This reflection was delivered on Facebook Live for Paris Presbyterian Church, where I am on staff, on December 9, 2020.
Last week, we jumped into the book of Isaiah as we considered what it means to “ask” God for what we need so it will be given to us, as Jesus promises. I encourage you if you missed last week’s devotional to find it on Facebook or YouTube because that’s really where I set the stage for this Advent series. Jesus tells us, “ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.” So this week, we are going to “Seek” so that we might find. And since Kelly Ward teased the theme of peace in his sermon on Sunday, we’re going to start our reflection on seeking after God by thinking about a moment of peace that also illustrates what we mean by “seeking” after God.
This year, those of you who are history-inclined have probably done a bit of thinking about the year 1918. Culturally, the 1918 H1N1 flu pandemic has a lot to teach us about our our current struggle against COVID-19. But if you’re thinking in the wider context, the 1918 flu hit the world hard right at the end of World War I. And it is this war, and the censorship of media in everywhere except Spain about its terrible effects, that has given that pandemic the misnomer of being the Spanish Flu.
Anyway, we’re going to be thinking 4 years before, to the year 1914, the first year of the “Great War,” the “War to End All Wars…” (or so it was said at the time.
On December 7, 1914, almost exactly 106 years ago, Pope Benedict XV, with an eye toward the promises of the Advent season, with the Christian hope of “peace,” suggested a temporary hiatus of the war to celebrate the Christmas season.
It was not that preposterous of a suggestion. This was not, in large part, a war between nations of different religious allegiances. The vast majority of Europe in the early 20th century was Christian. And in large part, in each country that participated in the war, the various Christian traditions (Catholic and Protestant) unified behind their national cause.
There were Christians on both sides of the conflict that used their faith in Jesus Christ as a source of inspiration, guidance, and even justification for their military engagement.
You would imagine that in such a conflict, both sides might have been able to say publicly and from the highest levels of government: we will pause the war for a Christmas peace. If some temporary peace was possible among competing nations, surely this was it.
And yet, there was no official cease-fire in December 1914.
Of course, no one was going to stop war-weary soldiers, both British and German, from celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace.
On Christmas Eve 1914, without any preplanning or communication between sides, troops all across the theater of war began singing Christmas carols in their language. As night fell, you could hear the kingdom of God: men of different nations singing praises to Jesus in their own language, sometimes even accompanied by brass bands.
No one was going to take up their gun on Christmas Eve, no matter how committed they were to the cause of war. For one night, there was Peace.
But this is not where the story ends. The peace of Christmas Eve 1914 came without risk. It was something both sides could practice without leaving their trenches and guns. But, as we’re talking about today, real peace requires risk. It requires seeking after justice and righteousness. Real peace requires us to get off our butts and do something.
As day broke on Christmas Day 1914, having heard the enemy carols the night before, a few German soldiers took a risk. They actively sought a Christmas peace. They arose from their trenches and approached the Allied lines, across the liminal space called “no-man’s-land” and called out “Merry Christmas” in the native tongues of their enemy. (Take a moment to consider the significance of such an act.)
The Allied soldiers were cautious, fearing a trick. War conditions men to fear such things. But the enemy was unarmed, so they too arose from the trenches and shook their enemy’s hand. On Christmas Day, two men who could have killed each other the day before were exchanging presents of cigarettes and plum puddings.
The words of Isaiah 11 ring in our ears, “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the falling together, and a little child shall lead them.”
A German Lieutenant recalling the event mused, “How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”
“For a Time” is the key phrase in his words. As Christmas Day ended, fighting once again broke out so that by New Year’s, the temporary truce was a distant memory.
Never again would such a peace take place in war. Military officers made sure of it by threats of discipline. The Powers and Principalities would never make the same mistake of allowing a Christmas peace again. In fact, the Powers would further delay the possibility of true peace. For we know that the “Great War” was not the end of all war. Rather, it was only the embers of an even terrifyingly greater war.
Still, this memory of seeking after peace and justice reverberates in our imaginations at Christmas as we anticipate the coming (again) of the Prince of Peace.1
So now you’re asking yourself, what does this have to do with our reading from Isaiah 40? It turns out, quite a lot. This text, scholars tell us, is the beginning of the second part of the Isaiah text. The Assyrians have destroyed most of Judah and have laid siege to the holy city of Jerusalem. Isaiah too is telling us about the middle of a war. But more than that, there is a temporary peace. The Assyrian king, Sennacherib, had bigger issues going on at home, and so he recalled his troops to Nineveh.
