Sunday, December 10, 2023

Advent 2: What is Peace?

 Sermon preached at the Church of the Redeemer, Addison, NY on the Second Sunday of Advent, 2923:  Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8

          Today we light the candle of peace, and ask ourselves: What is peace? When Christians talk about peace, what do they mean? Perhaps more to the point, When Christians experience peace, what are they experiencing?

           Each of the readings today give us a different aspect of what we mean. Let’s begin with John.

           The message from John the Baptist seems to have nothing to do with peace.  Yet when John was born, his father Zechariah sang the song that ends with these words:

 You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare he way, to give God’s people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:76-79)

           Zechariah understood that what his son would be called to do would be to guide God’s people into the way of peace. John came to understand that the way of peace was also the way of repentance and the experience of God’s forgiveness.

           John knew it was impossible to experience peace if you are at odds with either another human being or God. And we all know that’s true, because we’ve all experienced it.

           There might be a certain satisfaction in not forgiving someone, a certain sense of well-being that comes with knowing you were right and someone else was wrong, especially if you were the one that was wronged.  I know, I have felt it.

           But I also know from experience that particular sense of well-being does not last. It cannot last.  It is nowhere near the experience of true peace.

           So the way of peace is the way of repentance and forgiveness, the way of a favorite word of The Book of Common Prayer, reconciliation.

           Skip to the psalm, with that well-known verse:

 Mercy and truth have met together;

Righteousness and peace have kissed each


           The verse uses four of the Old Testaments’s most frequently used words to describe the dream of God for the creation:

·      esed, mercy or steadfast love.

·      emet, truth or faithfulness.

·      ṣedeqah, righteousness or justice

·      shalom, peace or well-being.

          Mercy rings the same hint of forgiveness and reconciliation that we got from looking at the John the Baptist passage. It is also interesting that it is paired with truth.  We live in a world where truth is under contention.  If truth is being spoken about there is sure to be no peace.

But truth spoken—even debated—with mercy, now that’s a different story.  We can contend about the truth if we have mercy in our hearts when we do so.

But then peace is paired with righteousness or justice.  And I would contend that the way of peace cannot be attained without justice.  “No justice, no peace,” is a popular mantra of protesting crowds, and it is a biblical sentiment.

So the way of peace is also the way of justice.  It brings up the truth that the Hebrew word shalom is much broader—actually much deeper—than the English word “peace.” Shalom is more than the absence of conflict. It is well-being in every aspect.

The word “peace” or “shalom” does not appear in the Isaiah reading, but the reading as a whole is a vision of shalom, deep and broad well-being.

“Comfort” is the stand-in word for peace here, and as the passage moves on from those opening words there is a very clear understanding that humility is necessary for us human beings.  “All people are grass, their constancy like the flower of the field.”  I don’t know about you, but the metaphor describes me to a “t.”

We can’t hear God’s “good tidings,” or “good news” if we don’t get over ourselves, get out of our own way, have patience with ourselves, each other, and God.

And it’s that insight that the author of the second letter of Peter has discovered.  This is one of the latest writings in the New Testament. By the time it is written it is clear that Jesus is not coming back soon

So the writer cautions us that God’s time and our time are simply not the same thing, and the biggest consequence of that fact is that patience is a virtue. Patience with God. Patience with one another. Patience with ourselves.

We wait for a new heaven and a new earth where righteousness (or justice!) is at home.  Until then be at peace, or at least try. I like the word “strive” there because it carries a sense that being at peace is not something that comes easy to anyone.  It is a struggle.

But what can lessen the struggle is to know that God has infinite patience with us. If it were not so, we would all be doomed. I love the phrase, “regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”

All of this can be distilled in this way:

Peace is not so much a state of mind as a journey.  A journey that requires patience. A journey that requires, frequently, repentance and forgiveness. A journey that always requires humility and mercy, even in—especially in—the search for truth. And ultimately the kind of peace the Bible promotes—shalom—requires justice, for without it there can be no true, lasting, deep well-being.

Some of you may remember Bishop McKelvey when he delivered the bread of the Eucharist to you, he would say, “The Body of Christ, food for the journey.”  Writing this sermon brought that to mind, and I think I understand a little better what he meant by that.

Food for the journey on the way of peace.

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