Sunday, December 2, 2007

Waiting for the Prince of Peace

What Are We Waiting For?—Part I
December 2, 2007

Scripture: Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Matthew 24:36-44
Romans 13:11-14

Jerusalem sits on a hill, surrounded by the dusty Judean plains. Even today, every building in the city is made from Jerusalem limestone, a yellowish colored stone. In the early mornings and evenings when the sun hits the city just right it shimmers as if the buildings were constructed of gold. Sitting high on Temple Mount, the site of Solomon’s Temple and the Second Temple that Jesus walked through is the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s holiest sites. The Dome is covered with real gold and so it sits at the highest point in the city gleaming in the sunlight. The old walls surround the ancient city. Entering by the Lion’s gate, you come quickly to a house which is home for both David’s tomb and the Upper Room of Jesus’ last night. As you walk down from this building, you may find yourself at the base of the Temple Mount. As you look across at the foundation stones, you immediately know why the disciples said to Jesus, “what huge stones these are.” They are huge, about 4 feet long and weighing at least two tons. Jews are praying at the Western Wall. As you descend the steps to the base of the wall, you see that they are divided into two groups. Men are praying on one side and women on the other. You wait patiently for a place at the wall to open and you walk reverently to the wall, pray and touch the old stone, remembering the Jesus might have stood in this very spot.
You can continue your journey in the old city, walking down the via dolorosa, the way of sorrows, the path that Jesus followed, carrying that heavy cross, to Golgotha. The way twists and turns meandering through the bazaar. Even though you are trying to feel God’s presence through the hustle and bustle of the shoppers and tourists, pilgrims and city dwellers, a velvet dress, embroidered with sequins catches your eye and you stop to bargain with the shopkeeper. With the dress tucked into you carry-all, you continue your journey.
Finally you reach your goal-The Church of the Holy Sepulchre: The buildings that house both Golgotha and the tomb in which Jesus was buried as well as the rock on which his body was prepared for burial. The church is jammed with tourists and pilgrims and various officials trying to keep some sort of order in the small space. There is only one entrance and exit, so even getting in is difficult. Finally you arrive. There is a long line to see the sanctuary housing the tomb, and so you stare a bit at the stone of the anointing, where Jesus body was prepared and then walk into the largest sanctuary, which surrounds Golgotha.
Here in this holiest of holy places for Christians, you begin to consider the Prince of Peace. You might consider the words of the psalmist:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.”
For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.” (Psalm 122: 6-8)

This place, this church, is a center of strife. It is overseen by three different denominations and three more have rights to various parts of the church, rights threatened by other groups. In 2002, a Coptic monk, who sits in a particular place to claim Coptic rights to an area occupied by the Ethiopian church, moved his chair a bit to catch the shade. In the resulting fracas, eleven people were hospitalized. Two years later, a door to the Franciscan chapel was left open. Interpreting this as a sign of disrespect by the Orthodox, the Franciscans objected and a fistfight ensued. Though several arrests followed, no one was seriously injured. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
The Prince of Peace is worshipped in this place and yet his followers cannot seem to follow his teachings of peace. And in Jerusalem and Israel/Palestine as a whole, it is even worse. Jews, Christians and Muslims follow the same God, but like the various Christian sects at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre cannot find their way to peace. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
Imagine Google maps for a moment. Imagine zooming away from Israel Palestine, to the Middle East as a whole. The region has known little peace. We are at war in Iraq. Thousands of our young men and women, sent to fight in that war, have lost their lives. Thousands more innocent Iraqis have been killed in sectarian violence or by mistakes by allied soldiers. The number of lives lost is staggering. Whether you believe the war was the best decision of the Bush administration or a foreign policy disaster, we can agree that the loss of lives is sad. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
As we zoom out a little more, to take in more of the world, we see more war, more violence, more bloodshed. Sudan, Burma, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan. Where is the Prince of Peace? Why two thousand years after his birth and death is there still war?
What are we waiting for? The Prince of Peace to return. To judge and to bring peace to this war-torn planet. Advent, this season we are in right now, is a time of waiting, of yearning, of hoping. We await, not a sweet baby, but the return of the Son of God who will bring peace to our world. The church and American culture are out of sync at this time of the year. And we Americans are so often guilty of confusing American culture with Christianity.
American culture tells us that this is the time of year to celebrate by buying as much as we can. I was watching an ad on television, back before Thanksgiving. A woman was wearing a red dress, trimmed in white fur. On her head perched a Santa Claus hat. She was extolling the gifts one could purchase at whichever store she was pitching. She talked about finding gifts for sisters, brothers, children, spouses and then at the end of the commercial, she leaned in towards the camera and said “and especially for me!” We wear ourselves to a frazzle. We have to buy Christmas presents, send Christmas cards (or at least email messages), clean house, buy a tree, put up the decorations, go to and give parties. Christmas carols have been ringing in our ears since right after Halloween. By the time Christmas actually gets here we are so tired that we are glad that it is over. Thank goodness, we can finally get back to our normal lives. When I lived in Michigan I was surprised by how quickly after Christmas the decorations came down. Most were gone by January 1. I think this was simply a reflection of the overload of the season.
For the church, Christmas doesn’t even begin until the evening of December 24. The time leading up to Christmas is a time of reflection, of preparation, of quiet. The Christian message is not how much will I get, either from others or as Christmas presents to myself, but how much can I give. The Christian message is not how busy I am, but how much can I be with God and truly present with others. The Christian message is how at peace can I be and how much peace can I share with others.
We are waiting for, hoping for, yearning for the Prince of Peace. We can see signs of his coming. We see signs of his coming in the nonviolent justice movements of Dr. King and Nelson Mandela. We can see signs of his coming every time a family reconciles. We can see signs of his coming every time we work for justice, when we tutor in the Memphis schools, when we share the good news of the gospel with others. The signs are there. Throughout the scriptures, God gave small signs that pointed to the greater signs of God’s covenant with Israel. God gives partial fulfillment of God’s blessing. God promises Abraham that he will be a blessing to all people. Jacob brings that blessing to his cousin Laben, Joseph brings that blessing to Potiphar and to Pharoah. Jeremy Begbie notes that the partial fulfillment implies also partial nonfulfillment. But partial fulfillment should not kill hope. It should spur us on to hope all the more. He continues to notice that in our contemporary culture we live with only small hopes, one day at a time. We dare not hope for anything in the long term. “To be drawn into the waves of God means that our lives are set in the context not of a linear path...but of a multileveled hope that covers a huge range of timescales.” We live in the confidence that God’s promises will be fulfilled and that our lives can be a part of that fulfillment. We wait, hope, yearn for the Prince of Peace. May our lives reflect his coming. Amen.