World War I and the Prophet Micah

Exactly 100 years ago - give or take a few weeks - some men got together and played soccer. But this was no ordinary soccer match; this might be the most interesting soccer game that has ever been played. The players were from England and Germany, but it was not the World Cup or even the Euro Cup.

This soccer game happened during World War I. England and Germany were on opposite sides, dug into trenches in the French country side. Both sides were sustaining heavy losses, but it was only 1914, and the losses were destined to much get heavier.

The things that caused WWI are complicated: an assassination, complex royal family ties, crisscrossed national interests and nationalistic pride, the dying gasp of European colonialism, etc. Whatever the reasons, none of them make a good enough reason in my view for a war that ended with about 17 million people either dead or missing. 

Yet on Christmas Day, 1914, soldiers from both sides set up goals and boundaries in No Man's Land - the area between the two battle lines - and they played soccer. This was a part of what later came to be known as the Christmas Truce of 1914, an informal ceasefire that took place along some sections of the Western Front. In the middle of one of the most violent - and also, pointless - wars in human history, soldiers crossed the supposedly uncrossable lines of conflict to remember things that went even deeper than the conflict. 

Unfortunately the peace didn't last forever. A few days later they went back to killing each other, and the commanding officers on both sides made sure there was no Christmas truce in later years. 

Nonetheless, this story reminds me of one of my favorite passages from the Hebrew Prophet Micah:

     But in the days to come,
               the mountain of the LORD’s house
                    will be the highest of the mountains;
               it will be lifted above the hills;
                    peoples will stream to it.
     Many nations will go and say:
          “Come, let’s go up to the mountain of the LORD,
                    to the house of Jacob’s God,
               so that he may teach us his ways
                    and we may walk in God’s paths!”
     Instruction will come from Zion
               and the LORD’s word from Jerusalem.
     God will judge between the nations
               and settle disputes of mighty nations,
                    which are far away.
     They will beat their swords
     into iron plows
               and their spears
               into pruning tools.
     Nation will not take up sword
     against nation;
               they will no longer learn
               how to make war.
     All will sit underneath
     their own grapevines,
               under their own fig trees.
          There will be no one to terrify them;
               for the mouth of the LORD of heavenly forces has spoken. (Micah 4:1–4 CEB)

In Micah 4:1-4 the nations are drawn to God, God judges them and settles their arguments, and fighting and war become obsolete. What a wonderful picture!

But then they respond by doing something incredible. They aren't just drawn to God; their lives are totally changed. Their outlook, their circumstances, the way they see and experience the world have undergone a total transformation. So they take the tools that they used to use to destroy things, and they modify them into tools that foster life. 

They turn their swords into plows. Instead of cutting into peoples’ bodies, instead of killing with swords, they turn them into plows. A plow is also a tool that cuts, but it cuts into the earth in order to bring forth life and food. Then they turn their spears into pruning hooks. Instead of stabbing and killing, these tools will strategically trim a plant in a way that will cause it to live more fully and bear more fruit. 

This is God's plan for war and for all of our fighting: swords into plows; spears into pruning instruments. Our instruments of destruction get turned into instruments of life. But this isn't just God's plan for our tools, this is God's plan for us too.

We are like swords and spears. Our words and our actions destroy, and they cut and stab. We break things, and we mess stuff up, but God wants to make us into plows and pruning tools. God wants to make us new, and God wants to make us into the kind of things that make other things new. God does just that through Christ. In the words of John Calvin, commenting on this passage in Micah 4:

...the fruit of the doctrine of Christ …[is]... that men, who were before like cruel wild beasts, would become gentle and meek. Forge then shall they their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks.

The end result of Christ is that we are totally transformed into something new: God becomes our God, and we become God's people. Which brings us back to the Christmas Truce of 1914. How appropriate that it was at Christmas! Christmas is where God comes down in Christ and crosses all of our battle lines, clearing space in our world and in our lives and in our hearts for peace and joy, clearing a playing field where there once was only a battle field. 

To become this playing field - this space for peace and joy that God clears for the sake of the world through Christ - is the calling of the church. We gather Sunday mornings for worship so that God can reshape us and transform us from instruments of violence into instruments of life.

Advent I: Hoping that the Sun will go dark

Advent starts with hope. 

We look forward in expectation to Christmas, and we remember that there was a time before Christmas, a time before the Word-made-flesh, a time before the fullness of time. But we also remember that the hope that was fulfilled in Christmas is not really complete. We remember that the hope of God dwelling with humanity is not perfectly realized. The fullness of time is not yet fully, well, full. 

For instance, regardless of what we would like to think about where we are at, it is obvious that our society has not yet realized racial equality. If Ferguson hasn't taught us that, five minutes on Facebook reading some of the innumerable asinine comments should. But there's plenty more. People starve to death. Tragedy and natural disasters still strike. Children are still raised in loveless homes, and families still struggle to get by. There is still crying and pain. There is still war and violence. There are still plenty of situations crying out in need of hope. 

