The Christmas season is a season of peace.
We await the one who is called “Prince of Peace.”
We recall the angelic greeting to the shepherds, “Peace on earth, and good will toward all.”
We sing carols which echo their message:
O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
I would like to tell you a story about a man called Dirk Willems. Dirk Willems believed in peace. It was the year 1569. He lived in Holland, which was then under Spanish rule. That meant Catholic rule, and Protestants were treated harshly, especially those Christians called Anabaptists.
Dirk Willems was an Anabaptist. When they came to arrest Willems for preaching the Gospel, he took off running, with an officer known as a “thief catcher” in hot pursuit.
Dirk headed for a frozen pond, and ran across the snow covered ice. The “thief catcher” followed … but the ice cracked beneath his feet, and he plunged into the water beneath.
Willems heard the crash and the cries. He looked back.
Now was his chance to get away.But instead, in an act of selfless compassion, he turned back and rescued his pursuer.
Standing again on the ice, the grateful “thief catcher” caught his breath, then hesitated.
The burgomaster hollered from the shore and ordered him to do his duty. Reluctantly, he brought Willems back to shore, and delivered him to jail. Some weeks later, convicted in a short trial, he was burned at the stake.
This is just one of many stories told in a book called the Martyr’s Mirror, the record of the Anabaptist martyrs of the 16th and 17th centuries. Countless men, women, and children suffered horrible deaths after cruel tortures — at the hands of fellow Christians. But still they followed Jesus’ command to love their enemies.
Everyone saw the Anabaptists as a threat to Christian society.
Why? Because they insisted upon separation of church and state. They believed that only believers should be baptized, not babies. And their greatest crime? They were a people of peace, who refused to bear arms.
For this they were hated by Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anglicans. Each of their enemies tried to outdo the others in the cruelties they inflicted upon these simple Christians who just wanted to live as Jesus taught.At the time, they called themselves simply “brethren.” The largest group we know today as Mennonites, named after Menno Simons, a Dutch Catholic priest who became Protestant after corresponding with Luther and Zwingli—but he felt they didn’t go far enough in their reform.
There were three major schools of thought during the Reformation period.
Catholics worshipped Christ in the sacraments, and saw the visible Catholic church as the mystical body of Christ, with the bishops as successors to the apostles, having the authority to teach new doctrines not found in the Bible and to command obedience.
Protestants like Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin preached a theology of justification by faith in Christ alone… while at the same time seeking alliances with political powers and continuing to defend war and persecuting those who disagreed with them.
But the Anabaptists simply wanted to follow the teachings of Jesus in daily life, modeling their lives on the Sermon on the Mount.
And I suggest, of all the movements coming out of the sixteenth century reformation, they are our closest spiritual cousins.
Though we read from Isaiah 9, with its prophecy of the peace to be brought by Jesus, it’s the words of Jesus himself that I want to focus at this morning, specifically, the Sermon on the Mount, which covers three chapters, Matthew 5-7–of course, I can only touch on a little of it.
Jesus’ words in this sermon are some of the most familiar to our ears, especially the list of blessings we call the Beatitudes. In this passage, Jesus turns the values of the world upside down. He tells us we should value what the world despises, and despise what the world values.
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers.”
Jesus says what this means in the verses that follow, starting with verse 21:
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. … 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. …
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.
These are radical statements. He says that those in the kingdom of God must reject the ways of the world. We must reject every form of vengeance and violence, and every rationalization and excuse for it.
More than that, we must love our enemies. Forgive them. Bless them. Be kind to them. Do good to them. Be ambassadors of the kingdom of God, and makers of peace.
The question for us to consider as we read this passage is this: Did Jesus mean what he said? The Catholic church for centuries taught “no.” These recommendations were only for those who wanted to be perfect—for monks and nuns, who took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They called these the “evangelical counsels.” The Reformers rejected the Catholic idea that there was one standard for the so-called “religious” and another for the laity. But they, too, thought Jesus’ teachings described a state of holiness and perfection that we could never hope to achieve short of the kingdom of God.
They all rejected the idea of loving your enemies, and turning the other cheek. And we see the fruit of it. Rome, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Holland, Germany, England — it didn’t matter whether they were Protestant or Catholic, they all tortured and killed those they called heretics.
John Huss was burned at the stake by Catholics in 1415 at the order of the Council of Constance because he thought laypeople should be able to drink from the cup at communion. My wife and I were in Constance in September. We took a group of chaplains and service members to Constance, and followed in the steps of Huss, and prayed at the spot where he died.
Anabaptist leader Felix Manz was drowned by the City Council of Zurich in 1527, urged on by the Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, because Manz taught only believers should be baptized. That’s why they were given the nickname “Anabaptist”–rebaptizers. On this trip we went there, too, and stood by the river where there is a marker commemorating Manz.
In 1543 Luther cursed the Jews who wouldn’t accept his message and urged that their synagogues be burned, their homes torn down, their scriptures taken from them, their rabbis forbidden to teach, their safety on the highways withdrawn. Four hundred years later, the Nazis remembered Luther’s words, and used them as justification for a policy of alienation, concentration, and extermination.
All these Christians looked to Old Testament law as their guide, and on that basis imposed harsh civil penalties for religious crimes. But Jesus taught something different. He taught something contrary to what was in the Law of Moses. And this shocked people in his day, and it still shocks many Christians today. ”You have heard it was said”—he says that time and time again, referring to what they knew from Moses, what they accepted and assumed to be true —
“but I say to you” — something different, something radical, something you have not heard before, something you cannot believe that Jesus really meant for us to take literally.
