The following is a sermon written by one of our trip leaders, Marietta Macy, that was preached on the second Sunday of Advent 2015 at First Presbyterian Church in Columbus, IN. First Pres. is a supporter of this trip and is looking forward to hearing more about this journey. We invite you to join them in becoming prayer partners with us as you read along with our upcoming reflections, experiences, and epiphanies. Thank you!
See Ezekiel 13:6-16 and Luke 1:68-79
Peace. Shalom. Salam. We use the word often in our worship services, prayers, greetings, and songs especially this time of year, but how often do we actually stop to think about what it means? Do we actually think about what it requires of each of us to make peace a reality, not just something we say? I used the word as flippantly and obliviously as any other, until I began working so heavily in the Palestine/Israel conflict. Since first travelling to Palestine in 2009 with several members of this congregation, I had dreamed of celebrating a Christian holiday in the Holy Land, always hoping it would be Easter, but last year I got the chance to celebrate Advent there when I was invited to participate in the Kairos Palestine Conference, celebrating the 5th anniversary of the Kairos Palestine document. Kairos is Greek for “an opportune or decisive moment” and the document was a call to Christians all over the world to heed the call of the Palestinians for help and solidarity during this critical time.
Celebrating Advent in Palestine gave me a whole new perspective on the holiday season, and the four themes we highlight during advent: hope, joy, love, and especially peace. There is perhaps no other context where the word peace is used as much as Israel/Palestine and I mean, I grew up associating the region with THE Peace Process, as if there were only one. However, over the course of my visits to Palestine in the last several years, I have come to use the word less and less frequently because of the seeming, serious impossibility of it all. With the multiplicity of obstacles to peace, the sacredness of the word grows and my comfort with its use decreases.
I would be remiss if I did not also make the connection to the unpeaceful nature of our own country and other regions of the world, especially after the events of last week. The thoughts I have turned into this sermon have been brewing for some time and perhaps began last year when, just several months before travelling to Palestine for the conference, I journeyed to Ferguson, Missouri with my seminary professor Rev. Dr. Shannon Craigo-Snell to march with other clergy and church leaders to deliver a list of demands to the city’s leaders and police and to walk in solidarity with the protesters in the streets. They called this the first “peaceful” night of the protests because it was the first night since Mike Brown’s murder the police had not used teargas on the protesters. I however found nothing peaceful about that night. As the demonstrations in our American streets raged, Palestinians began using Twitter and other social media outlets to send advice and encouragement. They Tweeted instructions on combating the effects of tear gas including a tip I got to use a few months later with Palestinians in Bil’in, of rubbing a cut onion on your hands or carrying it to smell, which believe it or not, is a huge relief when surrounded by a cloud of tear gas. The wonders of technology also reminded me that yesterday one year ago I spent the day demonstrating in Bil’in and choking on tear gas, and that evening went out to a lovely dinner with friends, and went together to see the Christmas tree lighting in Manger Square in front of the Church of the Nativity. We found some peace for ourselves that day, but it took some work.
Too often we are tempted to say a situation is peaceful when we are not hearing of fresh outbreaks of sensational violence, but this is not true peace. God’s shalom does not just mean a state free of war, but that a state of wholeness, perfectness, and harmony has been achieved; that a wrong has not only been righted, but that full restoration to wholeness has been made. The actual Hebrew word shalom conveys a sense of peace, completeness, wholeness, health, welfare, safety, soundness, tranquility, prosperity, perfectness, harmony, and the absence of agitation or discord. But we just translate it as peace.
As things currently stand, the Israeli occupation of Palestine has made this peace impossible for the land and the people. The land has been carved up, scared, and poisoned by the occupation; perhaps as much as the people themselves have been. It is not peace when people’s lives and lands are being destroyed every day in insidious ways; make no mistake, there is a type of daily violence perpetrated even on days when the headlines or lack thereof would have you thinking things are “peaceful.” There is no peace, when we as a nation, are leading the world in gun deaths, percentage of the population in prison, and any number of other tragic statistics.
None of our racial and religious discrimination would be new to Jesus; nor the oppressive and devastating use of force being inflicted on civilian populations by government and extremist powers. He grew up under the Roman occupation of Palestine, and fled to Egypt as a refugee at 2. He and his family were able to return to their homeland after only a few years in Egypt, but Jesus only survived a couple more decades after this under Roman rule. This future dim reality is not lost on Zechariah when he is filled with the Holy Spirit and speaks the prophecy we heard read earlier. Both he and Elizabeth are older and past normal childbearing years. They have both lived long lives full of hardships, from a long line of people who have lived lives full of hardship, just because of their accident of birth. With this pronouncement Zechariah is joining a long line of prophets with whose messages he would have been familiar. His prophecy concludes with the promise, “By the tender mercy of our God the dawn will from on high break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Zechariah, as a priest, would have been familiar with the seriousness of talking peace; the prophets before him had made that clear.
