December 4, 2016

Advent 2: Peace

Passage: Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12
Service Type:

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
According to Wikipedia there are 54 ongoing armed conflicts taking place around the world. Four of those conflicts have each caused at least ten thousand direct violent deaths in the current or past calendar year. Another twelve conflicts have each caused somewhere between one thousand and ten thousand direct violent deaths in the current or past calendar year. In 2015 there were collectively a total of 170,000 people killed in these conflicts. In August of 1914, shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, British author H.G. Wells idealistically called it the war that will end war. Apparently not.
In the second Sunday of Advent we take up the theme of peace. We read today from one of Isaiah’s depictions of that future peaceful kingdom. “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” When Christians read this text we see it pointing us forward to Christmas. “And a little child will lead them.” The babe born in Bethlehem is the promised prince of peace. He will lead us to peace. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27) I invite you to reflect with me about this peace the gospel promises.
1. Given humanity’s warring ways the theme of peace is ever a timely topic. The second Sunday of Advent is here again. Year by year on this second of Advent the theme of peace is highlighted. In the years of the church’s marking of this theme—has there ever been one when peace wasn’t a timely subject; ever been a time when we said—aren’t you glad we don’t have to speak of the need for peace? Humanity’s warring ways may be why this text in Isaiah resonates—it touches on our longing for peace.
When the subject of peace is addressed we link it almost immediately with our desire for the end of armed conflict. To be sure Isaiah’s vision of the peaceful kingdom implies as much; in another text Isaiah envisions “swords repurposed as ploughshares and spears as pruning hooks.” Yet Biblical peace is much more than merely the cessation of armed conflict—as glorious a thing as that would be.
In October, 2011, The New York Times ran an article about two musical giants whose longtime relationship unraveled over a tiny piece of music. Helene Grimaud, a brilliant and magnetic pianist, and Claudio Abbado, a revered conductor, have performed together at least a dozen times since 1995. They were supposed to perform in Switzerland and London, but organizers cancelled their concerts due to "artistic differences." At the heart of their conflict was a disagreement over which version of a 1 minute and 20 second piece of music to play within the larger concert.
We read a story like that and wonder how such a little thing could divide such talented people. And yet they do. Upon sober self-assessment we can see ourselves in this story. Think about all those little things that have family members not talking to one another. All those affronts we feel so perfectly righteous in justifying that put up barriers between us and another person. It is easy to think about the need for peace between nations but where does war come from? We want peace between countries but can’t manage peace in our families.
The Apostle James asks, “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” (James 4:1) This in an echo of our Lord’s teaching. “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come;” and Jesus named murder as among those evil intentions. (Mark 7:21) The peace the scriptures envision touches every area of life.
The Biblical idea of peace is shaped by the Hebrew understanding captured in the Hebrew word shalom. This word peace (shalom) has in view a prosperity of life in all its aspects—spiritually, socially, physically, and culturally. The Biblical blessing of peace isn’t limited to a wish for cordial relationships and the absence of war. It is a “life-in-all-its-fullness” blessing. Wouldn’t you love to live in the peace of having absolutely nothing to hide or the peace of having nothing in-between us and anyone?
When God created human life and observed all he had made God said—it is very good. The life God created was made for this full-orbed goodness that is captured in this word shalom (peace). The peace was shattered in the human turning of our backs on God thinking we knew better than God about what makes for human flourishing. So, what will make for peace?
2. Isaiah’s vision begins with the metaphor of a tree stump. When we see a large rotted tree stump we can see in our imagination a great tree that once stood there. A tree that once gave shade and beauty to the landscape and provided nesting possibilities for the birds of the air. But something happened—perhaps the tree became diseased—and all that is left is the stump.
“A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his root.” Jesse is the father of King David. The “stock of Jesse “is code for the line of Davidic kings who ruled in Jerusalem. David’s throne was once a magnificent tree. David was passionate in ensuring justice for the poor; the marginalized knew they had a friend in David. But David’s successors did not follow in his footsteps. The kingdom in Isaiah’s day was a shell of its former greatness. Only this rotted stump remains.
But out of this stump a shoot shall grow. The picture here connotes something utterly surprising. Surely the promised king would arise from the palace with prestige and power. Instead he is born in a stable; a nobody from poor parentage. He is nothing like what we would expect. Yet it is to him that “the Lord God will give the throne of his ancestor David; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
In these Isaianic visions of a future peaceful kingdom the peaceful kingdom arises because the king comes who judges the peoples of the earth with righteousness and with equity. In these visions God declares that there is no peace—real peace, lasting peace—without justice. These visions depict the day when all injustices will be set to rights. We all know the partial peace of burying things and not looking back. Where we choose to absorb the hurt and not raise the subject again for the sake of civil relationships. And this produces a good in so far as it goes. But the injustice was never righted. The pain of hurt absorbed leaves its scar. The promised future of peace in scripture is one in which all things are set to right. Every lingering scar gone.
