How can we declare peace? | Sermon from 12/3/17

Based on 2 Peter 3:8-15a

A country in turmoil. Two sectarian populations are in conflict. Much of the conflict stems from religious bigotry and persecution. The military has sought a crack down, only to be met by guerrilla violence by armed members of persecuted tribes. As a result, a refugee crisis has begun, causing local neighboring countries to secure their borders, seeking to prevent an influx of people they do not desire.

The pope visited there this week, seeking peace in a country that had given the world hope for democratic reform in an autocratic region of the world. The leader of the country, a Nobel laureate, has proven a disappointment so far as the country fails to adequately grapple with its sectarian conflict and corresponding refugee crisis. There’s fear on the part of neighboring countries that this particular conflict could destabilize the region, a region that has known relative peace for the past forty years.

This sounds like it could be Libya, or Syria, or Turkey, or Afghanistan or Pakistan, but it’s not. It sounds like it could be the Ukraine as it grapples with Russia, or the country of Mali, destabilized by political unrest, or Kenya which has just this week found stable footing by finally inaugurating a president. But it’s none of those countries.

It could be Zimbabwe, teetering on the edge of instability after the coup that ousted long-time president Robert Mugabe, but it’s not Zimbabwe. It could be Egypt, whose sectarian violence ratcheted up a notch with the mosque attack of just over a week ago that killed hundreds. But, it’s not Egypt.

It could be Burundi, a country also beset by issues of political instability and tribal violence, but it’s not. It could even be Germany, destabilized by the rise of the radical alt-right group Alternativ für Deutschland, which has caused Chancellor Angela Merkel to struggle to find a way to form a government, leaving Germans, for the first time since the Weimar Republic that preceded the Nazis, with an unstable government.

But the conflict I described is none of those countries. No, the conflict described is in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, which is struggling mightily at the moment. But the fact that what I described could have been one of several countries on earth tells us something about the state of the world.

We would be unlikely to use the word peace to describe the world at the moment. There are wars and violence, as I described above, and rumors of wars. The world is watching closely the conflict in North Korea, worried that the nuclear ambitions of Kim Jong Un, of which we were reminded this week, will lead to war. In Saudi Arabia, the new crown prince has moved sometimes violently, but always swiftly and powerfully, against his foes in the Saudi royal court, leaving him with, perhaps, greater power than any other leader of Saudi Arabia has ever had. His machinations with the prime minister of Lebanon, who resigned and then reneged on his resignation, has created instability not only in the Middle East, but drug France into the mix as well. At the same time, the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is heating up, which threatens the potential for more violence in an already unstable and violent region.

We would be unlikely to use the word peace to describe the world at the moment. And yet, every Advent, we talk about peace. The candles we light represent hope, peace, joy, and love, in that order. Last week, we talked about hope. This week, we talk about peace, just as Christians have done on the second Sunday of Advent for over a thousand years.

In pulpits, from little country churches to grand European cathedrals, in the deserts of Iraq and the Nile basin in Egypt, down in Argentina and up into the farthest reaches of Canada, Christians have proclaimed peace during Advent. Christ comes to bring peace, Christ came at Christmas to bring peace, Christ talked about peace during his earthly ministry saying, “my peace I give you, my peace I leave you; be not afraid.” Peace, we say during this high and holy season of the church.

But the world only seems to get more violent with each passing Advent. And so, how can we say peace? How can we continue year after year to declare peace? How can we find any hope in peace? How, in light of the state of the world, can we declare with the angels this season, “peace on earth, goodwill to men?”

[Pause]

2 Peter admonishes the people to hold fast to peace, even while they are oppressed and persecuted, even while they are questioning whether or not Christ will really return. That’s the central question for the people to whom 2 Peter writes: will Jesus really return? Is the second coming true?

When Jesus ascended about fifty days after the resurrection, angels promised the disciples they would see Jesus return just as he had ascended to heaven. The parousia, the fancy theological word for the return of Christ, is based on this encounter of the original disciples, recorded in Acts chapter 1. The earliest Christians believed that Jesus would come back within the lifetimes of the eleven remaining original apostles because the angels had promised the disciples they would see Jesus return. And so, the first Christians worked furiously as evangelists, thinking the time was short.

