a sermon for Advent – “The Wait of the World“
It’s about this time of the Christmas season when I think most people are needing some peace. The extra load of school concerts, dance recitals, parties and social events, not to mention the hoopla surrounding gift-giving and shopping, wears many of us us out. It’s fun to some degree, but there is a fine line where we cross into Scrooge territory if we’re not careful. We wait for peace…some peace and quiet. Maybe peace looks how one of my children recently described it—holding a cup of hot chocolate while it snows outside, curling up under a blanket on the couch with close family members with a fire in the stove and a movie on the TV.
We’re also in the time of the pandemic when we’re all needing peace. Peace from the constant vigilance against transmitting the virus and ending up in quarantine. Peace from the endless debates about vaccines and facemasks, mandates and freedom. Peace from the ceaseless decision-making about policies and procedures. It really seems like a war, a trauma-causing event, especially so for health care workers and teachers and others caught in the crosshairs, and we wait for peace to come. Maybe peace looks like whatever we were doing in 2019, or a day when we can gather indoors together without masks or whenever a medicine makes COVID no longer something to fear.
We’re also in a time of highly polarized politics in our country, and I think we all want peace. That one is more difficult to agree upon, because some seem to want strife and mayhem. In any case, we hear the messages of conflict and battle through the media, through social media, and even personal conversations. Long term friendships and family relationships are being severed due to divisive political and social stances. All branches of our federal government are possibly more divided than at any point in our nation’s history. Anger and adversarial postures are the norm, so we wait for peace. Maybe peace looks like agreement on major issues, political breakthrough of harmony and unified vision for what America is to be.
And in the world, we wait for peace. Hundreds of thousands of Russian troops are standing at the border with Ukraine as we speak, perhaps poised for a Christmas Eve invasion.
Things are getting dicey around Taiwan. New space-age weapons are being developed as agreements to end nuclear proliferation are being threatened. Peace, in this case, looks like an end to war, or as the prophet Isaiah hoped, “beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.”
As we can see, peace is one of those things that is really hard to define, fairly easy to describe, and yet very easy to sense and feel. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said “Peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.” That is, peace is not just not fighting or refraining from conflict, but taking part in something that benefits everyone, an action that affects all lives.
The word used most often for peace in Scripture gets at this. It’s also the word that Micah reaches for when he explains the leader who will come from Bethlehem, the anticipated one who stand and feed the entire flock in security and shelter. That word is shalom, and it encompasses so much that it you need about five or six English words to translate it adequately.
Shalom means wholeness, being intact, maybe like that feeling when the last puzzle piece finally gets placed and the whole picture can truly be seen.
Shalom is well-being, prosperity and kindness, all of the things one would associate with salvation, which is another dimension to the word.
Shalom can be used as a friendly greeting. Voiced with different inflections,“shalom” can mean “Don’t be worried,” “You are safe,” and “things are alright.”
All this is to say, shalom is the first thing said about Jesus’ arrival on earth after his birth in Bethlehem. The angels in the sky announce it to the shepherds, connecting him to the message of peace. And shalom is the first thing Jesus himself communicates after he is risen from the dead when he greets his disciples in Jerusalem. His whole existence and the point of his presence among us, from now until the end of the ages, is to embody shalom, to say, “Don’t worry. It’s alright,” in a way that the world can never say.
As we receive him in his word and as we practice service and kindness among our neighbors, his peace takes hold. We find that, more than being that final puzzle piece which, placed properly, makes all things right, he is the puzzle’s worker, the one who gives his life to make all things and all of us fit the way we were made. He alone brings that justice.
And with that perfect blessed wholeness that propels us forward, we forgive, we lay our own lives down, we beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. He is the Prince of Peace. We depend on him for righteousness, for purification, for joy, and for shalom…and so we wait, and work, and watch: Come, Lord Jesus.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.