5 December 2021

Advent 2: Peace for a Change!

Isaiah 52:7-10, Luke 1:68-79

While I was preparing this week I came across a reference to a song that Canadian singer Anne Murray recorded in 1983. I didn’t know it, but some of you might. It is called “A little good news”. It begins this way

I rolled out this morning
Kids had the mornin’ news show on
Bryant Gumbel was talkin’ ’bout the fighting in Lebanon
Some senator was squawkin’ ’bout the bad economy
It’s gonna get worse you see …

How I want to hear the anchorman talk about a country fair
And how we cleaned up the air

At the end of the second verse she sings:

Just once how I’d like to see the headline say
“Not much to print today, can’t find nothin’ bad to say”

And the refrain is “We sure could use a little good news today”

Nearly 40 years later, most of the lines of the lyrics still ring true. There is still fighting in Lebanon, economies still struggle, people still suffer in the third world, and we still haven’t cleaned up the air. The only line I thought might be a bit outdated was:

Tell me how in the streets of Ireland, all the children had to do was play

There has been some peace brought in the conflict that was raging in Ireland in 1983 and it is now listed as one of the safest countries in the world according to the Global Peace Index.

This image is from the 2021 report of the Global Peace Index – red means more conflict, green means less. The figures are sobering:  73 countries were less peaceful in 2021 compared to 2020.

But world peace is just one facet of our daily news alongside the pandemic, climate change, political upheaval, racial injustice, natural disasters, and so on and so forth. And one major difference since 1983 when Anne Murray sang that song is that all this sadness is thrust on us 24 hours a day in non-stop news cycles. It is no wonder that the world health organization counsels turning off the news to improve mental health. We sure could use a little good news for a change today.

So I hope that your ears, like mine, pricked up when you heard the scripture readings today. One from the Old Testament, one from the New, and both are prophetic passages that are full of the hopeful vision of something new. Isaiah literally speaks of the messenger who brings good news and Luke has comforting words for those who are sitting in darkness, in the shadow of death.

The verses from Isaiah are addressing the ruins of Jerusalem, still in disarray 70 years after the attack by the Babylonians that left the city and all of Judah devastated.

The prophet encourages those amongst the ruins to see that something new is coming. These poetic lines are a little like a song, it begins with a soloist – the messenger seen coming over the mountains that surround Jerusalem calling out it is God who reigns, not the Babylonians any longer. Then the watchmen who were first to see this messenger raise their voices to join in the good news. Finally the ruins – the fallen stones themselves – can join in – this is not the end. God has remembered, God comes again to comfort and heal and save after the long time of exile.

The words of Zechariah have become a well-loved hymn for the church – referred to as the Benedictus.

There is a colourful background story to this great hymn. Zechariah was an elderly priest in the temple in Jerusalem, in a province known by this time as Judea and part of the Roman empire. The angel Gabriel came to him (before going to Mary) and told him that he had good news: his equally elderly wife would have a son who would be like Elijah, a forerunner for the messiah. The angel said “your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son and you will name him John”. Now my father-in-law was a Church of Christ minister in rural Western Australia when his wife Elizabeth had a son that they named John, so our family has long had a soft spot for this story. And the nurse told Elizabeth that she was too old to have a first child at age 30!  But my father-in-law’s name is Harvey, not Zechariah.  The point of Luke’s story was that Zechariah and Elizabeth, like their ancestors Abraham and Sarah, were old enough that the angel’s good news came as a great surprise. So much so that Zechariah questioned the angel and was chided for his lack of faith by being rendered mute right through the pregnancy and until the child had been born and circumcised. Luke 1 is a long chapter and during Elizabeth’s confinement we hear of Gabriel’s visit to Mary, her surprise at the news that she was also to bear a special son, her willing acquiescence, her visit to Elizabeth her cousin, and her own beautiful song known to us as the Magnificat.

At the time when the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth was to be circumcised all their neighbours assumed that he would be named after his father. But first Elizabeth says he was to be called John, then Zechariah wrote the same thing down on a tablet. “Immediately” Luke tells us, Zechariah’s mouth was opened and out came those lovely prophetic words about the infant son John, echoing words of the Israelite prophets like Isaiah. God has remembered his people and will comfort and heal and save. And this new born baby is a sign of those promises, of the covenant, this child will pave the way for a saviour who will bring everlasting peace.

