A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on December 5, 2010.
We pray, our Father, that as we celebrate the birth of the Christ Child, all of our actions and words, even the deeper thoughts of our hearts would be pleasing to you. May all of our celebrations of the season reflect the grace which you have bestowed upon us in Jesus. May our parties, may our contact with people in stores and people we encounter in other places be worthy of your blessing. As we give gifts, Father, remind us to give good in places where we have received evil. Remind us to give blessings to those who have given us curses, hope to those who have shared nothing but criticism, and remind us to give generously where we see hearts of stone. May we do these things not as acts of self-righteousness but as a part of our duty of love for Christ, and may the results of our actions always bring glory to him. Grant that we might banish quarrels, that we might forgive wrongs, and that we might live at peace with one another. If we find ourselves critical of the season or suspicious of the motives of others, help us to look within our own hearts first to find the reason. May the goodness of this month, may the hope of peace, not be only for a few weeks but for all of our lives. We offer ourselves as instruments of your peace, not only in December, but each and every day. O God, because of the gift of Bethlehem that you have given to us, we offer our very lives that your will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
You are assembled: and my speech entreats
That I may know the let, why gentle Peace
Should not expel these inconveniences
And bless us with her former qualities.
–The Duke of Burgundy in Shakespeare’s Henry V
I was 12 years old when my family moved to Birmingham, and one of my earliest memories of moving there was seeing for the first time the statue of Vulcan. Vulcan is the Roman god of the forge, a divine blacksmith. I am not sure how many of you have been to Birmingham but the statue is the largest statue ever cast in the United States. It was originally made as an advertisement for the city for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and was taken to St. Louis. Birmingham was quickly becoming the steel center of the South.
Vulcan stands atop Red Mountain. The soil of the mountain is red for the iron ore which is part of why steel was so important to Birmingham. About 20 years before we moved from Birmingham, in a traffic safety emphasis, the city leaders decided to put a big torch in Vulcan’s hand. It would burn green if no one had died in the last 24 hours in a traffic accident. It would burn red if someone had died. Because of its position in the city, you could see the statute from many different angles. I can remember as a teenager looking to see if it was green or red.
I was surprised when our older daughter, Rachel, was a student at Samford. We were in Birmingham and we drove past the statue, and it had been changed. The torch that Vulcan held had been replaced by the head of a spear. Vulcan stands in front of his anvil with a hammer in one hand and looking at the finished product of his work and an implement of war—the head of a spear—in the other hand. That chiseled Roman god, standing there looking at the product of his labor, reminds me that war is hard work.
None of us are surprised by this. We are all familiar with stories from the World War II era. There is probably someone in your family who migrated to Detroit to work in the plants that turned from making automobiles to making tanks, airplanes or the support vehicles for the troops. Perhaps they migrated to Biloxi or Mobile where they worked in the shipyards to build the different craft for the Navy. We are familiar with the stories of Rosie the Riveter and how many women worked and toiled so diligently in the effort. None of this speaks of the hard work of the troops. I think people often underestimate exactly how physically demanding it is to slog on shore of hundreds of different beaches and carry a backpack thousands of miles as armies march and conduct the business of war. War is work. None of us are really surprised by this.
The English poet, John Dryden, said, “War is toil and trouble.”
Right after Winston Churchill was elected Prime Minister at the beginning of World War II, he gave his famous speech to Parliament. He said, “I say to the House as I say to the ministers who have joined this government, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering.”
Of course, long before anybody from Britain said something like this, the Old Testament prophet Joel, at a time when the land of Judah was in dire straits, said this: “Proclaim among the nations, ‘Prepare war.’ Stir up the warriors. Let all the soldiers draw near. Let them come up. Beat your plow shares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears. Let the weaklings say, ‘I, too, am a warrior.’”
Even before John Dryden’s poem or in a parallel to whatever the Roman pagans had devised, the Prophet Joel could see the image of someone standing before a forge and taking the implements that were used for peace, for livelihood, and for good–taking the plow that was used to break the ground to plant—and turning it into a weapon, taking a pruning hook and turning it into a spear on the forge of war.
