An Advent sermon related to Isaiah 11:1-9 and Dalai Lama quote on peace
To uplift the unexpected possibility/emergence of peace
and to connect it with the realization of justice.
Isaiah 11:1-9 (The Inclusive Bible)
Then a shoot will sprout from the stump of Jesse;
From Jesse’s roots, a branch will blossom.
2 The spirit of YHWH will rest on you,
a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
a spirit of counsel and strength,
a spirit of knowledge and reverence for YHWH.
3 You will delight in obeying YHWH,
And you won’t judge by appearances,
or make decisions by hearsay.
4 You will treat poor people with fairness
and will uphold the rights of the land’s downtrodden;
With a single word you will strike down tyrants,
With your decrees you will execute evil people.
5 Justice will be the belt around this your waist
faithfulness will gird you up.
6 Then the wolf will dwell with the lamb;
And the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
the calf and the lion cub will graze together,
and a little child will lead them.
7 The cow will feed with the bear;
their young will lie down together;
The lion will eat hay like the ox.
8 The baby will play next to the den of the cobra,
and the toddler will dance over the viper’s nest.
9 There will be no harm, no destruction anywhere
in my holy mountain,
for as the water fills the sea,
so the land will be filled with the knowledge of YHWH.
For the Word of God in Scripture,
For the Word of God among us,
For the Word of God within us,
Thanks be to God.
In January of 1915, in Great Britain, the Wellington Journal & Shrewsbury News published a letter of a British military officer. Captain Robert Patrick Miles wrote home on Christmas Day from the Great War’s trenches, the front lines of World War I. He wrote:
We are having the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable. A sort of unarranged and quite unauthorized but perfectly understood and scrupulously observed truce exists between us and our friends in front. … The thing started last night – a bitter cold night, with white frost – soon after dusk when the Germans started shouting 'Merry Christmas, Englishmen' to us. Of course, our fellows shouted back and presently large numbers of both sides had left their trenches, unarmed, and met in the debatable, shot-riddled, no man's land between the lines. Here the agreement – all on their own – came to be made that we should not fire at each other until after midnight tonight. The men were all fraternizing in the middle … and swapped cigarettes and lies in the utmost good fellowship. Not a shot was fired all night.
The letter was published posthumously.
Captain Miles was killed 5 days after he wrote this letter on December 30, 2014.
Unexpected peace broke out that Christmas during the First World War.
The tragic fact that it did not last is, of course, reason for deep disappointment, sadness, and grief. Yet, the fact that this unexpected peace occurred is soul food for our imaginations. It is manna in the wilderness of violence and violent expectations. The story’s unexpectedness, the fact that we call it that, unexpected, points to the expectation of a lack of peace in our collective imaginations and even the cynicism that can make a home in our hearts, especially in the light of mass shootings like Club Q in Colorado Springs, King Soopers in Boulder, others around the country, and in light of the Jan. 6th insurrection at the Capitol building.
Yet, the prophetic voice we hear in the passage from Isaiah this morning has no such limitation of imagination and expectation. Isaiah’s prophetic poetic imagination offers a vision, a hope, even an expectation for his people who stand in their time also amidst the darkness of deportations and war. Even in such a time, the prophet Isaiah offers a vision of peace that comes about by justice. In this case, justice brought by an ideal sovereign whose connection to God imbues humility, wisdom, compassion, and a sense of equity. Amidst these qualities, there is a reconciliation in the land so profound that even the lion shall lay down with the lamb.
In the story I shared, the War to End All Wars resumed and Captain Miles was killed because, of course, nothing changed in the systems in which these humans lived. No policies or orders were changed, no heartfelt connection and conversation was had by the warring nations’ leaders. They would not make room in their imaginations for another vision. These leaders, and many of their citizens, were prisoners of their limited sense of self and of the other, captives of their nationalistic, competitive worldview and its expectations.
As a Peace with Justice church nationally and here locally at Plymouth United Church of Christ, we uplift an understanding that what makes for peace are conditions of justice.
