As we are gathered together in worship, I am reminded of the words from the prophet Zechariah who called God’s people "prisoners of hope." May we become prisoners to hope, rather than being imprisoned by fear or anger or discouragement. May we be so captured by God’s love and grace that we are empowered in new and stirring ways.
Hope is one of those funny theological words that we are tempted to think of as an idea or a feeling when it is really an action. From the perspective of the Bible, it is an active trust and expectant confidence that arises out of our experience of God’s overwhelming mercy for us and God’s goodness toward creation. Hope isn’t something I lose like a set of car keys, but rather, I would suggest, that it is always out in front of us, just beyond arm’s length. It is a mystery that draws us. It calls to us and is waiting to meet us, but only long enough to move us forward once more. So we keep hope alive as we continue to move toward it, and in doing so, we find ourselves more deeply dependent on God and in greater harmony with God’s intended future.
When we begin to talk about peace and justice, we are unearthing one of the great hopes expressed in Scripture. In the creation story, Shalom and Justice serve as the matrix in which God initially animates the world—or at least tries to. For no sooner had God gotten the cosmos unwrapped and out of the box when problems developed. We showed up. And instead of humanity moving toward the hopeful vision of right relationship with God, with each other, with ourselves, and with the creation, we opt—and have very often continued to opt—to move away from that first great hope. But God, for reasons I cannot always understand, is relentless in pursuing this vision with us. And so throughout the whole history of God, as it is recorded in the Bible, we find both powerful metaphors and concrete examples of what it can mean and must mean for humanity to choose hope.
Listen with me a moment to the way the prophet Micah describes this for us. I chose Micah because, unlike his much more famous counterparts, he was a pretty ordinary person. As far as we know he had no political clout, no name recognition, and no position of leadership. He doesn’t even get to live in the big city. He’s just a peace worker stationed out in some podunk town. Micah was a nobody and—I say this with a great deal of love and respect—just like most of us here today. Just one ordinary person with nothing more than a burning hope, born out of a deep love and devotion to God, coupled with a keen awareness that the world around him was not at all as God intended it to be.
Read over Micah and notice the real struggle going on in him. As he is speaking his message of truth, Micah comes dangerously close to despair and hopelessness. Maybe it is simple anger and frustration. Or maybe it was just the weight and the pain of it all. It is as if the future fate of humanity was balanced on him, as if the serious problems and the concerns of the real people he loved and lived with were on the verge of overwhelming him. I suspect some of you know a good bit about that sort of struggle and weight.
As I said, Micah knew well the problems of his day. He sees the shameless greed and land-grabbing of the rich. He calls out false prophets for glossing over injustice and using their positions and titles to get rich. He grieves over the idolatry and the shallow spirituality that tried to turn the sovereign God of creation, whom humanity is to worship and serve, into a tribal deity who could be manipulated into serving us. Blasphemy! In Micah you hear the prophetic voice call for an end to militarism, to violence, to deception, and to unjust business practices. Does this all sound frighteningly familiar? "How long O Lord?" Micah may have asked. "How long, indeed?" We may ask, as well.
Yet despite all he has seen and said, Micah remains a prophet of hope. Though he teeters on the edge of losing hope altogether, Micah ultimately knows the condition he is in will not last forever. Judgment will come to the nation, but out of it will arise a chastened and faithful alternative. A new community will take shape that will move together in hope toward God. Through the pain and the suffering that is today, Micah is able to see a new tomorrow.
Listen: In the last days, the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and peoples will stream to it. Many nations will come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. The Lord will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths." God will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Every person will sit under their own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken. All the nations may walk in the name of their gods; we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever. (Mic. 4: 1-5)
God—that’s good! But what I find so compelling in Micah’s vision is not just the ideal, but the realism the undergirds it. His is a sturdy hope. Micah can see the hopeful vision of the future to be sure. He has a clear picture of the beloved community, when our daily prayer of "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth—as it is in Heaven" is answered. But there is no naïve idealism here, no wishful dreaming, and no giddy optimism that this will just happen on its own. No, it will require active trust that moves into the future. And for Micah, the ability to do so comes from the deep confidence and hopefulness of a life rooted and established in God.
"Though others walk in the name of their own gods, we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever," he declares courageously. "No matter what others do, we will abide in God." Micah knows there are those who do not yet and will not act in harmony with God’s vision. There are those who will not receive or hear the message of social justice, for they love a god named Mammon more. There are those who will not recognize others as being of equal worth, because they worship at the feet of an idol made in their own image. There are those who will be dumbfounded and offended by the message of Christian peacemaking—because their allegiance is not given to the God of every tribe, tongue, and nation, but the God of this nation, my nation, the right nation.
