Living Like It’s Advent

“They shall beat their swords into plowshares,and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation,neither shall they learn war any more.” Isaiah 2:4

They say when the sun hits the gilded dome, it is as if you are gazing upon the face of God. The brightness is the brightness of the seventh heaven, where the seraphim dance around the rainbow throne. Below it lies the rock altar that once bore the body of Isaac—or Ishmael, depending on which tradition you believe. Around it is the holiest city in the world—the birthing room of the world’s three great monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is eternally enveloped in hope, bound by blood, shaped by war. It is here that the Koran says Muhammad ascended to heaven, that the Bible says Solomon erected his Temple, and Herod his, centuries later. Where the armies of Titus and Nebuchadnezzar left the detritus of conquerors, the blackened remains of subjugated people. All the paths of history cross here and the future, it would seem, will be born here as well. There is no place on earth more beloved, no place more broken, no place where peace is more elusive than the Dome of the Rock.

On a March afternoon, two millennia ago, in an olive grove overlooking the panorama that was Jerusalem, Jesus sat gazing at the golden dome. It was Herod’s dome then, not Muhammad’s, but it was no less a symbol of human longing for the divine. Earlier that day, he had wandered across its tiled floors, and visited the holy altar. His disciples had been overcome with religious ecstasy, but he was unimpressed. “One of these days, none of this will be here—there won’t even be a pile of stones to remind you of what this looked like.” And now his followers hovered close to the great rabbi, longing for an explanation. How could this be? When would it happen? How could God allow such an unthinkable thing to happen? And he began to tell them a story that broke their hearts.

The Temple would be burned, the center of Jewish life would be no more, all their hopes for a reborn dynasty of David would come to naught. They were stunned. But when?

“It will be like the time of Noah: when an entire society, focused only on its own plenty, came to a swift, terrible and tragic end.” He stops for a moment and looks back at the temple. He tells them that war is coming, and famine and pestilence. The natural order will be upended in earthquakes and even the heavens themselves will be turned inside out as storms rage across the globe, the sun and moon grow dark and the very stars plunge earthward in despair. In other words, the world will go on pretty much as it always has, with one small, but significant difference: their own knowledge that he would return suddenly to usher in the Kingdom of God. But you’ll notice he didn’t really answer their question, he just prepared them for the long journey to the end of the world.

So where does that leave us, removed as we are in time and place from that long ago olive grove? We believe, we claim, that Jesus will return in glory to judge the living and the dead and his Kingdom will have no end. But we live like it’s Noah’s time: marrying and giving in marriage, eating and drinking and taking no notice of the times and the seasons, unaware of the flood threatening to sweep us all away. Is it because we don’t really believe that the end of the world is close, closer than ever before? Is it because that seems like some kind of weird, cultic apocalypse, a poison Kool-aid of religious delusion?

Once the first disciples of Jesus died, the Church found itself in a difficult spot: the world had not ended. The decades stretched into centuries and still there was no Parousia, the coming of the King. Eventually the Church’s theologians reinterpreted Jesus’ Olivet discourse the way it did the rest of his hard words: they were to be taken no more seriously than his command to give our belongings to the poor or wash each others’ feet. They just meant that we had to go to church regularly, pay our tithes, baptize our children, with an occasional nod in the general direction of the Cross. Today, Jesus’ teachings about the end of the world have no more impact on us than do this morning’s comic strips. We have mortgages and student loans to pay and Christmas presents to buy. We don’t have time for living in the end of the world.

Since at least the fifth century the Church of Jesus Christ has been living as if nothing had changed when in fact, everything had: indeed the world ended, just like Jesus said it would. The world left in the wake of the death and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was an entirely new world and it was supposed to be populated by a human race reborn to new type of existence: founded on a simple principle: “love your neighbor as yourself.” It was not the first time a new world wilted on the soil of human unbelief.

Isaiah, the cantankerous prophet who lived eight centuries before Jesus, had foretold the coming of a new world with the collapse of the Israelite monarchy. It was to be a world where the nations streamed to the house of Yahweh, where they beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, where nobody studied war any more. But just as soon as the Jewish people had been freed from the domination of Assyria and Babylon, they took to studying the most effective forms of warfare they could, and it all unraveled.

For the first three centuries after Jesus, his followers retained some sense that they were citizens of a different country. No Christian killed under the banner of the Roman empire, and not a few soldiers who converted were martyred for laying down their arms rather than taking another human life. In the early third century, the Latin Christian Tertullian wrote that when Jesus had taken Peter’s sword from him in Gethsemane, “he disarmed every soldier.”