The Dalai Lama said it this way:
Peace, in the sense of the absence of war, is of little value to someone who is dying of hunger or cold. It will not remove the pain of torture inflicted on a prisoner of conscience. It does not comfort those who have lost their loved ones in floods caused by senseless deforestation in a neighboring country. Peace can only last where human rights are respected, where the people are fed, and where individuals and nations are free.
Indeed, what makes for justice are peaceful actions of justice-making by peace-filled nonviolent people like Rosa Parks, Dolores Huerta, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, and like First Nation youth and elders at the Standing Rock Reservation a few years ago. And many unnamed others. All of these people made room for a dream of peace based in justice, made room in their imaginations in such a way as it led them into actions for that vision of Just Peace.
This also can be the case in our personal lives where our conscious imaginations fail us and we set expectations, often unconscious, based on our internalized family systems that demean or inflate ourselves and/or the other, that make no room for a new vision of what might be possible, of making a way to inner peace and healing, unexpected though it might be. In that world of habitual confinement and conflict, there is no room for imagining reconciliation of lion and lamb, no room for the advent of a light of peace amidst that darkness. The status quo expectations of our internalized family system and the status quo expectations of culture and history can and often do keep us captive.
Is it too much for us to make room for a story like the Christmas truce of 1914, to make room for something unexpected, something beyond our usual expectations of age or situation or personal or historical habit?
Is Isaiah an unrealistic dreamer with all his lion and lamb talk?
Are such stories and visions all just wishy-washy, touchy feely, cotton candy Christmas talk?
Dr. King and others didn’t think so.
Their communities of faith trusted Isaiah’s prophetic vision of an unexpected peace, let it embolden their prophetic imagination. Then they directed their hopes and charted their actions toward that unexpected vision of a just peace, even as they waited for it amidst the darkness of injustice.
“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”
When John Lennon penned his lyric for Imagine and said he imagined no religion, no possessions, no heaven and hell, he was naming the toxic forms of religion and possession that limit us, divide us, and lead us to injustice and violence. Indeed, we are better off without them. He was encouraging us, from the darkness of our limited cultural expectations, to imagine differently, to make room for an unexpected vision of how there could be peace.
As we now come together at the Banquet table of God, let us faithfully imagine differently, like Isaiah, and make room for an unexpected coming of peace. AMEN.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
“O for a world preparing for God’s glorious reign of peace, where time and tears will be no more, and all but love will cease.” That is a beautiful vision from a hymn we often sing at Plymouth. It was written by Miriam Therese Winter, a Catholic sister and professor emerita at Hartford Seminary. Even though it isn’t an Advent hymn, per se, it speaks to the proclamation of John the Baptizer, which you heard a moment ago. Quoting Isaiah, we hear that a voice is crying out in the wilderness, as if to say, “O for a world where every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill made low. O for a world where the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways smooth.” Isaiah was writing of preparing for a better world. The people of Israel were in exile in Babylon, but exile isn’t just a historical concept…it is still with us. Where have YOU felt as if we have been living in exile?
O for a world where racial prejudice is not ingrained in our national identity. O for a world where the nations of the world come together to address climate change. O for a world where national unity supersedes faction. O for a world where everyone has a home. O for a world where the pandemic is a footnote of history.
Covid has meant exile for many of us. Last week I was talking with my friend, Radwan Kalaaji, and remembering that before the pandemic struck, we had plans for him to prepare a Syrian meal for our Dinner Church, but those plans were dashed by Covid. He told me about his own bout with the virus and being hospitalized. Our conversation made me realize fully some of the things I miss most as we as a congregation continue to live in exile: dinner church — worshipping and eating together; potlucks — the third sacrament in the UCC (just behind baptism and communion); seeing all our members face-to-face, hearing the voices of kids running around the church; personal connection and hugs. I grieve the loss of these aspects of our life together. O for a world where are delivered from exile and we can reconnect fully as a church.
