Practicing Peace

Prepared for First Presbyterian Church, Apopka.
Primary Texts: Isaiah 9:2-7, Philippians 4:4-9

I spent about four hours not writing this sermon.

By that I mean that I spent four hours at my kitchen table yesterday, surrounded by pens, paper, commentaries, laptop, snacks and coffee… not writing this sermon.

I managed to  start a draft for the Christmas Eve service
I fixed myself a peanut butter sandwich.
I took notes on key words from these two passages and went down all manner of exegetical rabbit trails.
I ate a banana and topped off my coffee.
I did a load or two of laundry.
But try as I might to write this sermon, I couldn’t. My heart wasn’t in it.  Because my mind wasn’t in it.

As much as I love the season of advent, the symbols and the candles – peace and hope thus far – this doesn’t feel like a time to rejoice and give thanks. I don’t feel like my heart and mind are being guarded by the peace of God that passes all understanding.

You see, over and over again, my mind went back to images of the protests that have sprung up across the country.  People holding signs and chanting in unison while walking down sidewalks. Thousands of women and men blocking tunnels and highways, closing public transportation hubs. Students walking out of classrooms or laying on the ground as though dead on sidewalks or on the quad.

Every time I tried to turn my thoughts toward peace, God’s peace, the Prince of Peace, it came back instead to a single slogan on a sign.  A slogan that has been used for decades.

No Justice, No Peace.

no-justice-no-peace

Truth is, prophets like Amos, Hosea, Habakuk, Micah and yes, Isaiah, would agree with the sentiment behind that sign.

When there is no justice, there is no peace.

Where justice rolls down like the river…

Where righteousness flows like a stream…

Where the rod of the oppressor is broken, where the yoke of burden is lifted…

Where the trampling boots and bloodied clothing have been burned…

Then the people will rejoice, because in those days, in those lands, you will find peace.

We look back to Isaiah through the lens of Jesus having lived, died and risen again. Our music and poetry has, for centuries, been able to ascribe these names to him: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father. In fact, it’s hard to read that passage without breaking into the Hallelujah Chorus.

And in this advent season, as we listen to Christmas carols and place figures in the creche, the Prince of Peace is surely the sweet little child who was undisturbed by lowing cattle. We think of a rabbi, a man who walked across the region preaching, teaching and healing. He is our shepherd; he is the one who calmed the storm.

We think of Jesus as non-violent and the table-turning incident as an isolated moment of righteous anger.  And surely Matthew or someone repaid the person who owned the herd of pigs that the demons sent running off the cliff after Jesus healed the possessed man.

These images of Jesus as calm, thoughtful, and non-violent are not incorrect. But they may just keep us from understanding exactly how disruptive the good news of the messiah’s arrival would be.  How much cultural and political upheaval the prophets were expecting.

Isaiah foretells the coming of an extraordinary strategist – whose power to defeat his foes is an extension of Jehovah God’s.  A beloved King who will be like a father to his people, and whose reign goes on for generations.  A ruler who ushers in an endless reign of shalom for the people – wholeness, restoration, prosperity, security and safety.

But only AFTER the people experience the discipline they have earned.

A quick read through the Hebrew testament reveals that God does not shy away from battle and destruction to get people’s attention, from Pharaoh to the Ninevites to the nations of Judah and Israel. Especially when warnings from the prophets are ignored.

The people of Judah were headed for a reminder. This is how Micah described them:

The faithful have disappeared from the land,
and there is no one left who is upright;
they all lie in wait for blood,
and they hunt each other with nets.
Their hands are skilled to do evil;
the official and the judge ask for a bribe,
and the powerful dictate what they desire;
thus they pervert justice.

Like Isaiah, Micah warned of suffering and defeat, of oppression and exile.  The wholeness and prosperity they had known was not accidental.  When the people of God follow God’s law, shalom follows. Not as a quid pro quo -good fortune in exchange for good behavior, but because following God’s law as a people results in shalom. When we obey God’s commands to love one another and care for one another, no one is dishonored, forgotten, endangered, or left to starve.

In other words, justice and Shalom are inextricably linked. No justice, no peace.  Thus, Micah’s more familiar words to the people of Judah:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Or as Paul described it for the Corinthians, love requires us to live a still more excellent way

When a man is hungry, love requires that we assure he has a meal.

When a mother loses a child, love requires that we mourn with her.

When a family loses their home, love requires that we help them find shelter and clothing.

When a thousand voices cry out for justice, love requires not only that we listen but that we amplify those voices, both in prayer, and wherever those with the power to make change are seated.

All in hopes that one day, we might all rejoice together, celebrating the return of shalom to our community, nation and world

Much as Jesus commissioned the disciples at the end of Matthew’s gospel account, Paul’s closing words to the Philippians require more than thinking about all that is good and true, pleasing and commendable.

We are to GO, baptizing and teaching all that Christ has commanded.
loving God, heart and mind, soul and strength
loving and our neighbors, including the ones who annoy, frighten or anger us

We are to DO what we have learned, received, heard and seen.
assuring that faith, hope and love abide
creating space for shalom to take root
doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with our Lord

And the God of Peace will be with us.
The Prince of Peace will be with us.
Emmanuel.
Always.

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