Where Justice Breaks Forth Isaiah 35:1-10; Luke 1:47-55; Matthew 11:2-11 Two weeks ago one of Colorado’s largest

congregations, New Life Church, finished its worship service as usual and as the people began leaving the sanctuary they moved out into the various gathering spaces housed within the sprawling church structure which is home over 10,000 members. Larry Bourbonnais, a 59 year old Vietnam veteran, was in the cafeteria when he heard gun shots. He moved closer to see what was happening. Bourbonnais spotted one of the church’s guards and asked for their handgun saying, “Give me your handgun — I've been in combat, and I'm going to take this guy out.” Borbonnais turned to the gunman, a 24 year old named Matthew Murray, and yelling out insults at him to get his attention. Murray fired on Bourbonnais and hit him in the arm. At that time Jeanne Assam, an ex-cop, church member and a volunteer church security guard, came around the corner with her own gun drawn. She approached Murray and yelled “surrender” at which time they opened fire on each other. Borbonnais said that Assam kept walking towards Murray firing upon him the whole time. Murray died in the exchange but not before killing two girls and wounding others that day. When asked about the event Assam said that she knew that God had given her the assignment to end it and that God had guided her through it. Assam is hailed as a hero for all the possible lives she saved. It seems that in America, for better or for worse, we often see events that punctuate and accentuate tensions that we wrestle with. This morning we must again consider what it means to receive and follow the Prince of Peace. I am not sure what other option I would have than to call the police if I saw someone assaulting people in our church building.

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So what would be the difference if we had trained and capable people right here in church that could respond even more quickly in a crisis? Does this justify the presence of armed guards at church? How many more lives would have been lost if they had to wait for police to arrive? I believe this incident in Colorado should push us further in thinking of our witness to the world and to our neighbour. There are a couple of aspects of this event that are important to keep in mind. First is that the only recorded response from the church was to employ the same means of force as what was being inflicted on the church. Force was met with like force. Second, the shooting of Murray is being hailed as nothing short heroic and is in many instances being used to support the presence of firearm’s the hands of trained civilians. I have found no accounts of the event regarded as tragic but perhaps necessary or understandable. This story reflects and a trust and a celebration of the possibilities of force as a means for establishing peace. There are aspects of the church’s response that I simply cannot celebrate, but can we really condemn the actions taken? Winston Churchill is quoted as saying, “We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” Is it possible embrace a pacifism that is more than just a façade as all around us rough men and women continue to use force on those that threaten our way of life? In this season we are reminded that Jesus was prophesised as the Prince of Peace and we recall the shepherds who heard that the coming of Christ meant peace to all in God’s favour? Is it possible to receive the Christ who comes into the world when engaged in lethal or violent force? It is increasingly clear that many churches consciously or unconsciously adopt the cultural values around them.

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The presence of armed guards in our churches is perhaps one of the newest but certainly not the first example of a church embracing strategies power and security. Is there any other response in a world where damaging conflicts are our realty? Most of us can probably think of a situation where we at least perceived the possibility that we or someone close to us could be harmed. What are we called to and what are the tools of peace we are given? As much as the words from our readings this morning it is also their social and historical contexts that speak to living and responding in a conflicted and violent world. During the time of Isaiah things were not good for the people of Israel. After a period of relative peace Isaiah’s ministry came at a time when there had been civil war among the 12 tribes of Israel while after this conflict the northern tribes were captured by the Assyrians. The southern tribe of Judah was left vulnerable, threatened and facing attack. And gauging from Isaiah’s response it appears that when backed to the wall Judah started looking to Egypt for help. Isaiah says in chapter 31, “Watch out! Those of you who are going down to Egypt to get some help. To those who rely on horses. To those who trust in chariots. To those who find their strength in soldiers.” God tells Isaiah that the powerful nation of Assyria will eventually fall but Isaiah says that, “Assyria will fall by a sword that is not of human making.” Isaiah reminds the people that, The Lord is our judge, The Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; It is the Lord who will save us.