Last week in her sermon, Jane Anne posed a question about where we find hope and whether some signs of hope are internal to our experience, rather than outside us. And I spent a good, long while thinking about that. I’m still working on the internal dimension of hope, but I feel hopeful when we welcome wonderful new members into our family of faith, when time and again, I see the generosity of our congregation, when I see youth sleeping on our front lawn to raise funds and awareness about homelessness, and when I receive words of encouragement from members about what Plymouth means to them and about my cancer journey.
In the church office, we have a large piece of calligraphy by the Vietnamese Buddhist sage, Thich Nhat Hanh given to us by Jane Ellen Combelic, one of our members who now lives in Scotland. It says, “There is no way to peace; peace is the way.”
How do we prepare the way? We can start with ourselves.
Even as we long for a world where “time and tears will be no more and all but love will cease,” we can practice living into it. We can practice peace in our own lives, with our families, with our colleagues, with our kids, with our teachers, with the clerk at King Soopers, with our fellow parishioners, with our spouses, and especially with ourselves. I read something online last week with this suggestion: “In your small circles of influence, choose to be the peace you seek.”
Think about that: in this next week, what are ways that you can do more than simply wish for peace, but to BE the peace you seek? What are two or three very practical ways that you can embody peace this week? Are you willing to commit to do them?
Sometimes I have trouble finding a way to internal peace, to being at peace with myself. I have a very strong self-critical streak and sometimes I really work at trying not to be judgmental with myself for not doing things perfectly, whether it’s our various methods of livestreaming or not losing weight as fast as I’d like or feeling as if I’m not as good a dad and husband as I could be. It’s hard to be at peace when those messages are trying to sabotage us. Do you ever have those self-critical thoughts? As I said in a sermon a few months back, I’m putting perfection on hold for the duration of the pandemic…and maybe forever. Can I get an Amen? None of us is a perfect vessel of God’s love, and we aren’t going to find peace unless we accept ourselves just as God accepts us, warts and all.
Perhaps one of the ways we can “be peace” during this holiday season is to quiet our self-judgement and our judgement of others and instead offer some grace to ourselves and to those around us.
If peace is the way — the way of Jesus, the way of God’s realm, the way of righteousness — we need to get on the path and just do it. Even if every mountain and hill has not yet been made low and every crooked path has not yet been made straight, we can still walk the path of peace. But it needs to start within us and emanate from us.
Here is a short meditation that I learned many years ago from my mentor, Marcus Borg, and which I use to start my prayer time each morning: “Lord Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world, fill my mind with your peace, and my heart with your love.” I’m going to invite us to pray together with that: I’ll offer the words of the prayer and ask you to breathe in as I say, “Lord Jesus Christ,” and breathe out on “you are the light of the world.” Breathe in on “fill my mind with your peace,” and out on “and my heart with your love.” Let’s try that together a couple of times. Put your feet on the floor, sit up as straight as is comfortable, close your eyes, and just breathe. “Lord Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world, fill my mind with your peace, and my heart with your love.”
It’s a great, short prayer that you can offer anytime, especially when you are having one of those moments when you are feeling neither particularly peaceful nor particularly loving!
I want to acknowledge that this is a difficult time of the year for many of us, whether from busyness or in our grief or missing people we cannot see in person. And I want to acknowledge that you may be feeling very weary, exhausted, and depressed with the pandemic. All of those things are normal.
AND we can still take steps toward inner peace, even in contest with such circumstances. Walking the path of peace might even help you feel some hope and light.
“O for a world preparing for God’s glorious reign of peace, where time and tears will be no more, and all but love will cease.” May it be so. Amen.
© 2021 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth UCC, Fort Collins, Colorado
Second Sunday in Advent: December 9, 2018
Luke 1: 68-7
Sometimes the best theological tools come from the most unusual of places. Not a theologian, but definitely a great singer of the 1960s, Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette (better known by her stage name, Dusty Springfield), accidentally developed a shorthand for how we should actively engage the practice of Advent Anticipation. Advent practice in a nutshell is, “Wishin’ and Hopin’ and Thinkin’ and Prayin’ and Planin’ and Dreamin’.”  The six forms of active anticipation that Dusty Springfield identifies in her classic song might be the most useful memory tool for Advent practice of all time. Let me tell you how, but first, I have to leave you in anticipation.