An appropriate response to good news, both these passages tell us, is to burst into joyful song.

The prophets of the bible didn’t always, or even predominantly, talk about the future. But they could quite rightly be called visionaries because they painted pictures of how things could be different to what they could see around them. Isaiah’s words came to a city in ruins.  Zechariah knew people of his time were living in darkness and the shadow of death. But both songs opened up a new vision of the future where God would reign.

We need such visions because the reality we live in can seem bleak

– as I’ve already mentioned, there is still war in Lebanon, and in Israel-Palestine, and in Afghanistan, and all the other significant armed conflicts that Belinda mentioned last week – 23 around the world today.

– global political shifts of power and influence are affecting our national interests and raising anxiety for the future

– despite all the hoo-ha in Glasgow there seems to be little real meaningful action on addressing climate change in our country

– justice issues we in this church have been concerned about ever since I came here over 20 years ago are still unresolved – the plight of refugees, indigenous rights including alarming rates of deaths in custody, discrimination and violence towards women

– many of us struggle with illness and family stresses that mean it is hard to even reach beyond our own immediate circumstances to address larger problems around us

– Not long ago I caught myself thinking that I did not mind if I never had grandchildren because it is such a terrible world they would be coming into

Yet Advent with its prophetic focus insists that we can look to the future with hope, peace, joy, and love. And Advent’s focus on a baby in a manger reminds us that all new futures start somewhere, and we might not even recognise them when they begin.

After all, when Jesus was born, these were the headlines:

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered”

The big news at that time was a new government policy that would affect everyone, including priests and peasants in the province of Judea. People were being told by the government of the day what to do! And it was no secret that registration had taxation implications! It is only in hindsight looking back that we realise the world’s destiny was being shaped by a cradle, not governments or tax policy. When the stories about Jesus’ birth were written down by people like Luke a generation later, they could look back and see the significance of that baby. This is why those Old Testament prophecies got written into the story, because in hindsight all of history did come together at that moment.

If we are going to be agents of the change we are speaking of this Advent season, we need to have that longer vision.

The reading from Isaiah helps us think about how we might do this.

How beautiful upon the mountains

                     are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,

          who brings good news.

I looked up a few commentaries on Isaiah and a number of them mentioned the feet of this messenger. They said feet are not the loveliest part of the body – even less so when a messenger in the ancient world had to travel by foot over difficult terrain.

I noticed when I translated this verse that “the feet of the messenger” could better be translated “the feet of the one who embodies the message of peace”. How do we do that? This focus on feet tells us is that announcing peace and bringing good news does require us to get on our feet, to actively participate in the changes we want to see.

The passage in Isaiah gives another hint at how we might embody peace. Verse 8 in the NRSV says

Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,

                     together they sing for joy;

          for in plain sight they see

                     the return of the LORD to Zion.

Three more body parts are referred to here – ears, voices and eyes.

Listen! Be alert to messages of peace.

You probably know that the Hebrew word for peace is “Shalom.” This word is used as a greeting and a farewell by those who speak Middle-Eastern languages today.  So if you were to go to the Middle East–whether in a time of peace or during a time of war–probably the first and last words you would hear spoken to you would be the word, “Shalom!” or “salaam” if spoken in Arabic. 

Whether by Hebrew-speaking Jews or Arabic-speaking Christians and Muslims, the word used to greet a friend or say goodbye is “Shalom.” Tied up in that word is well-being, completeness, wholeness, perfection, health, security. It gives me hope that in one of the most violent places in our world this word is used every day.

So as we embody the message of peace we should think about whether our relationships with others are truly marked by these qualities of shalom.

Verse 8 goes on:

Your sentinels lift up their voices,

                     together they sing for joy;

          for in plain sight they see

                     the return of the LORD

The Hebrew phrase that the NRSV has translated as “in plain sight” is an idiom, literally “eye with eye they see”. We are to watch together for the signs that God is active even in desolate places like ruined Jerusalem. And when we see those signs we can sing for joy. During Advent last year I talked about two men, an Israeli and a Palestinian, who work together to bring a message of peace from their country (Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan). Earlier this year I read their stories in more detail in a wonderful book called Apeirogon by Colum McCann. There were so many examples in their story of the spirit of peace and love at work in community groups in Israel-Palestine.