Isaiah’s “comfort, O comfort my people” comes after this first siege by Assyria and before the later destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Babylon in 587 BC. You’ll remember from Kelly’s sermon on Sunday that it is because of Jerusalem’s destruction that Daniel ends up exiled in Babylon.
Isaiah 40, then, comes in this liminal space between violent attacks. It is a message of peace that arrives both in the aftermath and anticipation of conflict, much like the Christmas Truce of 1914.
Isaiah, as he did when he received his divine commission in chapter 6, has entered God’s divine council. Isaiah has entered the heavenly court where there is discussion about these earthly conflicts.
God speaks for his divine messengers (we might call them angels) to “comfort, O comfort my people.” A messenger (angel) chimes in, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord!” And finally another messenger instructs Isaiah to cry out to people on earth this message: all people are grass…but the word of our God will stand forever.”
As we consider our imperative to “seek” so that we might find, it is this imperative in verse 3 that is most crucial: prepare. It is not enough for us to ask God for what we need. We must also prepare the way for the arrival of the answer to our prayers.
The divine messenger is instructing us to go out from where we are to blaze a new trail through an overgrown land. We’re instructed to seek a new way that is different from the old way. We are to seek this new way in order to prepare that path for the arrival of the one for whom we are waiting.
If you’ve ever gone hiking, you can visualize this pretty clearly. Normally, to respect the land we are on, we stay on the marked trails. Someone has already blazed those for us by clearing the vegetation and putting up markers. The path may not be level, but it is clear of debris.
But if we want to get somewhere new, we cannot take the old trails. Like Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, we must chart a new course, veer off the path to clear a way through the vegetation, through the mountains and their valleys. The old trail can only take us to the same places it always had. A new trail can lead us to find what we have been asking for and seeking.
Like the route of the Corps of Discovery, the path being charted in Isaiah’s time is not an ideal route. Lewis and Clark never found a water route to the Pacific. Likewise, Isaiah’s route for God’s people is a wilderness route. It is dangerous. Most would avoid traveling it. Yet, this wilderness route is the difficult, painful way through which God’s people will one day return from their suffering in Babylon.
When this text appears again in the mouth of John the Baptist in the New Testament, the way of the Lord being prepared is similarly challenging. Not many want to openly air out their sins. Those who take this road only because they see others doing so or because it is politically expedient are called a “brood of vipers2” by the harsh prophet.
This risky wilderness road in Isaiah, figured more completely for us in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, was once again figured in the Christmas Truce of 1914. Two sides of men were entrenched in the old ways of war and bloodshed. In between them lay a no-man’s-land, a wilderness, they had not before dared to travel. But by doing so, by blazing a new path between the trenches, soldiers of opposing sides found temporary peace.
As Kelly preached on Sunday, our Advent faith requires us to be active, not passive consumers. Charting a new course takes risk, it takes guts, and it takes us rising out of our trenches.
Here is what I think is perhaps the most important lesson of this Pandemic. You and I were long stuck in a groove, in a trench. Like the grooves in a vinyl record, we have gone around and around so long that we began skipping beats. The longer we did things the old way, the more and more we dug a trench of safety, protection, and stagnation. A soldier who never leaves the trenches is one who has died in the trench.
The Pandemic has revealed the “groove” of life in the BC (Before COVID) time to be a rut, a trench. And right now, all of us cry out in one voice, “Come, Lord Jesus,” because we need to be freed from this trench, this rut, this groove. We ask God to come through the uncharted territory because we know the old ways were not working.
We did not love God with our whole heart.
We as a church were not obedient to God’s way.
We have not done God’s will. In fact, in our old ways we actively broke God’s law.
We have rebelled against God’s free offer of grace.
We have not loved our neighbors nor headed the cry of those in need.
It is because of this, because the old ways were not working for us, that we now daily cry out for God to come and make a new way.
Last week’s Advent reflection could be summed up in a paraphrase of the first 3 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous: I can’t. God can. So let him.
Together, we must admit that we were powerless over the Powers and Principalities. We were powerless over Sin. Our lives had become unmanageable. The virus had so fully infected us that we were blind to its effects. We were in the trenches, expecting to die there. But God can deliver us. No. God will deliver us.
That deliverance begins when we start seeking a new way. It comes when we see the trench for what it is and take those first few risky steps through the wilderness road, the land where few men and women would dare to go.
Let us seek a new way together, that we would find a future of peace and justice. A future that some would say is impossible. But through God, all things are possible––even a peace that lasts.
In the name of the God who can do infinitely more than we could ask or imagine, we pray. Amen.
1 Prince of Peace 2: Electric Boogaloo
2 Many who came to John to be baptized were like those “crowds” who line up in front of a store only to ask others in line what they’re all waiting for.