Jesus came and said that God's kingdom is at hand, but it hasn't come fully, on earth as it is in heaven. But we hope, because we have a God who acts. We hope, because Jesus came two thousand years ago to be God with us. And we hope, because Jesus - God with us - will come again. 

Jesus said:

“In those days, after the suffering of that time, the sun will become dark, and the moon won’t give its light. The stars will fall from the sky, and the planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken. Then they will see the Human One coming in the clouds with great power and splendor. Then he will send the angels and gather together his chosen people from the four corners of the earth, from the end of the earth to the end of heaven.” (Mark 13:24–27 CEB)

Some people might think that this doesn't sound hopeful at all. In fact, the first part of this might sound scary: it might even sound like bad news. The lights will go out - the sun, moon and stars will go dark, and the planets will be shaken. The planets might represent other supernatural heavenly forces that might oppose God's reign - other 'pagan' deities popular in the first century that Jesus' arrival puts in their place. Similarly, the sun and moon and stars often represented other gods, and often these even had political connotations: Pharaohs and emperors were often associated with the sun and other heavenly bodies. 

But Jesus' arrival puts these in their place too - no other force can claim supremacy in the face of Jesus, no other king or nation or powerful institution or military force or president. All are put in their place. And this is surely good news for the poor, the suffering, the oppressed, the outsiders. These folks exist beneath the thumb of social and economic and political forces. So the good news is that Jesus comes in from outside of those, Jesus is different from these things, Jesus is no one's pet. Since Jesus isn't owned by the status quo, where the status quo seems to be working for evil Jesus can come in and disrupt it. This is not bad news at all! 

But this is now a world without heavenly lights - no sun or moon or stars to provide light. This raises another question, with practical as well as metaphorical consequences: Does the darkness win?

The Human One comes on the clouds, clearly an intentional conflation of Jesus with the image of YHWH in Daniel 7, and the notion of God gathering his people from the whole earth has plenty more Old Testament echoes. God comes down, God's people are gathered together. By what light are they gathered, and by what light does this gathering live?

Isaiah and Revelation offer a clue:

“The sun will no longer
be your light by day,
nor will the moon shine
for illumination by night.
The LORD will be your everlasting light;
your God will be your glory.” (Isaiah 60:19 CEB)
“Night will be no more. They won’t need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will shine on them, and they will rule forever and always.” (Revelation 22:5 CEB)

The sun and moon and stars go dark, but the world doesn't go on in the dark - it goes on with God as its light. This imagery isn't meant to be terrifying, but hopeful. This isn't an image of the triumph of darkness, but of its ultimate defeat. This is the starting point of Advent. It starts with a call to hope. 

And there are still plenty of situations crying out in need of hope. As Christians, those are the places where we are called to live. 

In spite of it all, Christmas comes anyways

On the Sunday before Christmas in 1930, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached at a German church in Cuba while on holiday there. Here's an excerpt from his sermon, as quoted in the biography Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945 by Ferdinand Schlingensiepen:

It is probably correct to say that each of us who has looked around a bit in the world perhaps finds it particularly strange to be celebrating Christmas this year. Before our eyes stand hordes of unemployed persons, millions of children throughout the world who are hungry and miserable, people starving in China, the oppressed in India and other unfortunate countries, and in everyone’s eyes we see despair and perplexity. And despite all this, Christmas is coming. Whether we want to or not, whether we are in the mood for it or not, we must hear once again: Christ, the Saviour, is born … (DBWE 10, 589)

Take away China; insert North Korea or any number of other places. Take away India; insert Syria, Mali, or any number of other places. Or maybe even just set aside starvation and oppression and look at the overwhelming violence in our world. The violence of unmanned American drones, the violence of Israelis and Palestinians, the violence of the pursuit of nuclear weapons by those who don't have them, the violence of flexing those nuclear arms by those who already do have them, or the violence of a young man with a gun against a handful of adults and twenty bright-eyed elementary school students. Just as easily as Brother Dietrich did in 1930, we can claim that it is awfully strange to be celebrating Christmas this year.

In the presence of so much hunger and pain, fear and isolation, resentment and revenge, there is plenty of cause for cognitive dissonance this season. And yet here is Christmas nonetheless: a light, a stable, a baby. Joy. Peace. Hope. Love. God coming to earth in all the power and glory of helplessness and poverty. Here it is, ready or not. So no matter what you do or how you feel, allow yourself to be confronted today and this whole season with the material fact of Christmas, the fact that unto us is born this day a Savior who will be for all people.

So for all the broken and weary, all the hungry and afraid, all the angry and hurting, and especially all the people who are under the impression they aren't invited: may we all come and seek his peace against our world's turmoil. Amen.