The idea of God coming to judge us conjures up scorched-earth images. Yet God’s coming to judge us, Biblically speaking, is always for our good. For one matter, if there is no final judgement then there is no justice. If no one is ever held to account then no wrongs are ever righted. We read today of the preaching of John the Baptist. It causes us to bristle. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Not really what you would line up on a Sunday morning to hear. Still, do you not find yourself angry about behaviors that destroy life; about the injustice that grinds up people and spits them out? John the Baptist rightly spoke against such injustice.
Furthermore, God bothers to judge us only because he wants to save us. We hear from time to time of judges whose judgements were far from impartial. Who do you want judging you? The scriptures teach us we ought to want God because he judges us because he is for us—partial towards us out of his love. Additionally the kingdom that arises because the righteous judge is among the nations arbitrating among them is a kingdom of peace. God saving action that always includes his justice brings us to this peaceful kingdom.
So how will God set all things to rights? In our justice system there is always a residual harm that cannot be undone. When one human violates another there can be measures of restitution enforced yet the original hurt can never be undone. The action can’t be taken back as if it didn’t occur. Somehow in what God will do in this king who judges righteously all of this will be resolved. How? In the hurt absorbing love of God in the cross of Jesus Christ. In the unfathomable mystery that is the cross of Christ all of this is resolved and we are promised through faith in him to see the consummation of its final resolution.
Through Isaiah’s prophesy we learn the coming king will also be the suffering servant. Isaiah declares that “upon him was the punishment that made us whole.” (Isaiah 53:5 NRSV) The word translated here with the idea of wholeness is shalom (peace). The NIV translation renders the text well—“the punishment that brought us peace was upon him.” Keep in mind the full-orbed life that the word shalom denotes when you hear the word “peace.” Everything necessary for peace God gives in the self-giving of Father and Son at the cross.
3. I would like to turn your attention to another aspect of this gospel peace; peace with regard to life. Sometimes we talk about making peace with life. I note with you that in the Biblical depictions of the kingdom of the Prince of Peace, people are not puzzled about the nature of their existence. People are not envisioned in angst over why they are here or the purpose of their living. People are not huddled in groups wondering about the point of living. They all seem quite clear that living is the point!
In our small groups study this past fall the author Nate Locke posed the question that most humans come to ask—what is the point of living? As I reflected on that human question I wonder if the question is the problem—or the question highlights the problem. Why do we humans wonder about the point of life? Why isn’t the point obvious? We somehow sense that there must be some point—sheer pointlessness, after all, is a deep abyss too terrible to contemplate. The fact that we need to ask about the point witnesses to us that something is profoundly amiss, does it not?
It is important to note that scriptural peace is first and foremost peace with God. There is a breach and humans are solely responsible for the breach of relationship. But it was God who couldn’t leave it that way. The apostle Paul writes to his fellow-Christians in Rome, “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” To be justified by faith is to be rightly related to God in trust, love and obedience. God is the one who does this in the Son.
The gospel asserts that we really don’t start living until we know God. We discover in relationship with God that he created us in love and for this love. We have existence because God loves. The relationship with him is the reason for life. I find in this relationship that I need not wonder about the point of life—I find my heart very much at peace about all such things. Yes, I need to think about the particulars of life but all these things are gathered up in him.
When you host a family gathering at your home you generally aren’t preoccupied with the point of the gathering together. It is true that some occasion may prompt the gathering—birthday, Thanksgiving, or Christmas. Even so the relationship of family defines the point—why you gather with these people around this particular table at Christmas, for example, is in the nature of the relationship. In a similar way with respect to life the relationship with God defines the point. Believers’ experience a profound sense of peace about life knowing themselves loved by God.
4. The Apostle Paul reminds the Philippian believers that the peace of God “which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7) There is a peace we feel because we know the doors are locked. This is an example of the peace of understanding. But God’s peace guards the heart and mind even when we cannot understand.
When Isaiah writes of this vision of the peaceful kingdom Israel is in political turmoil. The Assyrian ascendency of power over the Middle East is threatening. War was on the horizon along with the threat of invasion. The message of the coming peaceful kingdom was a word that assured his people that God has a greater plan for good for his people even in the midst of the turmoil that threatened to consume them. In the events that we call history another story is being written by God. A story of triumph assured in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We embrace this other story as our own in faith. And while the wonder of this promise is beyond the confines of understanding it is still experienced; experienced in the peace that God gives to the mind and heart that all things will be gathered up in him. The promise that God will keep your life.
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.