As a student of history, I’ve read many stories of war, multiple tales of battles won and lost, seemingly endless sagas of both tragedy and triumph on battlefields across the nation and around the globe. I’ve studied the political maneuverings that have both begun and ended wars in our country and abroad. From the American Revolution that precipitated the founding of our nation to the ongoing War in Afghanistan - the longest war in U.S. history - and every conflict in between, there have been both horror and heroics, terror and triumph, faith and failure. And those are just the wars that have involved our country. When we look elsewhere, in other times and other places, there is little doubt that the same holds true.
Ancient Israel was no stranger to war. They had battled for their very survival from almost the moment they were founded. Situated in a strategic crossroads of the Mediterranean, between Europe, Egypt, and the far East, Israel was prime real estate and everybody wanted to occupy it. In 722 BCE it was the Assyrian Empire who came rumbling through and took control. In 586 BCE it was the invading Babylonian Empire. After that came the Persian Empire, and shortly before Jesus’ time it was the Roman Empire who came calling. Israel knew war. They knew hardship. They knew strife. They knew hopelessness.
They had a long history of hopelessness.
They also had a long history of promised hope.
Isaiah the prophet of God offered hope in the midst of exile, and loss, and famine, and death, and war.
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
God’s house on the mountain - Zion - is an image that comes from the Exodus from Egypt, where God led the people to the mountain and made covenant, made promise with them to be their God. And Isaiah says that when God’s house is again established on the highest of the mountains, ALL the nations shall stream to it. ALL of the nations - friend and foe alike.
The word translated as “stream,” or “flow,” as in “stream like water” or “flow like a river,” the Hebrew naharu, also means “to shine in joyful radiance.”
Those who come to the mountain of God, those who will flow or stream to the home of God, will shine in God’s radiance, this suggests.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that God may teach us God’s ways
and that we may walk in God’s paths.”
What are God’s ways? What is God’s path? We have to go way back for that. Way back to…the last three weeks and our series on the Beatitudes, and that passage from the other prophet, Micah, who told us that the way of God, what God desires is for us to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.”
Funny how this all fits together when you look at it broadly and in context, isn’t it?
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
God shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
Hear that word - it says God will judge BETWEEN the nations, not JUDGE the nations, God will arbitrate, God will settle disputes between nations. Why? To what end?
To that Isaiah says,
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 2:1-4
The way of God is the way of peace - blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. The way of war is the way of darkness - deep darkness. God desires peace. Isaiah is a prophet. More than predictors of future events, prophets act as the voice of God to the world. Isaiah is telling Israel that God desires peace, God desires for them to learn, not war, but God’s ways of peace.
The prophet continues later in chapter 9:
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined…
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Parent, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
Now, Isaiah isn’t predicting the future here - or at least he doesn’t intend to. He’s pointing to a light that God is shining then and there, not 700 years later.
He’s talking about a person, a king. He’s likely talking about the boy King Josiah. Little did he know that Josiah, although he would be great king - perhaps the greatest since David - would not be the greatest light. It is only later, looking through the lens of Jesus Christ, that we can see that the child born for us, the son given to us, is not the boy king Josiah, but Jesus.
This is a prophetic vision of peace, and this would have been exactly what the Israel of Jesus’ time was looking for as well. In fact, Isaiah’s descriptions of a king who would bring them out from under oppression would be repeated by Luke and Matthew centuries later for much the same reason.
So while Isaiah was referring to a king of the southern kingdom of Judah in this reference, what this sets up is the people’s understanding that peace depended on just and compassionate rulers. In the so-called pax Romana, Caesar had created “peace” by suppressing human rights and violently throwing down protests, so the Jews had a great yearning for freedom, for light. How poignant would be the vision from Isaiah, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
God’s presence is associated with light throughout scripture, as we shall see every week in Advent. So, when we think about this passage, when we think about the passage I shared a moment ago including the word naharu, meaning both to stream or flow and to glow in radiance, an image or idea is created that as we move closer to God, as we grow more intimate with the Creator, God’s radiance shines on us, in us, and through us. As Jesus said, we are the light of the world. That is the symbolism in this series of the images of stars as the light of God, and in the lighting of Advent Candles in this season. Light represents God’s presence in and with us.
The other important image we find in these readings from Isaiah today is the iconic message of turning weapons of war into tools of gardening, of growing, and cultivating and nurturing. We are invited to use our ingenuity, our creativity, our energy for good and for building up, as opposed to tearing down or destroying.
The point here is not to begin a debate about war, but rather to acknowledge the effects of war and our human capacity to reach across divides and find our common humanity. This is the work of building up community that we are called to do. And this is poignantly expressed in the story of the WWI “Christmas truce” of 1914.
It’s a remarkable story that emerged from the front line trenches of WWI. Though accounts vary, it seems that in the week leading up to Christmas 1914, groups of German and British soldiers began to exchange seasonal greetings, cigarettes and songs between their trenches. The unofficial ceasefires allowed soldiers on both sides, up to 100,000 by some accounts, to venture out into No Man’s land - the stretch of land between the German and British trenches – to collect and bury the bodies of dead soldiers. One version of events has it that the Germans began singing “Stille Nacht”, “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve. British soldiers, recognizing the tune, joined in. Some groups of soldiers even finished up with a game of soccer together.
