December 10, 2017

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
Mark 1:1-8

“Let all around us be peace”

Peace before us, peace behind us, peace under our feet,
Peace within us, peace over us, let us around us be peace.

Advent is an appropriate season to spend time in prayer for peace. In the midst of the hustle and bustle of this busy month, we might pray for moments of peace, quiet, and calm in which to experience the presence of God in our lives. And we could pray for the gift of peace for those whose schedules keep them running, or whose “to do” lists are too long to complete in these few weeks.

Remembering those who are weighed down by heavy responsibilities and stressful situations, we might pray for the gift of peace that relieves stress and reduces anxiety. We could pray for those who suffer from anxiety disorders, as well as for those who are experiencing stress-inducing circumstances.

It would be appropriate also, for us to pray for peace in the lives of those who are struggling with brokenness in their relationships – for couples who feel stuck in cycles of conflict, for parents and children who cannot see eye to eye, for siblings, cousins, friends, and colleagues who are mis-communicating, mis-understanding, and so desperately need God’s help for reconciliation and peace.

We might also think of so many people who are longing for peace in their own minds and hearts. For those wracked with guilt, we could pray for God’s forgiveness to lead them to healing and peace. And for those consumed by anger, we could pray that they receive the courage to offer forgiveness themselves, and to find freedom and peace.

Even as we pray for peace in our own lives, in our families, and between friends, we should also pray for peace in our church, and in all the churches of the world. People outside the church might wonder at that. Don’t church people get along with each other?

Or if we don’t seem to get along, they might write off the church as a place full of hypocrites. You people are supposed to be good! You’re supposed to be kind and generous and forgiving, and you can’t even get along?

But we’re all human, and we need God’s help to live and work and serve together in peace. We need God’s help to care for one another in appropriate ways, to make space for one another to share all our gifts, and to be patient with each other when we’re not perfect.

And, of course, we need to pray for the gift of peace in our world. We need to pray for peace between countries and world leaders, between cultures, tribes, and religions. We need to pray for peace – for the true SHALOM of God – which is not just the absence of conflict, but the fullness of life for all people.

True peace needs righteousness. Not the puffed-up morality the word has often come to connote, but righteousness in its original meaning, that is, RIGHT RELATIONS, be they with God, with others, in our families, or among nations.

Sometimes we call it justice. But for that righteousness or justice to be more than legalistic fairness, it needs the breadth of vision found in God’s shalom – God’s peace.

Peace before us, peace behind us, peace under our feet,
Peace within us, peace over us, let us around us be peace.

Last Sunday we talked and prayed about the longing that we have for a world set right – for God’s kingdom to come in its fullness, for Christ’s return, for a new heaven and a new earth. And today, it’s almost like we’re one step closer to that longing being fulfilled. We’ve moved from LONGING to ANTICIPATION.

We heard the words of 2nd Isaiah this morning, encouraging God’s people as they neared the end of their exile in Babylon: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term… See, the Lord God comes with might… 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.”

The struggle is nearly over, and peace is on its way. God is with the people, and God is helping them and guiding them towards a hopeful and peaceful future.

In the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel too, there is great anticipation for a new day that is dawning. The long-awaited Messiah is on his way. The powerful One who will baptize the people with the Holy Spirit is coming. He’s almost here, John the Baptist proclaims. It’s time to start preparing for his coming.

I’ve preached on those classic texts from Isaiah and Mark many times before, but I don’t think I’ve ever paid much attention to this morning’s psalm. This week, however, it was Psalm 85 that piqued my interest.

Not unlike Isaiah’s words today, Psalm 85 proclaims the goodness of God and the amazing grace of God to forgive the people and restore their fortunes. It includes several verses of lament in which the people pray for God’s help and salvation, and then the psalmist shares a wonderful vision of God’s salvation this is coming: “Surely God’s salvation is at hand,” he assures us. And this is what salvation will look like:

“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.”

I think you have to have a bit of a poetic heart to understand this psalm. These wonderful characteristics of love, faithfulness, justice, and peace are coming together in a beautiful meeting. These holy attributes are personified so that we may imagine hands reaching out in greeting, and arms opening wide in an embrace.

These virtues coming together in unity are what bring about the salvation of God – they are what make for the new order that is full of God’s peace.

The peace that the psalmist expects God to proclaim is SHALOM, a comprehensive well-being that encompasses the fulfillment of every individual and corporate need, as well as the health of the natural order, in addition to the absence of violence and conflict.

The covenant bringing SHALOM is God’s gift. It is at God’s initiative. It is God’s work and God’s accomplishment. And yet, the people also have a part to play by turning to God, remaining faithful, and co-operating with God’s purposes.

After all, both Isaiah and John the Baptist told the people the good news about what God was doing, and they called the people to respond. They said, “Repent!” They told them to “Prepare!” They made sure that everyone knew that something wonderful was about to happen and that everyone had a chance to be a part of it.

One commentator suggests that in Psalm 85, attributes of God (steadfast love and righteousness) are paired up with responses from God’s people (faithfulness and peace). It is God’s righteousness that is described as “looking down from the sky,” and our faithfulness is springing up from the ground. (Doesn’t that description sound like some of Jesus’ parables about the kingdom of God?)

The coming kingdom is not something that we can accomplish for ourselves through our own good works, but neither is it something that God does in isolation. The kingdom is something that happens when God’s steadfast love meets our faithfulness, when God’s righteousness and justice embrace our commitment to peace.

And so, as we wait and pray for peace in our lives, in our relationships, in our church, and in our world, we do so NOT as passive observers, waiting for God to set things right. But we do so as people who are called and empowered to respond to God’s goodness. We do so as people who are invited to participate in God’s plan for salvation and peace.

Peace before us, peace behind us, peace under our feet,
Peace within us, peace over us, let us around us be peace.