Invariably, before every storm comes, there is a lull. Some of the most beautiful weather the Gulf of Mexico can produce comes on the eve of a hurricane. All of the energy of the wind is sucked into the storm, leaving nothing but a light breeze and clear skies to foretell of the ominous threat looming offshore. When a line of strong thunderstorms approaches, the air gets eerily still. Thus our English phrase, “the calm before the storm.” Standing in the midst of it, knowing that the radar shows an intense squall approaching, the anticipation can be unnerving.
Today is the start of a new church year, for those churches that follow the liturgical calendar of the church cycle. The church year always starts four Sundays prior to December 25, beginning with the season known as Advent. The word advent means, “a coming into place, view, or being; arrival.” Synonyms include, “onset, beginning, commencement, start.” The four weeks of Advent mark the coming of Christ into the world, his arrival, or His advent, when Mary and Joseph collapsed into the stable after their wearying journey into Bethlehem to be counted in the census under Augustus.
In many ways, Advent is a season of waiting on the edge of our seats in anticipation…like the anticipation of waiting to see what will happen when the calm gives way to the storm. The people of Israel were certainly in a season of waiting. More time had passed since the last time God spoke through the prophet, Malachi, then the entire time of their slavery in Egypt. It had been 450 years of waiting on God to act, or at least for God to at least speak to His people again. They were waiting for God to show up and do.
We, too, are waiting for God to show up again. We know with certainty that He had His advent those two thousand years ago, but now we are waiting for a second advent – a Second Coming. And in many ways, we are waiting for many of the same things that the people of Israel were waiting for. These are things that we have in common with those who were waiting for the Messiah – like Anna and Simeon. We, too, are waiting.
Isaiah recorded many of the things that God would accomplish when He restored the world to Himself, and we are going to look at some of these things that we are waiting for during this season of Advent and Christmas.
Two news stories from this past week really caught my eye in connection with this week’s Scripture lesson. One recorded a grim fact: On December 27, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan with the stated goal of transforming a communist regime on the verge of collapse into a modern socialist state. Nine years and fifty days later, on February 15, 1989, the Soviet army withdrew from Afghanistan, having failed to achieve its goals. That besieged Afghan government collapsed by 1992 and was replaced by a US-backed group. That government was in turn ousted when the now-familiar Taliban seized Kabul in 1996 after a violent civil war. The Taliban remained in power enforcing a strict interpretation of Islamic law until an invasion that began on October 7, 2001, as the US sought to deal with the terrorism machinations of Osama bin Laden following the 9/11 attacks. It was supposed to be a short mission for the Americans. But on this past Friday, November 26th, the US army had been in Afghanistan for nine years and fifty days, the same length of time the Soviets tried their hands in the same country under similar auspices of installing and defending a government of our liking.
The second story was just as stark as the troubling comparison of our war in Afghanistan with the Soviet Union’s campaign. Also on this past Friday, North Korea proclaimed its insistence that the Korean Peninsula is on the verge of war after the North’s brazen disregard of the 1953 Armistice agreement in their artillery fire that killed two South Korean soldiers and two civilians on Tuesday on the island of Yeonpyeong. The US has vowed to defend their ally, the South, against any belligerence from the North, but it is well understood that diplomacy is the only practical solution. America might have the most modern and disciplined military in the world, but North Korea has one of the largest standing armies and is also backed by the size, money, and growing power of China and its ever growing military prowess and might. It’s a delicate situation.
Both of these events are mars in the fabric of peace to which we here in America are accustomed. Historians and other scholars refer to this peace as the Pax Americana. Pax is the Latin word for peace. Americana is simply a rendering of America in Latin, so the phrase Pax Americana translates as “American peace.” The idea is derived from the Pax Romana enjoyed during the thriving of the Roman Empire. The Pax Romana was a time of relative peace for those areas under the control of Rome. The Roman Empire depended on its strong military to enforce this peace, but all of those under its rule could live their lives virtually free of the threat of outside invasion or attack. They were free to move about, engage in commerce, farm their land, and even to an extent worship and philosophize without any recourse from the outside. It was a stark contrast to life outside the Pax Romana, where there were constant threats of invasions from all sorts of outsiders.
In a similar fashion, America’s strong military and economic might have created a kind of Pax Americana, where our power creates a relative peace that has been in place since at least the end of the Second World War. Certainly it has not created an absence of war – Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and numerous other civil wars and regional wars have occurred in the last 65 years, but there has not been a large scale military conflict between two major powers since 1945, though the Cold War was on several occasions very tense. Under the peace that our military and economic might has provided, our shores have been free of the fear of enemy invasion. Even World War II did not disturb the soil on our continent. Our lives have been largely lives of peace, under which we have lived and thrived.
Imagine if the Pax Americana were obliterated and suddenly we had to wonder whose army might encroach on us. Imagine a life not governed by peace – a life lived today in places like Tel Aviv and the West Bank, Afghanistan, the anarchy of Somalia, and other places around the world. Life has to go on, but it looks very different from the life we enjoy in America. The fear that gripped us for a few brief moments in late summer and early fall of 2001 is a constant way of life for many.
But one day, this is not how it will be. Something akin to, but far better than, the Pax Americana will rule not just most of the North American continent, but everyone in every corner and crevice of the world will enjoy this new Pax. And unlike previous Pax regimes, all of which have fallen – from the Pax Romana of the time of Christ to the Pax Britannia of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the Pax Mongolica of parts of Europe and most of Asia during the 13th and 14th centuries to the Pax Sovietica of Asia that collapsed with the Soviet Union in 1991. Even our own Pax Americana will one day be just a note of history. No, one day all of these will be replaced by a new hegemony of power that will instill a lasting peace for all peoples. I call this new pax the Pax Dei – the Peace of God. And Isaiah describes this Pax Dei in Isaiah 2.
