Peace Incarnate

Samford is an amazing place to be an undergraduate. Sure, the university has its flaws, but the good far outweighs the bad. One of the best experiences I’ve ever had at Samford was last Tuesday evening, when, sponsored by a variety of campus organizations, a group of about 20 or so gathered to pray all night long for peaceful resolutions to the violent conflicts raging in the Middle East. Wes over at Theophilusian Fragments already posted his material from the event, including his sermon and a PDF of the prayer book he designed for the occasion (which is excellent, by the way). Well now it’s my turn. Here’s the manuscript of the sermon I was blessed to preach that evening. (It contains at least one paragraph borrowed from “The Amazing Scandal of the Son of God,” so if you’ve read that sermon, some of this will seem familiar.)

The Reading of the Scripture:

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Celebrant: This is the word of the Lord.

People: Thanks be to God.

It’s dark outside tonight. And not just because most of the lights are off and we’ve already extinguished our candles. It’s dark out tonight because we live in a world marred by war. It’s dark out tonight because we live in a society and a country consumed by its own military-industrial complex, a nation that spends 40% of its budget on the art of warfare. It’s dark out tonight because those who are called to peace-makers have become war-mongers, because those who are called to hunger and thirst for righteousness have forgotten the taste of those sacred things. We are truly a people who are walking in great darkness.

But these words of Isaiah bring hope! The people who walk in darkness are also the ones who get to see the great light. They are the ones upon whom the light has dawned! Listen to the proclamation of the dawning light found in Luke 2:

“‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’”

This is the light that is dawning, the light of the Incarnate Christ.

The more Caroline, Wes, and I planned this Night of Peace, the more I began to realize just how appropriate it was that Caroline had chosen to undertake this project during the middle of Advent. This season is a time when we prepare our hearts for the coming King, for Christ, whom Isaiah identifies as the Prince of Peace. This is the time when the world is turned upside down by a little baby who has come to bring peace, not through military might, but by the power of his love. This is a time when the Kingdom of God is established, defying the order of the Empire of Man. This is a time of gifts, and so tonight we are asking God for the gift of peace, we are asking him for a powerful manifestation of Peace Incarnate, as there was over 2000 years ago in that cave in Bethlehem.

Let us look at how Isaiah describes the Son of God in chapter 9. It’s always difficult for me to discuss the Servant Songs of Isaiah in Christological terms, and I think that’s because on one level these songs have nothing to do with the person of Jesus. Most scholars agree that the songs are either foretelling or praising a righteous king who will rescue the nation from foreign enemies like Assyria, and many find the expression of the Israelite servant in Hezekiah, one of the righteous kings of Judah (who, by the way, was an ancestor of Jesus. Check it out in Matthew 1). But to view this prophecy of Isaiah as only referring to Hezekiah is an unfulfilling reading of the text. It’s more celestial in scope. It’s eschatological in nature. It is my belief that Hezekiah and Christ both fulfilled this prophecy, though Christ did so far more than Isaiah could have ever imagined.

Isaiah speaks of a people rejoicing, but before we discuss the rejoicing, it’d be a good idea to know why we rejoice. The prophet says this:

“For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.”

The day of Midian was the day Gideon defeated the Midianite army with only 300 Israelite soldiers. It is representative, I believe, of God’s ability to use tiny, insignificant things to do a great work. In the same way that God used a tiny army to defend the nation of Israel, so he will use a tiny baby to bring peace. The rod of our oppressor, that is, violence and hatred, will be broken like the power of Midian was broken, by the utter scandal of the power of God revealed in weakness.

Now, the example of Midian is a violent one, but the history of Israel is soaked in violence related to the disobeying of God’s commands. But the prophet does something amazing in the next few lines. Instead of proclaiming that God will use violence and the sword to overcome enemies and bring about peace, we find these words:

“For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.”

The prophecy is turned on its proverbial head! In the comparison to Midian, one might expect the violent upheaval of society in war, but this is not what the prophet describes! The tools of war are useless now. The boots that trampled upon Israel and the boots with which Israel trampled are both thrown into the fire. The garments of the soldiers, stained with the blood of their victims, are likewise destroyed. They are no longer necessary. The fires of purity consume the weapons of war. The people who belong to the coming child, “shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks” (Is. 2:4). This is the way God does things. He works in powerful, unexpected ways to establish the peace of his kingdom. This is why we’ve gathered tonight, to ask God to work in a new way to establish his peace.

