Tuesday, December 11, 2018

God's Plan for Peace: Peace in Troubled Times

Assyria’s King Sennacherib marched against all of Judah’s fortified cities and captured them in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah. Assyria’s king sent his field commander from Lachish, together with a large army, to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem. He stood at the water channel of the Upper Pool, which is on the road to the field where clothes are washed. Hilkiah’s son Eliakim, who was the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and Asaph’s son Joah the recorder went out to them.

Then the field commander stood up and shouted in Hebrew at the top of his voice: “Listen to the message of the great king, Assyria’s king. The king says this: Don’t let Hezekiah lie to you. He won’t be able to rescue you. Don’t let Hezekiah persuade you to trust the Lord by saying, ‘The Lord will certainly rescue us. This city won’t be handed over to Assyria’s king.’

“Don’t listen to Hezekiah, because this is what Assyria’s king says: Surrender to me and come out. Then each of you will eat from your own vine and fig tree and drink water from your own well until I come to take you to a land just like your land. It will be a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards. Don’t let Hezekiah fool you by saying, ‘The Lord will rescue us.’ Did any of the other gods of the nations save their lands from the power of Assyria’s king? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Did they rescue Samaria from my power? Which one of the gods from those countries has rescued their land from my power? Will the Lord save Jerusalem from my power?”

When King Hezekiah heard this, he ripped his clothes, covered himself with mourning clothes, and went to the Lord’s temple. He sent Eliakim the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and the senior priests to the prophet Isaiah, Amoz’s son. They were all wearing mourning clothes. They said to him, “Hezekiah says this: Today is a day of distress, punishment, and humiliation. It’s as if children are ready to be born, but there’s no strength to see it through. Perhaps the Lord your God heard all the words of the field commander who was sent by his master, Assyria’s king. He insulted the living God! Perhaps he will punish him for the words that the Lord your God has heard. Offer up a prayer for those few people who still survive.”

When King Hezekiah’s servants got to Isaiah, Isaiah said to them, “Say this to your master: The Lord says this: Don’t be afraid at the words you heard, which the officers of Assyria’s king have used to insult me. I’m about to mislead him, so when he hears a rumor, he’ll go back to his own country. Then I’ll have him cut down by the sword in his own land.”

This is what Isaiah, Amoz’s son, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

In the days to come
    the mountain of the Lord’s house
    will be the highest of the mountains.
    It will be lifted above the hills;
        peoples will stream to it.
Many nations will go and say,
“Come, let’s go up to the Lord’s mountain,
    to the house of Jacob’s God
        so that he may teach us his ways
        and we may walk in God’s paths.”
Instruction will come from Zion;
    the Lord’s word from Jerusalem.
God will judge between the nations,
    and settle disputes of mighty nations.
Then they will beat their swords into iron plows
    and their spears into pruning tools.
Nation will not take up sword against nation;
    they will no longer learn how to make war.  Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20; 37:1-7; 2:1-4 (CEB)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Last week, we began the first of three weeks talking about peace. More specifically, talking about God’s plan for peace and how we, as God’s people, are called to be participants in that plan. It’s easy, I think, to work towards peace when times are good. When economies are good. When relationships with others are good. When our lives are going well.

What happens, though, when everything seems to be falling apart? How are we to be peacemakers in the midst of conflict? Or challenge? Or difficulty? When things feel completely hopeless?

It is that context where we find Jerusalem in today’s story. We’ve been talking over the past few weeks about the advance of the Assyrian empire. Last week, in our text from Micah, we learned that the northern kingdom of Israel had fallen into the hands of the empire. And how the empire’s army had continued to advance into Judah and to get ever closer to Jerusalem. Jerusalem had been able to withstand the reach of the empire by paying tribute to the Assyrians. Paying them off. Buying their freedom. 

As our story opens today, Jerusalem is surrounded by the Assyrian army. They have ravaged Judah - knocking off fortified city after city. Forty-six of them in all. People from the villages surrounding Jerusalem have fled to Jerusalem. It has become overcrowded. Resources are stretched. Food is scarce. Water, too. The temple treasury has been depleted by tribute demanded by the Assyrian king, Sennacherib. Even the treasure of Judah’s king - King Hezekiah - has been depleted. The city is under siege.  

