God turned to an angel and said: “Whew, that was tiring – I just created a 24 hour segment of time with alternating periods of light and dark.”
The angel says, “Now what will you do?” God says “I think I’ll call it a day.” 🙂
There is something in the human spirit that longs to create some order in a world that seems random and chaotic. We seek patterns and signs and ways of making sense of the world. Thus the very poetic and organized way Genesis chapter one takes the incredible Great Flaring Forth or Big Bang of 14 billion years ago, and puts it beautifully and tidily into six twenty-four hour segments.
Life is seldom tidy though we do rely on some predictability – daytime and nighttime, seed time and harvest – though even that is feeling a bit iffy these days – as we have forsythia trying to bloom in our back yard on the first Sunday of Advent.
What was reliable in ancient Israel at the time of the prophet Isaiah, was war. War was common in ancient Israel, primarily because of the nation’s small size and valuable location. It was less than half the size of Nova Scotia, and was surrounded on all sides by nations who wanted to own it. Biblical scholars remind us that in the lives of ancient Israelites, there was only “war time” and “preparing-for-war time.” In this context, to speak of taking the weapons that were supposed to protect you and destroying them, was audacious indeed!
Prophets like Isaiah often announce unexpected reversals. Just as war is learned, so is peace. Like his contemporary Micah (4:1–3), Isaiah proclaims that in God’s new world, not only must the weapons be destroyed; they are to be transformed and repurposed.
From the Semitic languages, we have the words shalom (Hebrew) and salam (Arabic) which share the same three root letters S-L-M connoting wholeness, completeness, well-being and welfare. The word for peace in these languages is more than an absence of conflict. Peace is the presence of conditions that make for life.
Crucial to Isaiah’s prophecy is the active nature of peacemaking; all must make the journey to a common table to unlearn war.
As we have trained for war, so we must train for peace. It doesn’t come easily or naturally to most of us. We tend to have a fight, flight or freeze response to conflict, and it takes courage and imagination and faith to try something different. Martin Luther King Jr. said “Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice.” Seeking justice means action, and Is 2:3 uses these verbs – come, let’s “go up,” to the Temple, that we may be “instructed,” in God’s ways and “walk” in God’s paths.”
I expect most of us can get behind the idea of learning peaceful ways; ways of justice, as an alternate vision to the way things usually are. But what pray tell, do we do with this strange passage from Matthew 24:36–44?
Matthew writes of Jesus’ life as if he’s standing there with a clip-board hanging on every word, but remember the gospel was written after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem which happened in the year 70. Jews and Christians were being persecution for their faith and wondered about their future. Even though the early Christians were experiencing the spirit of the resurrected Christ, present within the community, they also longed for something bigger – the fulfillment of the kingdom of heaven with the `second coming’ of Christ – the imminent, dramatic and visible return of Jesus.
Now remember that the gospel was written more than a generation after Jesus’ death and resurrection and there was still no sign of Jesus’ physical return. So Matthew encourages their perseverance to not slack off, but be watchful and to live faithfully in the time they had.
This latter point has become a preoccupation with some Christians every generation since. But it’s become not so much about living faithfully, as being in the boat, or on the train – being one of the chosen. I remember within the first couple weeks of me moving to Merritt, I had someone drop by the office with an offering of lovely fresh vegetables and a warm welcome, and quoting this passage to me and confirming that we were going to be the chosen ones – to get on God’s glory train, not the ones left behind, and he was confident that I would be preaching this message.
Now, I’ll admit that at one time I did have a great bumper-sticker on the back of my old Nissan Sentra that said, “Jesus is coming; look busy!” But, really, as I explained to this man, my ministry is about helping people live spiritually healthy lives here and now, seeking peace and justice, and letting their God-given light shine in the world for themselves, for others and for the planet itself. I cannot with integrity tell people that they need to be ready because Jesus is going to pop up, or drop from the sky at any moment and take them to heaven. Well, this person clearly felt I was failing to do my Christian duty and thus ended our conversation and the fresh vegetables.
So what do we do in the chaos of the present world? Who could have predicted a Trump victory? Who could have predicted forsythia blossoming in late November? Who knows what will happen next?
I don’t know. I do know we need to train for peace and justice every bit as much as we have to train for war. Activism and prayer need to work together, wisdom and courage have to get together. We need to talk with each other about the good that can and does come out of chaotic times – in that way we are encouraged and motivated to carry on with an alternate vision.
I saw an alternate vision on Thursday. I mean, when’s the last time we in the congregation were outnumbered by teenagers? It happened on Thursday at the Blanket exercise. It was so good to see so many from this congregation there, and I know others wanted to be there. We ended the exercise by passing around the talking rock, and not one teenager spoke. But they heard others speak. They heard some of us speak. My friends, we planted seeds, we didn’t build walls. We took swords of the past and we reshaped them into ploughshares. Your life might be the only gospel someone ever reads, so live it boldly and compassionately; make something beautiful out of the chaos. Amen.