Byron C. Bangert

First Presbterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana

Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12

If you want peace . . . IF you want peace? Who does not want peace? Of course we all want peace. Who likes conflict? or violence? or war? Not even the Generals want war!

If you want peace, prepare for war. That's the conventional wisdom of many political and military leaders. The surest way to avoid conflict and violence and war is to be fully prepared to counter the attacks of the enemy. If and when it is clear that there is nothing to be gained by war, then rational human beings will not engage in it. So, in the nuclear age, we have come to know about and practice M.A.D.--mutual assured destruction. If the enemy--whoever that is these days is not so clear as once it was--but, if the enemy knows that we can wipe them out, and if we know that they can wipe us out, then neither of us will have any incentive to go to war.

There is a clear logic at work here. It makes perfect sense, so long as you can count on the enemy to be rational and reasonable. And so long as it is not possible for fatal mistakes to be made. Mutual assured destruction may even work for a while with an irrational enemy, with an enemy who will not listen to reason. Sometimes the only thing that will stop the violence of another is the clear and certain threat that any violence will be met with even greater violence.

But the checking of one power by an equal or greater power is hardly a stable situation. The absence of war is not the same as peace. The wolf and the lamb may be persuaded to lie down together, but the lamb will not get much sleep. Not so long as the wolf has the capacity and inclination to behave like a wolf. It is not sufficient to thwart the impulses toward violence or war. Peace requires a material transformation in circumstances. There must be a seismic shift in the configurations of power, in the distribution of resources, in the lay of the land. The grounds for war must give way to grounds for peace.

The challenge of making peace is not, ironically, the challenge of avoiding conflict and war. It is the challenge of finding creative ways to transform the conditions that make for conflict into conditions that make for peace. That is a very difficult challenge, because it requires a willingness to engage in a certain amount of conflict in order to create a certain kind of change that is necessary before peace can be found.

Doug King, former chaplain at Hanover College and brother to one of our two Jack Kings, wrote a few years ago:

[I]f we have learned anything from our church's years of commitment to peacemaking, it is that peace cannot be achieved by avoiding conflict. The words of Pople John XXIII need to be remembered again: "If you want peace, work for justice." And working for justice will involve conflict--conflict between those who have power and those who don't, those who have wealth and those who are poor, those who are included in the society and those who are left out. [NETWORK NEWS, Summer 1995, p. 2]

If you want peace, work for justice--but don't expect to avoid all conflict in the process.

Doug King wrote that this is something we have been taught by Pope John XXIII, and that we have learned from our church's commitment to peacemaking. It is also, of course, a profoundly biblical insight. In our text this morning from Isaiah we have this wonderful utopian vision of a "peaceable kingdom"--a world in which the wolf and the lamb will dwell in harmony, in which the cow and the bear shall graze together, in which the nursing child shall play over the hole of a venoumous viper, and no one will be hurt, and no one will destroy.

But notice the verses that come before this inspiring vision. They concern the one upon whom shall rest God's spirit, a spirit of wisdom and understanding and counsel and might and knowledge and fear of the LORD. This servant of God, this leader of God's people, shall not judge by what his eyes see, says Isaiah, nor shall he decide by what his ears hear. This could mean that he will not judge on the basis of appearances, or on the basis of what people say. It surely means that he will not judge in conformity to the ways things are taken to be. Rather, with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. His mission is one of establishing justice. It is one of pursuing what is right and fair. It is one of transforming the circumstances on behalf of those who have been disadvantaged because of wrong-doing and injustice. In other words, there can hardly be peace without the work of justice.

Little is said here about how this justice is to be accomplished. This is a vision, after all, not a plan of operation. But enough is said to indicate that there will be a word of judgment, some kind of conflict, some disturbance of the existing order: "[H]e shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked." The message of judgment is integral to the work of justice, and the work of justice is prerequisite to the accomplishment of peace.

This brings us to our New Testament text, and to a confrontation with that strange figure we call John the Baptist. Every year the lectionary for the Second Sunday of Advent would have us read about this fellow with the leather belt and the camel's hair clothes who hung out in the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey. Here we are, getting ready to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child, and John the Baptist gets thrown up in our face. "Repent," he says, "for the kingdom of heaven has come near." Change your ways. Put your house in order. Get baptized.

John's message is essentially a word of judgment, a call to repentance, to righteousness, to justice. It is a call to re-order the world, or rather, to get ourselves ready for its re-ordering by God. It is not a tactful message: "You brood of vipers," he says to those called Pharisees and Sadducees. "Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" You must change your ways, and bear fruits of repentance. You cannot count on your ancestry, or your pedigree, your piety or your social standing. A day of reckoning is coming when the your grain will be winnowed and the chaff burned with fire.

John the Baptist was for real, and early Christians had to find some way to come to terms with him and his disciples. His message appears to have had a sharper edge, a harsher tone, a less sympathetic and more judgmental character, than that of Jesus, who spoke of God's kingdom not only in terms of judgment but also in terms of love. Finally, what early Christians saw in John was someone who helped prepare the way for Jesus.

Whatever historical truth resides in this understanding, there is also a profound spiritual truth. If we are to grasp the message of love and forgiveness, reconciliation and peace, we may need first to hear the message of judgment, the demand for righteousness, the insistence upon authenticity and integrity and justice. The good news about Jesus coming into our world is not just an invitation to cuddle up to some babe in a manger. It is a call to make crooked paths straight, to relinquish the perquisites of false piety and get real, to become bearers of good fruit. The role that John the Baptist plays is to impress upon us the fact that the good news of Jesus Christ is meaningless, empty, vain, apart from the recognition that we and our relationships and our world stand in dire need of transformation. This transformation is a work of righteousness and justice as well as forgiveness and love. It requires a re-ordering of values, a redistribution of power, a reconfiguring of relationships, a material alteration in our circumstances, a real change in our ways.

Surely we all want peace--in our families, in our personal relationships, in our business dealings, in our work, in our church, in our neighborhoods, in our town, in our society and nation and world. Sometimes, however, it seems we can do no better than a standoff or stalemate, a ceasing and desisting without laying down our arms, a mere checking of power with power. Other times, we could do much better, but we are not willing to pay the price of peace. If there is ever to be peace, the grounds for conflict must be confronted and, if possible, changed--transformed into grounds for peace. As scripture testifies, and as Jesus himself reveals, this is a work of justice as well as a work of love. AMEN.