In our lesson, this second Sunday in Advent, the prophet Isaiah speaks of a time when to God’s people will come a leader upon whom the Spirit will rest, a leader attentive and responsive to God’s will and ways, a leader with an abiding relationship with the living God.
An offshoot of Jesse’s lineage, the fruits of this promised leader’s influence will be many. Peace will come. The needful will be viewed with righteousness, that is, godly compassion. Those who suffer unjustly will be met with equity. Not only will humanity benefit, all creation will enter into God’s peace—wolf will befriend lamb, leopard will nap alongside baby goat, and young lion will dine with calf.
“And a little child shall lead them,” Isaiah says. A little child shall lead them.
Christians have long understood this to refer to the one whose birth you and I will soon celebrate anew, Jesus of Nazareth, the Prince of Peace.
The promise we hear this morning, the moving vision offered up today, does not stand alone. It was also expressed last week when Isaiah spoke of a day when we are so overcome by God’s love and justice that the whole human family will lose interest in fostering conflict and waging war. A day will dawn when we are at last aligned with God’s intentions, a day when we will make it a priority to transform our sophisticated weaponry (swords and spears) into simple garden implements (plows and pruning hooks).
The promise of God’s peace is ever before us. Which leaves us to ask: why is peace so rare?
It’s not that God is forgetful about God’s commitment, it’s that we are regularly reluctant to enter into peace.
It’s not that God is holding off on making good on God’s vision of peace, it’s that we are regularly slow to realize that peace is even an option.
God’s peace, I mean. Because the peace we so often say we want isn’t true peace. It’s an imperfect peace.
We all know this kind of peace. We find ourselves at a family or community gathering, and someone says something untrue, something unkind, something unnecessary. Wanting to keep the peace, we say nothing; we button our lips.
But this isn’t really peace, is it? Our souls are now troubled, our spirits are now distressed. By going silent, we didn’t foster peace so much as we reduced the risk of contention and conflict and paid the price with our own unsettledness.
Minimizing or subverting discord is not the kind of peace Isaiah is promising. It’s the opposite of “Hey everybody, we just all need to get along.” That is not God’s peace.
The peace God intends for our hearts, homes, neighborhoods, and communities is a peace God imagines for all humanity.
Throughout their scholarly careers, John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg both addressed this. They say that peace comes to us in two ways.
The first way is peace through victory—which was the kind of peace Rome promised as it sent great armies across its vast empire. Peace through victory. Peace imposed. Peace inflicted, if you will. This is how the powerful throughout the ages have approached peacemaking—peace through victory.
The second kind of peace comes by way of justice—which is the peace God aches to foster, the kind of peace Jesus aimed to usher in. It’s a peace that doesn’t need an army but rather requires equity.
Peace that is won, peace that is imposed, isn’t peace so much as it is the absence of outright conflict. The peace that God intends is the result of the truth having been told and justice, and fairness, being enacted.
Without meaning to, we can sentimentalize our lesson today—oh, look over there, look how beautifully predator and prey are getting along! Without noticing, we can oversimplify what peace needs in order to take hold, imagining peace would be ours if we would just agree to get along.
The precursors to God’s peace are honesty and accountability.
How else can baby goat possibly feel safe enough to nap alongside leopard unless leopard has been helped to hear the stories of his previously negative impact on little goat and her herd?
For peace to come, the leopard needs to hear how scary it was when all the goats saw him licking his lips every time he looked in their direction. Leopard needs to be helped to understand the trauma he caused that day he picked off the weakest goat and enjoyed a feast right there in front of the rest of them.
Peace does not come when someone insists to a baby goat that he should get along with the leopard. Peace comes when the leopard genuinely understands what he’s done, asks for forgiveness, and then does something to make amends.
If peace is to come between those who are vulnerable and those who have benefitted from and even preyed upon that vulnerability, then that peace, God’s peace, comes because those who have had the upper hand have at last humbled themselves and acknowledged their wrongdoing. And, and, have endeavored to make things right.
If today Russia and Ukraine were to call a complete ceasefire, would the result of that comprehensive declaration be peace? There would certainly be the absence of armed conflict, an end to devastating missile fire and death-dealing bombs, but I am not convinced that what we would see would truly qualify as peace.
True peace between Ukraine and Russia is not possible without accountability, confession, repair, and rebuilding. In the absence of real accountability, confession, repair, and rebuilding, these two countries will be left studying each other’s every move for the first sign of threat. And that isn’t peace.
You might recall that as apartheid was being dismantled in South Africa, it became clear that there would be no future for that divided nation, there would be no real peace if there were not also some way, some spiritually mature way, to release the pain and trauma of what had been done to black South Africans at the hands of minority whites.
For peace to come, the truth would have to be brought out of the shadows and into the open. Not as a way to injure the injurers. Not as a way to hit back. But as a way to release the energies that so reliably lead to and feed resentment, resentments which so frequently inspire and wrongly justify acts of retribution.
In order for reconciliation to come to South Africa, the truth had to be told so that those with little power could be heard by those who had held great power, so that those who had caused moral and physical injury might be moved to make genuine amends on behalf of those they injured.
In his bestselling book No Future without Forgiveness, the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu described how those who had suffered at the hands of the powerful in his nation were freed from their prisons of hate and hurt by being given ways to tell the truth about what had happened during apartheid.
Tutu also recounted how those who had overseen and inflicted these grave injuries were helped first to face the truth of their racially-motivated violence and then to make meaningful amends.
The aim of these Truth and Reconciliation hearings was both earnest and wise. What unfolded was not easy, but it was necessary.
Because of those hearings, seeds of peace were planted, seeds that, even from the distance of decades, look a lot like honesty and bravery from those who were preyed upon by the powerful.
Those seeds of peace also look like the willingness of the powerful to listen beyond defensiveness so that responsibility could be taken and reconciliation could come.
As we who follow Jesus make our way through Advent, preparing ourselves for the coming of the Christ Child, anticipating the long-overdue changes he will bring to the human family, we engage in an active, engaged form of waiting.
While we await our savior’s birth, we practice the kind of peace that he embodies. We make every effort to disarm ourselves, to use whatever earthly power we have been given so that compassionate understanding can arise so that a way forward can be found so that victor and victim alike are helped to step out of those identities and justice, if any is needed, is sought.
We might wish for a day when God’s peace would, at last, find us. Sometimes that peace comes to us, but more often, God’s peace comes through us.
Whether we identify with a lamb or whether we resemble a lion, it’s when peace comes through us that we are helped to see the other as they truly are: kin in different skin.
Let us pray: We pray for all those on earth who know what it means to be a lamb, a calf, a baby goat. We pray for those born to vulnerability, those raised with few advantages, and those living with few options and even fewer resources. Give us eyes to see them, hearts that care, and increase in us the willingness to strive for justice.
We pray also for the wolves, the leopards, the lions—who by default or by design wield power over the vulnerable, who gobble them up without even thinking. Create in them different hungers, different desires, and increase in them the capacity for honest reflection, the kind that leads to true reconciliation.
Use us however you can, O God, and whenever you can. Let us together be the peace that you seek for all your children and, indeed, for all creation. Amen.