This sermon was delivered by Wendell L. Griffen, pastor of NewMillenniumChurch in Little Rock, Ark, on December 13 2009.
A “paradox” is a statement that appears to be self-contradictory, yet may be true when considered more carefully. One example of a paradoxical statement is “less is more.” How can less be more? Less and more are opposites. There is tension even in considering the two terms to be related, except as opposites. Yet, as one considers the statement more carefully, it is possible to understand how less can truly be more. A room that is less cluttered is more spacious. A person who is less busy may be more rested. The tension of the paradox forces us to think more carefully, to ponder, reflect and reason within ourselves about what the statement truly means.
So Preacher, where is the self-contradiction in the term “Advent peace”? What is supposed to be self-contradictory about calling, hoping, and singing, praying, and preaching for an era when the world will be ruled in justice and peace by a coming Messiah? What is the tension in thinking about that coming with joyful hope and hopeful joy as we sing Joy to the World, The Savior Comes and O Come, All Ye Faithful?
On this Third Sunday of Advent our congregation re-lights the purple candles of Hope (for the first Sunday) and Peace (lit on the second Sunday). Then we light a pink or rose-colored candle—the candle of Joy. We sing of hope, joy, and peace as we look toward the return of Jesus Christ, as our Redeemer to be sure, but more importantly as our Ruler. The dominant color in the sanctuary during Advent season is purple or royal blue, symbolizing the expected return of our Ruler, and our anticipation that the reign of Christ promises hope, peace, and joy for the world. We joyously hope for an age of justice and peace and reflect about the gift of God’s Christ with us in Jesus. Where is the self-contradiction and tension—the paradox—in that hope, peace, and joy?
Part of my duty as a pastor is to help us view every experience, including our expectations, within the contexts of human history and divine purpose. As we consider the exhortations to rejoice in Zephaniah, Philippians, and Isaiah, and the stern warnings of judgment by John the Baptist in Luke, there is a very real tension. What do the joyful hope and hopeful joy mentioned in Zephaniah, Philippians, and Isaiah have to do with the stern warnings uttered by John the Baptist? And if there is some relationship, how can it produce peace?
Viewed in that context, the passages we meet today highlight what I term “the paradox of Advent peace.” The passage from Zephaniah 3 is a call to a redeemed community to rejoice. Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! However, these are some of the first joyful and hopeful words we read in Zephaniah. Contrast them with these words at Zephaniah 1:17-18: I will bring such distress upon people that they shall walk like the blind; because they have sinned against the LORD, their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung. Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the LORD’s wrath; in the fire of his passion the whole earth shall be consumed … The call to joyful singing appears only after dramatic warnings of judgment, as the prophet reviews the great wickedness and oppressive injustice that exists. Zephaniah’s call to sing for joy is a paradox.
In Philippians 4, Paul writes, Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice… Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. The paradox arises out of the context from which Paul wrote it. He was under arrest in Rome. His enemies in religion had joined forces with political operatives to brand Paul and the gospel of Jesus
Christ as subversive. Paul’s call to rejoice is a paradox.
The paradox of joyful song we read in Isaiah 12 that promises God’s presence arises from the context of awesome warnings of divine judgment on a corrupt Israel and oppressive other societies found elsewhere in Isaiah. The time when the prophet wrote those words was not joyful because the world he knew was not just. The joyful song was inspired by hope that a new order would come. A new government would do away with crooked rulers and wicked societies. The song of joy is a paradox.
And John’s preaching must be seen as paradoxical. His gospel called people to repentance, not relaxation. People expected a Messiah, but they didn’t hear John telling them to that all was well. John’s gospel spoke of a Messiah who will separate the righteous from the wicked. John called people out—You brood [children] of vipers [poisonous serpents]! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? John’s gospel of salvation was uttered from the context of divine judgment. As such, it is a paradox.
And today, the notion of Advent peace is full of paradoxical tension when we seriously ponder the context from which we rejoice, give thanks, hope, and wait for divine peace.
· In the past week, the long effort to enact legislation that will make it possible to for Americans to obtain more affordable healthcare insurance was turned back by several politicians—including Senator Blanche Lincoln from Arkansas—who rejected the idea of allowing people to obtain that insurance with government assistance. Senator Lincoln opposed a public option to help struggling families obtain healthcare insurance. She has never opposed the publicly funded crop insurance program that covers farmers.
· In the past week, President Obama accepted the world’s leading prize for peace—the Nobel Prize—days after he announced plans to send 30,000 more American troops to Afghanistan.
· In the past year, the U.S. government has loaned billions of dollars to rescue companies like General Motors, Bank of America, AIG, and Goldman Sachs—companies run by millionaires. Meanwhile, the government has refused to provide direct funding to millions of people who are threatened by home foreclosures, bankruptcies because of mounting medical bills, and loss of their jobs.
I mention these things to remind us that the promises we read about in Scriptures and sing about during Advent season are paradoxical for us, even as they were for the prophets and apostles of the Bible. Those promises bristle with tension between unjust and wicked conditions of human government and society and the justice and peace that will exist when Christ returns to reign. The promises bristle with the urgent imperative for repentance and turning from wickedness and injustice to divine righteousness and salvation. The promises bristle with warnings of divine wrath about wickedness and injustice. The promises bristle with tension about judgment by a divine Judge whose power will not be poll-driven or PAC-driven, but Righteousness Driven.
Some people do not want to be disturbed about poverty, war, greed, and the way people in power cater to the powerful rather than care for the powerless. They want religious faith and worship to allow them to escape that reality, not confront it and their involvement with it. They do not seek the paradoxical peace of Advent but a different peace that another preacher spoke about more than fifty years ago in a sermon after a black woman named Autherine Lucy was dismissed by the president and trustees of the University of Alabama because of mob-inspired violence against her. After Lucy left the campus, a newspaper headline wrote: “Things are quiet in Tuscaloosa today. There is peace on the campus of the University of Alabama.” There are many people who are content with that notion of “peace.”
However, the preacher warned that such a peace is obnoxious, deadly, and even a stench to God. Peace, according to that preacher, is not merely the absence of some negative force—war, tension, confusion—but is the presence of justice, goodwill, and the power of the kingdom of God. In his sermon “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious,” Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke a truth to his congregation at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama that I must repeat today: religious faith that will not call people to repentance, even with the tension of that call, can never produce justice, goodwill, and be consistent with the kingdom of God.
As followers of Jesus, our hope for Advent peace requires that we live in the paradox and all the tension it involves as prophetic agents for love, justice, righteousness, and truth. We do not proclaim a gospel that would have people wait for pie in the sky. We are followers of Jesus, the promised Righteous Ruler of God. As followers of Jesus, we pray and live to prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight. We pray and live to fill every valley of despair and push down every arrogant system of pride and prejudice. We pray and live to confront crooked government, crooked rulers, crooked systems, and crooks with a call to straighten up and fly right. We pray and live to make the rough places of life smooth for the weak, vulnerable, oppressed, and poor. We do this because we live in the paradox of Advent peace as followers of Jesus Christ, the coming Prince of Peace.
Until Christ returns, we live in the paradox with all of its tension. We sing and give thanks and hope and pray for peace, calling our world to repentance from wickedness and injustice with all the suffering, violence, cruelty, greed, self-dealing, and exploitation they bring. We live the paradox of Advent peace because we are followers of Jesus, the coming Righteous Judge and Ruler of the World. Joy to the World! O Come, All Ye Faithful. Sing. Rejoice. Be Thankful. Repent. Live the Paradox of Advent Peace!
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.