Archive for July, 2020

The Peace of Christ

Here is the sermon I delivered to Kippax Uniting Church on Sunday 5 July 2020

Bible readings: Zechariah 9:9-12, Matthew 11:28-30, Psalm 145:8-14

Sermon – The Peace of Christ
The prophet Zechariah lived more than 500 years before Christ, shortly after the captive Israelites returned from Babylon to Jerusalem. Zechariah’s vision of the coming Messiah is one of the most thrilling stories in the Bible, telling of the presence of God in history. Handel used this text for the wonderful soprano Air in The Messiah, Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! I have put a link to this Messiah piece on the Kippax Uniting Church Facebook page if you would like to listen to it. Here is a short excerpt.

Zechariah’s statement that the Messiah would command peace to all the nations is similar to Isaiah’s prophecy of the Prince of Peace, preaching a fellowship of reconciliation, a community of forgiveness and mercy, a world of restorative justice. These teachings envisage the advent of Jesus Christ as transforming our prevailing beliefs, including our systems of military security. Rather than seeking safety in war horses and chariots and armies and swords, the prophets predict a time when security will be delivered through shared universal faith in God, mediated by Christ.

Security is a primary theme for the prophets, with the idea that Israel as a small nation surrounded by large empires can only achieve durable peace by building friendly cooperative relations with its neighbours, removing any incentive to invade. Hence the ultimate security emerges through the shared identity and solidarity that comes through the trust of a common faith, the connection arising from open regular communication and friendship, a goal that of course has been elusive.

Zechariah points to the paradoxes of Christianity with his vision of Christ as King. Power will come through love rather than physical strength. The true leader is humble rather than proud and arrogant. The Saviour of Israel will humble himself to ride a donkey rather than a war horse. Triumph and victory come from speaking of peace and respect. What God sees within the inner life of our heart is more important than our reputation in the world.

Looking to the theology, the message is that actions that advance the Kingdom of God often conflict with the prevailing assumptions and values in human life. Many people who gain worldly power seek prestige and control and fame and wealth, whereas Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that the blessing of God is for the peacemakers, the meek, the poor in spirit and the pure. Christ tells us in the Last Judgement that if we want salvation, we should perform works of mercy such as feeding the hungry and visiting prisoners. Creating peace in the world is all about building deep connection.

We can well imagine how these teachings must have infuriated and confused the powers of Jesus’ day. The Gospels tell us the consequences when Jesus Christ proclaimed these teachings about the path of peace. He struck such fear into the local leadership in Jerusalem that they arranged for the Roman Empire to execute him as a seditious political criminal, in the most cruel and gruesome and painful way possible, mocked and scourged and nailed to a cross.

This idea from Zechariah of peace through a transformative faith looks idiotic to rulers when their nation faces invasion and military occupation. The leaders of Jerusalem wanted to send a signal to Rome that they rejected messianic prophecy as a practical government policy. And so they failed to see the true identity of Christ.

As Saint Paul wrote in First Corinthians, the message of the cross seems like foolishness to the world. However, the story of the resurrection tells us there is an eternal power of God in this apparent worldly weakness and failure. We need patience to await a time when such transforming ideas will get a serious audience. Jesus himself said in Matthew 24:14 that the sign of his coming would be that this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations. That is something that has only occurred with the global connections of modern times.

The world was certainly not ready for this prophetic message of peace two thousand years ago. So how remarkable that Zechariah brought such tidings of great joy, the prophecy of the Messiah as king of the world. The powerful story tells of Christ ruling the world in truth and grace through the wonders of His love, as the hymn Joy to the World proclaims. Zechariah imagines a time when Jerusalem will be a centre of peace and love rather than war and hatred. He calls his readers “prisoners of hope”, a very peculiar phrase. Zechariah seems here to suggest that people of true faith are captured by this seemingly impossible vision of a world transformed, that we are compelled to proclaim the good news of Christ. We are probably still not ready for such a paradigm shift in world politics, understood as a kingdom of this world. Yet as Christians we are called to imagine what it could mean.