Nevertheless, God’s people will choose to live in the Presence and toward the hope of God’s promised future. They do so, Micah says, by "walking in the Name of the Lord," which means we live in union with God’s character and will, no matter what. It is an immersion, an initiation, a baptism into the New Movement of God, in which we lay down our biases, our agendas, and our very selves to take up the mission of God.
You see, when Micah holds up a vision for the Peaceable Kingdom, he is not just calling them to a new set of moral principles or a better political party with a more advanced social program. No! He is calling them to life in God and into a peaceable people where individual lives and their common life is re-formed and re-made, not by legislation or coercion but by divine power! Here is what he says in chapter five about the One who makes this possible:
He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be their peace!
You see this is nothing Babylon or Baghdad or Washington, D.C., or City Hall could ever envision, or ever stop! This is God’s revolution come to Earth! And while human political systems have their place in the healing of the nations, at their core they are institutions founded on bloodshed and maintained by force. More than that, their agenda is too narrow. But not so the Kingdom of God in which God is at work through Christ reconciling and restoring the whole of creation. That is the great hope—not that God is separate from creation but at work in it and calling out those with the spiritual eyes and ears to notice what is going on and the courage to join in.
So despite living in desperate times, Micah chooses to act in hope. "But as for me," he says, "I watch in hope for the Lord, I wait for God my Savior; my God will hear me." Instead of turning to despair or indifference, Micah speaks and acts out of a hope-filled life. And though he was a nobody, just another face in the crowd, please note that in Jeremiah 26 it is his faithfulness that sparks a revival under King Hezekiah. It is when this ruler hears Micah speak he is so moved to repentance that social reforms are instituted. There is transforming power in a vision and message of hope, even when it is communicated through ordinary people.
We live in desperate times, too, don’t we? At this gathering we have recited the litany of hotspots in our world. We know the long list of social wrongs facing us. Terrorism frightens us all. And for some, despite our national discussions and prayers for "hope" and "change" there are many who are feeling more hopeless and others who are becoming numb to all the pain and evil around them.
Walter Brueggemann, the biblical scholar, suggests that corrupt societies remain intact when we become numb. Empires in their militarism, expect us to be numbed about the social costs of war. And we are, aren’t we? Corporate economies expect blindness to the cost of poverty and exploitation. In other words, in the face of all the daily horror that goes on around us, our job as "good citizens" is simply to assume "that’s just the way it is" in order to keep the country running smoothly. But that numbness is a betrayal of God’s vision for humanity. And so Brueggemann suggests we see hope "as the refusal to accept reality as the majority states it." Instead of numbness, hope moves us to explore an alternative, to call into question the status quo, to announce to the world that the present conditions are unacceptable in view of God’s designs for the world. But such hope requires more of us than just speaking up, it requires us to take steps, to move in the direction of God’s Peaceable Kingdom, despite the costs and despite all resistance.
This, of course, was the ministry of Jesus—the incarnation, the fleshing out of God’s hope for the world. We’ve been told the story of the Jewish rebellion in Sepphoris near Jesus’ hometown when Jesus was just a boy. As was explained, this was quickly crushed by Roman forces who burned the city to the ground. I was going to tell that story, too, because it is a powerful reminder of the kind of world Jesus entered into and experienced in his humanity. What wasn’t said was that, in the aftermath, the Romans wanted to send a message to the Jews and teach them a lesson not soon forgotten. So they crucified a Jewish male every 30 feet down a ten-mile stretch of road. For those of you doing the math, that’s over 1,700 Jewish martyrs. Imagine the horror.
Indeed, if young Jesus looked into the eyes of those dead and dying countrymen, it would be an image that could never leave him. For in that ugly moment in human history, Jesus saw just what measure of evil God’s love was up against. It is no wonder that Jesus used the language of the cross as often as he did, even well before he encountered his own literal one. But for him the cross was not about people being unwillingly led to their deaths, but about people voluntarily laying down their lives for God’s sake and the for the sake of the world. Such hope! So powerful it even transforms the cruel cross of death into the symbol of hope and life.
