Isaiah 2 : 1 – 5, Matthew 24 : 36 – 44
A period of four weeks before Christmas is called Advent. It is the time of waiting for the arrival. As children wait for Santa Claus, we look forward to the coming of the new world brought to us with the birth of Jesus Christ.
This expectation for the new world is expressed in one word in three languages; Salaam in Arabic, Shalom in Hebrew, and Khotso in Sesotho of the African Bantu. They all have the same meaning, somewhat inadequately translated into English as "peace". All of them are used still today as a most common form of greeting. It means "Hello and good-bye." – for meeting and parting. When they meet, they wish each other peace. And likewise they bid each other peace as they go separate ways. They don”t think about the meaning of the word nowadays just like we don”t think about the meaning of our greetings.
It is a pity because I believe that this is the world”s most profound way of greeting. A theology professor at Harvard Theological School by the name of Harvey Cox once told a touching story about the use of this word for greeting. When a Jewish mother was separated from her child before she was shipped off to a Nazi extermination camp during the second world war, she hugged the child and said, "Shalom." They ran into each other at the port of Haifa in Palestine five years later. Miraculously both the mother and the child survived the death camps. When they hugged each other, in tears they only said "Shalom." That was enough.
It was enough because the word contains all the important ingredients of the perfect world under the reign of God. Prophet Isaiah in today”s lesson described very succinctly this notion of shalom. God will bring justice to the world. And when that happens people beat the swords into ploughshares and will hear of war no more. There is justice hence there is peace. In the language I learned to preach in Africa, the same notion of peace is expressed in the word – Khotso. It also has all the important ingredients of the better world, just like the Hebrew word – shalom.
In Lesotho, when you finish a dinner, for example, the host will ask you, "Uena ka Khotso?" – Are you at peace? It means, "Have you had enough? Are you satisfied, happy? Are you at peace with yourself?" They believe that when you are physically well, you are spiritually content also. It also means there is justice thus no discord. There is no violence among people. When one comes into a village or into a home, one stands at the entrance raising both hands with the palms open showing that one holds no weapon, and says "Khotso." This gesture means, "I come in peace, I am defenceless. Please include me in, and treat me like one of you." In a society where everything is shared, being admitted into a community means one is treated justly. They firmly believe that there is no peace without justice, and there is no want with justice. You never starve unless everybody starves.
We can learn a lot from those nomadic traditions about peace and about justice. On the other hand, our idea of peace has long been dominated by a notion of "Pax Romana" – Roman peace. It comes from the idea that there is peace when a powerful nation dominates others by force, just as the Roman Empire did and controlled all of the Mediterranean region with its armies and wealth. For as long as we know in human history, the idea has been firmly entrenched that peace could be achieved only when one dominates the others absolutely by force . We still believe in it. The idea never worked because justice and peace of mind were ignored.
When we lack inner peace we tend to resort to violence. When one is frustrated or insecure, one tends to be violent. Secondly, one is driven to anger and unhappiness, when one is treated unjustly or sees injustice done to others. Humans have had this notion of peace combined with justice, for tens of centuries. But we have not taken the idea seriously and have made the same mistakes over and over again.
No empire has ever achieved enduring peace. The longest lasting empire we have known in history was the Roman Empire, that lasted for about six centuries. But the millennium that followed was a history of bloody conflicts, including crusades, 100 year war, 30 year war, the war of roses, etc. The British one lasted not even two. Domination by the Americans and the Russians has not even lasted one century and is already slipping. And when they fall, violence and blood-shed follow. Many of the regional conflicts today are rooted in the histories of empires. It shows no sign that the peace enforced by those empires has any lasting effect. Hatred that has been festering while being ruled by force demands settling of scores. Look at Northern Ireland. Look at former Yugoslavia. The whole of Balkan is suffering from the memories of three fallen empires. The Roman Empire gave the Catholic Croatians upper hands over the Orthodox Serbians. The Ottoman Empire gave upper hands to Muslim Bosnian over both Croatians and Serbians. And the Communist Empire gave Serbians upper hands over Croatians and Muslims. Consequently they still remember the atrocities committed to each other and by those empires. And they fiercely hate each other. Has the British victory at the Plain of Abraham produced an enduring peace in Canada? It seemed to have caused more enduring dissatisfaction on the part of one group of people than it solved, judging from the never ending threat of separation.
When do we ever learn? When do we ever learn to beat swords into ploughshares? Haven”t we ever learnt that there can never be enduring peace unless there is justice? Haven”t we ever learned that there can never be justice unless there is peace of mind? Where there is no peace of mind there is no love. Where there is no love, there is greed and self-centredness. And greed and self-centredness drive us into participating in a structures of injustice. A vicious circle goes around and around.
Today marks the beginning of the preparation time to for the imminent arrival. We are waiting for the arrival of the gift from God. What is this gift that we are waiting for? We are waiting for the completion of the heaven in this world that began with the birth of Jesus. We are going to celebrate the birthday of the one who declared the new regime. How long do we have to wait? Noone knows. But it is coming surely because it has been declared and is here partially.
Do we then just wait? It all depends what sort of waiting you do. You can wait by just sitting doing nothing. Or you can wait actively. When you wait for someone or something and look forward to the arrival, you do all sorts things for preparation and remain mentally active by letting your brain tick, tick, tick. It is so exciting to wait though a bit anxious. Likewise, when you wait for the gift of God, completion of the Kingdom of God, you wait actively by working for the Kingdom of God.
When you are not keen on the coming of something or somebody like a dentist”s appointment, you wait passively and do nothing. You even dread its arrival. You hope that it goes away. But when we wait actively, we prepare joyfully. We can show our love of others with gifts to the loved ones and to show our concerns about the people who had set-backs, met misfortune, and are not well. Those are good projects to participate in the building up of the Kingdom of God.
Let us wait actively for the coming of peace – real peace of shalom, salaam, and khotso, with excitement, joy, and determination, not just this season of Advent but also in our daily life always.