With the things we have heard about preparation for war, we are not surprised at all about the work of war, but I think we are a bit naïve about peace. I think we believe that if everybody is simply nice, peace will just happen. Peace might be the natural outcome for people who are of a certain disposition. Peace is what people who are humble and quiet get and what nobody else does. But we are reminded that peace is a product of work.
The words from the Prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 2 are from another time in Israel’s history, and are the exact opposite image of what the Prophet Joel described. This time, instead of taking the implements of peace and beating them on the forge into implements of war, it is reversed. “Take your swords and beat them and make a plow. Take the spears and beat them back into the implements that will provide a living and make people work and have goodness in their lives. Beat the spears into pruning hooks.” It is a reminder to us that even in the economy of God that peace requires work.
When Jesus says the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew, he does not say, “Blessed are the peaceful for they shall be called the children of God.” He says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” It requires the same effort, the same amount of work, to obtain peace as it would to create conflict. Is there any doubt in our minds what God really wants in this world? Is there any doubt in our minds what God really wants for us? When we pray about the depth of our spirit, do we ever pray, “God, stir me up and make we agitated?” We always know that God’s will is for peace. God, give me peace.
The beginning of the Bible is nothing but sin and rejection of God. Adam and Eve, the Tower of Babel, Noah and the Ark are all stories in which people turn their backs on God and conflict erupts. God is always working to bring about peace.
In Isaiah 2, there is an image that everyone will come to the mountain of God. As we come to the mountain and approach God, we approach peace. What do the nations learn of God except that they learn of peace? This is the will of God. This is what God wants in our lives. It is what Jesus taught, and it is what Jesus always worked for in his earthly ministry.
We think about the number of times that Jesus counseled others about forgiveness, but we also remember that Christ himself, on the cross, in the midst of terrible rejection and violence, forgave. “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” Christ is always counseling that somebody with a heart of God would de-escalate a situation. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, de-escalate. Turn the left cheek also.
In the garden, when they are about to snatch Jesus up for the trial, Peter draws a sword and cuts off the ear of the servant of one of the priests. Jesus says, “Put your sword up.” De-escalate and he heals. Jesus is always about the message of working for peace. Put in the effort. Do the right thing. Demonstrate the heart of God. Don’t be naïve. Don’t think that if you simply do nothing, peace may break out. We are called as children of God to be peacemakers. We need to learn to wage peace in our families, to wage peace with people we encounter in life, to wage peace as powerfully, as strongly, and as forcefully as some people wage conflict in war.
Christmas. Advent. We talk about the birth of Jesus. In another place in Isaiah, he talks about the Messiah to come and one of the titles he is referred to as is “Prince of Peace.” We are all filled at this holiday season with dreams of peace. We see the movies and we hear the stories about how peace comes to someone. Within each of our hearts, some place where there is a conflict, some place where things are not the way they are supposed to be, we dream that maybe it might be true for us. Real peace. Genuine peace. Peace where I can put aside the tension and all the stress and struggle I have felt with somebody else. Peace that would come into my life. We all dream of peace.
My word today is that we should not be naïve. We need to wage peace. We need to do the things that Christ encourages us to do. We need to put as much energy into kindness, turning the other cheek, reconciling and making up, trying to have a conversation with someone we are at odds with as we put into trying to get back at, disrupt, beat somebody out, trying to get ahead of them or push them aside. What if we waged peace as aggressively as we have waged conflict?
In families where the possibility of divorce, separation, disruption, and the squabble over an estate exist, what if we waged peace. What if in business where we compete with somebody or are at odds with somebody if we actually waged peace?
I know you have seen someone camped out at an intersection with a cardboard sign that says, Will work for food. There have been so many parodies of that. I was watching a football game on TV some months ago, and the camera flashed by some young man with a sign that said, Will work for tickets. I also saw on TV during a car race a sign that said, Will work for NASCAR.
The next time you see somebody at an intersection with a sign that says, Will work for food, or the next time you see a parody of the sign, think of this instead: Will work for peace. Let us commit ourselves to being a part of the will of God that wants peace upon the earth.
Peter, in his first letter to the early church, says this: “Finally, all of you have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse, but to the contrary. Repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called that you might inherit a blessing. For those who desire life and desire to see good days, let them keep their tongues from evil and their lips from speaking deceit. Let them turn away from evil and do good. Let them seek peace and pursue it.”