Actual letters from British soldiers who witnessed the truce give us a glimpse of that Christmas Eve on the Western Front 100 years ago. Here is what some of them said about what happened:
Reader 1: “The Germans started singing and lighting candles about 7:30 on Christmas Eve, and one of them challenged anyone of us to go across for a bottle of wine. One of our fellows accepted the challenge and took a big cake to exchange.”
Reader 2: “We came from our mouseholes and saw the English advancing towards us and waving cigarette boxes, handkerchiefs and towels. They had no rifles with them and there we know it could only be a greeting and that it was alright.”
Reader 3: “We had a church service and sang hymns, we met the Germans midway between the trenches and wished each other a ‘Merry Christmas’. We exchanged buttons, badges, caps, etc, and we all sang songs.”
Reader 4: “They gave us cigars and cigarettes and toffee and they told us they didn’t want to fight, but had to. Some could speak English as well as we could and some had worked in Manchester. The Germans seem very nice chaps who were awfully sick of the war.”
Reader 5: “We were able to move about the whole of Christmas Day with absolute freedom. It was a day of peace in war.... It is only a pity that it was not a decisive peace.”
Another soldier writes about how the truce came to an end at 3pm on Christmas day when a German officer called his men in:”
Reader 6: “A German soldier said to me ‘today (Christmas Day) nice; tomorrow, shoot.’ As he left me he held out his hand, which I accepted, and said: ‘Farewell, comrade.’ With that we parted....”
A truce is an attractive idea isn’t it?
“Truce” is an interesting word. In writing about it, Marcia McFee offers, “I love to discover the origins of words, and when I looked up ‘truce,’ I found that it comes from the root word for ‘faith, faithfulness, assurance of faith, covenant, truth, fidelity, promise.’ Now, all this is complex because we don’t advocate for a truce, or ‘silence,’ in order to sweep the concerns of tyranny and oppression aside, but that in the pursuit of justice, our covenant and promise is to the thriving of all humankind. In the silencing of war, if only for a day, we can hear the cries of the suffering of humanity and ask, ‘Is this the way out of the dark night or is there another way?’”
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined…
Our exploration of the hymn “Silent Night” for this Advent/Christmas season is a way of “shining a light” on the power of reaching across divides and getting silent enough to listen to the “hopes and fears of all the years” of those we tend to cast as the enemy (or simply “different”) for one reason or another.
This story offers a powerful reminder that, like that one person who issued the initial invitation to come out of the “mouseholes” and connect face to face, we each have the ability to reach across divides and connect because we are humans with common human needs and, deep down, we all have the desire for peace for ourselves and our children. It might just change the course of history, if only for a day.
Remembering this truce more than a century later isn’t just about what happened then. It’s about what we as God’s children - followers of the Prince of Peace - can do now, in the midst of conflict and fear in the 21st century. What we can do today, right now - this Christmas, to help our families, our communities, our world hang on to our humanity in the face of brutality?
What can we do to continue to love one another and to care about those we don’t even know, while so much around us shouts at us to hate and fear and give up on the real possibilities for peace and reconciliation?
How can we meaningfully pray for those we call enemies today as well as those who were enemies in 1914?
In the same way that British and German soldiers made a human to human connection with each other by sharing Christmas greetings and singing, we’re called to connect with those around us who are strangers, who don’t know the love of Christ, and to share a bit about who we are, to maybe sing the carol, ‘Silent Night’ together, and celebrate the Good News of God’s saving love coming to us as a baby on Christmas Day.
As children of God and disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to say ‘yes’ to the possibility of peace in a world of conflict by sharing the light and love of Christ with those we once called “enemy,” or might call “stranger.”
There is a saying that suggests “there are no atheists in foxholes,” that in the middle of a battle, in the midst of conflict, everyone is looking to God for salvation, regardless of their religious or non-religious beliefs.
Gareth Higgins, a peacemaker and theologian from Northern Ireland, who knows of war and conflict from all that has gone on in his country writes this,
“There are lots of ways to prevent violence, lots of ways to repair its consequences, lots of ways to build beloved community. In a polarized society there may be no more effective violence prevention measure than building bridges, or at least none more accessible. Get to know at least one person who votes differently. It’s not necessarily easy. But it is necessary. And the history of conflict transformation proves it works. Start with the person of different political views with whom you feel most comfortable. Just get to know each other. This is the work.”
As you leave worship today you will be given a resource on the little things that each of us can do to help build community.
Our scripture today, this song that we celebrate, this unlikely truce from a century ago, all remind us that our congregation, our community, our world is full of people who love life, long for peace, dream about a better future for their families, and struggle with the challenge of how to walk faithfully with God, and “sleep in heavenly peace.” May you shine the light of God on their path as well as your own in this most holy of seasons. Amen.