But even more unexpected than the reversal of the Day of Midian is that the coming savior is a baby boy. Unlike the Romans, who put their faith in the military might of their legions, or the Persians, who had faith in their political might and scientific excellence, we have our faith in the life and death of an unassuming little boy born in a smelly stable. As Shaine Claiborne says, “The great paradox and humor of God’s audacious power: a stuttering prophet will be the voice of God, a barren old lady will become the mother of a nation, a shepherd boy will become their king, and a homeless baby will lead them home” (Jesus for President, 49). Listen to the words of the Prophet:

“For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

When the world, the order that God intends, is turned upside down, he responds in kind. He doesn’t anoint a new king like David or Solomon, instead, he sends himself, in the form of a baby boy, to be our salvation. When kings fail, God places all authority on the shoulders of babies. When the Empire fails, the titles of Empire are given to a child, and he turns them upside down. The Mighty God (lit. God of Warriors) is at one and the same time the Prince of Peace. Because in the Kingdom, in our way of life, war is waged by love. This is a season of revolution. A time to wage Jesus’ war of love.

The love of Jesus caused at least two tax collectors, flunkies of the Roman military might, to stop cheating their people out of their hard earned cash. The love of Jesus stopped the execution of a woman caught in adultery. The love of Jesus raised people from the dead. Jesus’ love impels citizens to go a second mile with their Roman oppressors. Eventually, the love of Jesus will cause Roman soldiers to throw down their arms and become ardent pacifists. None of these things are conducive to empire. Roman tax collectors are supposed to tax their people as they see fit. Women caught in adultery are to be stoned. Criminals are to be killed. Dead people are supposed to remain dead. Subjugated peoples are supposed to remain subjugated; they are not to make their own decisions. Soldiers fight.

People sometimes (okay, often) say that Christians would be better leaders than other people. This was Augustine’s belief. It is not a belief I share. The Christian, when given a position of power in the empire, should mess it up royally. Not because he or she is vindictive, but because he or she is Christian. The Christian soldier, forced to kill an enemy, must instead lay down his arms and pray for them. The Christian tax official, faced with unjust tax codes, must refuse to continue in injustice and declare the year of the Lord’s favor. The Christian detention officer, faced with the execution of a criminal, must instead extend mercy. And so Empire falls apart, crumbled within by the power of Christ’s love.

It’s the same in war as it is in government. People are proud to serve their countries in the name of Christ. And yet if people really served in the name of Christ, war would be the most entertaining and most utterly ridiculous event known to human-kind. “Battles” would end with Christians laying down their arms, kneeling, prayer, and then extending hospitality to their enemies. Maybe a cup of tea? Airmen would write messages of love in the sky. Navy ships would take people on cruises. We’d drop food instead of bombs. So tonight, while we do an amazing thing to ask God for peace, let’s also ask him to infuse his people with his love, to allow his soldiers to act as they were instructed by Christ, to remember “blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”

So tonight, let’s pray. Let’s pray hard, both for God to act mightily and for Christians to act Christ-like. Let’s pray the final words of the prophet:

“His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.”

This ridiculous god-boy-king has come to bring peace and justice. Peace and war cannot co-exist in the same world. Tonight, let us be peace-makers. Let us become children of God. Let us pray:

“God of all peace, let you kingdom be established, let it grow continually, and let there be endless peace. Son of David, God who came as a baby, lead us in your ridiculous and loving ways. Let justice and righteousness be our rule, not the rule of law. Let grace and mercy be multiplied to all. Let justice roll down like mighty waters. Tonight, we ask with all the boldness and truth that we can muster that you remain true to us and to your character. Let the American conflicts in the Middle East end. Let our soldiers lay down their arms. Let them extend the ridiculous love of Christ to those America calls their enemy. Gives us the hammers to beat our M-16s into tools of agriculture, out nuclear weapons into sources of energy. Let us throw our bloodstained uniforms and trampling boots into the fires of justice and peace. Remind us of our duties and let those of us in temporal authority crumble the empire with the power of your love. We pray this with all hope, in the Matchless name of Jesus, Prince of Peace.”

As we continue to move through Advent and into Christmastide, it is my personal prayer that you continue to remember the God of Peace, and pray for that, all year long.

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  1. Thanks for this, brother. One of my favorite sermons of yours. I particularly enjoyed this part :

    “The Christian, when given a position of power in the empire, should mess it up royally. Not because he or she is vindictive, but because he or she is Christian. The Christian soldier, forced to kill an enemy, must instead lay down his arms and pray for them. The Christian tax official, faced with unjust tax codes, must refuse to continue in injustice and declare the year of the Lord’s favor. The Christian detention officer, faced with the execution of a criminal, must instead extend mercy. And so Empire falls apart, crumbled within by the power of Christ’s love.”

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