Sermon delivered by Joel Snider, pastor of FirstBaptistChurch in Rome, Ga., on December 6, 2009.
You will recall perhaps an old pre-perestroika Russian story of the Russian exhibition at a world’s fair. The title of the Russian exhibition was “World Peace,” and it featured a large cage in which a lamb and a Russian wolf were living peacefully together, a living witness to Isaiah’s vision where the wolf and the lamb lie down together in the peaceable kingdom. The exhibit was impressive, needless to say, attracting great curiosity, and somebody ultimately asked the Russian curator, “However do you do it?” To which the curator replied, “Oh, it is really very simple: we replace the lamb every morning.”
Our Advent season is directed by different periods of our 175 year history. Over the course of the last half year, we have talked about some grand moments in the church’s history, some moments where the church was a very strong leader and groundbreaker in many things. Unfortunately, the period for today is a dark time in terms of circumstances in the mid 1860’s.
One of the things I learned in doing research for this is that there are a lot of different versions about what happened. It is amazing how you think you have the official line only to have someone else say, “Well, you know it really didn’t happen that way.” I am going to tell it the best I know it, and if anyone has any corrections, I will be glad to make note of them.
This really was a strategic place in the mid 1860’s. With the rivers needing to be crossed for troop movement and some foundries that were in the area, in 1863, Colonel Abel Strait, Union officer, made a pass across from Gadsden coming toward Rome, and as many of you may know, General Nathan Bedford Forrest whose motto was “Be the firstest with the mostest” was the firstest with the mostest here in Rome and saved Rome from that particular raid. But it became apparent that would not be the end of it so the city began to build fortifications—FortStovall, FortNorton, and FortAttaway—and Rome became a very heavily fortified town.
In May of 1864, a Union general with the very unusual name of Jefferson Davis, believe it or not, (he was no relation to the President of the Confederacy) began an attack on Rome. They thought it would be very difficult because of the fortifications built here, but under the cover of night, the Southern forces withdrew, the Union forces were able to come in, and for the better part of six months, Rome was occupied. During those six months, the Presbyterian and Methodist churches were used as depots. I was told that the Presbyterian church was used to store food and the Methodist church was used to store ammunition.
The FirstBaptistChurch, at that time, was in the present location and First Baptist and the Episcopal church were used as hospitals. Many of you may know that the basement of First Baptist, at that time, was used as stables for officers’ horses. You can imagine after six months what the status of the building was. During that time, people left Rome. As they knew the battle was coming and as the occupation continued, people left. We know that in January of 1864, the church was pretty much shut down. There were no services from the beginning of 1864 until October 1865. There were not many people left in town.
Of course, the picture that is on the cover of the worship bulletin today is a picture of General Sherman’s staff. It is often thought that Sherman is actually in this picture, but most people believe he is not but it is his staff. The picture is taken two blocks up the street from the church on East Fourth Avenue. It was there that Sealed Order 115 was put into operation, and Rome was the first victim of Sherman’s March to the Sea.
On November 10 and 11, the order was given and just about everything in the downtown area at that time was burned. The churches were spared. The estimate was that by the time the Union forces pulled out and went to Kingston and from there went to Atlanta and then Savannah, there were only 40 people left in Rome. Of course, after that, as always happens where there is a vacuum of that sort, it was a lawless period in which marauding bands of deserters and people who took advantage of the fact that there was no order came in and out. It was a very dark period in the history of our city.
There were 40 people left; the church had been used as a hospital for months; it had been used as a stable for months; there was no preacher; there was no worship held at the church. I am sure people worshiped together in their homes but there was nothing at the church.
You can imagine that if prayers were offered up on that Christmas in 1864 anywhere in the vicinity of this downtown area that people were praying for peace. Surely, people were praying that peace would come and all of the tragedy, heartache, and human suffering would go away and that peace would come again. Christmas is the promise of so many things but sometimes just call for peace.
Christmas asks us to think of the highest and noblest. When we think about scripture passages that accompany Christmas worship, we think about Isaiah talking about the child that will be born and all the titles associated with that child—Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace. What is it that the angels say to the shepherds who were abiding in their fields by night, “Peace on earth and goodwill toward everyone?”
There is hardly a carol that we sing that somewhere doesn’t have in at least one stanza some mention of the hope or the promise of peace with Christmas. However, the truth is there is not really much of it in this life, is there? As we think about the last century, there is not much peace. It won’t be too many years before we approach the 100th anniversary of World War I. There are people in our congregation who are veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. Those are just American conflicts, not to mention the others that we have known in the last century.
There is really not much peace in our personal lives either so much so that when a person dies, we say things like, “Now he is at peace. I hope she rests in peace.” But the Bible won’t stop with its images of peace. There are so many associated with God’s reign coming at the end of the age and with God’s reign coming with the Messiah. We have the great passage from Isaiah 2 about beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. It appears elsewhere in the New Testament. It was an image that rang true in the hearts of people that a day would come when they would take their swords and turn them into farm implements and turn them into tools that they could use to tend the orchards and never have to learn war anymore.
