And some, if not all, of those prayers I am sure are for peace: peace for their beloved city, Jerusalem, spiritual home to Jews, Christians and Muslims, ancestral home to Israelis and Palestinians. Its name contains the Hebrew root for ‘shalom’: Jerushalem. It means ‘possession of peace’ or ‘foundation of peace’.
This morning’s Psalm adjures those making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to pray for the peace of this holy city, which implies that it is far from peaceful. Not much has changed, has it? One scholar has calculated that from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE to the capture of Jerusalem by the Roman general Pompey in 63 CE, over 200 military campaigns were fought in and around Palestine, against or in the vicinity of Jerusalem. It has been, and continues to be, one of the most contested and conflicted cities in the world.
Yet for the Psalmist, Jerusalem is the beginning and the end, the desire and the fulfillment, the inspiration and the destination: it is the home of God and of God’s realm. It is the place of God’s judgment, justice and peace. Because of the way the city was designed and constructed, Jerusalem has the power to bring people together. To enter Jerusalem is to enter a new world, where humankind lives for God’s sake and for the sake of others, where past, present and future exist at once. Woven into the fabric of this ancient city, within its hotly contested present, are the threads of the New Jerusalem, the holy city of God, the righteous kingdom where justice and peace reign forever and ever.
The Puritans of the 17th century looked upon the New World as their New Jerusalem. New England was to be their ‘city on the hill’, the chosen land for the new Zion. A great and holy commonwealth would be founded. They saw themselves and their faith as a shining example. Whenever a people are persecuted, it is invariably assumed that the end of time is near. With tribulation comes redemption. The Puritans believed that the second coming of Jesus the Christ would occur in their lifetime.
Cotton Mather, the preacher of First Church of Boston from 1684 to 1723 tried to predict the ‘end times’ by interpreting current events through the Book of Revelation and the prophets. In fact, he attempted to calculate a precise date. First, he declared that Christ would come in the year 1697. When that date passed, he was sure that it would be 1736, but then recalculated to the year 1716.
Many in Boston were expectant and anxious that year, trusting in their beloved pastor and teacher, a man of more letters and learning than the common person. 1716 passed uneventfully. So, it was to be 1717. Still nothing.
Finally, in 1727, just before the death of the Rev. Mather, Boston suffered an earthquake. Mather declared that ‘this is it’.
Even Jesus says that he does not know. ‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father’. Will knowing make us any more ready to meet our maker? What is it that will make us ready, that will keep us awake?
The apocalyptic furor of the 17th century acquired an attitude of religiosity and moral fiber during the Great Awakening of the 18th century. Revivals sprang up throughout the colonies, attempting to recover the energy of the authentic religious experience. There was a sense of living in declining times, of not living up to the founding fathers and mothers who left family and home to find God in the wilderness.
Jonathan Edwards was one of the early New England ministers who was able to bring to his listeners a sense of their own sin, of being dead to Christ. In 1741 at Enfield, CT he preached his famous sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, declaring the just wrath of God yet also God’s desire to bring humankind into the kingdom. Though Edwards and his contemporaries were rather fire-and-brimstone, they also saw the possibility of conversion, new birth and new life. They also reawakened the sense that the citizens of this New World would have a vital role in God’s last days, that we were still a privileged nation, God’s New Jerusalem.
As colonies became states, as states became a nation that declared its independence; as territories were acquired, frontiers explored, industry expanded, the mid-19th century brought us to division and civil war over the issue of slavery and the rights of states to determine themselves. In Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address he endeavored to placate the southern states, saying that he would not interfere with the institution of slavery in those states where it existed. He guaranteed the right of each state to govern itself and its domestic institutions exclusively. In effect, he attempted to keep the peace rather than make peace. And there was no making peace with slavery; despite his promises, war broke out a month after Lincoln was inaugurated.
The Civil War brought America up short. It shattered our idealized view of ourselves, as being a favored nation in the eyes of God, as having a redemptive role in history. This was not a war of revolution against tyranny. Though slaves were freed, it was through the bloodshed of brothers, citizens of one nation. New Jerusalem indeed. It seems that wherever Jerusalem is declared, even the Church itself, there are those who will fight over who will determine its future and who will make peace difficult to achieve.
In his second inaugural address, Lincoln got it right. This time he preached how to make peace rather than just keeping it. He reminded his listeners that they read the same Bible, that they prayed to the same God. Those present were rapt in profound silence, their faces and eyes damp with tears, responding at times with applause and cheers.
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations.
If we had known that war only leads to death, destruction, and disease among nations and that the death of an enemy is no different than the death of a loved one in the eyes of God, would we have stayed awake and kept watch with our adversaries, seeking what would make peace for them, caring for their widows and orphans?
If we had known that a child would grow into an adult in the wink of an eye, a spouse would change and grow over the years, a parent would get older and not as able, would we have stayed awake and kept watch with them until we found a way to keep our temper, give thanks for their love, accept them as they are, seeking their peace rather than competing with our own?
If we had known that we were only given so many years on this earth to give, to love, to see, to smell, to touch, to hear, to taste, to know, would we have stayed awake and kept watch, seeking the peace of each moment, ready for God to break in at any time? We would have known our life here is far too precious for conflict and competition.
To be ready, to be awake, is to seek the peace of the other, with acts of mercy, kindness, and forgiveness—to inculcate an inclination toward community and cooperation.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
‘May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.’
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good. Psalm 122: 6-9 With the first advent of Christ the age of the last days began. It is long past time to get ready. It is time to be ready. We who confess that Christ has come into the world, continues to come into the world, that this Christ is Jesus, born of Mary, the Savior who is Christ the Lord—by this we declare that we have received revelation from God to know how to live and how to love in God’s light until the close of human history.
And we do this by seeking the good, the peace of someone else: the peace of a family member or neighbor or co-worker; the peace of sister or brother in Christ or the community of faith as a whole; the peace of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Israelis, Arabs, and Palestinians; the peace of the earth, its water, its air, its trees, its soil, and its creatures; the peace of those with AIDS and HIV; the peace of the hungry, the poor, the outcast, the stranger, the migrant worker, the illegal immigrant, the battle-worn soldier, the widow and the orphan.
Christ was born. Christ lived and loved among us. Christ died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. The peace of someone else, which is the peace of Christ, be with you. Let us pray:
O God, who has come into the world and continues to come into this wild, wide-open world, surprise us once more. May this congregation be taken: taken with your Christ and your way of peace; taken with their pastors, with one another and with the poor, the lonely, the lowliest among them; taken with the Holy Spirit and her prophetic voice, her prodding, noodging ways, her sweet comfort. Continue to bless their days with the peace that seeks the good of the other. All these things I pray in the name of the One who was born to save, Amen.