I have often begun sermons by walking up the center aisle of the sanctuary and throwing a question out for you to consider. Now that we’re on Zoom, we’re essentially doing worship in the round, where anyone can speak up. So we begin today with several questions about peace, both on a global or societal level and on an individual level. Then I want to take a look at the Isaiah and Mark passages and see how they speak to us today about peace in this time and place.
Racial justice, equal opportunities
Sharing all resources
Being close to God
Being close to nature
Unleashing human potential
Able to meet basic needs
Accepting people with whom we don’t agree
Strong education, especially for girls
We can be builders of peace in the world, but that begins with peace between us and God. Which leads to question number 2.
Response to beauty
Connection to God and other people
Going in the direction of life
Faith in ultimate goodness
Atonement for past mistakes
Regular spiritual practices
Forgiveness of self and each other
Listen to your heart
We celebrate Jesus as a bringer of peace. We think of him as the Prince of Peace, as Isaiah suggests centuries earlier. We can debate whether he brought peace or stirred up a whole lot of trouble, but certainly he points the way to bringing peace through justice. His goal is to include everyone, as the saying goes: “When everyone ‘neath their vine and fig tree shall live in peace and unafraid.” That suggests everyone has a home, a way to provide food for their families, perhaps also good health, a measure of security and acceptance, etc.
What we hear in the passage from Isaiah is written from a time and place where people were not experiencing peace. They were yearning to be done with exile, to return to Jerusalem, to draw nearer to God. The Jews who had been dragged into exile in Babylon some 50 years earlier may have thought that God hated them, or forgot them, or decided to abandon them, or even just couldn’t find them because they were no longer in their homeland. They must have sinned mightily to deserve so many decades of banishment. They yearn to leave this foreign land and be their own people once again, even though, after 50 years, many of the original people had died, and their descendants had been born in exile—had never seen their homeland.
How did I already skip forward to Jesus? I want to focus on Isaiah. Isaiah holds out this possibility of glorious return. Today’s reading comes from the beginning of what is unofficially called “Second Isaiah,” a section of this book that appears to have been written decades after the first section and perhaps by a different person. This section is about the promise of return—to the homeland, to God, to being their own people, to the way things used to be. Their time of exile, punishment, and perceived abandonment is over. God does not forget them. God is not angry with them. They are affirmed as God’s people. The long path back to Jerusalem and to God will be easy—high mountains made low, rough places made plain, crooked places made straight.
There is relief that God has not abandoned God’s people after all.
[L]ift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!” (Isaiah 40:9b)
There are those words again: Do not fear. This is a time of drawing near to God without fear; it’s a time of rejoicing. Jesus certainly invited us to draw near to God. Jesus included everyone in that invitation, no matter how high or low in society, no matter what they had done. Jesus invites us all to move through and beyond whatever is holding us back, whatever is keeping us in exile from God, and to take the direct route back to God. Draw near.
But draw near to what God? There are many images of God in this reading.
We can’t put God in a box. God is more than we can fathom. And God wants us—with all our flaws, with all our mistakes, with all our fears and limitations—to draw near. Us. How do we prepare to do that? This is what Advent is all about. It is not about some baby born in a stable 2,000 years ago. Well, I mean, it is about that, but that birth doesn’t matter at all unless it is also continuing to happen within each of us. That’s the birth we’re preparing for: Christ born within us.
How do we prepare for this Bringer of Peace? The reading in Mark gives us some clues. The writer of this gospel starts with that quote from the Isaiah reading about preparing a way for the Sovereign One. And then we get John the Baptist, who is helping the people do just that. John shows up in the wilderness with his wild camel’s hair clothes, eating locusts and wild honey, all of which seems just as out there to people then as it does to us now. But what matters is not his appearance; it’s his message. Come out to the wilderness to be baptized in the River Jordan.
