Peace, perfect peace. (Advent 2B)

The second Sunday of advent is traditionally devoted to peace. Waiting, as we are, for the coming of the Prince of Peace, it seems only right that some time should be devoted to something we say we all want, but have never really achieved. We are quick to pray for peace and to reward leaders who bring conflicts to an end. We imagine that the true definition of peace is ‘whatever happens when the shooting stops’, but peace as God intends is more than just the absence of conflict. The peace of God ‘passes all understanding’, and brings to mind deep contentment and true freedom – two things that are too often missing from the inventory of our “must-have” lists. Among the prophets, Isaiah brings our notions of peace and power under harsh review, and places beside them a vision of God’s power and peace that we must consider.
We are encouraged to think of the times between armed conflicts as “times of peace’, but the sort of struggles that the world has known in the last hundred years or so never really end. Peace treaties are marked by the vengeance of the victors and the impoverishment of the losers (in both the First and Second World Wars); Our pride in Canada’s role as principal peace keeper was well earned through the 60’s and 70’s, but it meant only that our soldiers (in Cypress and Crete and some places in the middle East) carried weapons that they could not fire, and found themselves placed between adversaries whom they could neither punish or assist. Their presence was not just symbolic, but the habit of trying to stop the fighting by a different show of force is a symptom of humanity’s larger problem – we don’t know what real peace looks like.
A survey of human history will show you that we have never really understood peace – always describing n terms of what we gained (or what others had taken from us). So the ancient instruction of Isaiah is understandable. People in Isaiah’s time saw their defeat at the hands of an enemy as a punishment from God. The ‘peace’ had been shattered by something they had done (or not done) that brought God’s wrath – when the truth was that they found themselves living between powerful and greedy neighbours. Israel had dared to claim the finest real estate in in the neighbourhood; trouble was bound to find them, and peace would always be elusive. To this nation, once more over-run, Isaiah brings the promise of real peace. Enough suffering; prepare the way of the Lord – make a highway in the desert look to your salvation – so runs the words of the prophet, but it runs against the wisdom of the day. A highway in the desert would only invite the invader; the easier it is to move from place to place, the more likely you are to see trouble coming down the road – but Isaiah promises comfort. Good tidings, rather than more grief. It is an unlikely promise, but that is because we don’t know what real peace – what the Salvation of the Lord – looks like.
We think we know peace – and in our arrogance, from our comfortable ‘First-World’ churches, we presume to understand Salvation. But the truth is we have insulated ourselves from the promises of God. Our prosperity, a stable and (mostly) reliable political system, the abundance we enjoy – all these things have given us a sense of security that is only momentary. So the peace that Isaiah preaches – the comfort God offers a people in exile – and the powerful peacemaker who will follow John the Baptizer into the chaos that is First century Palestine; all these should seem as wonderful and new to us as they did to their original audiences.
The promise of God is not just an absence of conflict – though that is certainly part of the expectation. God does not ‘enforce’ peace by virtue of superior power – this is peace bred by peaceful means; this is the power of a mothers embrace; the power of the world has no reply because we have even come to believe that love is something that can be manipulated and turned to our ‘advantage’. It can, of course, but the true power of love is conveyed in that image of God leading the people like a shepherd. Those who follow will enjoy a new perspective – God’s perspective. This is peace of a deep and personal nature that cannot help but change the way we conduct ourselves, our relationships; our politics; everything becomes marked by this promise of peace.

Ultimately the one whom John proclaimed will take up this peaceful cause, and he will be questioned and mocked, and finally killed for his devotion to such a profound redefinition of peace. It is Jesus’ cause that moves us to shake off our misunderstanding and embrace a new approach. This promise of peace has the capacity to save us – not just for eternity, but in the present as well. God’s deep, perfect peace has come to us – is coming to us – in Jesus Christ, and it has – it can – it will change the world. Thanks be to God. Amen


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