In the passage I read from Ezekiel, God declares that the whitewashing of situations will not withstand the test of time and God will reveal our attempts to cover up injustice and falsely proclaim that there is peace, when in fact there is none. Verse 10 read: …they have mislead my people, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace and because when the people build a wall, these prophets smear whitewash on it.” This sentiment is recapped and answered by God in verses 15 and 16: “Thus I will spend my wrath upon the wall, and upon those who have smeared it—the prophets of Israel who prophesied concerning Jerusalem and saw visions of peace for it, where there was no peace…” What Ezekiel is saying here is not new and he was repeating and expanding on a sin first called out by Jeremiah. The book of Jeremiah brings it up directly twice in chapters 6 and 8, repeating that everyone from prophet to priest deals falsely and cries that, “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. “Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace.”
It’s the Palestinians who’ve taught me to maintain a commitment to peace, to the peace that God intends for all people, that may seem impossible when you look at our news headlines today. The steadfast example of the Palestinian people, who get up day after day, face these extraordinary challenges and injustices, and continue to believe in peace- requires that I not give up on the possibility either. The Palestinian Christians that I have gotten to know have shown the Gospel to me in ways I never could have understood without them. For thousands of years, generation after generation, the Palestinians have been rooted to their land like the olive trees they plant and tend and weathered empire after empire. In spite of the very real threats their lands and bodies face every day, they remain hopeful and confident that peace is possible.
However, Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, who was one of the authors of the Kairos Palestine document once spoke of the difficulty in remaining hopeful at times. He recounted that during the 2nd Intifada, when the Palestinians were besieged inside their homes and churches in Bethlehem for 40 days, he thought of all the Christians around the world who like to sing about the Little Town of Bethlehem at Christmas time, but he says, he really felt like at that moment they had all abandon that real little town of Bethlehem and their brothers and sisters there who were being held prisoner in their own homes and places of worship. When we sing about Bethlehem this year, when we sing about love, and joy, and hope, and most of all peace, let us truly mean it. Let us not just say peace, peace as though it were not serious. It is serious. That’s why we need this baby to be born this month. That’s why we need to get ready.
We sometimes think of Advent as just a countdown to Christmas, the waiting time before the celebrated big event. But this time of waiting is not a time of passive waiting. It’s a time of active preparation for the birth of Jesus. Just like with the birth of any baby, nothing is going to be the same after that. But with the birth of this baby, Emmanuel, God-with-us, this means that nothing is going to be the same for the world after this. This season is a reminder that change is possible and that God will birth new possibilities for peace into the world every year, even when it all seems so hopeless, even when all seems dark.
The hope of the Palestinian people, of the Israelis who join them risking everything even being disowned by their families, the hope of the young activists in our country, on our campuses, and in our churches, the hope of the generations that have come before all of us wanting and working for a better today, and the hope present in the season of advent invites me to re-examine the potential for peace once again. This is the season we prepare for the joy of Christmas, but also for the radical message of justice and peace that our Savior is bringing with him. In this season we are reminded that peace is not only a state of being, it is an action and peace will be only possible when we no longer have to fight for justice.
Hear Zechariah’s words again: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the TENDER mercy of our God,” he proclaims, “the dawn WILL from on high break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” In order for Jesus to do that, to be that light that will guide us, he needed John the Baptist to go before him, preparing his ways. We pray about peace, we long for the kingdom of heaven to come, but how are we preparing the way for it? How are we preparing the way for Jesus?
In closing I want to share some thoughts from my colleague Rifat Kassis who oversaw the drafting of the Kairos Palestine document and served as their director and spokesperson. “We are not spectators to our society,” he says. “We are participants in it.” He then recounted the Palestinian anecdote about a priest who wanted to help some of the especially poor members of his congregation so he gave them some pieces of the church’s land. One farmer received an especially rough patch of land, full of rocks and weeds and all sorts of things you don’t want on farm land. But the farmer worked and worked for a whole year to get rid of the stones and bramble and finally by the next year he had turned the forbidding land into a blossoming, prosperous Eden. When the priest came to visit him and saw this miracle, he exclaimed, “My son, look at what you and God have done together!” The farmer replied, “Yes Father, thank you… but you should have seen how it looked last year when God was working alone!”
God is not working alone and neither are we. When we actively work for peace, we are actively preparing ourselves and our world for the coming of the Christ Child. Are we willing to be open to that message this year? Are we ready to prepare the way for peace? When you say, sing, and pray about peace this advent and Christmas season, do not do so lightly or obliviously, as if it were not serious, but with full and active conviction for all God’s creation, conviction that by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. Amen.