There are countless stories of violence in the Old Testament. Israel is told to kill their enemies in holy war. Slaughter their children. Wipe them out. But Jesus says to us, love your enemies. Do not resist their violence. Be people of peace.
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard Christians, even Seventh-day Adventist pastors, turn from Jesus’ words and cite those Old Testament stories as if they provide better advice. As if Old Testament violence is more authoritative than the words of Jesus. But it is the other way around. Jesus tells us to forget everything in Moses that can be used to excuse and rationalize violence, and to listen to him.
Jesus’ teaching is hard. It goes against our natural passions and our sense of justice. Recall how many felt twenty years ago on 9-11–fear and anger and a desire for revenge.
But it is Jesus speaking. And we must listen, if we call ourselves by his name.The early Adventists listened. Like the Anabaptists, they heard the call of God, “Come out of her my people.” “Come out from among them, and be ye separate.” They rejected the ways of the world and resolved to be a peculiar people.Like the Anabaptists, the early Adventists rejected injustice. They were active in all the social reforms of the day, especially the anti-slavery movement—most notably, Joseph Bates. They helped fugitive slaves escape—John Byington, first GC president, was a conductor on the Underground Railroad. They refused to obey laws that sought to limit our compassion—Ellen White said plainly, “The laws of our land requiring us to deliver a slave to his master, we are not to obey.”
And they refused to bear arms.
It started with William Miller, who turned his back on war to immerse himself in the Bible. He became a preacher of peace as well as of prophecy. A minister of the Christian Connexion, Joshua V. Himes, joined with the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison to found the New England Non-Resistance Society in 1838, just months before Himes joined with Miller to proclaim the news of the Second Coming of Christ. Garrison would later say of Miller, “The cause of temperance, of anti-slavery, of moral reform, of non-resistance, finds in him an outspoken friend.”These convictions were retained after the Great Disappointment by those who formed the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Shortly after the General Conference was created in 1863, in the middle of the US Civil War, church leaders wrote to the states and the federal government in response to the nation’s first military draft. They said:
“The denomination of Christians calling themselves Seventh-day Adventists, taking the Bible as their rule of faith and practice, are unanimous in their views that its teachings are contrary to the spirit and practice of war; hence, they have ever been conscientiously opposed to bearing arms.”
But they said they would willingly assist the nation in other ways, in caring for injured Soldiers and for slaves who would be freed. They would do their part to show that they were good citizens, but they could not do that which God had forbidden. “We must obey God rather than man.”
This is fundamental to who we are as Seventh-day Adventists: We are not to do harm. We are to do all we can to ensure the health and well-being of all.
Desmond Doss, a non-combatant medic who received the Medal of Honor for saving lives on Okinawa in World War II, was not unique. He acted as he was taught from his youth. We have lifted him up as an example for our youth. Not just for his individual courage, but for holding fast to what we believe.
A former GC president, Neal Wilson, went to Moscow in 1987 and was able to speak in front of Mikhael Gorbachev at a conference on peace near the end of the Cold War.Elder Wilson said,
“Our Christian commitment compels us to reappraise the contribution we may make to peace and the social justice intrinsic to peace. In the person of the God-man who walked among us as one of us, we see divinity and humanity combined. Thus we cannot serve God without also serving our fellowman. Not only in His incarnation but in His ministry to us we see an example of how we should relate to a choice between conflict and peace. On one occasion in a Samaritan village, Jesus and His disciples were not well received. Two disciples, James and John, said, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ And Jesus answered: ‘You don’t know what kind of a Spirit you belong to; for the Son of man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them’”
That’s what Jesus calls us to in the Sermon on the Mount. To save lives. To build bridges of understanding. To be people of compassion and mercy. To be people of peace and justice. In 2002, on the eve of the Iraq War, the General Conference issued a “Call for Peace,” reminding the members of the church that this is who we are. It said our 6000 schools around the world should
“set aside one week each school year to emphasize and highlight, through various programs, respect, cultural awareness, nonviolence, peacemaking, conflict resolution, and reconciliation as a way of making a specifically ‘Adventist’ contribution to a culture of social harmony and peace.”
It said to pastors,
“The education of the church member in the pew, for nonviolence, peace, and reconciliation, needs to be an ongoing process. Pastors are … asked to use their pulpits to proclaim the gospel of peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation which dissolves barriers created by race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, and religion, and promotes peaceful human relations between individuals, groups, and nations.”
We need this vision today more than ever.
We need it for the sake of the world–and we need it for our own sake.
When we accept endless war as the norm and increasing deaths do not bother us,
When fear and intolerance are preached from pulpits, and walls arise in our hearts,
When TV, radio, and the internet stir up suspicion and resentment,
When even Christians harden their hearts to human suffering and urge destruction of a nation’s enemies,
Then our voice as peacemakers must be heard, and our actions of lovingkindness towards “the least of these” must be seen and must be known.
We are not of this world.
We do not belong to any nation.
We cannot take our marching orders from a political party or a Leader. We must not rest comfortable in the encouragement of Romans 13 to submit to earthly powers, because Revelation 13 warns us to not submit to them.
For we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus is king, and Jesus alone. A king who came not in glory, but as a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. A baby foretold to be the Prince of Peace.
He alone must reign in our hearts.
His values must rule in our lives, and guide our discernment.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
What would our world look like if those who claimed the name of Jesus really did this?
My prayer today is this. That we may truly live out the message of this season: Peace on Earth, Good will to men.”