Jesus incarnated hope to a hopeless world. But where is hope now? There it is—right here in front of us, just waiting for our next step! And it is right here, in you and in you and in you and in us—the ongoing incarnation of Christ in the world, His Body. And it is through us that hope is just waiting to be made manifest to a waiting and watching world.
The Apostle Paul called us a colony of heaven. Early Christians sometimes referred to themselves as the people living on the eighth day of the week, which is also the first day of the new creation. Jesus pictured us as cities set on a hill, a Light shining in the darkness. During their civil war, Yugoslavian Christians referred to their fellowships as "islands of hope" in the sea of hopelessness. And that is what we are in our time of war—islands of hope!
My concern is for those of you who are on the front lines as peacemakers and for those of us who are working to create these kinds of alternative communities, how can we sustain hope in the face of such great need and when times are so severe?
I will end with four brief suggestions, because you already know this stuff. There is nothing new here. There may, however, be a need for a reminder to some of us who are forgetful.
The first and greatest is this: abide. What does John’s Gospel say? Abide! Many of us here are activists by nature and nurture. Our problem is not laziness or apathy. Our problem may be a lack of discernment, refusal to accept any vision of hope but our own, or unmet ego needs. What I know is that the kind of Spirit-infused, biblical hope that leads to Shalom is not brought about by frantic striving or desperate means. It gets fleshed out by people who move forward in trust and by those who can and will wait (yes, wait!) upon the Lord. Do you believe that? Then take time to abide.
Second: practice being grateful for your call and your place in God’s mission. Too often, we throw around names like Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, John Woolman, and Mother Teresa, as if those are the only models to whom we can aspire. It is as if the no-name community organizer, the Podunk-town prophet, the minister with no book titles or speaking schedule to keep is somehow not as faithful and as vital to God’s work in the world. I am especially concerned for our young people who are constantly told they "can change the world" if they just believe and work hard enough. The next time I hear that at a high school graduation it will be too soon. Unfortunately, that message can get muddled in the minds of some hearers who come to believe all of the responsibility for a changed world rests on them. And so they become embittered and disillusioned when they find they cannot do it.
No one of us here can change the world on our own and if that is the bar we unintentionally set for each other, it is no wonder there is frustration, anger, and hopelessness among so many peace-and-justice Christians. We can’t—as I was once eldered by a wise old Friend—die on every cross. More pointedly, it seems I wasn’t needed for the messiah job, either. That work had already been done. What we can be, however, is faithful to the work we are given, willing to rejoice in it, intent on doing our very best, and able to delight in the fact that God may use us to change the world. So, be grateful for who you are.
Third, we must cultivate communities that inspire hope. Elton Trueblood called these incendiary fellowships, believing that as Jesus came to "cast fire upon the Earth" so now do we. If that is true, we need others around us who will keep us kindled. We are a Body and the kind of life we are called to does not work well in isolation. As I once read, "It’s not psychologically healthy to be the only oddball around." So, get yourself established in a healthy, healing fellowship that is bent on stepping into God’s hopeful future. Together you can offer a glimpse of the beloved community and bear witness to Jesus’ Peaceable Kingdom. More than any of our programs, this may inspire more hope and change than we might imagine.
Finally—and I say this with hesitation, but it has already been hinted at by others this week—moving toward hope has to start here, and it has to start here together. We have already heard several people reference the divisions within Christ’s people, even among the three Historic Peace Churches. We sort of laugh nervously and knowingly at this, and then move on as if that is just the way it is.
This is a source of deep sadness to me. I think one of the saddest aspects of this, however, is how it undermines our message and witness to other Christians who do not yet share our peacemaking concern. For instance, I am connected to the evangelical expression of the Body of Christ. What I find among many in that group is a real openness to the message of active peacemaking and nonviolence. But a barrier to some of them is not the theology behind it or even some of the practical implications of peace work as much as it is the lack of integrity and credibility they perceive with our message. If it is our hope that other brothers and sisters will take seriously this call to peacemaking, then the divisions among us can no longer be a laughing matter.
I would argue that one of the most hopeful things Jesus had the audacity to say was this: By this the world will know that you are my followers if you—what? Love one another! If Jesus could take a tax-collector and a zealot, bringing bitter enemies together and making them brothers; and if Paul could take a Gentile and a Jew, with their history of deep hatred and have them come together in a peace-filled fellowship where unity transcended their diversity—then what can, what must we do? What kind of hopeful first step might we take this week as we gather?
May hope inspire us to move forward together into a vision of God’s New Day! And may we have the courage and faith to take those steps together!