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The People of Hope
December 20, 1981

First United Methodist Church of Modesto

You may not like this sermon, you may not enjoy the sermon. Those who view Christmas as an escape, as a trip into innocence, tinsel and innocuous songs about snow and Ho, HO, HO, will not enjoy this sermon. Not that this sermon will be of doom and gloom, for it speaks of hope, but hope without reality is meaningless. Hope, without reality is not hope. Today we look at hope in relation to a dominant theme of the prophets as they yearned for the Messiah, a theme which the angels picked up and sang as a promise of peace. Isaiah prophesied and yearned and hoped that the coming Messiah would bring peace—the Prince of Peace Isaiah called him. The angels sang, “ Peace on earth, goodwill to everyone” as a promise. 

Today, in the midst of our violent world, we hope for peace. The situation is that our world’s choice and our pursuit of violence as a way of life, and as a means of solving problems, might very well destroy us with violence. Several weeks ago, a teenager in Milpitas murdered his girlfriend. The murder itself was disturbing, but even more disturbing, more frightening was the attitude of her classmates. Teenager after teenager went out to look at the body, kicked at her garments and went home to watch television or sleep—indifference to human life, to the value, to the dignity of human life, even a person they knew. Such callousness is disturbing. Senator Hatch of Utah, trying to destroy what few federal laws we have now in control of handguns, sent out a press release saying, “The right of free men to arm themselves is a gift of the Creator.” A gift of the Creator to arm, to shoot, to kill! Violence is on the increase and violence is becoming more and more accepted as a way of life. We are taking it for granted as this is the way we must live. 

And on the world scale, it is very alarming. The Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church has issued a call for nuclear disarmament and peace with justice. This call includes these words, “We are convinced that the most crucial issue facing the peoples of the earth today is the threat of nuclear holocaust, which could destroy the created order as we know it. All other issues pale before this ultimate and immediate possibility.” The bishops go on with hope, saying we do not believe that such destruction is inevitable. The Modesto Bee reported this week that a small megaton bomb, which is 70 times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima but is small according to today's standards. One small megaton bomb dropped on Sacramento would flatten an area of 50 square miles. People would experience second degree burns in Fresno, and fallout radiation would go 600 miles. There would be no or little medical care for the hundreds of thousands. Epidemics of cholera, typhus, the plague would break out. There is no defense against nuclear attack, no defense, contrary to the statements of those who make a lot of money building the defense systems. To speak of a cold,” limited nuclear war” is in comprehensible. And now powers other than the two major powers have the nuclear weapons. The situation is very bleak for the future of this earth. 

But, we are a people of hope. God called us to be a people of hope. God has raised up the church, you and me to be God's people. God has raised us up to be the body of Christ, the physical body of the resurrected Christ. God has raised us up to embody God's will, to embody God's purpose, to be the people who will be the example and who will be the influence. God has raised up a people as his means of saving this world. And you and I are called to embody his will, to embody the purpose, to embody the Prince of Peace, to be the body of Christ now at this day, and the body of Christ is that of the Jesus about whom the angels sang, “Peace on earth and goodwill to everyone,” the same Jesus who told Peter to put up his sword said, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword,” the same Jesus who stood before his accusers and said not a word in his defense, the same Jesus who hung upon the cross, who died at the hands of his enemies and prayed, “Oh, God, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” That Jesus is our Lord. That Jesus, the Prince of Peace, calls you and me to embody that spirit and to witness to the world as to what God’s purpose is. 

It only takes a few to change the world. Do you believe that? Do you believe it only takes a few to change the world? Come January 1, drunk drivers will now go to jail. A drunk driver who kills someone will have more than his or her wrist slapped. As I understand it, a great deal of credit for that new law goes to one woman, one woman who got angry, one woman whose child was killed by a drunk who got a suspended sentence because he was not responsible. That one woman organized. Don’t underestimate the power of one woman. Never underestimate the power of one idea and of commitment. 

There is even now a scientific basis for hope. The October issue of Omni magazine postulates a theory of a new theory of how life takes shape. The question which has puzzled scientists is how does one single fertilized cell through stages and steps become an elephant or a zebra, or a poinsettia, or a tree, or a human, or the organ of the human, the heart or liver? How does one cell turn into that shape? Why isn't there a combination of elephants and zebras? Dr. Rupert Sheldrake believes that “living organisms are shaped by morphogenetic fields which impose particular patterns and which are derived from those associated with previous similar creatures.” Now, aren’t you glad you know? In plain English at least as far as this simple little mind can understand that kind of talk is that a shape takes a particular shape and not another shape or not a combination of shapes because of similar systems in the past. Because an elephant herd, over and over producing elephants, a field is produced that in turns influences those cells to become an elephant as we know it. 

The fascinating, exciting part of this theory is that they have conducted experiments on laboratory rats and when laboratory rats are taught a particular skill, all over the world rats learn that skill more readily and quicker. Behavior is influenced by the pattern of previous behavior. He says that perhaps people today learn how to ride bicycles and type easier, quicker because of the people who have ridden bicycles in the past. In other words, if this theory is true, when you and I and a group of people practice a new style of behavior, practice a new skill, we are not isolated. We may be influencing people all around the world. That influence may be felt all around the world and into the future. Human life is so short on this earth we have a great future to influence. The hope is that people of hope who can practice peace, love, gentleness and forgiveness may be setting up a field that will influence behavior all around the earth. What a hope! 

This Christmas let us join the peacemakers. There are enough people ready and eager even in the name of Christ to shoot guns. There are enough of those. There are enough people wanting to militarize and wanting to solve problems with military means. We have enough of those. There are enough people who are ready and willing to fight communists under every bed and with whatever means at their disposal. We have enough of those. There are enough people spreading hatred, suspicion and distrust. We have enough of those. How about a people who stand for peace, who stand for love, who stand for forgiveness! 

Over 100 years ago Arthur William Edgar O'Shaughnessy wrote this (and you must believe anyone with a name like Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy!) He wrote, “For each age is a dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth.” Each age. I want to be part of the age that's coming to birth. I want to be part of the age to mold and influence that age to be one of peace. Let the old age die with its dependence on violence, killing and destruction. Let them die. And let's stand for a new age, the kingdom of God, a new age in which Christ reigns. Let's bring that one to birth. 

How do we do it? The bishops call us to pray for peace, to work for peace, to study. The bishops call us to communicate with governmental leaders of the nuclear powers expressing encouragement and support for honest negotiations for nuclear disarmament. In California we have a unique opportunity to express that concern. An effort is being made to put an initiative on the November ballot. It would be a cry from the common people to the Soviet Union and to the United States to freeze the production, the testing, the deployment of nuclear weapons. Let's join forces with common people all over the world. The throngs that are protesting around the world against nuclear weapons, let's join them. Poland shows us once again that the communist nations do not have all their people perfectly controlled. There are people of goodwill all across this earth. There are people of peace all across this earth. Let's encourage and participate in the building of peace. As you leave the worship service today, I've asked some people to have these petitions. 350,000 signatures need to be obtained before it can go on the ballot. As you leave today, would you sign that petition? That's something we can do. 

These are exciting days, but we're standing at a crossroad. Will the world go to destruction or will the world go to peace? We have the opportunity of influencing that decision, to hold up the dream of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Let us make this Christmas a gigantic step towards peace on earth, goodwill to everyone.

© 1981 Douglas I. Norris