amount of tree-hugging hippy prattle is going to change that. You’re just going to have to be realistic.”
But I would like to suggest that that view of peace is what’s ultimately unrealistic. It assumes that what Isaiah is talking about here is a kind of apocalyptic-magic-wand-kind-of-thing. A dewy-eyed earnestness that looks at the world through a misty veil of naïveté.
Isaiah’s no hippy. He understands what we sophisticated moderns so often fail to understand—true peace requires justice (“judging the poor with righteousness, and deciding with equity for the meek of the earth”) a world in which good news comes not just to those whose portfolios stand to gain by the uptick in the economy, but to those who’ve found themselves too often poring over the want ads, just trying to figure out how to feed their families for one more week.
True peace demands a world tipped on its head, a world in which those who’ve lived their lives yearning for justice finally find it.
Listen to how Pope Francis understands it: “As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.”
Nelson Mandela puts it this way: “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life. While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.” (And, I would add, no true peace.)
Jesus describes the new world as one in which the first shall be last and the last shall be first, in which the captives are released, the blind are given sight, and the oppressed go free.
“The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion hall eat straw like the ox” is how Isaiah envisions it.
As Merlin Mann might say, trying to establish peace over the top of injustice is like responding to a diagnosis of brain cancer by buying a hat. It leaves in place the very problem that prompts people to respond violently.
But when justice finally comes, a world led by a child doesn’t look so crazy after all.
This is Advent, after all, and that’s exactly the kind of world we’re keeping our eyes peeled for.