This week we marked Veteran’s Day, first known in the US as Armistice Day. It falls on November 11 every year to commemorate the ending of formal hostilities of the First World War, which concluded on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 with the signing of the Armistice, even though the Treaty of Versailles remained some months away. President Woodrow Wilson declared November 11, 1919 Armistice day, and it became a national holiday in 1938, with a proclamation that the “day be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as 'Armistice Day'." In order to honor those who had died in World War I, it highlighted the immeasurable value of real and lasting peace. However, by 1953, the United States realized that the Great War indeed was not the War to End all Wars. We had fought yet another world war and had become mired in Korea. A new declaration was made that changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day, a day to honor all veterans of all wars. Today, it is common to honor all who have served this country - in times of peace as well as war. But I think of the 1938 declaration that established Armistice Day as a day dedicated to the cause of peace.
It seems that countries highly value visions of peace when they are made acutely aware of the cost of war. Yet, when the ravages of war are removed from their purview or are exploited for political purposes or gain, countries easily betray visions of peaceful civic society, of the common good, of international accord. Peace becomes derided as an utopian dream of the foolish and the childish. For the sake of real life, we are told to sacrifice this hope on the altar of the pragmatism of adulthood. We will not attain peace - at least not this kind of peace - we are told. It is more realistic to let this vision go and to adopt another, lesser vision. Often times a lesser vision presents peace as the absence of personal sacrifice or discomfort. This peace is a numbed state - a kind of stasis. To reach it, we may hurt other people, engage in unjust practices, or create unjust and inhumane policies. The goal, you see, is to remove any threat that might bring personal or tribal or national discomfort, ill ease, pain, or loss. Yet, this is not the peace of our Bible, of our religion, or of our God. Real peace is not known by the absence of risk; it is known by its willingness to risk for the sake of the weakest, the least, the last, and the lost. Peace is not just an end result of some process. Peace is also the process of living. Peace is both process and result.
The Hebrew word “shalom,” which we translate into English as “peace” cannot be translated easily. It is a rich word with many nuances. It means completeness, wholeness, safety, fullness, and welfare. It is relational; peace happens within communities and among people. There is an understanding that shalom is joyful and happy. When used as a verb it means to “make right” to “make amends” and even “to pay the price.” The Talmud says that "The entire Torah is for the sake of the ways of shalom." The rich heritage of shalom - of peace - cannot be reduced to the lack of armed conflict or to the baseline goal of a numbed existence.
As the Israelites return to their broken city Jerusalem after years of exile, they come without a strong sense of collective religious and cultural identity. They find a city without strong leadership and struggling its way out of ruins. And, the Temple, destroyed by invaders, has not been rebuilt yet. The symbol of God’s love, covenant, and ability is in ruins. The joy of freedom gives way to the hardships of creating a new society. This section of Isaiah is for their ears. It is written as hope for their future. It is a vision of what life may be like for a people filled with uncertainty and despair as well as hope. It is a vision of God’s shalom incarnate in Jerusalem.
Isaiah’s prophetic tradition gives the people of Jerusalem a very specific blueprint by which to rebuild their society. He offers a concrete plan for this new earth that God is creating, in which Jerusalem will be a joy. Infant mortality, mourning, homelessness, and oppressive tenant farming will have no home in this new earth. In this new earth, there will be no distinction between predator and prey; they shall live in harmony. One will not devour the other.
It is vital for Christians to understand how important Isaiah’s vision and others like it are for Christianity. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is portrayed as a new Isaiah. At his first public teaching, he reads from Isaiah 58 and 61, which announce the year of the Lord’s favor, the Sabbath year, and he declares that in the presence of those in the synagogue on that day that God’s Sabbath year, God’s holy vision for God’s people, is present in him. It is a bold proclamation, and we, as followers of this Jesus, as confessors of this Christ, need to understand this. In the Hebrew scriptures, this vision is known by the word shalom. In the New Testament, it is referred to as the “kingdom of God.” And, it is for this shalom - this kingdom of God - for which Jesus lives, dies, and for which he reigns today.
Jesus receives Isaiah's vision and he brings it to Galilee hundreds of years later. He brings it to us today, another 2,000 years later. Jesus came proclaiming God’s kingdom. He came proclaiming it with all that he was: with his teachings, through his healings, by breaking bread, in his compassion, by feeding others, in raising the dead, in restoring communities, and by his own incarnation. When he was met with violence, he did not respond with violence. God’s peace - God’s kingdom - cannot be brokered through violence.
As the body of Christ, is our mission any different? As Christ’s hands and feet on Phinney Ridge in 2010, is this vision of shalom - of God’s kingdom or society - any less needed? Are there those, even in this room today, who don’t need to hear it proclaimed that in the midst of your ruin, God is at work to build something new? In our city and state, with looming deficits, do we not need a vision of a society that cares for the common good? Governor Gregoire has called for an across the board $500 million cut to programs next year. We face a $4 billion deficit next year. We have a state budget that is currently 70% constitutionally protected. By and large, that leaves programs that deal with the least, the last, the weakest, and the lost to be cut.
Isaiah’s scripture is about public policy as much as it is about a poetic picture. Peace is about public policy as much as it is about high ideals. Following in Isaiah’s tradition, Jesus came into the world with a different public policy, one that challenged the injustices of his day and ours as well. God’s kingdom threatens the kingdoms of this world; God’s vision of a new society threatens the established societies of this world that depend upon unjust and unholy practices for the sake of a few at the expense of the many. The role of the church is to be the conscience of the community. It is our job to stand with the least and to believe with God that a new earth is being built - right here among our ruins, even as we struggle to envision what that new earth might be. It is our sacred duty to be a joy in a hurting world, to proclaim a way of life in which children do not die before their time or come to calamity, in which the tears of mourning and oppression are dried, in which the homeless are housed, in which the farmer no longer toils for a task master. We are called to hold before the people a vision of peace that roots in the heart, manifests in our local communities, and is extended for the sake of international accord.
If Veterans Day is to be a day dedicated to the cause of world peace, and if we want our country’s treasures to be spent and our families’ blood to be spilled only when absolutely necessary, the church must lift its voice in line with Isaiah and Jesus, holding up a vision of peace for which we aspire. Peace is not an idle dream of the foolish, unless we believe God to be foolish. Peace is not a state of safety achieved at the expense of others’ welfare. Next week is Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday, the last Sunday of the Christian calendar before we step into the expectant and anticipatory season of Advent. But, for us to celebrate Christ’s world, we must ask ourselves the character of this world. Shalom is the core component of this world. And, there is nothing idle or foolish about it. It is real business to be dealt with in budget processes and in pubic policy. It is found in how we respond to neighbor and foe. It is in the every day choices that we make to build our society one relationship at a time, one policy at a time, one choice at a time. It is not foolish. It is a challenge to be sure, but it is not an idle dream. It is a holy dream, one that requires us to exercise the might of reason and to trust in the power of mystery and to believe in the work of the Holy One to transform this world, for God says, “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth... be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating.” Let it be so. Amen.