By the way, I discovered this week that if you google “good news” there are actually a number of websites devoted to providing good news stories to counteract all that negative stuff that is usually considered newsworthy. Even the ABC has a dedicated page for good news where several stories a day are posted. That’s worth celebrating. Let’s listen and watch together and lift our voices at signs of good news and signs of peace.

The final verse in our Isaiah reading has another body part –

The LORD has bared his holy arm

                     before all the nations

The arm of God is holy not just because anything belonging to the Lord would be considered holy, but because it is bared for a holy purpose. That is, it is bared for justice, not for power.

A number of images came to mind as I thought about arms bared for justice.

When the South African national anthem is sung now it is usually with a hand over the heart. But when I lived in Cape Town in the time around Mandela’s release from prison, Nkosi Sikelele Africa was sung with the right fist held high – a sign of solidarity and defiance, but a closed fist that symbolised non-violent protest.

This image is of a statue Mandela at Drakenstein Correctional Centre which was the location of Mandela’s last 14 months of imprisonment. Before he was released from prison it was illegal to publish an image of Nelson Mandela – now that image is well known right across the world. The peaceful transition to democratic governance in South Africa is one of the great stories in our time, and lifting the arm in defiant but non-violent protest is part of that story of justice.

And so today arms are still held aloft and bared in places where injustice still holds sway:

African American /Black lives matter protest

Hong Kong democracy protest

Peacemaking always has to be more than a hashtag. It means being the body of Christ: the feet, the ears and eyes and voice, the arms that are continuing his mission in our time and place. As the body of Christ, our place is alongside all who are trying to achieve the joyful things Isaiah and Zechariah sang about.

But let us be encouraged by the words of the Benedictus that we don’t do this in our own strength. We need to be willing, and we need to make an effort, we need to consciously use our bodies – set our feet in the direction to follow Jesus’s path, open our eyes to see where God is working, lift up our arms to protest against injustice, raise our voices in joyful song, and in greetings of shalom that we really mean. But in all these efforts we know that it is by the tender mercy of God that our feet will be guided into the way of peace.

Last week Belinda offered us some parables of trees to speak about hope. I’m glad she left out the Olive tree because it is so well identified with peace that it belongs in this week’s sermon.

The image of a dove with an olive branch made famous by Picasso has much earlier origins as we can see in an image on Christian catacombs – it recalls the Noah story in the book of Genesis.

In the flood story Noah sends a dove out several times to test if there was dry land for the ark to land and it finally comes back with an olive branch. This signifies the end of the flood and the end of God’s anger with creation.

This ancient olive tree is in the garden of Gethsemene in Jerusalem, and between my visits in 2015 and 2019 someone has made the message of peace explicit by writing it in stone. Throughout the middle east the olive tree is a basic source of livelihood. It is plain and can grow in poor soil, but it yields fruit that can be used for food, oil, and medicine. An average tree can give 9 kg of fruit or 2 litres of oil and can live for more than 1000 years. No wonder it is a precious symbol of peace and prosperity. In Israel today thousands of olive trees have been uprooted to make way for the dividing wall separating Israel and Palestine, or by Israeli settlements being constructed on Palestinian land. And there are many groups committed to replanting trees in the Palestinian territories as signs of hope and peace and justice.

As we prepare for Christmas this year let’s think about how we can embody peace. Here are a few things I am doing: I have ordered some gifts from Palestine Fair Trade Australia including olive oil from olive trees in Palestine. There is a link to this organisation and also the Palestine Centre for Peace where purchasing gifts for our loved ones can make a difference in the lives of others across the world.

I have contributed to the “plant for the planet” campaign – part of the United Nations environment program – by sponsoring trees planted in the Palestinian territories.

And I have determined to ensure that as I meet with extended family and friends over this Christmas period, I will make my seasons greetings meaningful, doing what I can to contribute to that well-being, completeness, wholeness, perfection, health, and security that is tied up in Shalom, the peace greeting.