The Impertinence of Peace
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I love the symbolism of lighting a candle. Whether it’s as a sign of welcome in a window, a sign of invitation and warmth on a table, a bunch of them on a birthday cake (and I won’t get into the whole theology of birthdays again at least until February), or put very simply, illumination in the darkness. A light has shone in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. What welcome words, particularly in 2020.
I have this quote up on the bulletin board beside my desk. “Light a candle against the darkness in holy defiance.” A few weeks ago Pastor Abby preached about diversity and said that it’s not something the church does because it’s trendy, but because it’s a fundamental part of who the church is and what the church is called to be as the body of Christ in the world. In the same way, we don’t speak about holy defiance because we’re jumping onto a sort of fight the power bandwagon or because subversivity happens to be the in-thing.
We lit the candle of hope last week and heard some of our dear sisters and brothers share about hope. You’ve likely heard the phrase “the audacity of hope.” Hope dares to look beyond the present to something that is coming. In a similar way, someone has spoken of the impertinence of peace. If the word impertinent is a bit much for you just stay with me, we’ll bring it to a good place. Let’s ask for God’s help this morning as we ask for a word from the Prince of Peace.
We often speak of the church as a pilgrim people, journeying toward the holy city on the top of that distant mountain. The thing about being a pilgrim people is that it can be pretty unsettling. We live with much that is unknown. Every day we step out into the unknown in one way or another. Years like the one we’re having and the one we look forward to bring this truth home in an entirely new way. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. It can cause us to look at disrupted routines in a whole new way, it already has. It can cause us to look at a season like Advent, where we spend these weeks preparing to mark the birth of God With Us, in a whole new way.
So let us look at this matter of peace and… war? Hostility? At heart, it’s a matter of life and death. I’m often referring back to that age-old choice that Moses put before the people – I put before you this day blessings or curses, life or death. Peace or war. Life or death. We see the results choosing for death all around us. Whether it’s ongoing conflicts, production and sales of instruments of death, enmity between people based on politics, demonization of political opponents, people spitting on people on buses and getting shoved off the bus, and on and on and on… Do these things unsettle us? They should. I pray that they do.
In the middle of this, how do the words of the Psalmist resonate with us? The Psalmist is unsettled. It’s the first of the Songs of Ascents, going up to Jerusalem for a festival. A time of preparation. A time of longing for something different. A time of longing for a new dwelling place. Woe is me, that I am an alien in Meshech, that I must live among the tents of Kedar. On the pilgrimage to the holy city, things are jarring. Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace. Often in the Psalms, we read “how long?” Here it’s too long. I’m tired. It’s too long. When will it end? There’s a Jamaican band called The Gladiators and they have a song called “Streets of Freedom”. The chorus goes “I know we’re gonna walk/the streets of freedom yeah/when will it be?” The song starts off “Too long too long too long too long too long.”
There is nothing wrong at all with the cry of how long or too long – the prayer of how long or too long. It shows we are longing for something different. We’re bringing this longing to God. “In my distress I cry to the Lord”, is how that song began after all, “that he may answer me.”
We can be sure that the cry for peace will not go unanswered.
It’s a cry that must start with ourselves. It’s very easy to talk about people and nations all around us choosing war, choosing death, choosing hostility and not recognize it in ourselves. We’re the ones who watch all those viral road rage/mask rage/election rage/you name it rage videos after all. Well might we turn the prayer for deliverance from lying lips and deceitful tongues, to our own lips and tongues. We do well to recognize that peace is not simply about geopolitical issues but that it is about people. It’s about individuals. It’s about the hundreds of interactions each of us has as we go through our weeks. We do well to recognize the words of the hymn that we tend to hear around this time of year (though maybe we should sing it more often) – “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” We do well to recognize that if peace is a disruption of the status quo, then that includes our own status quo.
When we spend a great deal of time swimming in the waters of hostility, we may get too used to the water. We may become slow to recognize or even become accustomed to animosity that flares up within us, sharp words, quick anger or slow burning resentment. We may become accustomed to the tendency to separate people into categories and to make quick judgements based on the categories we slot them into. And so may God grant that we’re like the Psalmist who longs for something different, beginning with ourselves. We hear the promise in Malachi about a messenger and the Lord coming suddenly to his temple and he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver (and we sing about this of course) and how the Lord will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.