It took me forever to realize that he wasn’t talking about the same Christian baptism that we understand today. He was baptizing for the forgiveness of sins. It was a ritual cleansing. In ancient times, such as the time when Leviticus was written, a whole community might gather to heap their sins metaphorically onto the back of a goat. They would then send this goat out into the wilderness to carry their sins away. This is where we get the phrase “scapegoat,” meaning the one who takes all the blame. Not much fun for the goat, who needed to end up gone and probably dead in order for those sins to stay away.
John proposes instead a ritual cleansing. Step into the River Jordan (which was cleaner in those days than it is now) and be washed clean of all that exiles you from God. Whereas the Jews in Isaiah’s time yearned to flock to Jerusalem from their place of wilderness, in this reading from Mark, people are flocking from Jerusalem out into the wilderness in order to relieve themselves of whatever separates them from God. So clearly the return to Jerusalem some centuries earlier did not make everything happy-ever-after. People are still having problems, dealing with oppression again, this time from Rome. People are still yearning to draw closer to God.
Advent is a time of waiting. When you’re a kid waiting for your birthday, you plan a party, you send out invitations, you let people know what you would like for gifts, you bake a cake and frost it. There is plenty to do.
When we’re waiting for God to appear in our lives, to give us relief from our troubles, to offer the possibility of new life in ourselves and in our world, there is also plenty to do, but some of it is more internal. We can reflect whether there are parts of our lives that feel as if they are in exile from God. What separates us from God? Is it guilt? Fear? Busyness? A sense of being unworthy? This is the time to be still and consider these things. God promises us an invitation back from exile, a straight road through the wilderness to that homecoming reunion. God is waiting to comfort us, to protect us, to shepherd us tenderly. God invites us to wash ourselves clean of any sin—anything that holds us back.
A young woman named Marchae Grair left the church when she came out as queer because she thought that God considered her an abomination. She went into spiritual exile. But she was so miserable that she found her way back. This time, she went to “a Black church where queer and trans people were affirmed.” She writes,
I wept when I visited that church because I realized I wouldn’t have to give up the faith of my childhood just because I was queer….
I know the God of my ancestors for myself, and that God embraces my queerness fully. I’m glad I’ve learned to seek out God for myself because what others taught me would separate me from the love of God brought me closer to it. [Marchae Grair, “Knowing God for Myself,” in Draw Near: 2020 Advent-Christmastide Devotional (UCC), 7.]
Today we lit the candle of peace. Peace starts inside us. Peace starts by preparing a way for God, by clearing a path for our souls to draw close to God, to return from exile.
Yes, there are many ways to be peacemakers. You know the litany of challenges we face: racism, coronavirus, economic recession, immigration, etc. Here are two examples from today’s Seattle Times of ways to be bringers of peace around the issue of racism.
This year there is, again, a need for something deeper. Something like they found in North Little Rock, Arkansas, last month after a Black family erected a Black Santa Claus in their yard only to receive an anonymous note demanding removal of the “negro” elf. Iddy Kennedy said it made her wonder “if this was the right environment to raise our daughter.”
Then her neighbors learned of the harassment. There are now Black Santas up and down the street. People also sent money, more than $1,000, which the family has redirected to the Arkansas branch of Ronald McDonald House Charities.
Draw near to the God of peace. Know how loved you are, how tenderly Mother God shepherds you. Take that in. Prepare ye the way of God by finding that center of peace, love, compassion, hope, and justice. In the midst of this unprecedented year, at the time of year where nights are long and cold, at a time when so many are sick and dying that our hospitals are becoming overwhelmed, and the shutdown prevents us from gathering with all the loved ones we yearn to see—that exile we are in from each other—let us take this opportunity to draw near to God. Isaiah writes that people are like grass—fleeting—but God’s word endures forever. The challenges of this year will pass. God is with us always. We will get through this. God like a warrior will protect us with a strong arm. God like a shepherd will lead us to safety. Keep seeking that Bringer of Peace. Keep yearning and striving for that deep connection with God, for what holiness is preparing to be born in you even now. Amen.