Would you join me in prayer? May the stirrings of our hearts, the musings of our souls, and the words of all of our lips all be harbingers and signs of peace for our world, for our families, and for ourselves. May I not fail you, God, in speaking a word of truth with your people. Amen.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel!” Benedictus Dominus Deus! With these words Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, starts his great song of praise, of hope, and of peace known throughout the Church Universal and all time as the Benedictus. It is the great Invocation of all of the Gospel good news to follow. Today, our Scripture is invoking the very essence of good news for peace in our world.
The Benedictus is used in the Matins (morning worship) of monks and nuns, Communion Liturgies of almost every Christian tradition, and as the most ancient recorded liturgical way to begin worship services. In all, this beautiful poem exclusively found in the middle of the First Chapter of the Gospel of Luke, symbolizes the hope for peace in all of Christian traditions across difference, time, and place.
It communicates two things. The first half is a summary of the prophesies of the past and God’s continued presence and promise of peace from generation to generation. The first half is looking backwards in praise and accounting. Then the second half from verse 76 and following looks forward with anticipation. We hope that God will guide our feet in the way of peace forever and ever amen. It is this latter part, the hope for peace, that I think we need to focus on today. This latter point that calls for a time, soon approaching and already breaking upon us, where we are guided in the way of peace must be the topic of our thinking today. Moreover, it raises a big moral, ethical and theological question for us:
How can we, in a time of so much verbal, emotional, physical, psychological, technological, and even internalized violence. dare speak the word "peace"? How can such a brave word be spoken? How can we do this and not make ourselves liars or make God out to be the same? It is dangerous work—this work of speaking about peace because it produced anticipation and expectation. Disappointment and disillusionment is always sure to follow.
The word I would use to summarize the Benedictus, the reason that it is so effective as a call to worship, the reason it is an essential part of traditional Eucharist liturgies can all be summarized with that one word: Anticipation. Now, anticipation is a word that typically means a preconceived idea of what will be. We think of it as being a neutral state of passive hope. I anticipate that it may snow. I anticipate that I will get Christmas presents. I anticipate that we will continue to be a great church. I anticipate world peace. Our Scripture today is the very definition of anticipation. Unfortunately for us, anticipation has been incorrectly defined from an etymological perspective since the 1800’s, so what does it really mean to anticipate peace? Is it really a passive act?
In actual fact, the real meaning and history of the word anticipation and what it meant until the mid-1800’s was “the act of being before another in doing something.” Anticipation has more to do with being avant garde than simply hopeful. Christians are called to start walking the walk and to anticipate that the world might could catch-up. This means that rather than just imaging that it may snow, that you get your snow boots out. Rather than just hoping that God will bring peace to us on Christmas, that we actually start living peace right this second. It is cliché, yes, let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me. Anticipation is not a passive state of hope or the art of gracefully waiting. Rather, it is the act of being before others…preparedness for what God has promised.
Now, a trick question. How many of you think the Benedictus in context in the Gospel of Luke is about Jesus and/or the birth of Christ? In fact, it has almost nothing to do with Jesus. It is actually a song sung by John the Baptist’s father, Zacharias, about his son who will prepare the way for peace to come.
John the Baptist is sort of an overlooked figure in the shadow of Jesus, but he is the "Wind Beneath [Jesus’] Wings." He anticipates the peace of Christ and, in many ways, makes it possible. In many ways, anticipation is the business of John. If Christmas is the celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth, then in many ways Advent is the celebration of the birth of John the Baptist. It is about the very real and intentional work of making a way for peace even when it seems impossible.
The Benedictus is our song—it is your song. It is the song of all of those who are called in every time and every place to make a way for the Peace of Christ in the world. It needs to be reclaimed, for perhaps more than any other character in the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany story (as fun as it is to dress up as Sheep, Three Kings, Shepherds, Mary, Joseph, and Angels) we are really meant to be John the Baptists. That is our real role in the Christmas narrative.
