Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Biblical Vision of Peace (Micah 4:1-5)

When the ‘First World War’ ended on November 11th 1918, it was generally hoped that this was ‘the war to end all wars’. This was because of the horrific cost on all sides. However, hopes were soon dashed. Following times of conflict, peace is always uppermost in people’s minds. However, it doesn’t take long for peace to be taken for granted, and for ideas about certain conquests to quickly gain adherents. Is this because people, generation after generation, have not appreciated nor grasped God’s heart for peace?!

In the 8th Century BCE, both Micah and Isaiah received words from God about future times when there would be peace. They both attributed this to the time that would follow the Assyrian conquest over Israel and the subsequent exile. When God’s people were able to return to their own land, surely there would be peace. Surely people so affected, and so well aware of God’s teaching, would take the need for peace seriously. Surely they would give new priority to their relationship with God!

The sad fact is that human history has hardly seen a time when violence and war ceased. But nonetheless, here we have both prophets, 2800 years ago, speaking identical words that hope for peace. They understood where God’s heart was at, so were not deterred from delivering what was really a timeless vision for peace. The question is: what do we do with it? In an age of global friction and conflict, how do Jesus-followers respond to such inspired vision???

It was sin that destroyed the first peace, and sin continues to destroy possibilities of peace. Disobedience brought a heavy load. God’s gift of paradise was soon further marred by Cain killing his brother Abel (Genesis 4). Person against person; nation against nation. But in the midst of all this, God is calling his people to embrace this vision of peace. “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Micah 4:3b & Isaiah 2:4b). Presented here is the end of all intent and training toward physical conflict. Here also we read about some very effective recycling. Weapons (“swords” and “spears”), that are no longer needed, are converted into farming implements (“ploughshares” and “pruning hooks”). “Ploughshares” cultivate the soil to allow for new crops, and “pruning hooks” cut back to promote the right sort of growth. So, hardware that previously destroyed, has been re-purposed towards the wise production of food. Such words are so relevant in a time where military expenditure increases to the detriment of the poor around the world. Even a military man like US President Eisenhower from around sixty years ago was willing to admit that, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed”.

Micah then continues to talk about nations being content to sit under their own vines and fig trees because no one is making them afraid (4:4). Of course “peace” is more than the absence of war, it is also the absence of fear. The Old Testament Hebrew word “shalom” refers to a person’s sense of total well-being, especially in their relationships with their neighbours, the rest of creation, and God. “Shalom” means to live in harmony with others and thus to experience a personal wholeness. In ancient Israel, a person could not really be said to be at peace (“shalom”) if any of their neighbours were being oppressed. The New Testament Greek word “eirene” also refers to well-being, harmony, health, and also to being out-of-danger, and gaining contentment and rest.

So many circumstances in life can upset the peace. People find themselves anxious for many reasons. Issues come up in families, workplaces, schools, even churches that cause disruption. Of course, it is conflict, whether it be personal or military, that is the greatest enemy to peace. And it is the propensity of human beings to find themselves within violent conflict that the prophets are primarily addressing. For violent conflict is the most public and far-reaching output of broken and sinful hearts. Now some might think that this vision of Micah (and Isaiah) is only possible in another world i.e. either in a divinely transformed ‘new earth’, or in heaven itself, not this world. Well maybe ultimately that is true. And because “the mouth of the Lord has spoken”, this peace will at some stage become a fulfilled reality.

But, if this is truly the way of God or the heart of God, then we would have to embrace this in the here and now. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray (the Lord’s prayer), he included this: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. The prophets here actually give us great incentive towards peacemaking, based on the positive expectations of what God will ultimately achieve. “The prophets’ use of their future vision … was designed to effect response and change in the present” (CJH Wright).

There are many things we can turn our minds to. What are the attitudes and actions that bring disharmony and destroy the possibility of peace??
·        Ego, pride, the desire for power, control & domination,
·        Jealousy, unrestrained competitiveness, greed,
·        Racism, intolerance, judgementalism, perfectionism (where others will never measure up or be acceptable),
·        Violence; physical, emotional & spiritual abuse; bullying;
·        Bitterness, unforgiveness;
·        Also, where we leave imposed poverty and inequity unchallenged.

 Okay, so where do we make a start on this??? How do we embrace this vision of peace?

