Guide our feet into the path of peace

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

Peace is possible. This is the message of the image of Mount Zion, raised to unique height, and the nations streaming to it.

Peace is possible – a safe sound echoes from the Book of Micah, chapter 4, our Hebrew Bible Reading this morning, through the centuries in our midst, here at St Salvator’s chapel, St Andrews, on Remembrance Sunday 2019 – while we remember those, who fought and died, and those who still risk their lives in the armed conflicts all over the world: peace is possible.

Indeed, a powerful picture is drawn in our reading: All nations come to Mount Zion, into the presence of God. Here, in God’s presence, by God’s presence, they get what they long for, here they get all they need: “The law will go out from Zion and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem”. Guidance, orientation for life so that ways open up, feet are set in a spacious place; disputes will be settled once and for all. No war hinders the flourishing of the nations, not even prevention is necessary. Quite the contrary: What formerly was dedicated to war: swords and spears, arms to fight each other and to kill, now is dedicated to secure subsistence: ploughshares and pruning hooks, tools for agriculture to work the garden of nature and take care of it. They have no longer any use for weapons – no one is trained for war anymore. Not only that everyone here has got enough for their lives, even delights, treats – vine and figs – are attainable for everybody. In an aura of peace and quiet we see every man sitting under his own tree, without being afraid of any disturbance, so it seems. What an idyllic scene – peace is possible!

“Peace is possible?” I hear you saying – sceptical and doubtful like me, when I turned to the Book of Micah to prepare today’s sermon. Isn’t this scene an otherworldly, utopian image, that tells us more about Israel’s struggle in Micah’s times than about anything else? Israel is under the pressure of enemies from all sides, threatened, shaken as her resistance against their overpowering neighbours seems to be helpless, a last rebellion against being wiped out from the maps of their times. And with this political challenge of a difficult, or better: desperate situation comes the religious one, probably even more unsettling: Can one still hope to be God’s chosen people now that their fortune has turned to the worse? The land had been the sign, the seal of God’s covenant with God’s people. The land had been the core of God’s promise to the Israelites. And now: Israel in the hands of her enemies what could this mean but that God had enough, the end of God’s until then merciful relationship to Israel? This despair, so you could argue, is the real reason for the brightly shining scene of peace and quiet and everything there at hand. Longing for peace, great yearning for a secure place for living: that’s what this scene is about. This has nothing to do with reality.

“This has nothing to do with reality.” This could be Zechariah’s words. Zechariah whose story is told in the beginning of Luke’s Gospel … and whose famous words, his song of praise you have just heard as the Gospel reading for today. Zechariah was a priest at the temple of Jerusalem. Once – when he was already quite aged – the lot chose him to be the priest in charge of burning incense in the inner temple… a task a priest of that time would have considered as the peak of his career. While burning the incense, an angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah: “Don’t be afraid – your prayer has been heard. Your wife will bear you a son. And you are to give him the name John, God is mercy.” – “Ha”, so Zechariah must have thought, “a son? To Elizabeth and me? Nonsense, for we are far too old by now. How often have we hoped for this throughout our entire family life? It never was to be, though. The incense and my yearning must have carried me away. Now, old man, stick to the given: This has nothing to do with reality.” (He could have known better, by the way, or had he just forgotten the story of Sarah and Abraham, who were visited by three men, hosted them, and heard the same kind of promise? – here, it was Sarah who could not trust her ears or the reliability of Abraham’s visitors and burst into laughter at the very sight of this – in its true sense: fantastic idea. “This has nothing to do with reality.”)

Over against Zechariah’s doubts, the angel of the Lord throws his weight into the balance: “I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.” This is God’s promise. This is God’s word. But Zechariah seems to be unresponsive, incapable of one more attempt to hope for the fulfilment of his and Elizabeth’s longing. Unresponsive to God’s addressing him, Zechariah turns out to be speechless. Words fail him for more than 9 months. Only after his son’s birth when the name has to be decided, Zechariah is able to find words, replying to God’s promise to him in agreeing with the child’s foretold name: “John”, God is mercy, he writes down, still without voice. Not his name, Zechariah – which traditionally would have been the son’s name, too – is his focus now – but God’s mercy and trustworthiness… and finding his voice he breaks out in praise, joining in the words of the fathers, singing a song of redemption and liberation, and of God’s mercy, who remembers his covenant and who fulfils his promise. Now, that John’s birth has given Zechariah an example, now that Godself has revived Zechariah’s tired faith, Zechariah is certain: Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us – salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us – to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant … to rescue us and to enable us to serve him without fear. Zechariah’s perspective has turned upside down. “This has nothing to do with reality”: look how old we are, look into our story and you know, what you can or cannot expect. Zechariah had seen his future determined by his past. Now, that Zechariah’s future has begun in the unexpected birth of a son (who is said to have a great future himself), his perspective has changed: The future is not to be predicted from your past. Your future is shaped by what God holds ready for you – a life we cannot think big enough about.

Whenever our eyes are opened for God’s mercy and trustworthiness in such a way, whenever God’s Holy Spirit enlightens our lives as lives given by God that he may redeem and save us so that we live our lives in God’s presence, in the fullness of life, we gain freedom: Our perspective is changed – we are on our way, on the pilgrimage to Mount Zion, being pulled to Mount Zion, I am tempted to say, into the presence of God. God is accessible, Godself comes to meet us – there is nothing we have to worry about. We don’t have to gain salvation – we are already saved. We don’t have to find ourselves a way to God – it is already laid out, a red carpet that leads us into the fullness of life. We are liberated from all our attempts to collect treasures for ourselves and to protect them effectively from being taken by others, we are liberated from all competition to collect more or faster than all the others around us. So we are liberated from fear. God has come to meet us – this is our future. It’s a future of living together in a community of joy and peace.

It’s true – we are not already there. Like Zechariah, we have times when our faith is tired, our trust is worn-out, our hope is swallowed up into darkness and our love is unable to flow unhindered to those who deserve it.

It’s true – we are not already there. There are still walls to be broken down and even new ones erected from fear of the others or of the loss of power.

In these times, peace and reconciliation will look like a task, perhaps a task that is unsolvable.

But like Zechariah, once we have met our future in the midst of our present lives, in the face of Jesus Christ, in Godself coming to meet us on our own ways in the midst of our world – our lives will never be the same again. Peace is possible, because it is not a task that we have to solve, but a gift presented to us: guidance into a climate of peace – be it in our personal circumstances or in the political life – a climate of peace… this is the end, the goal, and so it has to be the end of living at the expense of others, of thriving at the cost of our neighbours, of applying rights only to a selected minority, of fooling one another by false promises and fake news… God’s climate of peace is a climate of love, justice and truth.

Thanks to Christ, God in the midst of our world – we know this climate. What a glorious honour to live in accordance with it. Guide, o Lord, king of all kings, our feet into the path of peace! Amen.

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.