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Jerusalem’s King Hezekiah in the chapter following our reading attempted live out this theology. Hezekiah receives word that Assyria is going to attack them and that their two choices are either to surrender and be taken as prisoner or be destroyed by the coming army. Hezekiah prays saying, “God, you alone are the Lord of all the kingdoms of the earth. . . . Deliver us from his hand so that all these kingdoms may know that you alone are God.” Isaiah responded with a word from God telling Hezekiah that Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, and his army would not enter the city of Jerusalem. At that time however Sennacherib had his army surround Jerusalem and his superior forces were ready to attack. Things were bleak. Then in the Bible it says that the angel of the Lord came in the night and destroyed much of the Assyria army so that the next morning they retreated without ever attacking Jerusalem. What is interesting about this story is that archaeologists have actually found the Assyrian side of the story discovering the historical records of king Sennacherib and his conquests. This record speaks of all the countries and towns and that they had destroyed. Sennacherib revels in his power and boasts of the ease of his victories but then when it came to Hezekiah it says only that he surrounded Jerusalem and caged Hezekiah in like a bird. He does not mention ever having even entered or destroyed the city. God’s promise of deliverance lay in Hezekiah’s faithful trust in God’s sovereignty and not the potential for military force. Now to be clear the Bible never promises that acts of faithful trust will always produce the results we are hoping for. But what this account demonstrates is that God’s peace and justice flow from a place of prayer and trust. Things did not look much better for the Jewish people in the context of our New Testament readings which was of course around the time of Jesus. Almost 150 years

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prior to Jesus the Jewish people had led a successful rebellion and liberated themselves from the Syrian Empire. But this freedom produced inner turmoil as the running of religious and political life was disputed among various Jewish groups. The internal debate of Jewish rule was short lived however as the Roman ruler Pompey reached Palestine in 63 BC and brought it under the power of the emerging Roman Empire. The people were taxed heavily and even their own religious leaders were often viewed as pawns of the Roman rulers and so religious life was viewed by many as compromised. However, despite their situation the Jewish people continued to remember the promises passed down to them in scripture. They believed that God had indeed established the throne, the rule of David forever. And they believed the prophets that said God would liberate the people from bondage. These beliefs gave rise to expectation. The people watched for these promises to be fulfilled. The people were looking for a king that would not submit to the Roman powers. The people were looking for a hero. And heroes rose and fell in the Judean countryside. These heroes tried to take the Kingdom by matching and overcoming force with force. They continued to rise up even after Jesus’ life on earth was over as things grew even more difficult for the Jews. There was increased pressure placed on them to worship the Roman emperor as God. Roman soldiers continued to treat the people with less and less respect. And so around 65 AD a growing group of Jews began to rebel winning small victories against Roman soldiers. But with almost endless resources Rome increased its forces in response and the attack by Rome on Jerusalem in 70 AD culminated in the destruction of the Temple of which the ruins are still visible today. Force was never able to establish the presence of the Temple for the Jewish people.

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And so it is in the conflicted setting of Isaiah’s time as well as in first century Palestine that the prophecy and birth of Jesus are introduced. These are our settings for the Christmas story. Now perhaps we could look at other passages in the Bible that address questions of conflict, justice and peace differently but our passages here are clear and unequivocal in their rejection of the world’s powers. In fact the presence of God in these accounts ushers in not the rejection of the world’s established powers but also of their overthrow. The young Mary, mother of Jesus, speaks boldly in her song that the Lord has scattered the proud, brought down the rulers from their thrones and cast off the rich. And in this overturning the emergence of life comes from unexpected places. Isaiah calls us strengthen our feeble hands and weak knees; to comfort those with anxious and fearful hearts saying, “God will come. God will save you.” And where will God come? God will burst into bloom in the desert. God will gush forth like water in the dry land. In caves and shadows where jackals dwell green grass will grow. God will be seen by the eyes we thought were blind. God will be heard by the ears we thought were deaf. And the Word of God will be spoken by those we have never heard and thought had no voice. And here it says that the way will open up, a way where the redeemed people of God will walk. Isaiah says that no vicious animal will find this path and sorrow will flee from it. Here guns and force find no value but they will not be allowed to enter. These are beautiful images but hard understand and even harder to live in. It is like Isaiah is saying that this Christmas lilies will push up through the snow at – 10. But what these images begin to do for us is point us where to look. This is one of our key treasures of the Christmas story. In it we receive a new vision of where peace and justice

