Text: Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7 (in alternating verse)
Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone.
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted.
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
From the very first time people of faith gathered as a community to live, and worship together they have had to live with the world's judgment. The world tends to want to slap people of faith up against the head, or worse, and say quit dreaming, be real. The world wants to claim that anyone with any sense would understand that reality demands despair and not hope, cynicism and not faith.
Even President Barack Obama, when accepting the Nobel Peace prize, felt compelled to make a distinction between the idealism of his faith, and the practical, and often brutal, demands that world events forced upon him as the commander and chief, the chief of state, the President of the United States. It was an argument that brought praise from both conservative and liberal pundits alike as being a truly American speech.
President Obama took a page from one of our own UCC predecessors Reinhold Niebuhr who famously articulated the theological arguments for a just war for the modern church. These arguments, which actually began as far back as Cicero, took on the name of theological realism in the post World War II society of the 1950’s. For Niebuhr it was important that the church recognized that there is real evil in this world and that for the sake of the innocent, evil must be confronted by power including the deadly force of war. Thus, for Christians, under specific circumstances, war could be justified. For Niebuhr the war against the fascist regimes of Hitler and Mussolini in World War II was a primary case in point where people of faith were morally obligated to support war in response to evil.
For the overwhelming majority of American people, and multitudes of other people around the world, the events of September 11th have justified this countries military action in Afghanistan, and to a much lesser degree the invasion of Iraq. President Obama's arguments that the war in Afghanistan is justified are eloquent and persuasive. Given the reality of the terrorist capabilities to wreck terror on the innocent it should not surprise us that he has turned to the theological realism of Niebuhr to justify where he is leading our country and subsequently the world.
But for many people of faith this idea that war can be justified brings with it a tension that is not easily resolved. After all, the scripture, liturgy, and theological traditions of our faith have constantly wrestled with the twin images of God. On the one hand we have the image of God who is actively involved in war, who will smite the enemies of the righteous. On the other hand, we have the image of a God who became fully human, suffering all that this world could inflict, including death on a cross, that the whole world might be reconciled unto God and experience a peace that is beyond any understanding this world has known. The truth is that people of faith have always been hard pressed to justify our claims that the force of peace and love can overcome the powers of evil and death. The reality of everyday life would seem to prove to all with any common sense, that the peacemaker will always loose out to the purveyors of hatred and evil. In our modern world of armed nation states, armed terrorists, and armed insurrections the peace maker not only appears to be crazy, but dangerously naive.
Take the prophet Isaiah. Here is a man walking the streets naked proclaiming at the top of his voice that God is the source of salvation. While at the very same time, Judah is being invaded, and the people of faith, the descendant of Abraham, are being threatened with annihilation or exile in Babylon. We do not know exactly what the people thought of Isaiah at that time, but I think it is safe to say that many were in all likelihood offended, hurt, and angry at his insensitivity to the plight the people of Israel were in. At the very least they would have thought him crazy.
But instead of wringing his hands in terror, or calling for armed resistance, Isaiah is saying to the children of Israel, ignore the reality of all you see around you and instead--Rejoice in God who is the source of salvation. Or more accurately, Isaiah is saying to the children of Israel, in full realization of the reality you see around you--Rejoice in God who is the source of salvation. In the midst of destruction, death, and the end of all that the people thought they knew, and believed, Isaiah is proclaiming joy and thanksgiving, calling the children of Israel to sing songs of praise to Yahweh so that the whole world might know and experience the glorious works of God’s salvation.
The apostle Paul is writing from his prison cell to his beloved church of Philippi, the first known Christian congregation in what is now Europe. Of all the churches Paul established the church of Philippi was the only church to support Paul financially. Paul stayed in close touch with the work of the church in Philippi and developed a strong bond with them. And even though Paul was at the time of his writing suffering through the harsh conditions of life in prison, his letter is filled with thanksgiving for the partnership that had developed between him and the church of Phillipi and for their common ministry to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It amazes, and humbles me, to see in this letter how Paul is able to keep such a powerful sense of joy in his life in Christ while at the same time dealing with his persecution and imprisonment by those without and within the church who wanted to silence him.
Reverend Carlos Summers, a Lutheran Pastor in Arkansas, likes to point out that the Church with the largest number of words written by Paul is the church of Corinth. And that this church, the Corinthian Church, was the first church of Paul's to fail. Converseley, the church with the greatest success, the Phillipian Church, has only four chapters. Perhaps it is because the church of Corinth had the greatest difficulty reconciling Paul's message of salvation by faith with the reality of the world in which they lived. But we should not be too hard on the Corinthian church, or any church that struggles to be faithful in the midst of the realities of an unfaithful world. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, "The church is a sign of God's willingness to be humiliated in human form. This comes from a man who left the sanctuary of the United States to return to his native Germany to lead the Reformed Churches in an unwelcomed response to the Nazi regime. In the end, just weeks before the the prison in which Bonhoeffer was held was liberated by the Allied armies, Bonhoeffer was executed, martyred as a witness to God's faithfulness to God's people in the midst of the evil of Adolph Hitler. Bonhoeffer certainly recognized in the church of Corinth the same struggles that the Reformed Church in Nazi Germany faced. The church in Corinth has been a sign, perhaps a lesson, for many generations of Christians wrestling with their own sinfulness to be church.
But I digress. Today I am writing of the Phillipians. My preaching professor, Fred Craddock, who wrote a very readable commentary on Philippians wrote: “The peace which the church can know, the sense that all is well, does not have its source within—there is dissension—nor without—there is opposition—but in God.” I think he has it right. The peace that passes all understanding does not come from reasoned thought, realistic observations about the world we live in, or idealogical rationalizations. The peace that passes all understanding can only come from God. When we worship, we are rejoicing in hope, and in faith, that God is faithful in God's love for us mortals. It is the realization that it is not our faithfulness but God's faithfulness that brings salvation to the world, brings songs of praise to our lips, and peace to our lives.
There is too many acts of violence and horror in our world to claim that the world itself can justify our hope. There are too many acts of bigotry, idolatry, and self justifying ideologies within the institutional church today for us to look to the church alone to justify our hope. Too many of us know first hand the opposition we experience to our faithfulness from the world in which we live. Too many of us know about the dissension that takes place within our churches. But in God there is hope. In God we can find our peace. God offers us a peace that is beyond understanding, beyond any human justification. We cannot rationalize the presence of God’s peace. We cannot predict or command God’s peace. We can only trust in God’s faithfulness placing our hope in God who loves us. It is in this hope and through our experience of God’s peace that we are compelled once more to Rejoice.
Yes, I know. The neighbors will think we are crazy. The people at work will think we are naive. They will point to the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the greed and corruption on Wall Street and the halls of government. They will point to the dissension within the church, the petty arguments, the feuds over things unworthy of our faith. And all of these things will be true. You can take anyone of these accusations and affirm that they are absolutely right.
But if you dare, and you might appear to be crazy to your friends and neighbors, you can proclaim with those crazy prophets and apostles who danced naked in the streets and sang songs of praise in prison cells that God’s peace which is beyond all understanding is standing guard over your heart and your mind. And because of God’s love you are free to express joy in the midst of pain, hope in the midst of despair, and peace in a time of great horror and destruction.
So once again –“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Amen.