(Second Sunday of Advent. Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12, John 14:27 & 16:33)
This week I had a passing encounter with someone in town, an older man, while we were heading towards the same door. We exchanged pleasantries on the way – “how’ya doin’?” – “fine, you?” But there was something there that was real enough, in how we looked each other in the eye. It was clear to me that here was someone, who carried himself with a lot of dignity, who I had the feeling had probably suffered his share in life, and had born it all with strength and some sadness. He had a cast on his leg, so I held the door open for him.
As we parted ways I said, “Take care.” He replied, “Wish me peace. I’ve taken on enough cares.”
Peace. He’s right, that’s a proper blessing.
Peace, brother. Peace, sister. May peace be upon you. May God’s peace be with you.
This is a universal blessing. People use it all around the world. “Shalom” is a Jewish greeting – meaning, “peace.” The Muslim greeting is “as-salamu alaykum” – “peace be upon you.” In Christianity many of our worship litanies begin with the clergy person saying “Peace be with you.” To which everyone replies, “And also with you.”
In our church, here, we always begin our worship with the “Passing of the Peace.” “Turn to your neighbor and share a sign of peace,” we say. We shake hands and wish each other “Peace.” And when the spirit of the thing gets going, it can be fun. Y’all’re throwing hugs and crawling over the pews and getting into this whole scrum in the middle. It’s great. It can even get a little bit rowdy in here … I mean, rowdy for a predominately white Protestant church in the Northwest.
(While we’re on the subject, you have my permission, for what it’s worth, to be a little rowdy in here, if that’s how the Spirit is moving. Feel free to call out your Amens and clap and dance and whatever else. I mean it. Amen?)
But with this Passing of the Peace in the service, I want to acknowledge that if you’re visiting or if you’re an introvert, all this handshaking and interacting can be like, “Ah! Who are these people who are all up in my business, with this peace stuff?” At least, that’s how I was when I came back to church for the first time in a long time, after years of seeking salvation in all the wrong places. Really, I was like, “Don’t make me be friendly. I’m just here to hide in the corner and pray and work it out with God and sneak out as fast as I can at the end of the service.” So you have my permission, for what it’s worth, if you feel like you need to opt out of passing the peace. That’s fine. But know that there is good reason we have this practice. There is ancient wisdom in it.
Whenever we share this kind of blessing with someone we care about, this blessing of peace, it is a powerful thing. This is a powerful blessing.
When we do it in a good way, when we’re coming from the heart, when we’re speaking to the soul of the person we are with, this “Peace”, this “Peace, my brother. Peace, my sister,” this “May God’s peace be with you,” this may be the greatest blessing we can give each other.
May the peace of God guard your hearts, may you take courage in the peace that surpasses our understanding, the peace that goes deeper and farther than the troubles of the world.
This blessing of peace is what Jesus gave to his disciples. It was his final blessing to them in the last time he gathered with them. “Peace be with you. My own peace I give you.”
If we truly receive this peace, and if we truly offer this peace to others, if we truly wish to pass this peace along, how much will this change in our lives?
This is a case of “be careful what you pray for, because it may come true.” This peace of Christ is not just a good feeling. It’s not some kind of drug or distraction. No. This kind of peace is a total reorientation of ourselves. It spins us around, it turns us to face a new direction and go in a new way.
Can we wish someone peace if we are making war with them? Can we truly wish them peace if we’re judging them and resenting them and hating them? Can we truly receive this blessing of the peace of Christ if we are making war with ourselves, or judging or hating or not standing up for ourselves?
This is why our readings for this second Sunday in Advent, the Sunday of peace, don’t seem all that peaceful. They are powerful visions of upheaval, change, transformation.
The Peace of Christ is like John’s voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make God’s paths straight.”
Make a way for God’s Way, which means “get out of the way.” Get ourselves out of the way. The word for that is “Repent.” In Hebrew the word means “Turn around.” And in the Greek word is “metanoia” which means, step beyond your understanding, beyond your sense of self.
You see, we get mistaken about who we are. We take ourselves to be the center of the universe, we take our clan to be the end all and be all, we think that we are apart from everything else, unconnected, special. We get attached to our pride, we get attached to our power, we get attached to our pain, as if that’s who we really are. The truth is that we are a whole lot less than we think that we are, but when we realize that, we become a whole lot more, we can enter into a way of being that is beyond anything we thought possible, beyond the troubles of this world – the peace that surpasses understanding.
And the only way there is to get over ourselves and let God in … and not just in but through. That’s why John the Baptist says, “get out of the way to make way for God’s way.
The early Christians were called the follower of the Way. This means they were reoriented people. They were reoriented through Baptism into a life with Christ. John the Baptist is saying that Baptism through Christ is about repentance, reorientation. And the image, he says, is not water, it’s fire … because this is about transformation.
The peace of Christ, the peace that comes with the Way of Christ, comes through the burning away of everything in ourselves everything in our lives together that is dead and fruitless. We hang on to things that are just dead weight, that don’t bear any fruit, or worse, bear toxic fruit. The more we hang on to all this, the more we lose sight of our true nature and our true way.
We are made for the peace that surpasses understanding. We are made to be blessed and to bless others with this holy peace.
And so, my friends, may God’s peace be with you.