What does ‘peace’ look like in 2017?
December 10, 2017
Scripture: Isaiah 40:1-11
Last week we started our Advent Season by considering the theme behind the first candle we lit, that of ‘Hope’. And somewhere we found that hope in a Christian sense is not the blind wishful thinking that some thing or other will occur, but rather that since we have faith in our God, hope is more of an ‘anticipation’ that the promises and assurances of our Lord will be fulfilled. We said that ‘Hope in 2017’ is much like hope has always been for those who follow Jesus…the state of watchful expectancy for the goodness and blessings of God to be revealed in our lives and through our actions.
This week our candle theme is that of ‘Peace’, and so I would like to take a few moments to consider this theme as well and in particular what it is that peace looks like to followers of Jesus in 2017 and within our own context of 21st Century America.
Probably one of the most common notions concerning this theme is that ‘peace’ is a state of being , sometimes as an individual but more often as a people…a time usually when there is an absence of ‘warring’ and military activity and the presence of relative prosperity and safety for all. It can also signify a time of ease and freedom from personal concern, as though everything is moving along in the way everyone wishes it would.
And aside from the fact that this is a fairly narrow definition, it is still a very common perception as to the meaning of the word ‘peace’, at least in our own social context and location.
In point of fact though, the definition can and should be broadened to include all peoples and all nations, and to speak to everyone’s state of being and level of comfort regarding the basic qualities of a peaceful existence…which when so broadened actually excludes many of these other peoples who seem to be in a sort of permanent state of civil or social unrest and or warring…or at least constant and severe oppression and struggle due to many circumstances outside of the people’s control. I am fairly sure that when the scriptures refer to a ‘time of peace’, it is meant to include all people, all of God’s children regardless of personal circumstances or social status.
But as I said, peace defined simply as the absence of warring is still a fairly narrow definition. In fact I believe that there are several other critical ways we can consider this notion of peace which is so central not only to the language and traditions of our season of Advent, but of our faith practice as a whole. So, what are some other senses of ‘peace’ or some other circumstances where the word and understanding can be applied meaningfully?
To begin with peace is deeply tied into the whole notion of the arrival and existence of the prophetic promise and notion of the Kingdom or ‘kindom’ of God. Secondly, and as a part of that exercise or pursuit, peace has always been closely tied in biblically with the pursuit of justice. And lastly, peace has not only a corporate sense to it but a very personal one as well.
The idea of the Kingdom of God as a ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ or a time of great peace has a long history in our own nation going back at least to a series of paintings of the same name by a Quaker preacher named Edward Hicks. Hicks drew his inspiration for his iconic painting from scripture, most notably from the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, as well as from his conviction that he was supposed to do his part in bringing about the Kingdom of God through his work as a preacher in the early part of the 18th Century in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania.
And if we consider the biblical prophetic images and descriptions of the ‘Kingdom of God’ or the ‘Day of the Lord’ we do find characteristics often associated with a time which seems deeply different from our own. Isaiah speaks of mortal enemies dwelling peacefully together – wolves and lambs, leopards and goats, lions and young calves. He follows that by saying that they are all under the care of or being led by a little child. Isaiah goes on to say bears and cattle shall graze side by side together and that lions shall eat grass like the ox. And he follows all of this fantastic imagery with the assertion that in the Day of the Lord, ‘No one shall hurt or destroy in all his holy mountain’, and that, ‘the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’.
Now aside from the images which themselves are completely striking, if we were to try and re-cast them in a metaphorical sense the possibilities are truly vast for imagining just how different this promised time of world peace under the reign of God might really be from what we now see in the world around us. The Kingdom of God which Jesus referred to so often is that time when all of Creation, and in particular all of humanity learns how and becomes committed to seeking the will of God over personal desires and wishes…a time when human life and living truly becomes ‘others-centered’ rather than ‘self-centered’ and when ‘love one another’ has become the normal way humanity chooses to relate to each other.
And as much as this vision seems like an impossible task and truly a ‘pie in the sky’ bit of imagining and wishful thinking, I think the argument can be made that current conditions cannot get much worse than they already are and that Christians have a responsibility to at least attempt to live into the words and call of Jesus in their personal and community life. Peace in the extreme seems to be the call of the prophet…though I might settle at the start for even the beginnings of peaceful dialog and considerate listening in our social and political discourse.
