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 II: Preparing the way for Peace

Before you eat, you really should wash your hands. The world is full of germs and dirt and grime and other gross stuff. You touch a lot of things during the course of a day, and you don't know where that stuff has been!

What's on the menu

What's on the menu

Those are the kinds of things moms usually tell kids anyways. But they probably have a point. Moms are smart sometimes. 

In Mark, the beginning of the gospel doesn't have a genealogy or a birth story or magi or shepherds. That's how Matthew and Luke start their gospels, but not so with Mark. And unlike John's gospel, Mark doesn't start with the notion of an eternal Logos through which everything was created and which will take on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. Mark apparently doesn't have time for that. Instead, Mark immediately jumps into the waters of John the Baptist (Mark 1:1-8). 

John the Baptist shows up to prepare the way. He's sort of an esoteric character. He lives out in the desert, dresses in scratchy clothing and eats honey glazed grasshoppers. Mark explicitly identifies him with Isaiah's words, but John is also mimicking some of the actions of Elijah here, and some of the things he does or says are echoes of Malachi, Zechariah, Moses and other prophets. At some level, Mark is positioning him as the fulfillment of the whole Israelite prophetic tradition. But if John is preparing the way, what is he preparing the way for?

John was baptizing, he was dunking people into the water. It was a ritual cleansing; it was a metaphor for his message of repentance and forgiveness. Someone greater is coming, and the people needed to get ready. John immerses people in the water as a sign of their repentance; this One who is coming will immerse people in the Holy Spirit. 

A lot of people came out to see what this wilderness man, John, was up to. In fact, the Greek text literally says that "the whole countryside of Judea" came out to hear his message and receive his baptism. For Mark, John isn't just preparing, cleansing and preaching repentance to the people, but to the land itself. Perhaps this One comes not only to redeem God's people, but the land too. 

One theme often associated with the second week of Advent is Peace. John the Baptist comes and preaches repentance and forgiveness of sins. We repent to God, and pray to God for forgiveness. But we don't only need peace with God - we need peace with other people too. The violence of our sins against our neighbors and our enemies (and, yes, their sins against us) plagues not only ourselves and our relationships, but also the earth itself. In Romans 8 the creation itself painfully groans as it waits for the revealing of the children of God, the children of the God of peace. 

We wash our hands before we eat a meal. In a way, baptism serves a similar purpose: we’re also preparing to eat. Revelation and other texts talk about a great wedding feast - a party! - when Jesus returns, but in the meantime when we gather for worship we break bread together. In order to do that we need to wash in the waters of baptism - a sign of repentance and forgiveness - and we need to enact that repentance and forgiveness with our neighbors. Communion or Eucharist or the Lord's Supper is about peace. It's about peace with God, and it's about peace with our neighbors. We wash ourselves of our grudges and make peace for the wrongs we have done, then we feast. 

The world is full of germs and dirt and grime and other gross stuff. And, sometimes, so are we. But we have a God interested in making peace with us and with the earth, cleansing us and the earth, and feasting with us upon the earth. In forgiving and in asking for forgiveness, and in baptism and communion, we are preparing the way for the coming of the God of peace. 

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.