The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
December 2, 2018 – First Sunday of Advent
Some of us enjoy pretty darn good lives. Perhaps we’re happily married and/or are blessed with wonderful friends. Perhaps we have meaningful and satisfying work. Perhaps we’re reasonably healthy and wealthy.
Some of us, on the other hand, have pretty darn hard lives. Perhaps we’re struggling with loneliness. Perhaps our bodies are hurting us and/or failing us. Perhaps we have worries about loved ones, finances or how to survive a job we hate.
Whatever kind of life we have right now, here’s the God-honest truth: We are meant for better days! God made us for a life overflowing with love, joy and peace in a world immersed in fairness, compassion and harmony. God dreams of better days for us, days when we will know His shalom, shalom being the Hebrew word for a healthy wholeness that encompasses everything from serenity of heart to the cessation of war between nations. Shalom is peace in the biggest and broadest sense, a setting right of life in all its dimensions: mental, spiritual, physical, relational, political, cultural, environmental.
That’s God’s dream, and He wants us to make it our dream as well.
To hold on to any dream, however, is a challenge. It is a challenge, first, because we get so caught up in the day-to-day details of “real life” (paying bills, transporting family and friends, finishing work projects, and so forth) that we lose the time and energy for dreaming at all.
It is also a challenge to hold on to dreams because life is hard and it can beat the high hopes out of us. Because we’ve so often been unpleasantly surprised, we give up longing for better days. We just don’t have the stomach to face more disappointment. So we settle for what we’ve got and only aspire to not let it slip away.
In today’s scripture, and many others, however, God gives us good reason to keep dreaming of better days full of peace. The good reason is that God is not expecting us, all by ourselves, to bring them about. For God has promised to send a singular Person who would insure the arrival of His shalom, a Person beyond us all, a Person better and mightier than us all. Thus, we can sustain the dream of better days full of peace, not by looking to ourselves, but by looking outside of ourselves for a Prince of peace who will come and set everything right!
Micah prophesied seven centuries before the birth of Jesus. He spoke for God to the people of his day; but, as with every prophet speaking by the inspiration of the Spirit, Micah was saying more than he realized or understood. Thus, as he looked into the future, distinctions between separate historical events would blur; and it became hard to sort out what is a current event, an event of the near future, one of the distant future, or one of the ultimate future at the end of the age. In reading Micah we can’t always be sure whether what he has in mind is something happening in the 8th century B.C., the 6th century, the 1st century A.D., the last days of human history, or all of them at once. That’s fine because what really matters is what God has on His mind: the sending of a Prince of peace to bring a peace we couldn’t obtain on our own.
Though Micah’s prophecies exude high hope, they are marked by realism as well. Things, Micah warns, may get worse before they get better; and peace will only come through a lot of suffering and struggle. Much must be endured before much may be realized.
Just before today’s lesson, Micah spoke of a humiliating defeat for Israel. Yet, out of that tragedy, hope would arise – and from the unlikeliest of places! Out of “Bethlehem of Ephrathah” – “Ephrathah” being the ancient name of the larger Bethlehem area – from “one of the little clans of Judah”, a family group no larger than a thousand others, and one with no distinction save its being David’s clan – out of that improbable context would “come forth” a Ruler like no other. This “one who is to rule” is from “ancient days” – the Hebrew words being those used both for long-past history and for eternity itself. At the very least, this new Ruler is exceptional in a way no other ever has been.
This unique Ruler will make something unique and unprecedented happen – but only after the people have passed through a painful and preparatory period akin to that of a woman in labor. Only after that suffering has been accomplished, will hope be born. At that time the Ruler shall gather “the rest of his kindred” and “shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God”. As a result, the people “shall live secure”, and the greatness of this Ruler shall be known “to the ends of the earth”.
This Prince of peace is not just One who brings peace to His people: He in His Person constitutes their peace. While in the translation from our pew Bible, Micah calls Him “the one of peace”, the translation in the New International Version renders the original Hebrew more accurately, I think, when it says, “And he will be our peace”. Certainly, in Him we find our peace, and from Him we gain it.
Thus, we know shalom when we know the Prince of shalom and welcome Him into our lives and strike up a Person-to-person relationship with Him.
Peace then begins in the heart. It has to start there because our hearts are not at peace with God. They are rebels against rule of their rightful Ruler, and we need to lay down our arms and surrender to His governance. Thus, unless we are at peace with God, we are not part of the solution for this anxious, restless and waring world; we are part of the problem!
So peace must start in the heart; but it cannot stay in the heart alone, lest the baby of God’s shalom be stillborn. The Maker of peace means to make us makers of peace as well, co-workers with Him in bringing God’s shalom to the whole world. Keeping in close contact with the Prince of peace pulls us out of our self-preoccupation and propels us forward in a revolutionary movement of bettering the world – bringing truth to all, working for justice for all, demonstrating a better way before all.
Therefore, we cannot rest with a one-on-One, let-the-world-go-to-hell-in-a-handbasket relationship with Jesus. But neither can we go forth to establish justice and true community if we leave Jesus behind. Left to our own devices, we cannot pull off the job of peacemaking. We can build programs and institutions, and start all kinds of movements and initiatives, but they will eventually run down or grow corrupt. Our efforts are at best briefly and partially successful; at worst, they are deeply flawed and doomed to fail due to our egotism, selfishness and devious ulterior agendas. Yet, our efforts can play a positive part in bringing God’s shalom to the world if we let the Prince of peace take the lead and call all the shots – and we follow Him in deferential obedience.
That’s His dream. Though He could bring shalom without us, He insists on doing it with us.
This Advent then let us walk close behind the Prince of peace, and let the better days begin!