The second point, that peace and the Kingdom of God are both tied in intimately with the pursuit of justice has an even richer prophetic tradition behind it including our reading from Isaiah 40 today and in particular verses 3-5. There is no other way to hear those words than from the perspective of the radical social and political change and upheaval the prophet claims is necessary for the Day of the Lord to be revealed. Unlike wolves and lambs or lions and calves these words of Isaiah have no easy or available literal understanding and must be seen as being metaphors for something else. And when placed alongside of our reading from several weeks back when Jesus said that ‘the exalted shall be humbled and the humble shall be lifted up’, talk of ‘mountains being made low’ and ‘valleys being raised up’ can only mean the same thing.
For the Day of the Lord, for the time of divinely anointed peace to truly arrive there is a need for justice to be earnestly sought, found, and fought for until there truly is a great leveling out of opportunity and access to resources for all of God’s children…each one who has been conceived and formed within the image of our God of love.
And notably the Prophet calls for this change from within a time of great struggle and injustice much like our own time and our own circumstances. He does not wait or indicate that there can be a gradual leveling out or ‘phased in’ change but rather says that when it is at its worst…when you are already in the wilderness…then begin to prepare the way of the Lord. When you are in the scorching heat of the desert…then begin to fashion a straight highway for the Lord. For in the midst of all that work the high mountains of injustice and power held only by the rich and powerful shall be brought down low, and every valley filled with those who have long been the victims of cruel injustice and systemic hatred and inequity shall be lifted up out of their hardship and misery. And in that time the workers for God’s kingdom shall seek to level out each and every playing field so that each of God’s many children shall have equal opportunity to seek the goodness of the kingdom together. And then, the Prophet says…then…after all that work of bringing down the mountains of injustice and raising up the victims of the valleys…after the hard work of leveling the ground so that all shall have opportunity for blessings from on high, it is then, the prophet says that ‘the glory of the Lord shall be revealed’…and that ‘all people shall see it together’.
As I have shared previously, the word justice and righteousness share the same root in the Greek language. And as I hear it, I truly believe that more often than not each can be substituted for the other. So in our reading from Psalm 85 today in verse 8 we heard another affirmation that peace and justice go hand in hand when the psalmist wrote, ‘Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; justice and peace will kiss each other’… ‘justice and peace will kiss each other’. Truly peace in our day can only happen as we bend our will and our backs to the task to begin to move those mountains and raise up those many valleys.
And lastly there is another aspect of peace that is deeply personal. While it does include time when there is an absence of strife and conflict in a communal sense, peace must also be understood within a personal context as in time without conflict and struggle within, on the inside, within one’s mind and perception. We all have heard the phrase, ‘peace that passes all understanding’. And surely we have all wondered how it is possible to remain in a state of peace in the most difficult of times. True Godly peace remains steadfast however through and in spite of those trying circumstances.
‘Peace’ is also one of those items listed in Paul’s letter to the Galatians as a ‘fruit of the Spirit’, and therefore can serve as a marker for spiritual life and health both as an individual and as the church gathered. This gift of the Spirit is holy in that it is capable of allowing one to feel and maintain an inner sense that ultimately all will be alright, regardless of indicators or appearances that may appear otherwise. When sought, the Spirit blesses with a deep-seated peace which somehow is able to assure us that through faith, God is ultimately in control over the lives of those who have decided to dedicate themselves to seeking the Lord. There is a sort of peacefulness within…‘that somewhere, somehow, and at some point everything will be okay’.
So, peace in 2017? In some sense it is obvious that we have a very long way to go in seeking to achieve God’s purposes and will regarding how it is that we are all called to live into a time of genuine harmony and peace. The work that needs to be put in to bring about a true revealing of the kingdom or ‘kindom’ Jesus sought to tell us was possible will be extremely difficult and substantial to be sure. And as the prophets made abundantly clear, the lowering of mountains and the raising up of valleys will require a level of faith Jesus also told us was indeed possible, but also one which very few people actually believe is so.
So somewhere, peace on the scale of the Prophet’s imagination and in Jesus’ confident assertions is possible. But to begin to find it or to bring it into being there is need for a body of believers who are peaceful themselves first…deeply committed workers who are unafraid of the rumble of mountains or of the extremely hard work of filling in valleys that are old and so very deep. However, those brave souls who are willing to pursue this ageless promise and wondrous dream will find they are not alone in the work…for the Lord of love truly shall sustain them until the day of deep and lasting peace finally is at hand…