Not long after that, the Roman philosopher Celsus wrote a scathing attack upon Christians calling them enemies of the state. First, says Celsus, they had abandoned the reasonable and universal norms of polytheism and worship a crucified Jew who had been executed as a dangerous subversive. They were themselves dangerous to the social order because they refused to carry out their duties to the state and in particular, refused to serve in the Roman army. They remained callously indifferent to the needs of the empire, which was under constant attack from enemies without and insurgents within. Celsus believed that Christians were themselves part of the insurgency, terrorists plotting in secret to overthrow the Emperor. Celsus’ attack on the Church was answered by the great Christian writer Origen who replied that Celsus had it all wrong: Christians “no longer take the sword against any nations nor do we learn war any more since we have become the sons of peace through Jesus.” In fact, says Origen, Christians have a far more potent weapon than the sword: prayers for peace and conversion of combatants. This prayer is directed not against the enemy, but against the spiritual forces which divide the world into warring camps. The Christian does not pray for victory of one side in war against its enemy, but, using the spiritual weaponry of prayer, fights against war itself. Sadly for the Church, Christians themselves forgot the power of praying for their enemies.

At the turn of the fifth century, the bishop of the Egyptian city of Hippo found himself presiding over a diocese wracked by fear. The people begged their Bishop to do something–barbarians surrounded the gates. Bishop Augustine, who would become one of Christianity’s most beloved saints and theologians, found it necessary to end the new world and replace it with an even newer one, where wars could be fought in Jesus’ name and enemies, instead of being prayed for, could be slaughtered whenever the need arose. In fact, said Augustine, the Church could, to defend the purity of the faith, take up arms against Christians who deviated from the orthodox view. The Church learned war as never before.

Did Augustine’s new world last? By 430, the Vandals, who had first come from Germany into Roman Gaul in 406 and later passed through Gaul into Spain, had been invited into Africa by a Roman governor in rebellion against the emperor. The Vandals proved to be deadly allies. In the summer of 430 they were besieging the city of Hippo as the aged bishop lay dying within. Shortly after his death they captured the city. Not long after, they captured Carthage and established a kingdom that lasted a century. They left behind a Church that fought back, with weapons forged of iron. When, a couple centuries later, Islam arose, war became a principal method of spreading the message of the Church, which was only vaguely related to the Gospel of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

Three years ago, the war between the nominally Christian west and the Islamic world exploded on a late summer morning in New York and Washington. It had simmered for generations—indeed centuries, but this new turn took the whole earth to state of total religious war. The Church, as it has since Augustine, goes about its business with nary a thought of whether or not the war is just or whether Christians can participate in it. In the recent U.S. presidential race, the righteousness of war was unquestioned, as the candidates (each of whom claimed to be following Jesus) offered only boasts as to which one could more effectively destroy the enemy. According to pollsters, “moral values” were the deciding factor in the election. Apparently, those values did not include a stand on whether it is moral to slay another human being in the name of God.

Just like the people of Hippo, we live right now with the barbarians at our gates. And like Augustine’s flock, we believe that not only is war compatible with the teachings of Jesus, but it is a righteous and just thing to do, in fact, the only reasonable course of action. We have laid down our spiritual arms and taken up those used by people who have learned to make war in a most excellent fashion. We believe that our only hope is to kill our enemies before they kill us.

For the Church today, loving your neighbor as yourself does not mean loving your enemy and praying for those who hate you. I doubt whether there is a Christian congregation anywhere that would tolerate having Osama Bin Laden on their prayer list. Therefore, amidst the bankruptcy of Christian morality, we sleepwalk into a world-wide religious war.

Beloved, Paul says that it is now the moment for us “to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.”

Today begins a holy season of preparation and reflection, a time of hope and of expectation for the Prince of Peace. Advent should focus our awareness on areas of our lives in which violence and injustice continue to prevent the birth of real peace and reconciliation. We must acknowledge that Advent this year of our Lord 2004, is not a time in which God’s peace and justice prevail. However, it is a time when God’s Spirit can lead us to the paths that turn away from war and toward the vision of peace the Bible longs for. It is the time to begin to wage peace.

We have a great gift from the God who really is capable of all things, including rescuing a fearful and faithless Church. Each church year, we are presented again with an opportunity to live in a new world. Each Advent we are called to live in awareness that the old world has ended and the new has begun. Each Advent we are reminded that only thing that has ever brought peace to the world is love for other people. Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.

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