Today, we are all John the Baptists. The work of anticipation—of creating ways and practices of peace is our job in both this short season before Christmas and really every day of our lives. We are called to the work and to lives of anticipation.
I am against preaching and not leaving you with some kind of a concrete spiritual practice. How are we supposed to actively anticipate the peace of Christ and help make it happen like John the Baptist did? How do we learn to sing our own Benedictus of hope for this day and age through our Advent living?
Remember Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette (better known by her stage name, Dusty Springfield)? She wrote what is the very best unintentional Benedictus and description of the Season of Advent ever. Better than the Church Fathers and Mothers, Dusty wrote a song that describes the meaning of active anticipation. It is really a six-point to do list for this season of the church year. It goes like this:
Wishin’ and Hopin’ and Thinkin’ and Prayin’ and Plannin’ and Dreamin’
We need a new Benedictus more than ever! Each of the six practices at the beginning of that great song of 1962 is a different way to participate active anticipation. Each one is its own spiritual practice. Here they are:
Wishin’ for peace. A wish is defined as "a desire for something thought unattainable." Sit and set your intention for peace in the world. Wishing for peace means that you align every cell in your being with what seems impossible. Remember when you were a kid and all you wanted for Christmas was a pony or a Tonka truck, or an iPhone? Remember the intensity you put into your letters to Santa or to what you would say to Santa at the department Store? I’m thinking of A Christmas Story. I want that same level of wishing and motive put into the wish for peace. I want each of you to write a letter to Santa this year as a spiritual practice and put that childlike willpower for a wish into the letter written for peace. Wishing is an act of utter rebellion against the tyranny of possible.
Hopin’ for peace. Hoping is a much more delicate practice than the willpower of wishing. Hope is allowing yourself to not let go of what you wished for even after the wish has failed time and time and time again. Even if it is your fifth year wishing for a pony, hope is writing that letter again. Hope is more delicate like a snowflake in the palm of your hand. It has to be observed. Don’t be careless with you hope. Name it and claim it and whisper your hope for peace in yourself and in the world. Hope is like a wish but more personal and more enduring. How can peace become your hope again? How do you protect it?
Thinkin’ of peace. We need to spend time thinking and brainstorming new ways to create peace in the world. We cannot give into narratives of tyranny that say that everything good has ever been thought of. We are called to spend time thinking and innovating for peace. New frameworks are always needed. What can you think of?
Prayin’ for peace. Thoughts and prayers have become cliché. After every mass shooting, murder, tragedy, people tweet or post that they are offering thoughts and prayers. I am convinced that nobody who publicly announces “thoughts and prayers” through Facebook or Twitter actually is praying at all. If they were, then God would have already moved their hearts to change policy. Amen? If they were, then war would be no more. Don’t just say you are going to pray, but actually pick a chair (prayer chair) in your house for prayer and spend five or fifteen minutes a day praying for peace. It is one thing to say that you think and pray—it is another to actually do it.
Plannin’ for peace. What happens if we actually start to plan for peace? Take a pen and paper and draw the world in a peaceful state. If you are keener on prose, wrote a short story or a poem about what the world looks like when peace has come. Learn to visualize it again. Develop a master plan for peace in your own life, in our community, and in the world. If we cannot plan for peace in a real way, how can we ever hope to move towards that vision? Plan for peace.
Dreamin’ of peace. This is the art of letting go. It is the art of finding a meditative practice that helps you find peace. You cannot control your dreams, but you must find a way to create a peaceful heart in your own person. Then and only then can God anticipate using you to help create peace in this world and peace on earth. If it cannot start in you and in your deepest dreams, then how do you expect to actually help create peace elsewhere?
We are all John the Baptists in the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany Trilogy. We are the ones called to set the stage and to wish for, hope for, think about, pray for, plan for, and dream peace into being. The Benedictus is our song. It was sung at your birth. In this season, if you don’t know what do to do or how to anticipate Christ with intention and purpose, just think of the opening line of the song:
Wishin’ and Hopin’ and Thinin’ and Prayin’ and Plannin’ and Dreamin’
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel!” Benedictus Dominus Deus! To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. Amen.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.