“The Things That Make for Peace”

March 20, 2016


Joel 3:9-17

Luke 19:29-44


When Jesus rides into Jerusalem, his followers cry out with a loud voice for all to hear: “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.”

These words are an echo, of sorts, of the song that Luke says the angels sang at the birth of Jesus: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors!”

In a week’s time, the risen Christ will stand among his disciples and say to them: “Peace be with you.”

While the followers of Jesus could speak of “peace in heaven” and while the Risen Christ could offer peace to his followers, we are well aware of the lack of such peace on earth.

Between the years 66 and 70, the simmering conflict between Israel and the Roman Empire broke into open war, resulting in the siege of Jerusalem. In a great military surge, the Romans built earthworks and walls around the city to choke it off. No food or supplies could get in. The people were reduced to starvation.

As the people began to run out of food, many fled the city. Those who were caught were promptly and publicly crucified. For nearly a year “something like ten thousand crosses sprouted in a ring around the inner city” of Jerusalem.

When the city finally fell, the Romans destroyed the temple and completely leveled the city, so that, as the ancient historian Josephus put it, future visitors would have “no ground for believing it had ever been inhabited.”

Titus, the Roman general, giving voice to a deep religious piety, said: “God indeed has been with us in the war. God it was who brought down the Jews from this stronghold.”

By the time Luke’s Gospel was written in the late first century, the war was history—and descriptions of the destruction: “…they will crush you to the ground, you and your children…they will not leave within you one stone upon another…” were put into the lament of Jesus as he approached Jerusalem, even as his followers were crying “Peace in heaven.”

The peace of heaven was in no way apparent on earth. Indeed as Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, he cries out: “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!” The opportunity was there; but the things that make for peace—even the One called the Prince of Peace—went unknown and unseen by most of the people.

And Jerusalem fell.

And later Rome fell.

And cities and nations and empires continued to fall.

And here we are today—thirteen years ago this very day our country invaded Iraq, seeking “regime change” under the pretext of disarming its weapons of mass destruction, which, as many thought then and we know now, did not exist. We have been engaged in what is becoming a decades-long, ongoing war against “terror”–continually being drawn into new conflicts with new “enemies.”

Five years ago this past week we witnessed the beginning of the long war in Syria that has displaced 6.6 million people within that nation and created 4.8 million refugees outside of Syria.

The rules for airstrikes in Syria and Iraq have been relaxed that might result in more civilian casualties, and there are hints that more American ground troops may be deployed. With the withdrawal of Russian troops, new uncertainty arises.

Earlier this month, Charles Blow summarized the situation, writing, “We are a country stuck in perpetual warfare that is now confronting the threat of the Islamic State terrorist group. The Republican candidates”, he said, “have proposed the most outlandish approaches to that threat, including everything from war crimes such as torture and killing terror suspects’ families to carpet bombing in the Middle East until we can see whether ‘sand can glow in the dark.’”  

Lest this be seen as partisanship, we need to remember that the Democratic frontrunner has also supported most of the “War on Terror” efforts, even if in a more “civil” manner. And one of the perplexing realities of these days is that the billionaire real estate developer and the self-proclaimed socialist are the only two that can agree that the invasion of Iraq was a “mistake,” a “disaster”—their words—although there are certainly significant differences between the two as to how to proceed from where we now are.

Scripture reminds us that war brings with it the judgment of God. With war, the Roman general, Titus, notwithstanding, we do not have the comfort of saying “God is on our side.” The prophet Joel imagines God telling the warring nations: “Come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat”—a word that means “God is the judge”—“and I will sit to judge all the neighboring nations.”

War places all of us and all of our arguments under the judgment of God. While we must act out of a sense of who we are and who God is, we must always be careful not to confuse the two. We must continue to work for peace in a world that favors war. We should continue to work for peace even—even—when our own hearts want war.

In almost every instance, violence begets only violence, dragging us further into a brutal and vicious spiral of death and destruction, and threatening all that we value as much as protecting us. So Alexis de Tocqueville warned that “No protracted war can fail to endanger the freedom of a democratic country. If it does not lead to despotism by sudden violence, it prepares men for it more gently by their habits. All those who seek to destroy the liberties of a democratic nation ought to know that war is the surest and the shortest means to accomplish it.”

Could it be that thirteen years of protracted war have been a significant factor in the rise of authoritarianism in our nation?

This Palm Sunday, the words of Jesus as he wept over Jerusalem come crying out to us across the centuries: “If you, even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace. But now they are hidden from your eyes.”

