Monday, January 03, 2011

A New Way of Peace

Sermon preached on Christmas Eve at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, worshiping with St. Stephen's Church: Genesis 3:1-22; Luke 2:1-20

Where we started tonight may seem odd for Christmas Eve: the snake in the Garden who creates an anxious world. Adam speaking those first, tragic, words, “I was afraid.”

It is dangerous reading this story from Genesis any time, because it automatically conjures up images and words for us, many of which the text itself does not intend. Authorities in church and synagogue have seized on this story through the centuries and turned it into the “club of sin.”

This is a simple story about anxiety and fear, how they too often drive our relationship with God and with one another. It exposes our false assumption that in order to be free, we must be free of God, free of the boundaries, free to exploit what needs to be exploited. We do these things because we believe we can manufacture our own well-being.[1]

The story is also about a God who struggles to know what to do with us, how to relate to us. It is complex what the story tells us about God, and why not, if God is to remain a mystery to us? But what is true in the story is a paradox. On the one hand, God sets boundaries and holds to them. In the end God will not yield the Garden. The man and the woman must leave—the snake too I have always assumed—to toil, to struggle with a world that is less than Paradise.

On the other hand, they are allowed to leave and with their lives intact. God is gracious. Death had been the sentence, but God cannot carry it out. In the end, God cares for the man and the woman, does the homely and servile thing of making them clothes.

What does all that have to do with Christmas? It is a fair question. The answer is one word, “peace.”

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.

This is the good news that the angels have to bring, a message they say that has taken flesh in a child in a manger in the city of David, a child whom they call “Savior,” and “Messiah,” and “Lord.” But before anything else they say, “Do not be afraid.” Whenever we hear that message proclaimed in the Bible, “Do not be afraid,” we should remember those words of Adam in the garden, “I was afraid,” and know that something is going on here that has to do with mending the broken relationship between humankind and God.

Peace in Hebrew, as many of you know, is shalom, a rich and very important word in the Old Testament, what would have been the Bible of Jesus’ day. Shalom in the Bible does not mean simply the absence of conflict. It means “well-being,” in every sense you can imagine of that word. Shalom is the opposite of the anxiety and fear of the man and the woman in the Garden. It is what God wants for his people, and which he is always ready and able to give them, if they would stop being anxious and afraid.

For the Gospel writer Luke it became an important word in his telling of Jesus’ story and in his understanding of Jesus’ purpose. He uses the word more times than all the other gospels combined. He uses it three times in his birth story. At the birth of John the Baptist, his father Zechariah sings (Luke 1:79),

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.

Then there is the message of the angels. And finally, when Mary and Joseph take the baby for his presentation in the Temple forty days after his birth, the old prophet Simeon will sing (Luke 2:29),

Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised…

The purpose of God in the birth of this baby is to re-establish the way of peace. To renew his offer of peace to his people—to “all the people” the angel says, for a part of this new way is that God’s favor is extended beyond the old limitations.

It is a curious thing that “peace” is so important to Luke, since it was such an important Hebrew concept. Luke, almost everyone agrees, was writing primarily to Gentiles. Is he just wanting to pass the Jewish concept on to them?

Certainly he wants to do that, but the word “peace” was important in the Gentile world of the time as well. It was the word pax in the Latin of the Roman Empire. These were the days of the widely proclaimed Pax Augustana or Pax Romana, the “peace” created by the great Emperor Augustus throughout the Roman world.

There is an extraordinary inscription on a piece of a Roman temple which once stood near Ephesus, in Asia Minor. The temple was dedicated to “the Autocrat Caesar, the Son of God, the God Sebastos [Augustus].” The inscription is now in a museum in Berlin:

The good news about the birthday of a divine child who will save the world from destruction by establishing permanent peace.

Who is this divine child? Caesar Augustus. The world in which Jesus was born, believed either by conviction or force, that Augustus was the son of god who had come to bring universal peace. Luke, in telling the story we just heard, that we know so well, is trying to tell the world of his day that another option has been born.

Luke wanted his readers and hearers to recognize a different way to peace offered by the child of Bethlehem. What was the way of peace in the Roman empire, the way of Augustus? It was the way of might, of victory over Rome’s enemies. Peace did hold in the Roman Empire during Augustus’ reign because he inspired his people to a different way of life. No, peace reigned, because people were sufficiently afraid. Peace reigned because the enemies of the Empire were crushed.

Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, in their book The First Christmas say this

The Roman vision incarnated in the divine Augustus was peace through victory. The Christian vision incarnated in the divine Jesus was peace through justice.[2]

The Christmas story we proclaim tonight puts a simple choice before us: how are we to re-establish the well-being of the world? Are we going to do that by making sure people stay sufficiently afraid to behave themselves? Sometimes it seems like that is our only option. Sometimes it seems that it is the way of our faith even. Aren’t we supposed to be scared of going to hell so that we’ll want to do the right thing and go to heaven? Sometimes it does seem that this is the only way, but the Jesus we claim to follow offers us a different way.

The Jesus way to peace is the way of love and justice. It is also the way of faith, because love and justice have to be believed in as much as they have to be practiced, because it is not always obvious that they work. Choosing this way means choosing a radically different path from most of the rest of the world. This is mostly because it seems to be the way of weakness and, by and large, we despise weakness. But theologian Jurgen Moltmann says

The kingdom of peace comes through a child, and liberation is bestowed on the people who become as children: disarmingly defenseless, disarming through their defenselessness, and making others defenseless because they themselves are so disarming.[3]

The Christmas message is simple: Do not be afraid. The baby is born, it is often said, “to take away the sins of the world.” That is true, although it is not an important part of this story. This story tells that the baby is born to take away the fear of the world, and, in doing so, the create a new way for peace, well-being for all the people. It is a way that will be built by acts of justice and love.

We don’t think of the Christmas story as political in nature. But it is, through and through, at its very heart. The way of Caesar? Of the Empire? Or the way of Christ? Of the defenseless baby? Choose, Luke says. This is not a game in which you can be neutral.

So choose we must. But even then, not out of fear. Choose because you believe the amazing news that God wants to re-build Paradise with us, and Jesus is his message that although we have long been afraid—we have been afraid back into the dim mists of pre-history, in our most ancient stories—we do not have to be afraid any more.

At the end of the Bible lies one of my favorite passages and it really is a Christmas passage, although we never read it during these twelve days. It is a vision of Paradise restored. John the Seer has a final vision:

See the home of God is among mortals,
He will dwell with them;
They will be his peoples,
And God himself will be with them;
He will wipe very tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
Mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
For the first things have passed away.

It all began in Bethlehem with the passing away of fear and the birth of a new way of peace.

[1] I am indebted for this interpretation of Genesis to Walter Brueggemann in his commentary Genesis in the “Interpretation” commentary series (John Knox Press, 1982). Although almost 30 years old, it is still the best exposition of Genesis out there.

[2] Marcus J. Borg and Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas: What th Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Birth (Harper One, 2007), p. 166.

[3] Jurgen Moltmann, The Power of the Powerless (1983), p. 33.

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