Sermons represent copyrighted material and are not to be reproduced, transcribed, or used in any form without the permission of Rev. Chris Moore or the speaker for that day.
Isaiah 40:1-11 & Mark 1:1-8
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” These are words Jesus, according to Matthew and Luke, says from a picturesque hillside looking down on the city before he enters to become another slain prophet. Jerusalem is the city at the heart of the conquest of the Jews by Egypt, and then Babylon and then Persia and Alexander and Rome. Jerusalem is the birthplace, the spiritual home, of three great religious traditions, all purveyors of peace, and the site of centuries of warfare, conflict, bitterness and hatred…spears thrown, rocks hurled, fires burnt, bombs exploded…right up to this very day. It is the place where every experiment in cross-cultural communication, peacemaking, and diplomacy has been or will be tried. It is the place that comes to my mind when I think about the elusiveness of compromise. If you are looking for a metaphor of the struggle for peace, the metaphor then and now is Jerusalem.
It was a city that I had hoped to visit in early January on an interfaith tour with TMM, over 20 people from Tulsa and OKC, from all walks of life and religious traditions to see that city in all its metaphorical and literal reality. We were going to be led by both Palestinian and Israeli tour guides at every site, learning the story from at least two sides. We were going to engage in some serious dialogue about struggle and how hope still shines through small cracks in the facade of hopelessness that has been laid over the whole area.
We’re not going. We can’t. We have too many people whose visas raise concern about their return to the country, too many Arabic people to be safe in west Jerusalem and too many US citizens to be safe in east Jerusalem. It’s heartbreaking that even the possibility of dialogue that would help more cracks to develop, more light to shine in, is thwarted by the assertion, once again, that “might makes right”…all on the eve of the birth of the baby who came to teach us just the opposite.
It certainly raises the question for me – what makes for peace? And what do we even mean by the word? Is it, like Webster suggests, a state of tranquility or quiet, or a state of security or order within a community provided for by law or custom? Or is peace, like the Pentagon once described, merely a “permanent state of pre-war?” Is that what Jesus means when he says, according to John’s version of the gospel story, “Peace I leave with you my friends?” And can we really say that when Jesus also tells us, in Matthew’s version of the story, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword?”
We don’t agree with each other when we use the word peace, nor does the Bible even speak with a single voice on the issue, because what peace means to me in my house full of teenagers may be very different than what it means to a young Palestinian boy watching his house being bulldozed by armed forces, or to an Israeli citizen who can still talk with her grandmother about the death camps and what having a safe homeland means. What peace means to the voice of Isaiah writing just after the return from exile in Babylon is very different than what it means to the voice of Isaiah who writes in the chapters before this one, seeking a peace that can only come from justice.
As Corrine Carvahlo says in her commentary on the Isaiah passage, this is a interesting array of metaphors. She writes, “It combines images of comfort with declarations of sin, the fragility of grass on the steppe with the enduring power of the divine, and, my favorite juxtaposition, a warrior God who holds lambs tenderly against the divine chest. It is no wonder that biblical scholars would like to de-couple these images and attribute different verses to different authors.”
But doing so, she also states, does us all a disservice, for it misses the complexity of what peace looks like and, perhaps just as importantly, how we achieve it. Is Isaiah 40 a jigsaw puzzle, with pieces from different authors across several generations? Almost certainly. But the puzzle was assembled for a reason and time and place. And that matters, too. It matters for us when we talk about peace in an increasingly noisy world, where there is a an unknown future that includes threats from world leaders to “totally destroy” each other, and the hardware to do it. It matters when we cannot do the things that make for peace right here in our own city, much less across the globe. It matters because this is what peace looks like – more like a jigsaw puzzle than a finished oil painting. Peace comes in pieces. It isn’t just one thing.