What would it mean for Christ to rule the world as Zechariah imagines? Jesus himself tells us in the text for today that his aim is to lift our heavy burdens and relieve our weariness. He says his gentle and humble heart will lead us with an easy yoke and a light burden. This image of liberation from our troubles and traumas rests on faith in God as the source of transformation. Jesus calls us to overcome the weight of worldly corruption through the power of love, creating a path toward a universal life of grace and peace for all. That is not something that will happen quickly or easily, but it invites us to think about what the peace of Christ really means.

One text that I have always admired in this light is the old Chinese wisdom book from Taoism, the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. The title Tao Te Ching translates as the Book of the Way of Integrity. It includes a remarkable statement about leadership that I think bears comparison with the messianic vision of peace in Zechariah. Lao Tzu tells us that the best rulers are scarcely known by their subjects, while the next best leaders are those who are loved and praised. He says bad leaders are feared, while the worst are despised. When the best rulers achieve their purpose, their people claim the achievement as their own.

I was reminded of this text firstly by the comment from Jesus that his yoke is easy, rather like the leader who is not even known. A yoke keeps two oxen in line to pull a plough, joining their strength together. This forced obedience of the yoke is often used as a symbol of political oppression, but Jesus inverts the symbol to suggest that obeying the light yoke of his teachings will create freedom. This is the type of king who Zechariah suggests can bring universal peace to the world by tuning in to the will of God, liberating rather than dominating. The king who freely chooses to make his triumphant entry riding a donkey displays that his concern is not for his own advantage, but entirely for the good results that will come from his decisions and actions. As Saint Paul explains in his letter to the Philippians, Jesus emptied himself of all but love, making himself a slave to God. This obedience to the moral call of God is what Zechariah called becoming a prisoner of hope. The eastern philosophy that sees the individual as united to the whole universe expresses this self-emptying idea by comparing our personal identity to a drop of water in the ocean.

We are so far away from rule by the unknown king of love that it seems impossible. Yet this high prophecy calls us to imagine and create the world we want to eventually build, a world of complete freedom and justice and peace. As the Lord’s Prayer puts it, a world where the will of God is done on earth as in heaven. This is a utopian dream of universal abundance and trust, where material needs are fully met and everyone can focus on spiritual fulfillment, creating a situation of high ethical values and education. In this imaginary future, good governance will arise naturally and democratically from shared values. Ability to make local decisions will be so strong that there will be no role for rulers other than to gently guide and coordinate the decisions that people have made for themselves. As Lao Tzu suggests, the best leaders will bring peace and justice to the world in a way that is not even known to the people, because these values of trust and care will be so strongly ingrained in the structure of society. The yoke of government will be easy to bear. These things do all sound fanciful. And yet we have been constantly amazed at how technology has transformed our lives in a few short years. Perhaps in the future such a vision will become reality, although changing people is probably much harder than changing technology. The timeline of the ancient wisdom of the Bible sees a thousand years as a day for God, which is the sort of period that would be needed for such a change in human nature through broad acceptance of the values of the gospel.

Jesus tells us that the gospel values that are needed to gradually aim toward such a heaven on earth are all about caring for the least of the world as though they were him. That is an integral vision that includes care for the poor as well as care for nature, as Pope Francis proposed in his Laudato Si encyclical. The scale of trauma in the world means that such a vision might well take another thousand years to bring about, but if the goal is set clearly, then gradual steady progress can occur. Setting such a positive hopeful goal and discussing it can support the social purpose of confronting the negative values that are dragging us towards conflict and collapse.

As the Psalmist said in our reading, God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The immense problems in our world mean the slow anger of God is gradually building. And yet the presence of authentic faith has a redeeming quality, with capacity to help to atone for all our heedless destructive actions. The abounding steadfast love and gracious mercy of God will remain with us and protect us through the holy word of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour.

Amen

Comments off