The Garden of Advent 2: Planting Peace
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Second Sunday in Advent/B • December 10, 2017
Many of you know I love sailing. I grew up reading sailing magazines that always featured beautiful boats and tanned, short-haired, smiling men who were clean cut and had great sunglasses. Last summer, I went sailing for five days on my own, At the end, I was exhausted, tanned, hadn’t eaten much in a couple of days and hadn’t shaved in a week. My hair was dirty and grey and wild and I took a selfie. It was at least disappointing. I didn’t look anything like those intrepid young men in the sailing magazines with $300 sunglasses and perfect hair. So I put the two together with the heading, “What sailors think they look like…and what they really look like.” Just a joke, but one with some truth. We all have a picture in our minds of what we look like and it may not be accurate. Since we don’t really know, we all use mirrors to get a reality check. Of course, there are the ones that simply reflect light but people can be mirrors as well, they make comments, they tell us things about ourselves. Institutions need mirrors too, ways to take a real look at themselves. I’ve always thought one of the great things we learn from studying other religions is how to see our own better. So today I want to hold up Islam as a mirror to help us understand deeper the coming of God into the world.
Just as Christianity comes from a specific individual named Jesus, Islam comes from Mohammed, who was born almost about 1,500 years ago. Even as a child, he sought out a unique connection to the divine. When he was 40, he had an encounter he described as a visitation from the angel Gabriel and received a series of visions. A few years later he began to preach these. The core of this teaching was simple. To the pagan people of the time who believed in many gods, he proclaimed that Allah, God, was one, and that right action consisted simply in complete surrender to God; ‘Islam” literally means “surrender”. He said he was a prophet. This occurred in the city of Mecca and, like many prophets, Mohammed was met with resistance and hostility; soon he fled with his followers to Medina. There he organized a community and a war band that conquered his former city and within a few years spread this new faith throughout the Arabian peninsula.
The Qu’ran contains the text of the revelations that Mohammed received, summarized by this fundamental creedal statement that every Muslim proclaims: ”I testify that there is no god but God, and I testify that Muhammad is a Messenger of God.” In practice, Islam focuses on life as a struggle to conform the self to submission to God; this process is the real meaning of the word ‘jihad’. This is done through acts of mercy and charity and through a discipline of five prayers daily. Submission to Allah leads to ultimate peace and the Qu’ran spends a great deal of time detailing the difference between the fate of those who succeed at this and those who reject it. Muhammed saw and understood his connection to older sources of inspiration, calling Jews and Christians people of the book. He believed Moses, and the other prophets known through the Hebrew scriptures along with Jesus were also prophets; he saw himself as the final prophet, completing their work of revelation. In that sense, like Jesus, Mohammed is a prophet of the gospel of God and the goal of that gospel is peace.
Both Jesus and Mohammed are part of a response to the human ache to see God coming into the world. We heard another prophet, Isaiah, say,
Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”
See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. [Isaiah 40:9-11]
“Here is your God”—How do we proclaim that with our lives?
Our scripture lesson today starts with this line: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” It’s actually a poor translation of the original line; there is no “The” at the start, the line actually reads simply: “Beginning the gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God.” So we gather today and the text asks us: how will you begin the gospel?
What is gospel? It literally means ‘good news’. The term had a specific political history before Mark used it here; it’s the term that was used when the Roman armies reported battlefield victories. It’s the term the Roman Emperor Augustus used about his successes. So first, we should understand that when Mark chose these words, he was making a political statement: that good news came from God, not from the empire. Second, is making a claim with his statement: we are at the beginning, we are beginning, the good news brought by this child of God, Jesus.
One thing Islam can contribute is the series of disciplines which form the core of its practice. Consider the discipline of five prayers a day. Could we do that? Could we stop what we’re doing, five times each day, and intentionally, seriously pray, seek God’s presence? There is a force to external disciplines. Christian practice has them as well, of course, and Islam reminds us to go look in our own closet. When we do, one that we might find is the Advent Calendar. These come in so many shapes and sizes and often today they’ve been taken over by the notion of a little gift or reward each day. But the real Advent Calendar is simple: a specific list of something to do each day that will begin the gospel in your own life. It’s a list of seeds to plant in the garden of Advent.
One of those is certainly peace. We are living through a moment when the dark clouds of war threaten and it’s more important today than perhaps ever before for us to say this: Christian faith leads to peace. Today so many Christians are taking up the sword of the Crusades; one Alabama preacher talked recently about “the Christian God” as if God was not one, as if there was somehow a unique God for Christians. That’s heresy; that’s a lie.
In Deuteronomy, Moses teaches, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one”; Jesus teaches that loving God is the ultimate path and as we saw Mohammed proclaims the one-ness of God. There is no Christian God, there is no Jewish or Moslem God, there is only the one God and creator of all. And in that unity, we are called to find unity and peace, to become channels of peace in our acts, in our lives.
Last week, I talked about the symbol of the Tree of Life as a way of understanding God’s love. Mohammed is also interested in trees and one that has particular significance in his testimony is the date palm. Planting a date palm is a special act of charity in Islam, a sign of hope in the goodness of God, of submission to God’s goodness. What are the ways we are proclaiming in action the goodness of God in our lives? What trees are we planting?
We have so often focused on belief in churches; it’s time for us to focus on what we do. Today we read the story of John the Baptist and it’s important to hear in that story one word that rings out like the bell in the morning: “Repent”. Now repent means changing direction: changing behavior.. Taken with the opening of Marks’ book, it means to get ready for something new, something wonderful.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not that good at new. When I start to plan a new season of worship, I often look back at what we did last time. When I come to Christmas, I expect things to be put where they were last year. I value the security of tradition. But I hear these words: repent—begin the gospel. And I know it means me. Does it mean you?