Except it didn’t happen. One by one, all the original apostles died off. By the time of the writing of 2 Peter, all eleven of the apostles who had seen Jesus ascend, who had heard the angels promise Jesus’s return, were all gone. They were all gone and Jesus had not returned.

This caused some Christian teachers to go around to churches proclaiming that, because Jesus had not returned, the parousia, the return of Christ, was false. This forms the central issue in 2 Peter, the reason the author wrote this letter. The parousia had been the chief motivating factor for evangelism and for enduring persecution and martyrdom. With it now proclaimed as false by many prominent Christians of the time, the average Christian saw little to evangelize and saw no reason to endure persecution and martyrdom. And so, they began to blend in with the culture around them, forgetting the ways the original disciples had taught them to live.

The author of 2 Peter, steeped in the tradition of Peter himself, rails against this in his letter. These false teachers, as he calls them, are causing Christians to fall away from the true faith. Yes, persecution is terrible, yes martyrdom is worse, but 2 Peter says loudly and clearly that the people need to keep the faith, live lives worthy of Christ, and evangelize. Otherwise, the core of the gospel message is lost. For 2 Peter, the parousia is true! The people just need to be patient.

And while they wait for the parousia, while they wait for Christ’s return and righteous rule over the world, while they wait for the defeat of evil and the restoration of the world, 2 Peter tells Christians everywhere that they should strive to be found at peace.

Even in the midst of conflict, even when oppressed, even when persecuted, even when martyred, even when their enemies use violence against them, 2 Peter tells Christians everywhere to strive to be found at peace.

But how? In light of the violence they know, how could they declare peace? In light of the violence we know, how can we declare peace?

[Pause]

What 2 Peter describes, before asking Christians to strive to be found at peace, is an apocalypse, a rendering of the end times. When Christ returns, evil will be defeated, when Christ returns, the world will pass away with a loud noise and fire. The day of the Lord, proclaimed by prophets like Amos and now by 2 Peter, will come like a thief in the night, without warning, catching people everywhere off guard.

It might seem like an odd introduction to declaring peace. What 2 Peter describes is violent, but for us today, it has more meaning than that. While we wait for Christ to come in conquest, bringing final peace, we also know what 2 Peter knew: that Christ is already among us, working for peace.

In Christian tradition, this is a concept known as eschatology, a fancy word for the theology of the end times. Eschatology tells us that we live in a world that’s already, but not yet. 2 Peter knew that; while the world he lived in was not yet at peace, Christ was already among them, moving for peace. The world for 2 Peter was characterized by eschatology, by the concept of already, but not yet.

If this leaves you scratching your head, consider that when you woke up this morning, you were already awake, but not yet fully awake. You needed coffee! You were already, but not yet. Or consider that when you go to bed tonight, you will be sleepy, but not yet asleep. You will be already, but not yet.

I dabble in this high-minded theology this morning because it’s important for us to understand that the world we live in is already, but not yet.

The world we live in is characterized by just that: Christ is already at work, moving mightily among us for peace, but the world is not yet fully at peace.

That is how we can declare peace. Eschatology allows us to declare peace because it says, firmly and forthrightly, that peace is already here, even if it has not yet finished its work.

Eschatology teaches us how we can declare peace. We declare peace this Advent, as in Advents past and in Advents yet to come, because Christ is already at work, moving mightily among us for peace, even though the world is not yet fully at peace.

This means that Christ is already at work in Myanmar, moving for peace, even if it is not yet fully at peace. This means that Christ in already at work in Saudi Arabia, moving for peace, even if the conflicts there and with Iran are not yet fully resolved. Christ is already at work in Germany, moving for peace, even if its government is not yet stable. Christ is already at work in our country, moving for peace amidst the terrible and increasingly destructive ways we divide ourselves as a people, even if we are not yet united.

And in light of the missile launching this week, we can say, with full confidence, that Christ is already at work for peace in North Korea, even if that conflict is not yet resolved.

Christ is already at work in the world, moving for peace, even if the world is not yet at peace. That’s the promise of this high and holy season, that’s the word for us on this second Sunday of Advent: Christ is in the world, moving for peace, even if that peace is not yet fully realized.

This is how we can declare peace, from Myanmar to Mali, from Burundi to Bangladesh, from Zimbabwe to Zanzibar, from Saudi Arabia to Senegal; we can declare peace because Christ is already at work in the world, moving for peace.