(1) In prayer

We acknowledge that God is a God of peace, and desires peace on earth. Some may say that there are stories contrary to this in the Old Testament. But before we deny that God is first and foremost and holistically a God of peace, we would need to carefully look at those incidents and ask ourselves a series of questions, in terms of what and why. It became a very complex world the day sin entered. But I think we can simplify things a bit as we acknowledge that God wants all humankind to live in harmony – this is the vision of the ‘Garden of Eden’, restated by the prophets, epitomised by Jesus.

So we pray for peace on earth – goodwill to humanity. We pray that people would be reconciled with the people they are at war with, whether this be nation against nation, or person against person. And we pray that those people who seek to inflict terror on others will be caused to stop; praying that any action taken against such terror will be properly and carefully measured.  And we pray that such peace comes with justice, where people groups have the right to freely and equally pursue their wellbeing and goals. For the absence of conflict without justice is not peace. Like when Jesus threw the traders out of the temple because of their corrupt behaviour, sometimes confrontation, that has been prayerfully considered, is necessary.

The context of these verses, both in Micah and Isaiah, suggest that this peace will only become a reality, if nations are willing to submit to the Word that comes forth from God … which demands a change of heart (i.e. repentance). If there is no real change of heart, peace may be an illusion that won’t last long. So we pray for people to come to their senses, step aside from their selfish and pride-filled ways, and seek after the truth. Then there will be a greater understanding of right as against wrong. Peace will not have to be forced, but rather be embraced naturally. Parochial nationalistic or religious thinking will give way to the Kingdom of Jesus. Injustice itself will bow to Jesus. Revenge and war will no longer be the response of choice!

Prayer also reminds us that no matter how bad things appear, God is with us! This understanding in itself brings benefits: the settling of anxiety, calming of fear, gaining of insight and improvement in decision-making.

(2) In us

We ask ourselves … ‘how should we live in light of this’? We make a personal commitment to seek to live a life of peace ourselves! Following those verses where the weapons of war become the tools of peaceful vocation, Isaiah writes, “O house of Jacob [referring to God’s people, God’s household], come, let us walk in the light of the Lord” (2:5)! We know where God’s heart is. We know what God is like … we look at Jesus. So we are to walk in this light. Paul says, “So far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). But this is easier said than done! We can so easily be provoked to act otherwise. Where do we go then??

We first need to experience the inner peace that comes from having peace with God. We need to have our personal demons dealt with. We need the forgiveness and the freedom that comes from knowing we have the gracious gift of salvation. This comes from accepting that what Jesus did on the cross applies to us and our sin. This comes from laying ourselves bare before the mercy of God and being restored. This comes from emerging as a new person in relationship with God and following the risen Jesus as our Lord. Paul nailed this idea in Romans when he wrote, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (5:1-2). It is because of this personal peace, which becomes more and more evident (or should), that we can live in peace with others. God’s peace is part of our experience of salvation. We can either resist this, or get with the program.

(3) In action

Now this matter of living in peace is not just about staying out of conflict – it is actually more proactive than that. Jesus called us to be peace-makers, not just lovers of peace, or theorists about peace, but peace-makers. We are thus prepared to go out of our way to create the sort of peace envisioned by God’s prophets. This is about restoring some of what has been lost.

Now I’m sure the first disciples were particularly concerned about this calling in their time. In John’s Gospel, Jesus promised not to leave them unequipped, and breathed on them with the Holy Spirit. This seems to be a forerunner to the mass arrival of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (covered in the Book of Acts). And in John (14:26-27), Jesus links the Holy Spirit with a special measure of Jesus’ own peace. “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Who are the peace-makers??
·        Those who model peaceful living and neighbourly love – the community-minded, the generous, the calm;
·        Those who bring people together into harmonious relationships,
·        Those who stand up for and offer material support to the poor, vulnerable and oppressed,
·        Those who bring comfort, encouragement and new hope to the lonely, addicted and desperate,
·        Those who can forgive;
·        Those who guide people towards a relationship with God through Jesus.

 There is a natural benefit for peace-making: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). The act of peace-making identifies a person as one, not just made in the image of God, but living as one made in the image of God. Being a peace-maker simply requires us to wholly and utterly follow the ‘Prince of Peace’ – Jesus. Jesus was the living example of peace in his life, the initiator of the gift of peace from the cross, and is the abiding presence of peace through the Holy Spirit.

 Closing Prayer: (2 Thessalonians 3:16) “Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in all ways. The Lord be with all of you.”

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