At the command of his emperor, the Assyrian field commander approaches the city. Hezekiah sends out three of his high officials to meet him. But, the Assyrian field commander isn’t really interested in talking to them. His plan is to sow distrust. Rather than speaking to Hezekiah’s emissaries, he goes directly to the people. He speaks in Hebrew - their language - to the men watching from on top of the city’s walls.  “Don’t let Hezekiah lie to you,” he says. “He won’t be able to rescue you. Don’t let Hezekiah persuade you to trust the LORD by saying, ‘The LORD will certainly rescue us.’”

He goes on to call for their surrender. For peace and an end to the battle. With promises of food and drink. It’s a clever tactic. A strategic attempt to win over their “hearts and minds.” What are they to do?

We know - and they know, too - that peace isn’t found by surrendering to a superior force to avoid conflict. True peace is God’s shalom - part of the fabric of God’s kingdom. It is an essential part of God’s promise and God’s plan for us and for the world. In the Isaiah 2 passage, we heard a description of what that true peace means. It means putting down swords and spears and other instruments of war. And re-fashioning them into farming tools. So, that the earth might be cultivated and flourish. And bring forth fullness and life for everyone, not just the few in power. 

But, this is not the peace that the Assyrian commander is offering. He is, instead, offering appeasement. Giving up to his demands simply to avoid conflict. This is a misguided kind of peace, because it ensures that the powerful are still in control. And that injustice and oppression will continue.

What are they to do? Hezekiah shows them. And us. He turns to Isaiah, God’s prophet. Asking him to pray for God’s help. Because his trust is not misplaced. Hezekiah’s trust is not in his own abilities or in the promises of his Assyrian enemies. Hezekiah’s trust is in God. It is a well-placed trust. God delivers Jerusalem from the Assyrian army.

This story is intended to give us a glimpse into God’s vision of peace. A glimpse into what God’s kingdom is to look like. A kingdom initiated with Jesus. A kingdom that God has promised will, one day, come into fruition. A kingdom of peace. And fullness. And flourishing. A kingdom of shalom. God’s desired kingdom of shalom

If you’ve been paying attention this week to the news, you might have heard the growing count of lives lost in the fire in northern California. The growing number of people missing. The growing number of homes and other structures destroyed. In one story, a pastor there told of an experience he had with one of five people staying in his office - a young 21-year-old man, who fled with only the clothes he was wearing. When this pastor took him to the local KMart to purchase clothing items that he couldn’t get at Goodwill, the young man turned to him and asked, “Are you sure you want to spend this money on me?” 

In times like this, when it seems like all hope is lost, when people’s sense of worth has been beaten up whether by natural or manmade disaster or by other challenges, how do we, as God’s people, begin to help our neighbors, whether they be next door or across the world...how do we help them begin to experience shalom? To find a sense of hope in God’s promise - promises of peace, of fullness, of flourishing for all people. In the midst of challenge, of war, of injustice, of devastation, and of uncertainty, where is hope to be found? (Read Wangari’s Trees of Peace.)

Small steps. Hope is found in the small things. In the planting of nine seedlings that would turn into a reforestation movement across Africa. In taking someone shopping in KMart, someone who has lost everything, so that they might begin to find hope and belief in their future. Or to give out 144 turkeys to those who might otherwise not have been able to afford to share Thanksgiving dinner with their families, so that they, too, might have a taste of the abundance of God’s kingdom. Hope is found in the small things. In small steps.  

We may run into resistance. Resistance that comes from our sin and brokenness. Resistance from those who have grown tired and cynical. Or from those who are afraid to relinquish power. Or from those who lack God’s vision of shalom

Yet, even in the midst of conflict and resistance. Even in the midst of troubled times, God calls us to trust. To trust in God and in God’s plan for peace. And to continue doing God’s work. So that all people might taste shalom and that the world might be given a glimpse of God’s kingdom. A glimpse of God’s plan for peace. Day by day. Step by step.


Preached November 18, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 26
Readings: Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20; 37:1-7; 2:1-4; Matthew 5:14

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