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reside. These images overturn established views. When we were in grade school we wanted to be like the popular kids who were good looking or good at sports. Out of high school we look to those with fancy degrees and high paying jobs. We envy celebrities and think that the jackpot will be the answer to our problems. We consistently accept and pursue the power that the world offers and believe that peace will emerge when we attain it. Not so in the Gospel. It is in fact the blind who see Christ. It is the children, who had no power and voice in that culture, who clambered to be close to Jesus. Jesus is not concerned whether or not the powerful and elite of Abraham’s lineage follow him. Jesus says that from the stones on the ground he can raise up the line of Abraham. Jesus calls the uneducated fisherman and the despised tax collector as his disciples. He calls the troubled and the humble blessed. And at Christmas we remember that the Good News of Christ’s birth was revealed to the working class shepherds. It was not heralded in the king’s courts or even in the Temple. And what of the visitors from the East who brought gifts to Jesus? We refer to them as the Three Wisemen and our songs call them the Three Kings from the Orient. In the New Testament, however, they are just referred to as magi. The Gospel does not even tell us how many of them there are. One writer showed how the title of the Three Kings was actually introduced only after Christianity became a powerful religion in the 4th century. And it was during the Renaissance, where intelligence was praised, that they became know as wise men or even philosophers. This view of the magi as wise men made it all the way into the King James Version of the Bible. There was not much we could do about relating to shepherds but the ambiguity of

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the foreign characters of the magi allowed room for us to project the type of people we want look up to, namely the rich, powerful and intelligent. In the context of the New Testament the magi can be best understood as magicians and astrologers whose practices were controversial at best and most often despised by the Jewish people. Far from being perceived as wise men, magi would have been considered fools by most Jews and many Greeks and Romans. That the magi recognized the star over Bethlehem is not a justification of their practices. Rather it is the continuing scandal of the Gospel that Christ will be recognized and received by almost everyone but those who are wise and powerful by the world’s standards. First century Jews were looking for a hero much in the same way we do today. They were looking for Superman, the Terminator, Wyatt Earp or Rambo to arrive and overwhelm evil with superior force and wit. And so in our reading this morning John the Baptist asks if Jesus is the one or if someone else is coming. Jesus does not simply tell him that he is the Messiah. Instead Jesus tells him his ministry. Jesus has no stories of victory over Roman powers but is instead bringing life where there was once barrenness. Jesus allows John the Baptist to decide if he believes that this is the type of Messiah and Kingdom that God is establishing. It was a live question at the time, much as it still is today. Seeing and receiving Christ means being outside of the world’s power and following Christ mean walking daily in the rejection and overturning of those powers. This is why the image of armed guards at church remains so unnerving. It is perhaps possible to agree that the use of force can prevent or restrain certain actions from happening. We can be thankful that the incident in Colorado did get any worse that it

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did. But we need to remember that this incident is not unlike another incident in the U.S. On September 11 2001 a group of extremists attacked what citizens saw as the sanctuary of their homeland. It was believed that quick and decisive action would bring about peace and justice to the situation. The world’s force only offers the possibility of restraint. Contrary to Churchill’s statement there is no promise of peace when rough men stand ready to do violence. The U.S. is not a place of peace because they have largest and most powerful military. And here in Canada we must beware of the extant to which we profit from the military strength at home and in the U.S. In these realms there is no vision of desert flowers bursting into bloom. We must individually and communally navigate and respond to conflict and brokenness around us asking ourselves if we will attempt to restrain force with force or if we will, in faith, open up a way in the desert. In our aid the Gospel gives at least one response to a violent attack on the church. That is a response to an attack on the body of Christ, which is the church. In the Garden of Gethsemane towards the end of his ministry Jesus and his followers are approached by a mob wielding clubs and swords coming to arrest Jesus. In defence one of those with Jesus strikes out with his sword and cuts the ear of the servant of the high priest but before the violence escalates Jesus intervenes and speaks to the reality of God’s world saying, “Put your sword back in its place. For all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” God and God’s Kingdom is not threatened with the world’s force. The mountain of God rises up on a different foundation. That foundation comes to us weak and vulnerable as a child. This is our story in the Christmas season. This is must be our story the year as it carries us towards Easter. This must become the

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story of our life because this is the only place where God promises peace. And from that place a way opens up where justice comes from unlikely places like flowers in the desert bursting into bloom. Amen.

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