Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sermon for Remembrance Sunday (Nov. 11th 2007): Micah 4:1-5

The Hope of Peace

Today on Remembrance Day we pause to honour the memory of the countless millions who have lost their lives in times of war, and to pray for peace on earth. We sometimes think of earlier periods of human history – the so-called ‘Dark Ages’, for instance – as being times of barbarism, but in fact the twentieth century was the bloodiest century in all of human history. In the Second World War alone over fifty million people lost their lives, and more than half of them were civilians – men, women, and children who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Second World War, of course, came as a bloody sequel to the First, which was horrific enough that when it was over people called it ‘The War to End All Wars’. But the end didn’t last very long, and the sad story continues to this day – vengeance leads to more vengeance, killing leads to more killing. It’s always the other guy’s fault - the war could always have been avoided if it wasn’t for his stubbornness – and so the lives of men and women and children continue to be snuffed out in sacrifice to someone’s ‘righteous cause’. Even more tragic is the fact that people have often done this in the name of religion. The church did it during the Crusades, which were themselves a response to the violence of the Muslim invasions of the ninth and tenth centuries. People continued to be killed in the name of Jesus in the Spanish conquests of Central and South America, and in the great Catholic and Protestant wars of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeeth centuries – wars which had their twentieth century counterpart, of course, in Northern Ireland. And you and I know that killing in the name of God hasn’t stopped in the twenty-first century.

Jesus declared his view on this subject quite clearly, as we heard in our Gospel reading a moment ago – he told his followers to turn the other cheek, to love their enemies, to pray for their persecutors and to work for reconciliation. He did this, knowing very well how dangerous this might be: he practiced what he preached, and it led him to a cross. But he told his followers not to avoid this; they were to take up their own cross and follow him on the same path. And even in the Old Testament, which some people think of as a bloody book, we get glimpses of God’s dream for his people, a dream of a time when there will be an end to war, and when people will commit themselves to learning God’s ways.

Our Old Testament reading is one of those passages. It appears in almost identical form in two places in the prophets, here in Micah and also in Isaiah chapter two, which leads some scholars to think it may have been a hymn or psalm sung in the worship of Israel. It became a very important passage to the early Christians; in the first two or three Christian centuries this was one of the Old Testament passages that new converts were encouraged to memorise, because it gives such a clear vision of God’s ultimate purposes for his creation. Why don’t we turn to Micah 4:1-5 and think about it together?

In this passage, Micah teaches us that the time will come when the nations of the world will acknowledge that the one true God is real, and because of this they will make a decision to come to him and learn from him. The ‘mountain of the Lord’s house’ in verse 1 is the mountain where the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the place where God was worshipped, the place where the priests taught the people from the law of the Lord. Of course, the people hadn’t always been that eager to hear the law of the Lord; there are lots of stories in the Old Testament about times when the people abandoned God’s ways and lived just like the nations around them. And those nations of course all had their own gods; they weren’t too eager to hear about the God of Israel.

But in this vision Micah lifts up the hope that one day there will be a universal acknowledgement of the one true God – a God who is not just a tribal god, the god of Israel or the gods of Moab or Assyria, but the God of the whole earth, the creator of all. This was a revolutionary thought in Micah’s time. People were used to the idea of every nation having their own god or gods; those gods would go with them in battle and give them victory over their enemies – unless, of course, the enemies’ gods happened to be stronger than them! Sadly, we’re not done with this idea in the twenty-first century; we still like to think of God being on our side, of God having some special place in his heart for our nation or race.

This passage teaches that the time will come when God’s word goes out from Jerusalem and the whole world listens to it. The early Christians saw themselves as being part of the fulfillment of this prophecy. Jesus had sent out his missionaries from Jerusalem; they had gone to Judea and Samaria and on into the Gentile world, to Asia Minor and Greece and on into Italy and France and all around the known world of the day. The message they took with them would have sounded very Jewish to its first hearers – the idea that there is one Creator God who wants us to worship him and not idols, and that this God cares about how we live and has given us commandments to guide our daily life, not just rituals to guide our worship. They added to this Jewish message the good news that Jesus had announced – that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and that the King himself has come among us and has lived and died and risen again to set us free. This message, Jesus said, should be taken to all people.

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to pray, ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. This is not a natural prayer for human beings to pray. We’d far rather pray, ‘My kingdom come, my will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. My natural tendency is to see everyone else as secondary actors in my play; life would be best if I could just get everyone to acknowledge the fact that they are here for my benefit, and to live accordingly! So we put ourselves firmly on the throne of our own lives and reserve the right to do only what will serve our own desires. Nations do the same thing; they tend to champion their own sovereignty and to refuse to submit to anyone else unless forced to do so by superior military might.

