Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
Peace with Justice
Scriptures: Isaiah 11:1-10 Matthew 3:1-12
Peace has been a hot topic this year. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has put peace at the centre of our news and our thoughts even as we deal with the last elements of the pandemic.
We are aware that while peace is vital and greatly to be desired, it is not the only consideration.
I have spoken before about the need to combine peace with justice, something strongly supported in scripture. Our Isaiah lesson, with its familiar images of pastoral bliss – lions lying down with lambs and all of that – starts off with a call to justice, a warning that King David’s descendent would bring justice and as a result, peace would follow.
It makes perfect sense that Peace and Justice must go hand in hand. All the calls in the Bible for justice for the poor and oppressed recognize that the lion is happy to lie down with the lamb, but the lamb is vulnerable and the lion needs to change, to be come trustworthy (and vegetarian) before the lamb can experience peace.
I’ve mentioned other kinds of peace in sermons before: graveyards are profoundly peaceful places but not suitable for the living for any length of time; and Jesus lived under the Pax Romana where Rome created peace by being the biggest bully, going in and killing anyone who didn’t keep the peace. It was a peace imposed by fear, by terror, by the horror of rows of crosses by the highways bearing the bodies of those who opposed the power of Rome. This kind of “world peace” under Roman Rule earned Augustus Caesar the title of “Prince of Peace”.
Right from the start, Christians called Jesus the real Prince of Peace because Jesus offered an alternative model of peace. Today’s lesson from Matthew focuses on John the Baptist who comes in like someone who knew Isaiah off by heart. He comes in demanding justice, denouncing the religious and secular rulers for their failure to deliver justice and warning of God’s impending judgement. And then he paints a picture of the one coming after him: baptizing with the Holy Spirit and with fire, who will safely gather up the grain and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.
John’s the one demanding justice, so the of Peace can make real peace happen.
But there’s a disconnect in all of this. The image presented by John doesn’t fit Jesus as we see him in the gospels. Jesus didn’t run around smiting the wicked or calling down unquenchable fire, which is one of the reasons Christianity has been so tied up with the idea of a second coming – so that Jesus can do all the things that are predicted in Isaiah and the other visions of the redeemer king, all the images of the son of David sitting on the throne and dispensing justice the way the kings of Israel were supposed to but so rarely succeeded in doing. It’s like people feel like children, and want a grown-up to come in and rescue them.
That idea of a second coming, a second Advent, is one solution to address this disconnect, and a popular one considering how many theologies depend on it for their vision of the future.
But Jesus himself provides another perspective through his teachings.
The vision of these prophets, including John the Baptist, is tied up in traditional visions of power where kings are appointed by God and wield divinely approved authority. It’s a very paternal image.
But Jesus taught us about the meek inheriting the earth: the first being last and the last being first. Jesus turned everyone’s expectations on their heads even to the point of challenging the might of Rome with weakness, nakedness, with death on a cross.
So why aren’t we challenging these same views of the coming of the Son of Man and the mighty descendent of David?
Jesus gave us the job of creating justice. Jesus gave us the job of making the world a righteous place. Jesus gave us the job of creating peace.
This isn’t something we can leave to kings and other world leaders. If we really believe in the first being last and the meek inheriting the earth then we must also accept that we have been given a role in making it all work; that we are the ones God has lifted up and now we have a world to change.
It’s been a slow change. The idea of ordinary people mattering has been a long time coming and is still opposed by people who argue that elites exist for a reason, because they have better skills, or better understanding, or better breeding and for these reasons they should be ruling.
Ideas like democracy and openness and accountability have taken centuries to get to our modern understanding of them and as imperfect as they clearly are, they are closer to the kind of vision Jesus had than anything else we have seen.
That’s why creating peace in Ukraine by giving Russia part of Ukraine’s territory, by rewarding Russia for its brutal military expansion would not be creating real peace at all, certainly not as Jesus would understand it.
The same point can be made for lots of other people; people who have been abused and oppressed maybe for race, or religion, or language, or maybe because someone else wanted cheap labour or cheap land and was prepared to be abusive to get it.
Those kinds of things go on in countries that are not formally in any kind of war. With those problems still going on can we really say they have peace? That we have peace?
By the standards set out by the prophets, we cannot. If we believe in the world-inverting teachings of Jesus, we cannot.
Peace on Earth is something we all desire. As Christmas approaches, we really want personal peace, a calm away from stress and turmoil, a time without fear, or loneliness, or crisis.
Everyone wants this and it will be possible if we work together to create it.
We can’t pass the buck. Okay, we can demand that people in power take peace seriously, but we can’t expect them to fix everything; we can’t expect the government, any government, to create peace because it is up to all of us.
Peace on Earth will only be complete when we share in creating it together.