Advent 2017 - PEACE
Psalm 23, Isaiah 40:1-11, 2 Peter 3:8-15a
Good morning! We are continuing our Advent Series on Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. As I mentioned last week, we have new Advent candles this year, three purple and one pink. The purple candles represent Hope, Peace, and Love. This week is a purple week, for Peace. Today we light two candles: the candle of Hope for last week and the candle of Peace for this week. Purple signifies royalty. We are celebrating our Infant King. It is also the colour for self-reflection and repentance. We examine ourselves in preparation to worship Jesus as our Infant King. The pink candle is the third week. It is for Joy, and it signifies celebration. It is a reminder that we are celebrating the birth of Jesus. During Advent we are preparing ourselves to recognize the Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love that God gives to us through Jesus.
Last week we talked about Hope. Today we will talk about peace. I want to look at peace from three perspectives. Personal peace, peace between each other, and peace in the world. These build on each other. In order to go out in the world to bring peace, we have to have peace with each other. In order to have peace with each other, we have to have personal peace. We will start with personal peace.
Some of us might wonder why we read Psalm 23 today, during Advent. Many of us associate that Psalm with funerals. Yes, it is a great comfort to us when we are grieving. But Psalm 23 also gives us a beautiful message of peace, personal peace, at any time in life. The passage we read this morning from Isaiah 40 ends with imagery of God as shepherd. The authors of our Scriptures would often take images from another Scriptural text and insert it into theirs in order to inspire readers to think of another text at the same time they are reading this one. This is what Isaiah is doing in 40:11. It says, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” This imagery of God as a shepherd, a shepherd of the people who leads with gentleness and compassion, is supposed to make us think of Psalm 23, so let’s read starting Psalm 23 in verse 1: “The Lord is our shepherd, we shall not be in want. He makes us lie down in green pastures, he leads us beside still waters, he restores our souls.” God brings us peace, peace. In the midst of grief, in the midst of trouble and strife, in the midst of anxiety and worry, God brings us peace, personal peace.
How do we tap into that gift of peace? There is a type of prayer called Lectio Divina in which you imagine yourself in a scene of Scripture. I use this type of prayer with Psalm 23 during great times of worry or anxiety. Or even if I am having trouble falling asleep at night. When we imagine ourselves in this scene we become receptive to receiving God’s peace. It forces us to slow down and imagine ourselves as a sheep and God as our shepherd. What would it be like to not have any wants? How relaxing would it be to lie down in green pastures? What would it sound like to be near still waters? What would it feel like for our souls to be restored? These are the things we focus on in Lectio Divina prayer with Psalm 23. It is one type of prayer that helps us to be receptive, to receive the peace that God is giving to us in Jesus. When we celebrate Jesus’ birth, we are celebrating God’s gift of peace to us and to the world.
Let’s move on and talk about peace with each other. During Advent we are waiting. We are preparing and waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Peter asks good questions of people who are waiting for the day of the Lord. He says in the middle of verse 11: “what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting?” and then in verse 14: “while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace.”
Peace is such an abstract concept. How can we be found to be at peace with each other? I think that one of the things at the root and heart of peace is forgiveness. I read something while I was sick; I think it was from the Montreal Gazette, but I’m not sure…. I read that NOT forgiving is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. I’ll say that again. NOT forgiving is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. What this means is that when we do not forgive, we hold onto bitterness and anger and it eats away at our souls. It is the opposite of being with God in the green pastures, beside the still waters. Our souls are not restored when we do not forgive. In this state it is impossible to be at peace with each other.
Sometimes we are afraid to forgive because we worry that if we forgive justice won’t be served. We are afraid that if we forgive, we have to forget. It is important to remember that God is a God of forgiveness AND justice. In 2 Peter 3:13, it says, “In accordance with God’s promise, we wait for the new heavens and the new earth, where righteousness is at home.” But that word translated righteousness also means justice. It should probably say “where justice/righteousness is at home”. When we think of the peace that God gives us in Jesus and the ultimate peace that we are waiting for, it is a peace that is given to us by God’s forgiveness and it is a peace that brings with it a promise for “new heavens and a new earth where [justice and] righteousness are at home.” We are a people waiting we are waiting for the fulfilment of this promise, just as we wait and prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth. While we wait, let us be found to be at peace with each other. The foundation of that peace is forgiveness.
This leads to our third point: peace in the world. That’s tough. We don’t have control over the world. There is a lot of hate coming to the surface. A lot of wrongs are being called out. And there is a lot of violence and suffering. And there is also a questioning of core values. What drives us as a society? What motivates our collective action? What do we tolerate or not? For us in the church, what drives us as a people, what motivates our collective action, is Jesus. Everything that we do should be rooted and established in our love for Christ. That should change us, so that the peace that God promises in the end, with the new heavens and the new earth, where justice and righteousness are at home, that peace manifests itself already in us. When everything that we do is rooted and established in our love for Jesus, it changes us. We might not think this makes a difference in the world, but it does. It makes us a witness and an example of what it means to live for the peace of Christ.