Jesus speaks of a way that differs from the way our emotions might tell us to go. He speaks of a way that differs from the way our thinking might tell us to go. He speaks of a way that differs from the way politicians and pundits and policy analysts and even preachers might tell us to go.

Jesus speaks of a way of peace. We are frightened by the foolish way of peace and we are reluctant to be fools for Christ. When force seems to have failed, our nature is to think that more force just might succeed. As G. K. Chesterton once said, however: “The way of Jesus has not been tried and found wanting. It is still found wanting to be tried.”

What then are the things that make for peace?

I confess that they are as much hidden from my sight as from the eyes of any others. But bear with me as I try to discern some dim outlines.

Prayer makes for peace. Our speaking and our acting find their grounding when we bring our lives and world consciously before the living God. In prayer we can root ourselves in the deep peace that we long for as individuals. In prayer we learn once again that we are not God and that God is greater than our fear, our cowardice, and our own small plans.

When God seems remote, when our souls are troubled by violence, when our hearts are weary from war, we discover in prayer the vision of Martin Luther King, that: “God is able to conquer the evils of history. If at times we despair because of the relatively slow progress being made . . . let us gain new heart in the fact that God is able. . . . With this faith we can transform bleak and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of joy.”

In prayer we find once more the power of God even when—especially when—that power seems absent in our lives and our world. God is able to act—to act in us and through us. Prayer will sustain us until this happens.

Prayer makes for peace.

But we must also speak out in anger, in compassion, in lament. Our speech in these days must be something other than “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. We must take the exile and the wounds and the deaths of the people with a heaviness that weighs not only on our own souls but on the soul of this nation.

Throughout these years of war the voice of Titus, that ancient Roman general, has echoed from pulpits and podiums across our nation. Like Titus, preachers and politicians have told the American people: “God indeed has been with us in this war.” Many have been so quick to claim God’s support for bombs and drones and boots on the ground. We must be aware of such words and we must beware of those words as well.

We are called to speak a different word, not claiming that God is with us but questioning whether we are with the God who in Jesus entered Jerusalem in peace, humbly on a donkey.

Proclamation makes for peace.

To prayer and proclamation, I would add practice—action in the world.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is clear that the things that make for peace are concrete actions in the world: repentance—a turning from evil, the establishment of just economic policies, an end to oppression, the welcoming of strangers, the love of enemies. Take the time to read through all of Luke this coming week—see what I mean.

We give little attention to such things. As Jesus says, they are hidden from our eyes. But they are hidden in large part because we keep our eyes closed. We do not want to see how our military actions lead to anger, hatred, and more violence. We do not want to see how turning away immigrants fleeing war leads to resentment and radicalization. We do not want see how the growing income inequality in the world increases hopelessness and despair that only feed the flames of war and terror.

The things that make for peace—looking beyond ourselves, seeing in others our common humanity and our common hopes for well-being, hospitality and welcome, and recognizing, yes, that some are pursuing barbaric violence and warfare in ways that need to be stopped and in ways that we do not yet know how to stop.

There is a basic human sinfulness—in all of us—that needs to be confronted as well. This, of course, is one of the great themes of the season of Lent. But when this season ends, we will still need to confront our human sinfulness. It is a year round task.

Once again we find ourselves, as the prophet Joel put it, “in the valley of decision.”

Multitudes, multitudes,

in the valley of decision!

For the day of the Lord is near

in the valley of decision.

What will our decision be? What will we choose? How shall we live into the future in this uncertain time?

Plowshares into swords? Pruning hooks into spears?

Or the courageous reversal, the hope of the ancient prophets, Isaiah and Micah: that in making a new choice, the people “shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Frederick Buechener says: “That is our Palm Sunday hope, and it is our only hope. That is what the palms and the shouting are all about. That is what all our singing and worshiping and preaching and praying are all about if they are about anything that matters. The hope that finally by the grace of God the impossible will happen.”

Palm Sunday brings us to Jerusalem, the city of peace, once more. We take up the branches, we walk and shout before Jesus. As we enter the city with him, we remember again that God enters into the deep suffering of the world.  We remember again our own human condition as those who betray, to desert, who don’t understand, who are ready to give up and give up hope.

We despair over the violence and disasters that we are bringing to our world and our lives. And we hope that as we give closer attention to the events of this week and the events of every week, we might yet be saved from that same violence and those same disasters.

Let us hope—and let us pray and speak and act in such ways that our eyes might yet be opened and we would know the things that make for peace.