But there were other images. The image of a lion with a lamb. The image of a table set before us in the presence of our enemies. A great feast in which all the nations of the world gather around.
Sometimes we have to wonder if there is not a little bait and switch in the promise of peace at Christmas. Can God really deliver on the promise of peace?
As we read the passage from Isaiah 2, we have to realize that it is not a promise of magical peace. The people have the desire to come to the presence of God to learn the ways of God. Come, let us go that God may teach us. Then it talks about the word going out. The peace that comes in this image is a peace that comes from learning the ways of the Lord. It doesn’t say in this particular passage what they will learn, but if we take what we know, particularly from other places in Isaiah and the rest of the prophecies about the coming of Christ, there are three particular things that are important for peace. The first is God’s righteousness. All the prophets talk about God coming with his righteousness. In the New Testament, Jesus talks about, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Think about it logically. Is it possible to have peace without people who are moral? Is it possible that nations should have peace if they are not doing what God asks people to do?
When we complain sometimes about not having peace in our own lives, can we always point to our own morality and righteousness or don’t we recognize that a lot of times the things that are unsettling are the result of things which God would have us cut out of our lives. If we want to excuse something we say, “It is just a little white lie,” but little white lies lead to bigger lies and lies undermine trust. If we are not righteous in the area of being honorable and having trust in each other, how can we have peace?
Let us just be candid. So much of our culture is based on satisfying personal selfishness. How can there ever be a world of peace where people genuinely share, where people are compassionate with other people, if we are always selfish, greedy or envious. I have not even listed the sins of the flesh that most preachers want to talk about. But how can there truly be peace in my heart if I do not hunger and thirst for righteousness and if I do not at least make an effort to try to be the kind of person that reflects the character of God in the world?
If we want the Christmas peace and we think about what the nations say, “Come let us go that God may teach us,” somewhere along the way we have to learn that righteousness comes before peace. I am sure this is true for you. I know it is true for me. I am not always righteous. I don’t always do the right thing. The word that comes to us is repentance. If we are not righteous, then how do we stop and turn from the path that we are headed in and begin on the path that takes us toward the things of God?
In our celebration of Advent, we would just really like to make it four mini-Sundays of extra Christmas. The true season of Advent is a season of repentance. It is the season of remembering that Christ’s birth is so special and that Christ’s birth is light, hope, peace, joy, and love and most of our lives need to turn away from things that are not right in order to make our lives ready to receive Christ again. While righteousness is a requirement, we all recognize that we are going to fall short of that, but the gift of repentance allows us to drop those barriers, to stop those things, to open our lives to the ways of God so that the peace of God can come and be a part.
Then, of course, there is grace, forgiveness, and mercy. When we are on the end of repentance toward someone, it doesn’t really heal us if they just keep hammering us, does it? It doesn’t really heal us if we just keep hearing time and time again how we failed and what we did wrong. The thing that is so glorious about the forgiveness and the mercy of God is that when we turn in repentance, we find grace and forgiveness. We need to recognize that if there is ever going to be peace in the world, there will always have to be somebody who says, “I’m sorry,” and somebody who responds in grace. The real tricky thing about this is that it’s always changing. If there is going to be peace in my relationship, sometimes I’m the person who needs to repent and you need to be gracious to me. There are other times when you need to repent and I need to be gracious to you. One of the things that I have learned in life is it just doesn’t pay to be too haughty because sooner or later if you practice that, you are going to be the person who needs grace from somebody else. You are going to be the person who needs mercy from someone. If righteousness is our goal to live according to the way that God would have us live, to live after the model of Jesus Christ, to live in a way that reflects the very heart of God in the world, if we find ourselves not doing that, if we will repent and turn, what is the barrier then to peace? There is a verse in Micah where he says, “What does the Lord require, but to love justice, to do mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.” He gets all three of those right there. If we do those three things, what will stop us from having peace?
When we think of peace, I will have to confess that in my mind, the first thing I go to is peace between nations, peace related to war in the world, because there is so much of it. I wonder sometimes why I, or people like me, expect nations to be the place where peace breaks out. I can’t really do a lot about the conflicts in the world. I can’t do much about Israel and Iran. I can’t do much about the United States and Afghanistan. I can’t do much about the craziness in Africa that just seems to export from nation to nation all the time, but I can do something about the peace in my life. I can aim to do the right thing, and I can aim to take my stand on repentance when I am not right. I can do something about being gracious when a person tries to turn and repent and make up in some wrong that has been done to me.
We can’t do much about alliances and peace treaties. But all of us face sisters who fight over mama’s money, brothers who haven’t spoken for so many years that they can’t even remember why, children who won’t come home and parents who don’t want them at home. In each of these situations there is something we can do. The peace of Christmas can break out in my relationships if I would but learn these things.
There are times that call for peace. A time in a nation’s history, a time in my life or your life, a time in the lives of various families. I can’t stop what goes on in Darfur but I can let peace break out around me.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.