How Do We Live Peace?
Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12
Two Visions of Unity
Isaiah and Matthew set before us two visions of enemies coming together for a common purpose. There is the vision of animals, natural-born predators and prey, co-existing in harmony … in a setting where one is not compelled to hunt the other and the other is not forced to live in fear. And there are two groups of religious leader who form a united coalition to protect their common interests against the threat posed by Jesus’ ministry in the world. These two images illuminate two different understandings of peace and how it might be lived out in the world.
The first image, of all the animals together in one field, is idyllic and lovely. It is also hard to imagine – bordering on absurd. I mean, come on! The wolf, the lamb, the leopard, the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, the cow and the bear, and the lion all standing around chewing the fat watching their children play as they have lemonade and crumpets? It’s a little hard to swallow.
Old Testament professor and theologian, Walter Brueggemann feels much the same. He speaks about his very personal reaction to this concept in his book Peace:
“Unheard of and unimaginable! All these images of unity sound to me so abnormal that they are not worth reflecting on. But then I look again and notice something else. The poet means to say that in the new age, these are the normal things. And the effect of the poem is to expose the real abnormalities of life, which we have taken for granted. We have lived with things abnormal so long that we have gotten used to them and we think they are normal.”
We get so used to the messiness of the world that we understand it as normal – all the terrible news of the world is so easy to heap together in one big pile and think, “ Well, that’s just the way life is … it’s terrible and all, but what can we do?” We almost don’t dare hope for peace, let alone believe that it’s possible here and now in the present.
Still, there is a part of us that yearns for peace that longs for the ability to live in a world where there is no more hurt, where so much more is possible when we don’t have to spend all our time healing from all the conflicts we endure.
John the Baptist, in our Matthew passage, is speaking to the Pharisees and the Sadduccess – natural enemies in the Jewish religion who join forces against the threat of Jesus and his challenges to their traditions and ways of living their faith. This may not seem like a super-great text with which to reflect on the message and hope of Christmas, but, in fact, it is the perfect passage for us to consider how we might better prepare to receive Christ into the world. John the Baptist is disconcerting to us, because he does not temper his message any or attempt to sugar-coat it with the honey he ate with his locusts.
“John is described as the one who brings good news, who calls us to prepare the way of the Lord. Someone is coming, he says, and what you do matters. Get rid of everything that is blocking the way of the One who is to come. Get rid of greed and selfishness, of hostility and resentment, of doubt and despair. Reshape your lives and the life of your people so that the poor and those pushed to the margins are brought back into the life of the community. Strive for peace.”
John’s message is one of repentance, and it is a perennial for anyone of faith to repent, which literally means ‘to turn.’ It is a major theme of the Old Testament prophets and of John the Baptist. To repent is to turn towards God and away from everything that keeps us from God. In this season when we anticipate the coming of the Prince of Peace, we acknowledge that there are things that keep us from the peace and wisdom and righteousness of God. And we also confess that peace is possible … that we can “radically re-orient our lives, clear a path, prepare the way of the Lord.” We can re-shape our lives and the life of this community by speaking and living peace.
Kate Huey states it quite clearly, “In these days when shopping and materialism seem to have pushed the deeper meaning of this season right off our radar screen: our possessions, our toys, our stuff – worth a lot; our careers, our schedules, our agendas – really important; our power and place and security – very valuable; pushing all those things aside and making a way through the wilderness, a straight, clear path for God to come into our lives—priceless.”
The image of the religious leaders banding together is a reminder that not all unity is healthy and peace-promoting … it reminds us that this message of peace, of our relationships being redeemed in Christ – this all begins with our personal lives. We must first be willing to turn to God and be transformed by God before our relationships undergo that similar transformation.
How do we live peace?
The Romans passage speaks of praising God and glorifying God with one voice … and living in harmony. This points out one of the biggest blocks that we have to understanding peace. When we envision peace, we think idyllic peace as being a calm river with no ripples. The trouble is that peace does not necessarily mean an absence of conflict.
For example, you could possibly see a lamb and a lion in the same pasture together and they might look like they are at peace when really the lion is just waiting for the right moment when the lamb isn’t looking to pounce. There’s no obvious argument between them, they look peaceful enough … but it’s not a picture of peace. The passage in Isaiah, however, seems to imagine a pasture where the predatory animals and the prey seem to have come to an understanding and no longer need to live in that dog-eat-dog, kill to survive mentality.
The other important part of this is that a lion is still a lion, and a lamb is still a lamb in this new peaceful future that the prophet sets before us. They may still quarrel and have disagreements because being united does not mean being conformed to thinking and acting the same way. Unity does not mean conformity. The lamb and the lion have found a better way to work out their differences. This is a very hard thing for us to imagine living out in our lives – how do we live out peace in a world where there are so many different personalities, opinions, personal histories, and patterns of living that don’t mesh well together? In a culture that is growing in its diversity, how do we balance our differences and keep our common goals grounded in our faith in Christ?
Well, it begins very simply: it begins with claiming yourself as a humble child of God and believing that God has not forgotten us, and in fact, has come to proclaim peace and liberty. Henri Nouwen said that we are not loved by God because we are precious; we are precious because God loves us. “Underneath the call to repent is a call to return home to the God who loves us and longs for that dream of peace to become our lived reality, not just as individuals but as all humankind, all God’s children, and all of God’s beloved and beautiful creation.”
As a final note of how we live and understand peace, I’d like to suggest that it is grounded in the ways that we sing and praise God with our voices. In choir, we are not all singing the same notes. In fact, sometimes we are intentionally sing in discord and dissonance in order to find that resolution together. Singing harmony with one another requires diversity and equality. Peace is something that you feel in your heart, and it is something you work towards in the way that you speak and in the actions you choose to take.
(Romans 15:5-6) May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom 15:6, The Message) Then, we’ll be a choir – not our voices only, but our very lives singing in harmony in a stunning anthem to the God and Father of our Master Jesus!
Peace is what we yearn for,
a resolution to everything that makes us feel incomplete.
Peace is uniting for a common purpose,
working towards a future envisioned by Christ.
Advent is a time to proclaim that peace is possible.
Peace is at hand! Sing praises and rejoice!
(Romans 15: 13, The Message) Oh! May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you up with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope!