We cannot have peace in the nation or anywhere if peace is achieved at the expense of another’s rights. We have seen this in the passage of Proposition 8 in California and we have seen it in other parts of the country. Peace without justice is not peace. It is a so-called calm before a storm and the storm will build if it’s injustice is not addressed.
About six months ago, I attended the Baptist Peace Fellowship Board meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia. The family with whom I stayed had two small children and had a third one on the way. I asked how much maternity leave she was planning on taking once the baby was born. She said rather nonchalantly, “oh, a year.” She saw my jaw drop and explained that in Canada it’s common practice to give one year paid maternity leave followed by four years of unpaid leave with the guarantee that you could go back to your job if you so chose. She quipped, “yeah, we’re socialists here.” Their jaws dropped when I told them what the normal US citizen pays for health insurance. “How do folks afford it?” she asked. We know that plenty of people can’t afford it. And even if they have insurance, the deductibles are so high that when folks are sick it’s too expensive to go to a doctor. Is this the peace we imagine? What if we imagined a nation that took care of its own?
But peace in the nation is not only all of the conflicts and all of the things that are wrong. Peace in the nation also requires life-giving and life-saving initiatives. This is the peace in the nation that we seek.
Will Wilimon said that anyone can bring bad news, but it takes the Spirit to bring good news.
That’s where today’s scripture comes in. Isaiah 61 starts off by saying the Spirit of is upon me because God has anointed me to bring good news. And the good news is clearly political. It’s not just feel good stuff. It’s about food and health and the opening of then jails.
The prophesied Messiah was to come in part to help the nation reclaim its heritage and its soul. Quoting Isaiah, the Messiah, the promised one of Israel was to be the one who would get the nation to come back to its own. Remember that scripturally, the nation refers to Israel and the nations are the gentiles the outsiders. The fact that the nation of Israel started looking like the other nations was blasphemy. It was a mark against the purity of the state. Isaiah sought to restore the nation-state of Israel, but to do so laced with justice, mercy and righteousness.
Isaiah’s prophecy says in verse 8, “I YHWH, love justice. I hate robbery and wrongdoing.” If we could just remember that, just imagine what this nation might be.
In a world filled with cynicism, Isaiah’s words of hope sound almost too good to be true. Can you imagine what this means? It is God’s holy intention that the prisoners are set free. It is God’s holy intention that good news shall be brought to all those who are oppressed. Not just the good news that God loves you, but the good news that because God loves you and loves others, God’s children will create a world in which there will be no more hunger, no more homelessness, no more discrimination, no more alienation, no more joblessness, no more weapons, no more imprisonment out of fear and prejudice. In short—no more business as usual. God will comfort those who mourn and replace their mourning with gladness. The ashes that we used to wear on our heads will become a turban, a garland. And God’s people will have an attitude of praise in their hearts and in their souls, not an attitude of routine, and a subsequent faintness of spirit. When that happens, there is peace on earth, good will to all people.
“I, YHWH love justice. I hate robbery and wrongdoing…with you, I will make an everlasting covenant.” If you embrace justice, if you put an end to wrongdoing, then you will enjoy the fruits of this covenant. Surely this is the vision we need today. But it’s hard, we’re fallible people who have a penchant for messing up even the lushest gardens and amazing promises of the nations. Let’s take a short trip down Biblical memory lane and you’ll see what I mean:
The book of Genesis speaks of the wonder of the very first couple. For them and for all of us this world was made. All they had to do was keep away from one tree. They chose not to and were banished from the garden.
Centuries later, God got fed up with the extent of the sin and inhumanity of the world and caused a huge flood to overcome the world. Noah’s family and a boatful of animals stepped onto dry land after many months on the waters encouraged by a covenant from God which said, “I shall never again curse the ground because of humankind…nor will I destroy every living creature as I have done.” (Genesis 8:21)
God then chose a people through Abraham and Sarah whose children would create a multitude of nations. God said that God would give them more descendants than anyone could count. All you and your children need to do is keep my covenant.
A few centuries later, when Abraham and Sarah’s descendant were held as slaves in Egypt, God raised up a man named Moses who said the difficult words to Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” After ten plagues and a military pursuit, they crossed the red sea and began the forty-year journey to the Promised Land. All God asked was that they follow the commandments. “For I, YHWH, love justice. I hate robbery and wrong.”
But the people were not satisfied to be ruled by God. They wanted to have a king, just like all of the other nations. So, Saul and then David were appointed Kings of Israel. But a bit too hungry for power, they began the process of leading the people astray. How easy it was, they found out, when e have an earthly rule, to ignore the rule of God. God began to take a back seat to power struggles within and beyond Israel.
Israel divided into two kingdoms, a north and a south, strangely reminiscent of our own country’s history. The northern kingdom eventually fell, as did the southern kingdom 150 years later. The people had lost the Promised Land. There was no peace in their nation. They had not held up their end of the bargain. They had not kept the covenant with God. Remember, God does not want sacrifices, our lip service, or even our praise. God wants us to do right. “For I, YHWH, love justice. I hate robbery and wrongdoing.”
But just when the people thought all was lost, Cryus of Persia announced an amnesty program and let the people of Israel return to their homeland. And they found there a land of destruction and desolation. They mourned even more. The people were oppressed, brokenhearted, prisoners of another country and prisoners of their own faithlessness. They were captives in a foreign land where they found it quite difficult to sing the sacred songs.
And it is to these people that God spoke through Isaiah. (Third Isaiah, the so-called prophet of hope, is generally believed to have written chapters 55-66 of the book of Isaiah). Isaiah says ala Bob Dylan, “the times they are a-changing.” Behold, a new day is dawning. It is the year of the Lord’s favor. To these people, Isaiah says:
“The Spirit of God is upon me because God has anointed me;
God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
To bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And release to the prisoners….
To comfort all who mourn…
To give them a garland instead of ashes,
The oil of gladness instead of mourning,
A mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of justice,
The planting of God.” (Isaiah 61:1-3)
The people heeded the words of Third Isaiah for a while. The people rebuilt the temple and tried to make a go of it as a nation under God once again. But within a few hundred years they were again controlled by powers outside themselves and the once proud nation of Israel became a vassal state of the Roman Empire. The people tried to keep connection with God, but did so mostly by keeping the feasts and by having the form of religion. They followed all sorts of outdated restrictive rules and unfortunately ignored justice and justified their own wrongdoing and robbery. Does this sound familiar?
The people had all but lost their sense of hope once again. That is until a carpenter-turned-evangelist stood up in Nazareth and read the holy and hopeful words of Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim the release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of God’s favor.”(Luke 4:18-19)
When Jesus finished reading from the scroll, he sat down and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” You have another chance. You can start again. And for Jesus’ short life, many wonderful miracles occurred, the most important of which had to do with making religion once again relevant to people and encouraging people to once again do right by God.
Neither the empire nor the religious establishment liked the message. But the message still gives hope to those left out by the goings on in places like Washington or Baghdad or Darfur. The prophet’s words tell us that all we need to do is live up to our end of the covenant. “And lo, I will be with you always, even unto the end of time.”
How do we imagine peace in the nation? We do it by remembering the words of Isaiah and the words of Jesus. It’s about justice and peace. It’s about treating people with respect. It’s about clawing our way out of the morass of cynicism and doubt to realize that we have nothing less than the prophets of God on our side, if we just remember their words. May we do our part to help imagine peace in our nation as we await the coming of the prince of peace on Christmas.