In the Pax Dei, swords and other weapons will no longer be useful. There will be no need for them. The metal and other recyclable materials will be reused and repackaged into things that are useful – things for cultivating food and gardens, like plows and pruning tools. Imagine a world with no need for gun control laws because there is no need for guns (my apologies if you are an avid hunter)! Sun Tzu’s masterpiece, The Art of War, as well as all of the tomes regarding defense and expansionism will be rendered obsolete. While people thought the war of 1914-1918 would be The Great War that would be The War to End All Wars, they were sadly mistaken. Even its virtual continuation from 1938-1945 in the Second World War has not brought truly lasting peace, as evidenced by the likes of Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinijad, not to mention Osama bin Laden and any of the Somalian pirates. Yet in the Pax Dei, there will be no talk of war. No mention of it. No rumblings from a North Korea. No planning of attacks from Iran through Lebanon to Israel.
Can you imagine it? Is this worth waiting for?
The Pax Dei is more, though. The Florentine worker Niccolo Machiavelli is widely known for a short book on political maneuvering called The Prince. Machiavelli sees anything that increases one’s position of power as a virtue. And everything that does not as…not a virtue. He argues for a certain brand of political maneuvering that is unfortunately all too familiar. But others have written about how to govern. China has long abided by the governing wisdom of Confucius. But all of these things will pass away and become useless, but more than useless – utterly unnecessary. For in the place of all of the political maneuvering that people do any time we get together, from church gatherings to social organizations to real government, the political maneuvering will be replaced by a desire to learn the wisdom of one way. Verse 3, “and many people shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.” Finally, God’s truth will be universally accepted as the truth. More than accepted, people will actively seek it out. They will travel from near and far, from literally the world over, to the center of God’s government in order to learn from Him so that they might learn His ways and that they might walk in His paths.
Solomon was granted great wealth and prosperity as well as long life because, rather than asking for these things, he asked God for wisdom in governing his people. Immediately, his wisdom was tested when two women disputed over whose son a certain boy was. Solomon was able to test, discern, and execute proper judgment in deciding who was right and who was wrong. But a greater judge than Solomon will come and rule between those who have disputes. No longer will nations work out their frustrations in the United Nations, rather the Judge himself will decide between them, and His decision will be perfect and just.
This is what we are waiting for. This is what we are longing for. This is what we are hoping for. This is what we are living for as followers of Christ. For His Kingdom to reign. For His power to protect. For His peace to endure. And it will certainly come for all of eternity.
But when? Isaiah says, “It shall come to pass in the latter days.” Those same latter days of which Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation spoke. The days when the wars and rumors of wars will cease. The days when evil has been dealt with and expelled to its outer darkness and only the light and the truth and the peace of God remain and reign. The Second Advent of the Christ will usher this in. And we wait for it.
Waiting is an impossibly tense endeavor. There is such a tension between the struggles of the moment and the promise of what is to come. Waiting is hard work. And yet waiting is what we are doing. But we do not wait in vain. Paul says it this way in Romans 8: “23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
So what are we waiting for? For one thing, the Pax Dei, that shall usher away all of the troubles of the world and bring a freedom to live, and to really live, to thrive. When it comes, we will be able to laugh freely, to love openly, to work diligently without fear of theft or attack or abuse. We will enjoy justice and righteousness and all things good.
So I invite you in this season of waiting to join up with Isaiah, who says, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD.” Let us wait. Let us wait patiently. Let us wait with hope. Let us wait eagerly. Let us wait expectantly. For what we wait for is exceedingly good.
But as we wait let me remind you that for some things we do not have to wait. We may be waiting for the Peace of God to rule the world, but we do not have to wait for peace with God. This He has already provided in the first advent which we celebrate during this season of the year. If you feel today that God is distant, perhaps indifferent to you. Maybe you think that God has never been there for you. Maybe your experience of God is frustrating at best or nonexistent at worst. Let me assure you that God loves you completely. He loves you thoroughly. He is preparing this Pax Dei for you. If you were the only one in the whole world, He would still prepare it. He loves you completely and intimately, like no love you have ever experienced or known. And though we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory for which He created and designed us, and though He is a holy God who will not suffer the presence of sin, yet God’s love has persevered to find a way to reconcile us with Him. This is what Christmas is all about: God coming into the world and through doing so, reconciling the world to Himself through the life, suffering, and resurrection of His Son in our place. In my place. In your place.
This is available now. For this we do not have to wait. For the fulfillment of the Pax Dei. For the new creation when swords are no more and thoughts of war no longer cross men’s minds, for this we wait. For the peace of God we long and we hope. But for peace with God, we must simply accept His standing offer to forgive and forget our trespasses against Him, and to run lovingly into His open and extended arms. This is available now. Accept it now, and you will be able to enjoy the Pax Dei for all of eternity. In a few moments, we will have a chance to sing, and I invite you to take a moment to come and talk with me more about the peace with God that you can experience today. Right now.
For all of us, let us look forward with eager anticipation to the chance we will have to gather with people of every tribe and tongue in the city of our God to learn His law and His ways, and to walk together with each other in the peace that will finally, ultimately, and for all of eternity last.