Sermon: Sunday, December 3, 2023 – Isaiah 40: 1-11 – Advent II

When I was a child, I was pretty sure I knew what peace meant.  Peace was when there was no war.  And if pushed to think a bit more about it, I would have also said that peace is when everything is, well, “peaceful” – no yelling, no arguing, no fists.

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That’s not a bad start, but peace is so much more.  One of the traditions that our amalgamated community of faith adopted from the Rundle congregation in Banff, is the use of a peace candle and accompanying words. Those words, which we hear in worship most Sundays other than the seasons of Lent and Advent say “Peace is not [merely] the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice. Peace is what happens when those who have much do not have too much, and those who have little do not have too little, when the very old and the very young are safe and secure, parents can feed their children and themselves, and all have the opportunity for meaningful work in their community. Let us pray and work for this kind of peace”.

I wasn’t wrong when, as a child, I equated peace with the absence of war; the people of Gaza and West Bank and East Jerusalem, the people of the Kibbutzim of south Israel, the Ukrainian people of Donetsk can attest to the difference between gunfire and rockets, and no gunfire or rockets, and nothing I say from a safe distance should undercut the horrors of war and the first-person yearning for peace amongst those caught in the crossfire.  Yet the Biblical concept of peace – grounded so firmly in the Hebrew word Shalom – goes so much broader, including such things as health, wholeness, and fairness of access and opportunity with hopes of widespread prosperity, as well as peace based in justice. Perhaps ‘bookmark’ that word wholeness as we’ll come back to that. Shalom – and its Arabic sibling, Salaam – also imply a sense of holy connection and completeness and perfection.  To be a person of peace, of Shalom, of Salaam, is to touch the very essence of God.

Five years ago it was my great honour to spend time in the land of the holy one, and when we were there we were reminded that a sizeable amount of the Bible was written while the people were dominated by a foreign power.  The books of the Bible were not books written by the victor, they were written while trying to figure out where God was to be found in times when shalom seemed to have left the scene.  These are the yearnings, not of might and domination, but of survival.

Today’s reading, from the 40th chapter of Isaiah, bears such fingerprints.  At a time when the people have been scattered like sheep without a shepherd, the prophet cries

“Clear the Lord’s way in the desert!
Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!
Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened.
Uneven ground will become level, and rough terrain a valley plain.
The Lord’s glory will appear, and all humanity will see it together;
the Lord’s mouth has commanded it.”

The glory of God appears not as a sign of nationalist fervour, but as a sign of Divine rescue.  The people, in exile or on their way toward it, will be tended to by God – with verse 11 picturing God as the one guiding the flock, picking up the lambs so they may rest safely in God’s arms and lap. And, as one more sign that God comes not as conqueror but as comforter and advocate, the vision of great equalizing – valleys raised up, mountains flattened, rough terrain smoothed – will level the field for all, whether they are presently high and mighty or walking through the valley of the shadow of death.

These words from Isaiah may well remind us of another scene, from several hundred years later: the bellowing one, John the Baptizer, calling people to a way that is both brand new and totally familiar.   John, a familiar character to us at this time of year, called out to the people in his time and place to repent, to literally turn their lives around, and to receive both the cleansing baptism and in-dwelling wisdom of the Christ.

It’s always a bit of a head-scratcher for me, that on the second Sunday of Advent, traditionally understood as the Sunday of Peace, the lectionary gives us this combination of John the Baptizer and the 40th chapter of Isaiah, but this year the connection seems clearer.  On this Sunday of Peace – a Sunday when I pray that Shalom and Salaam will be experienced in the most tangible ways by Palestinians and Israelis – the words of Isaiah and the actions of John the Baptist demonstrate that in order to actually embrace God’s desire for peace, a lasting peace right now and an orientation toward even greater peace to come – we need to let go of those things that cause division and hardship, to change, to repent, to turn around.

If we take the understanding of Peace as spoken with our peace candle, a peace based in justice and fairness which opens society to equal opportunity for all people – the necessity for repenting of what is, and finding God’s new/ageless way, is clear.  Unless we loosen our grasp on the things we call “ours”, unless we hand back the notion of entitlement that keeps resources unfairly distributed, until we stop blaming those on the margins of society for losing at a game where the odds are stacked against them, our peace-candle peace will remain in the realm of wishes.  And unless we embrace into policy the 2nd chapter of Isaiah’s metaphor of “beating swords into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks”, then the vision of “nation not lifting up sword against nation” will likewise remain in our dreams only.

And if we understand Peace as Shalom in all its variety and fullness, we will learn that God’s intention for the world is for wholeness, rather than the brokenness that us humans are so expert at.  Repenting of our present ways in order to embrace Shalom includes not only changing our relationship to one another, but our relationship to this planet and all living beings.   The UN Climate Change conference, known by the abbreviation COP 28, started three days ago and continues to December 12th, and the anguish of this planet must be heard.  I have learned through our friend Sarah Arthurs of a candlelight vigil for the planet coming up one week from tonight at the FCJ Centre in Calgary, and I would also recommend connecting with this by simply taking a moment at 12 noon, from now till the end of COP 28, stopping whatever you’re doing, perhaps lighting a candle, and praying that our relationship with the earth will stop being based on exploitation, replaced instead by the harmony and wholeness of Shalom.  There are big questions to be asked of both government and industry, and little questions to ask myself each time I prepare to turn up the thermostat, each time I plan to start up the car to do an errand rather than finding a more energy-efficient way.  Whatever we do, it is important to keep our minds activated in considering our connection to this planet, for this will also activate my intention for Shalom with God and all living beings.

Peace – wondrous, world-altering, justice-based peace – is of God, and to be a person of peace is to be actively engaged with God.  Peace is not something we make all on our own. Whether understood in its narrower sense, as a cessation of war, or its broader sense of restoring wholeness and dignity out of brokenness, peace is a wonderful thing to aspire to… and, to truly be peace, must include a desire for all of God’s children, all of God’s creation, to share in it. Simple acts of peace-making can find their way into our daily lives, and the picture from Isaiah and John the Baptist and Jesus of a realm where the playing field will be levelled and all will have what they need, is an important horizon line for our lives.

Friends in Christ, may peace find a home in our hearts, our intentions, our actions, and all aspects of our life as a community of faith, whether gathered or dispersed.  May the peace of Christ be always with you, Amen.

 

For reference: some definitions of Shalom – and Salaam:

Dulin, Rachel Z. https://daytonjewishobserver.org/2014/08/origins-of-shalom/

Moore, Osheta. https://osheta.com/the-shalom-sistas-manifesto/ and http://shalominthecity.com/2013/11/04/campfire-conversation-with-sarah-bessey/

Perlman, Susan. https://inheritmag.com/articles/what-is-shalom-the-true-meaning

Ravitzky, Aviezer. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/shalom/

Whelchel, Hugh. https://tifwe.org/what-is-shalom-according-to-the-bible/

Yousef, Jinan. https://yaqeeninstitute.ca/read/paper/seeking-the-source-of-peace-allahs-name-as-salam

 

© 2023 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.