We long for something better and we cry out with the Psalmist “I am peace” and we desire to be so and we strive to do so and we long to do so and we pray cry out to God “Make me peace!” In our longing, how much do the words of the prophet Malachi mean to us as hear them in the following chapter – “But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in his wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” (Mal 4:2) Could it be? The impossible possibility of God.
Then a baby is born. Not that baby but another baby. Cousin John, speaking of preparing a way. A voice of dissent, an impertinent voice, who in the middle of an occupation won’t cry out for an armed uprising but will cry out for repentance, and his cousin will get in line too.
But we get ahead of ourselves. John’s father Zechariah wasn’t able to speak for months and when his son is born he asked for a tablet to write on and wrote “His name is John” and he’s able to speak and he starts to praise God. For God has looked favourably on his people and has raised up one who would save them from their enemies and from the hand of all who hate us so that we might serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
Cousin Jesus. Here’s how Zechariah’s song ends – “By the tender mercy of God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” We light a candle against the darkness in holy defiance recognizing that the peace that the world needs, the peace that we need, will not come about through our own efforts but will come about through the one called the Prince of Peace risen with healing in his wings. The world tells us that peace and security can be ours if we arm ourselves with instruments of death (individually or collectively), if we put up walls and gates around us or our communities or countries. Locks and security cameras and lights will give us peace. Surrounding ourselves with goods will give us peace. Getting them before they get us will give us peace. Hitting back twice as hard will give us peace. Has any of this made us less fearful? We are still so so afraid and I ask “Is this working?”
Do we find this unsettling? In the middle of this comes the still small voice saying “My peace I give you, I do not give as the world gives.” I said it recently but it bears repeating, for the follower of the Christ who has conquered death itself, what in the world do we have to fear.
A proposal - the peace of Christ for which our world longs starts with the purifying work of the Spirit of Christ in us.
This does not mean that we do not have things to do. We do not individualize peace nor do we merely internalize it. Christ brings an inner peace most assuredly and I pray to God that you know it or will know it. Please pray that I know it too. We’re talking about peace as dissent. Not peace as violence because that makes the peacemakers exactly like the warmakers. Not peace as gloating or mocking when our side wins, which really makes us just as bad as the mockers doesn’t it? Peace that is based in the one whose way is forgiveness and tender mercy. The action might look like activism. It might look like being out on the streets to protest war, to protest human trafficking. It’s not an activism that is based on how useful we are or getting results or changing things (if it were our OOTC ministry would have ended years ago) but that is based on having given our “Yes” to the Prince of Peace. This is what we are invited to do this morning, whether it’s for the first time or the 734th time in a whole new way this Advent season. To give our “Yes” to Christ means to give our “Yes” to humility, to mercy, to compassion, to joy. It means to give our “No” to judgements, to stereotypes, to instruments of death and destruction, to death as entertainment, to comparison, to self rejection, to unforgiveness, to mistrust. This is the impertinence of peace – a rude “no” to all of this. A “Yes” to Jesus’ call to enemy love, to life in all its forms and fragility and vulnerability.
A disarming. Not through force or through a charm or a disarming smile, but through the baby who will grow up and tell his followers “My peace I give, you. I do not give as the world gives.” This peace doesn’t have to look spectacular or grandiose and in fact it usually doesn’t. Henri Nouwen writes of a vision of peace in a book he wrote called Peacework. This is what he writes:
When I think of this new community in our time, I think about people from all over the world reaching out to each other in total vulnerability… I see them moving over this world, visiting each other, binding each other’s wounds, confessing their brokenness to each other, and forgiving each other with a simple word, an embrace, a touch, or even a smile. I see them walking alone or together in the most simple clothes caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, comforting the lonely, and waiting quietly with the dying. I see them in apartment buildings, farmhouses, schools and universities, hospitals, and office buildings as quiet witnesses of God’s presence. Wherever they are they bring peace, not as much by what they say or do, but mostly by their connectedness with those others with whom they form a new community of hope.
So we light a candle in the darkness together, to prepare for the one who connects us by His Spirit not only with one another but with Himself and with His Father. We pray together “Lord make us women and men and young people and children of peace,” knowing that God is faithful to God’s promises, hearing the echoes of Jesus’ words “My peace I give you.” Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. The Prince of Peace is with us. The Prince of Peace has come. The Prince of Peace will come. We are all of us invited to make our dwelling place in his house. With the Psalmist of old, may we all long to live in it.