Wednesday 27 November 2013

Pathway to Peace

Advent 1: by Peter Lockhart

I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”

I was glad… I wonder how many of us are really glad or joyful about our coming to church to worship God and, if so, where this gladness might come from?

Looking back into the Jewish traditions Psalm 122 is one of the Psalms of ascent.  This means that it was one of the songs sung by the people as they travelled to the Temple in Jerusalem for the holy festivals.  The song was part of their pilgrimage and their preparation as they anticipated their arrival.  The songs of ascent reminded the people of the context of their journey to be with God at the Temple.

This week we begin our own pilgrimage. We begin the pilgrimage of Advent.  Advent is a time of waiting. It is a time of preparation.  But what songs and what words give us the context for our journey.  This morning we lit our first advent candle, the candle for hope.  This then is the first marker which gives our advent journey its context – we are waiting with hope.

So what are we waiting for and what is our hope in?  It would be easy to fall into the trap to think that Advent is simply a time of waiting and preparation for the celebrations surrounding Jesus birth.  Now if you are like me you enjoy a good party and the Christmas season usually offers some of the best.  There are feasts and presents, with all the joy on children’s faces, and family gatherings, and work parties, and trees with decorations, and houses decked out in the joy of the season with flashing lights. 

In midst of our humdrum and pedestrian existence facing the daily grind times like this lift our eyes to wonder if there is something more.  But in and of themselves the celebrations, the carols, the lights on our houses, the parties we go to offer nothing more than a moment of excitement in the difficulties and boredom which confront us throughout life.

As Christians our hope is not measured by the number of lights on our houses, or parties we get to go to, or presents that we give or receive, or even carols we sing.  Our hope is actually in something far deeper and far greater: Jesus promise of the coming kingdom of God.  As the true light of the world Jesus far outshines the lights on our houses for his light directs us towards our home with God, the coming kingdom, which is ultimately about the return of Christ.

So what does this kingdom look like?  Well in reality we cannot see it clearly; we only have fleeting images and obscure ideas to hang our hope on because, after all, faith is hope in things not seen.  Nonetheless, the prophet Isaiah opens our eyes to some of the possibilities of this coming kingdom. 

Firstly, he points to the universal aspect to this coming kingdom.

In days to come
the mountain of the LORD’S house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.

All of the nations will stream to it.  Isaiah prophesizes, that God’s future for the nations is that they will be bound together as one.  In this vision Isaiah opens up the promise of God for all peoples and ultimately the whole universe.  This is not a vision of the destruction of the world but its remaking through God’s promise.  It is a future grounded in peace.

they 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 any more.

God’s future for the creation is a future grounded in peace between all peoples.  At a time in which our country has been involved in war and in a time when there is so much political tension in our world, from Iraq to Indonesia, from Pakistan to Zimbabwe, in the Ukraine and in Tibet! Hope in the promise of a time of peace is unfathomable for us as human beings but it remains one our deepest desires. The prayer of Psalm seeks its answer to peace in the promise of a coming kingdom:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.”
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the LORD our God,
I will seek your good.

Peace among all the nations may seem to be impossibility for our human minds but this is a promise and hope which far outshines any of our Christmas celebrations.  Those of you have been alive for the declaration of peace during the great wars of the last century may begin to have an inkling of what joy that the realisation of this promise might bring.

So as Christians through Advent we wait with hope for this coming kingdom. Paul writing to the Romans as well as Jesus speaking to the disciples both encourages us to be alert and awake to what this kingdom is about.  Jesus warns against complacency saying no one knows the time whilst Paul tells us to wake from our sleep.

Sometimes we do no even realise that we are asleep.  The constancy of life and the habits that we get into, and the days that drag by, numb our hearts and minds to this promise of God.  So it is, that we do find more excitement in our Christmas parties and family gatherings than in the bigger picture of our faith which is harder to hold on to and even harder to live out.

Yet this is what Paul expected the Christians in Rome and us to do, to live with the aroma of that coming dawn in our nostrils.  We are to live putting on Jesus Christ.  We are to live a life which is directed towards our deeper hope and not, as Paul says, on the desires of the flesh.  Living in the light of the coming kingdom, representing that peace and reconciliation to the world, is not easy stuff to do.  But it is life transforming as we are conformed, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to be a part of the coming kingdom now and to know God more closely.

This means that as we journey through Advent we are really reminding ourselves not simply that Jesus is about to be born, and it is worth celebrating his birthday, but that Jesus birth finds its meaning in his whole life, his death, his resurrection, his ascension and the promise that he will come again. 

Without the whole story the birth is hollow indeed but in the context of the promise of the coming kingdom the hope which we develop through advent is beyond any of the other hopes we might have about our Christmas celebrations for 2004.

To return to where I began if we start to understand these things and experience them then maybe our coming to the house of the Lord may in be something that we are glad about.

I know myself that much of the time church can simply be boring it becomes a chore, a discipline, a habit.  I think this is, in part, because we begin to slumber, we tire of trying to remember the hope, and our hearts struggle against the call of God within us.  But in moments of lucid revelation God comes into our lives to remind us of this great gift of hope that we have.  God opens our eyes again to remind us of the future we are waiting for.  I personally believe the more we come together to worship God and the more we engage in our spiritual journey the more our hearts and minds are attuned to the bigger picture which encompasses God’s purpose not just for ourselves but for all things. The song that we sung earlier reminded us this fundamental conviction.

Sing to God, with joy and gladness
Hymns and psalms of gratitude.
With the voice of praise discover
That to worship God is good.

With the voice of praise discover that to worship God is good.  It is in our participation in Christ’s worship of the Father that we discover that worshipping God is good.  This does not mean necessarily mean ‘fun’ - good here means the right thing to do.  Through the discipline of coming to the house of the Lord we grow as the Lord fills us with new life and the knowledge of salvation.

This Advent I encourage you to prepare for Christ’s coming, to awaken as you glimpse the coming dawn, as you savour a foretaste of the coming kingdom.  I encourage you to discipline yourself to look beyond the flashing lights and the gifts we give one another to the light of the world, Jesus Christ, who is God’s gift to us and the whole world.  I encourage you to focus on the promise of peace that has been given to us and to live your life in the light of the good news of this coming kingdom.

Take a few moments now to listen for how God might be speaking to you this day.     

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