The language of Isaiah chapter 40 itself is mixed. “Comfort, comfort, O my people,” is the familiar refrain, but that refrain is not instant comfort, laid at our feet. It is mixed with rhetoric reminding us of our mortality in pretty stark terms – we are blades of grass that wither – and the language of sin and penalty. This comfort, this peace, has surely not come exactly when the people wanted it, not without pain and struggle and disillusionment. This peace has come in pieces, and only with our participation. We prepare the way, the text says, a provision that is evoked when Mark writes his gospel story, with John the Baptist dunking people in the Jordan as a symbol of their transformation…repentance, he calls it in Greek, which means to turn around. There is something for us to do in the peacemaking process, a way for us to participate in the birthing of peace which, honestly, doesn’t come on Christmas day, contrary to popular opinion. Jesus doesn’t deliver peace. What the Christ child brings is a way to peace, peace through transformation and engagement, not peace wrapped up in a pretty package with a bow.
Peace, Jesus will teach us, is found by doing the things that make for it. It won’t be found in a perfectly quiet room, for peace is not just quiet. It won’t be found when we have an absolutely just world because peace is more than justice, and the world will never be completely just. It won’t be found in the absence of conflict because peace comes with how we respond to conflict, not by eliminating it. And comfort doesn’t mean that there won’t be pain and struggle. In fact, how do we know what comfort even is without the pain and struggle? If you find yourself in a place where the weather is a perpetual 75 degrees and clear, you aren’t in heaven. You’re in San Diego.
Neither passage today should leave us with a glossy, picture-perfect sense of peace, for both mix the words of comfort with challenge. While John preaches the Isaiah passage lived out, a claim that would not be lost on those standing next to the Jordan seeking the messiah in a world gone mad, John also says the one to come will baptize with the Holy Spirit. And we know the rest of the story, don’t we? We know what that means – at least we seem to know more than the ones being baptized by John. We know that this Holy Spirit baptism means a complete change, a values transplant as it were, that may directly defy the path we are already on. In fact, it may require us to prepare a whole new path.
I hope that we can appreciate the ways that the values of our faith push back against the values of the world in which we live, especially right now. Our peace, we claim particularly at Christmas time, is not found in stock portfolios or GNP, it is not measured by the number of seats “our party” holds in Congress, nor in the position we sit in the playoff bracket. Our peace is found in the grace of a God who stands with the exile, and holds up the oppressed, who loves the stranger and welcomes in the foreigner. Our peace is found in something much more unbreakable than an opinion poll or majority vote. Our peace comes to us in the form of a vulnerable infant born under dangerous conditions in a far off land, at a far-off time. Our peace lies in something we cannot touch or see or hold or possess. And, frankly, it lies in us trusting something that will seem foolish, at least at first. For the world does not teach us about peace, it teaches us to win. It teaches us to conquer. It teaches us that the golden rule is, “He who has the gold makes the rules.” But in here, the Golden Rule is, “Love God with all your heart, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” Both cannot inform your decisions or you will be trying to drive in two different directions at the same time.
If we wish to see hopelessness, if we want to feel fear and despair, there is no shortage of possibilities. But we prepare for a different arrival when we feed that part of ourselves. What we need to feed are the things that make for peace inside our own hearts. For only peaceful hearts will produce peace in the world, whether in Jerusalem or anywhere else. And that comes only from preparation, from a strategy of seeing things beyond the language of “us versus them” and taking time to consider the stories we hear that shape the way we see the world to the words that come out of our mouths. It takes enough quiet from the din of distraction to be able to have some perspective and vision. And it takes a pause in the violence. And it take preparation, for peace isn’t just one thing. It isn’t about our perfection, because peace always comes in pieces, and it never comes hand-delivered, wrapped and ready to go. Peace is about our orientation…not the destination but the way we travel.
This is the dream – that the crooked paths would be set straight, the valleys raised and the mountains lowered, and yet even if that were done, we would still have to walk. Our comfort comes in knowing that God walks with us – each of us – on our path of peace. We do not need the ways of war and competition, for God has given us a new way. It will be born again to us this Christmas, once more light in the darkness, hope in the fog. Another chance to regain our footing. May it be so.