This idea of reordering our lives around Jesus made me think of the protagonist in a young adult fantasy novel that I read recently. The book is called “Frogkisser” by Garth Nix (2017). In this story, princess Anya sets out on a simple quest that quickly morphs and she finds herself wrapped up in a larger story of resurrecting the old kingdom that had been destroyed by an evil sorceror. Anya’s original quest entailed fighting against a new evil sorcerer, Duke Rikard, but after getting wrapped up in the larger story with the old kingdom, she find herself as the figurehead for, what’s known as, the “Bill of Rights and Wrongs,” which had been lost. She’s found it and she had to choose to follow it. If she chooses to follow it, it changes the way that she will conduct herself in the fight with Duke Rikard. Here’s what it says when she figures this out:
“Duke Rikard...had to be defeated. Anya had shied away from thinking about exactly what that meant, but she needed to think about it now. Before talking to Bert about the Bill of Rights and Wrongs she’d had the thought at the back of her mind that it was kill or be killed. The Duke wanted to kill her, so she would have to return the favor. Now that she has committed to at least trying to uphold the ancient laws, she supposed they’d have to capture the Duke and somehow stop him from using sorcery so he could be tried. But they’d need to know the Laws Set in Stone, and get whatever it was Dehlia had said was required for a fair trial. A true mirror, or a unicorn, or something else. It was all very difficult and made her head hurt.” (pg. 320)
Anya had to change her plan. She had to change her whole way of thinking. The Bill of Rights and Wrongs took her from a place of needing to kill or be killed to a more peaceful route of capturing the Duke and giving him a fair trial. Even though it was difficult, she chose to follow the road that the Bill of Rights and Wrongs took her on. The story makes it clear from the beginning that she had a choice. No one was making her follow the Bill of Rights and Wrongs. She chose to - before she even really understood it entirely - and that choice changed her. Jesus works the same way in our lives. When we choose to follow Jesus, we are changed. Our guiding principle, the focus of all that we do and think becomes Jesus. We turn us into a people who are governed in all that we think and do by the Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love that we receive in Jesus. We might not think that it matters what we do or what we think. How can we possibly affect peace in the world? ... We are part of this world. If we want it to be a world of peace, then we have to work to make it that way, even though it is difficult. God works through us to bring Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love to this broken and troubled world.
Looking at this in a novel is all well and good, but what about real life? Recently, the New York Times ran an article about a group of young people in the Democratic Republic of Congo who have started an organization called Lutte pour le Changement (Struggle for Change) known as LUCHA. They have chosen peace as their guiding principle. According to the article, they are a “self-declared nonviolent citizens movement formed in 2012 to challenge the existing political disorder in a vast and chaotic nation that has teetered for decades on the brink of collapse…. [LUCHA] promote[s] civic engagement and youth mobilization and form[s] strategies on how to peacefully challenge the state’s failure to provide basic services like running water, health care, education and security. Social media is an essential tool for spreading ideas and expanding their reach. LUCHA operates as a non-hierarchical, decentralized network of cells, preventing anyone within the movement from becoming too important. [This prevents the government from taking a leader and stopping them or corrupting them.]”
The article says that, “Congo has spawned countless ‘movements’ since its independence in 1960, but few have brought anything other than more instability. But … LUCHA’s commitment to peaceful dialogue represents a generational shift. And their bravery in the face of violent repression and frequent detention without trial offers hope. [According to a photographer who documented this group, … ‘maybe this is the start of some real change. When I see them,[’ he said, ‘]I start to believe it’s possible.’’ ("Congo’s Youth Find Peace in a Violent Land." Finbarr O'Reilly. New York Times, Nov. 21, 2017, accessed online: https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2017/11/21/congos-youth-find-peace-in-a-violent-land/?_r=0)
These young people in the Democratic Republic of Congo are becoming a real force for peace. They are doing it because they have intentionally chosen to make peace their guiding principle. In so doing, they are making a difference in their country and they are also giving others hope to believe that peace might be possible.
Often, the obstacles we face make us think that peace is impossible. It is people like those in LUCHA, who are willing to do the hard work of paving the way for peace, that make a real difference in the world. This is what Isaiah 40:3-5 is about. Starting in verse 3 it says, “A voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plane.” It is hard work to do that. Think of the hard work it takes to make a bridge over a valley or a tunnel through a mountain, let alone raise up a valley or level a mountain. Think about how difficult it is to travel through terrain where there are no roads and it is uneven ground, let alone make a road in that terrain. It is hard work. Likewise, forging a road for peace is hard work and it takes a long time. But when we engage in that hard work, we work with God to bring redemption to this broken world. It says in verse 5, “Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all the people shall see it.”
During Advent, we prepare ourselves to worship our Infant King, Jesus. It is Jesus who is our guiding focus. The one who inspires all we do. Jesus gives us stamina do the hard work of making a highway for our God to bring Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love in our own lives, in the lives of others and in the whole world. So, keep alert, keep watch this Advent season, for signs of peace! Signs of personal peace, signs of peace between each other and peace in the world, as well as ways that you can be a sign of peace in the lives of others.