But this is going to change, Micah says. ‘…Many nations shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of Yahweh, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways, and that we may walk in his paths”’ (v.2). Even in the time of Jesus this was beginning to happen. Around the Roman world, there were a few people who were tired of idolatry and were attracted to the idea of one true creator God and to the commandments he had given to Israel. These people were called ‘God-fearers’; they didn’t go the whole way and get circumcised, but they worshipped Israel’s God and tried to live by his commandments. One day, Micah says, that’s what’s going to happen across the world. Jesus and his apostles saw themselves and their work as part of the fulfillment of that prophecy.

And what will be the result of this? Well, look at v.4:
He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
In other words, when God’s kingdom comes in all its fulness then everyone will live together in peace. Now here’s something interesting: God doesn’t say that in his future kingdom there will be no disputes. Disputes aren’t necessarily a problem; any couple with a healthy marriage can tell you that. It’s not having disagreements that causes marriages to break up; it’s handling the disagreements in the wrong way. It’s the stubborn and self-centred approach that says, “This is the way I want it and this is the way it’s going to be, come hell or high water!” That’s what causes marriages to break up, and that’s what causes disagreements between nations to end up in conflict and bloodshed, too.

But the day will come, Micah says, when instead of everyone being determined to get what they want, everyone will instead be determined to listen to what God wants. ‘He shall judge between many peoples’, says Micah, ‘and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away’ (v.3) – in other words, his teaching will be the judge that determines what the nations will or will not do, and people will be willing to abide by his decision.

What follows from this? A new preoccupation with peace, and a new safety and security. Micah talks about people taking swords and beating them into ploughs, and taking spears and beating them into pruning hooks – or, today, we might say, taking intercontinental ballistic missiles and converting them into combine harvesters! Even more impressive, to my mind, is the phrase, ‘neither shall they learn war any more’ (v.3). Wars don’t just happen on the spur of the moment; they are possible because people learn the art of war – they go to training schools and military colleges, they read military history and study old battles, they use their ingenuity to develop more and more sophisticated ways of killing each other.

Micah dares us to consider an alternative: imagine that people just decided not to do that any more! Imagine if they decided instead to take all the time and energy and money they used to spend on learning the art of war, and use it instead to study peace! Imagine people spending as much time being trained in the art of conflict resolution as they now spend in military colleges! Imagine nations taking all the money that gets spent in armaments and using it on humanitarian aid instead! I’ve been told – and I don’t know if it’s true – that if the world took a break from building weapons for a single day – just one day – and used the money they saved to feed hungry children instead, child poverty could be eliminated on the proceeds of that one day. That’s all it would take. I don’t know if this is true, but it’s what I’ve been told.

And the result, Micah says, will be safety and security. Imagine the people of Israel sitting in their farms; they lived on the busiest road in the ancient world, and every invading army on its way from Egypt to Persia or Babylon or Rome passed through their land. Often they planted crops, and then someone else got to reap them. Imagine how difficult it would be for them to feel secure in such a world! But now, says Micah, after the weapons are converted to farm implements and the schools of war are closed, ‘they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid’ (v.4).

Here’s God’s vision for the future. This is what the kingdom of God will look like: a world in which each person and each nation truly and sincerely seeks the Lord and commits themselves to learning his ways; a world in which people and nations submit their disagreements to God’s guidance and abide by his ruling; a world in which weapons are converted into farm implements and no one studies war any more; a world in which everyone is safe and secure and no one makes them afraid.

It sounds like a beautiful dream, something that gives us hope for the future. And this is the problem. Plenty of people have been willing to pay lip service to it as a vision of the future, because if they banish it to a time that’s still to come, they don’t have to do anything about it now. But that’s not what Jesus meant when he said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’. He meant, ‘The time isn’t one day – the time is now’. The time to make peace, to care for the poor, to live by the teaching of the one true God in every aspect of our lives – that time is not one day, but now. Psalm 95 says, ‘O that today you would listen to his voice! Do not harden your hearts…’ (vv.7b-8a). Not tomorrow, but today!

Micah acknowledges that this will not be easy. Not everyone has agreed yet to beat their weapons into farm implements and close their military colleges. In his day, the big superpowers of Assyria and Babylon still had their mighty armies and they showed no signs of turning to the one true God. So here’s the challenge Micah ends with in verse 5: ‘for all the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God, for ever and ever’.

He’s already spelled out for us what exactly he means by walking in the name of the Lord – the way of reconciliation and peace. Now he acknowledges that not everyone will choose to follow this way, and challenges his people to follow it anyway – not because God always promises that it will work in the short term, but because it’s God’s way, and God’s way is always right. And Jesus makes the same challenge to us today as Christians. In a world which continues to hate and kill and divide the world into friend and enemy, he calls us to take the risk of looking at the enemy and calling them our friend – reaching out to them, praying for them, blessing them, doing good to them. In a world in which strike leads to counter-strike and bombing leads to bombing, and so on and so on, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, he calls us to take the risk of doing something different.

On this Remembrance Day, let us pray that the world will heed that call – but let’s be determined to heed it ourselves first, whether others do or not. ‘All the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever’. In the name of the Lord our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.

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