Reflection: Called to make peace

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Advent Two, 6th of December 2020

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

Today, the second Sunday of Advent, is known as ‘Peace’ Sunday. Today we look forward to the birth of the Prince of Peace, at which angels sang, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

It might be the pessimist in me, but whenever I think of ‘peace’ the two sayings that come first to my mind are one from the prophet Jeremiah: ‘They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace”, when there is no peace’ (6:14; 8:11); and one from the Roman historian Tacitus, apparently quoting a Scot: ‘where they make a desert, they call it peace’. The psalmist tells us today that God ‘will speak peace to his people’ and that ‘righteousness and peace will kiss each other’. To which my response is: ‘Really? When?’ As we look at our world, how can we possibly say that peace has come? We live in a time of civil wars and terrorism – how can we say that peace has come? We live in a world in which desperate refugees flee for safety – how can we say that peace has come? We live in a country in which people who came to us seeking asylum have been locked up for seven years – how can we say that peace has come? We live in a country in which family violence is widespread – how can we say that peace has come? Yet today, on this second Sunday of Advent, that is what we proclaim.

It is probable that the lectionary pairs today’s gospel reading with a prophecy from Isaiah because Mark uses that prophecy to describe the work of John the baptiser. Mark says, ‘As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”’. Mark is actually quoting a combination of sayings from Exodus (23:20) and the prophet Malachi (3:1), as well as Isaiah, and he has slightly rewritten Isaiah, so that rather than a voice calling out for a way to be prepared in the wilderness, Mark has a voice in the wilderness calling out for the way of the Lord to be prepared, but since Mark was writing a gospel and not an academic essay we’ll forgive him. We can be grateful that Mark and the other gospel writers did draw on the prophecies of Isaiah to make sense of Jesus, so much so that the Book of Isaiah has been called a fifth gospel, because that means that today we hear from Second Isaiah’s Book of Consolation.

Whenever I preach from ‘Isaiah’ I remind the congregation that most commentators believe that the prophecies in this book were written by three different prophets, to whom these commentators have given the incredibly original names of First, Second and Third Isaiah.  There is widespread agreement among the people who know such things that First Isaiah prophesied in the eighth century BCE warning Judah and Jerusalem of the destruction to come; Second Isaiah prophesied after that destruction and offered the people in Babylon hope in their Exile; and Third Isaiah wrote in the sixth century BCE, after the Babylonian Exile had ended, when many of the Jewish exiles had returned to Jerusalem.

When First Isaiah wrote Judah was in danger of being conquered by the Assyrians. It appears likely that people felt that such a tragedy could never happen to them, the people of God, because Isaiah warned the people that God could use the nations of the world in judgment, and that if the people continued to do evil they would be punished. Isaiah prophesied to the people in words that the church continues to listen to today: ‘Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.’ (Isaiah 1:16-17) He also writes of the glories of the future time that will come when the people do live just lives, when God is with them: ‘He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’ (Isaiah 2:4) These are the visions of First Isaiah, Isaiah of Jerusalem, the warning of punishment if the people continue to turn away from God and the vision of the glorious time to come when ‘the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.’ (Isaiah 11:6)

But the people did not listen. The prophecies about Jerusalem’s destruction were carried out: Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians in 587 BCE, the Temple was destroyed, and two-thirds of the people were deported to Babylon. The population of Jerusalem dropped from 100,000 people to 30,000. The people who had been prosperous, confident, and materialistic were taken into exile. They wondered how God could still be with them. If they were God’s people, surely God would have saved them from this? Looking at the strength of the Babylonians and the weakness of the Jews, it appeared that the gods of Babylon had overpowered the God of Israel, that Yahweh was powerless. How else could Yahweh’s people be in Babylon?

It was to these people that the prophet we call Second Isaiah wrote ‘The Book of Consolation’. It starts with the words we hear today: ‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God’ and that’s the message all the way through. Yes, the people are in exile, yes, they have been punished for their crimes, but they have not been left without hope. The Temple may have been destroyed, and they may live under the thumb of the Babylonian God Marduk, but that does not mean that their God has deserted them. The wilderness was part of the history of the people of Israel; in the Exodus God had made a way through the wilderness for the slaves escaping Egypt, and Second Isaiah assures the Exiles that this will happen again: ‘Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

This is an astonishing thing to proclaim to people living in exile, and understandably the prophet is taken aback by it, asking ‘What shall I cry?’ when commanded to ‘Cry out!’ The answer would not be good news to the comfortable, comfort to those already living in peace, because the prophet is told to remind his people that they ‘are grass, their constancy is like the flowers of the field’. To people living lives of health, wealth, and happiness the reminder that everything human will come to an end is frightening. These are the people about whom Mary will sing in the Magnificat: ‘he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, … he has … sent the rich away empty’. (Luke 1:51-53) But to those who already know that everything human comes to an end – the poor, the hungry, the lowly, the aged, the widowed, the imprisoned, the exiled – the good news is that ‘the word of our God will stand for ever’.

This year we have been reminded, if we needed the reminding, that life is precarious and that nothing human lasts forever. We, and everyone we love, will die. If we live long enough to be old, we will lose our health and strength and independence. Events utterly beyond our control, bushfires, floods, pandemics, may mean we lose house and job and the ability to live in the community we chose. Perhaps this year, 2020, is the year when comfortable middle-class Australians like me are most aware that the grass withers and the flowers fade and that we, human beings, are grass.

Second Isaiah was answering the questions of the people in exile: Where is God? Is God powerful enough to save us? The answer he gave them is the answer that we, too, need: ‘Here is your God!’ God is always with us. Even when it seems that God has deserted us, even when we’re in exile surrounded by enemies, God sees and feels the pain of God’s people. God responds with loving might and mighty love. ‘God comes with might, and his arm rules for him’ and God uses the might of his arm to ‘gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep’. God’s mighty arm is the arm that gently cradles his flock. Whenever we think of God as the powerful one who can lift valleys and make mountains low, we need to remember that God uses all that power in the service of love. As I said last week, when God did come down, as Third Isaiah called God to, God came hidden in human form, powerless and pitiful. The one for whom John the baptizer was preparing the way, the one about whom John said, ‘I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals,’ is the one whose birth to a poor family in a land under occupation we celebrate at Christmas.

Like Second Isaiah, who could look at a people in exile and tell them that their God was with them, Advent reminds us that in the birth of Jesus we proclaim that God’s peace has come. This means that we can and must live differently in a world in which the strong oppress the weak and the rich turn their backs on the poor, because we know that such a world is grass and it will not last. It is not the way that the God who feeds his flock like a shepherd intends the world to be. We are given the comfort that when the world is as God intends it to be, steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, and righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

Knowing this, it is up to us to be peacemakers. Advent is a time to prepare ourselves to follow Christ, and one of the ways in which we follow Christ is by making peace wherever and whenever we can. Blessed are the peacemakers, Jesus said, for they will be called children of God. We are the children of God, and peace-making is our vocation. We are called to ‘prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’; to comfort those who live in exile and oppression; to be the herald of good tidings to those who live in fear. How can we say that peace has come? By living as the citizens of God’s peaceable kingdom. ‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.’ Second Isaiah’s call to prophecy is our call, too. Let us answer that call. Amen.

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