[Pause]

It’s easy to get caught up in all the hotbeds of the world, waiting for violence to erupt. The news feeds it to us. We’ve seen all too many examples of when it happens. We remember vividly the attacks on our own country sixteen years ago. I’m sure you, like me, can’t shake those images from your mind; images that help define a world at war, not at peace.

But today, are you afraid of nuclear war with the Soviet Union? I remember as a child fearing that. I remember being instructed in nuclear drills even in the late eighties. But today, that fear has passed. Peace has prevailed between our country and the country now known as Russia.

We no longer worry about Saddam Hussein, even if Iraq continues to generate concern. We no longer worry about terrorism arising out of southeastern Europe as we did in the nineties. We no longer have concern about reprisals because of our involvement in Nicaragua in the eighties.

Furthermore, we’re no longer concerned about the PLA: the Palestinian Liberation Army. They once stoked the imaginations of our fear because of our support of Israel, but no longer. Iranian President Ahmadinejad with his fiery rhetoric once incited our hearts to fear, but no longer with a more moderate government in Iran that rattles its sabers less often.

Or consider that there was once a time we were at war with Canada! Britain used it as a launching pad for invasion during the war of 1812. Now, both Canada and the United Kingdom are two of our closest allies. Or consider that we fought a brutal war against Japan, now our closest ally in the far East. Remember back to the Alamo, when we were at war with Mexico, a country with whom we have our disputes, but we do not fear an invasion across our border by the Mexican army. Or remember when Teddy Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill in Cuba, fighting against our hated enemy at the turn of the twentieth century: Spain. No one would consider, today, Spain as an enemy of the United States.

History proves to us that peace has prevailed. While the world today gives us much reason to be concerned, history gives us much reason to hope, for by looking in the rear view mirror, we can see the list of conflicts that could have been, but weren’t; or the list of conflicts that were transformed into long-term peace. As religious people, as people of Christ, we can say that these are examples of where the peace of Christ prevailed.

And so, for a people who continue to live in an already, but not yet time, we have the confidence that Christ is still moving for peace, just as Christ has done in our past. Even if the world is not yet at peace, history teaches us that not every conflict will erupt into violence, not every dispute will cause bloodshed. In fact, political scientists remark that we live in the most peaceful time the world has known in modern history. There are fewer deaths around the world today because of war and armed conflict than at any other point in history.

Perhaps we should use peace to describe the world. Should we choose patience, should we look backwards and ask ourselves where Christ has proven himself present in the world, moving for peace, we discover much reason to believe that Christ is already moving for peace, even if the world is not yet fully at peace.

[Pause]

At his birth, the angels declared, “Glory to God in the highest! And on earth, peace, goodwill toward men.” Christ came the first time for peace, just as Christ will come again and establish peace that will reign for eternity. Peace is already here, and peace is yet to come.

Already, but not yet. This is the word of hope for us this morning as we consider the violent and unstable world around us. Christ is already moving for peace; God isn’t done with us yet.

And so, when the world is unsettling, when Kim Jong Un inevitably launches another missile, when the crown prince of Saudi Arabia rattles his spears against Iran, when the alt-right appears ready to take over Germany; when any of these things happen, strive to be found at peace. Fear not, Christ says to us still, for I have overcome the world.

That is a good and true statement, for Christ is already among us, moving for peace in a world not yet fully at peace. This already, but not yet, reality, gives us all the reason we need to strive to be found at peace, setting an example for those around us.

In fact, to declare peace, to say with confidence that peace is already here, is evangelism. It’s a radical declaration of our faith that says that we believe so strongly in Christ, so firmly in his current moves for peace, that we have no doubt that peace will ultimately reign and that peace can win the day, even this day.

As hard as it is, as much reason as we’re given not to, while we wait for the parousia, the return of Christ that will cease all conflicts and wars, strive to be found at peace. Let the parousia inspire you to believe that not only will peace reign when Christ returns, but peace is already here.

Strive to be found at peace, for Christ has given us the confidence of knowing that he is already moving for peace in a world not yet at peace.

No matter the conflict, no matter the violence, no matter the fear induced, we have reason to strive for peace for we have reason to sing with the angels because Christ isn’t done with us yet. Christ is already moving for peace in a world not yet at peace, and so we can say with the whole host of heavenly angels, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill, toward men.”

Amen and Amen.

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