God’s Peace changes us
Sermon Preached at St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA
by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, December 6, 2020
The Second Sunday of Advent (year B), Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85; 2Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.
Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift 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!”
See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
Mark 1:1-8 (NRSV): The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
We are in the season of Advent, a season of waiting and preparation and expectation. Last week, I spoke about how God blesses us while we wait. But what are we waiting for? What do we expect? If Advent is about expecting Jesus in our lives, what impact does Jesus bring?
Today’s readings start to address this. In the Old Testament reading, the Psalm and the New Testament reading, we hear about God’s people waiting for relief from their struggles, waiting for God to intervene and take action, waiting for God to provide for his people. The Gospel reading, of course, is the ultimate answer to those prayers. John the Baptist announces that Jesus is coming. “Repent!” John says, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” “One is coming after me who is greater than I…he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Some of what we hear today about Advent preparation is about repentance. Repentance has to do with turning away from sin and turning toward God. We turn away from those things that take us from God, those things that divide us from each other and take us from the wholeness God wants for us. And we turn toward God, toward renewed relationship through Christ, and toward that wholeness that only God can provide.
The prophets and the psalmist proclaimed that kind of wholeness to the people. Only we often translate the word as “peace.” The word in Hebrew is “shalom,” God’s peace, God’s wholeness. So, part of our Advent preparation is to turn our hearts toward God’s peace, God’s wholeness, God’s shalom. And in that peace, we are more ready to receive God and God’s blessings.
The psalm and the reading from Isaiah could apply to any challenging time for God’s people, and to the restoration that God provides his people. But the Isaiah passage in particular makes us think of the exile, and the restoration of Israel and Judah to the land once more. God’s people turned away from him, worshipped other gods and forgot the true God. Their enemies destroyed them and brought a remnant of the Jews to Babylon in exile. A generation later, they could return to the holy land. The words of the prophet and the psalmist in these cases spoke to them.
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.”
Speak comfort to Jerusalem, that her penalty is paid, that her struggle is over.
And now: prepare the way for the Lord, for he is returning to restore his people.
And the psalmist writes:
1 You have been gracious to your land, O Lord, *
you have restored the good fortune of Jacob.
2 You have forgiven the iniquity of your people *
and blotted out all their sins.
In the verses that were skipped in today’s lectionary, he writes
3 You have withdrawn all your fury *
and turned yourself from your wrathful indignation.
4 Restore us then, O God our Savior; *
let your anger depart from us.
5 Will you be displeased with us for ever? *
will you prolong your anger from age to age?
6 Will you not give us life again, *
that your people may rejoice in you?
7 Show us your mercy, O LORD, *
and grant us your salvation.
He goes on to write:
8 I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, *
for he is speaking peace to his faithful people
and to those who turn their hearts to him.
9 Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, *
that his glory may dwell in our land.
10 Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
11 Truth shall spring up from the earth, *
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
12 The Lord will indeed grant prosperity, *
and our land will yield its increase.
13 Righteousness shall go before him, *
and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.
This psalm is packed with meaning. “Peace” is not just the absence of warfare, it is shalom, God’s peace, God’s completeness, God’s wholeness. “Mercy” is that special word for steadfast love—God’s covenant and love for his people, his dependable and loving commitment to his people. Steadfast love and truth have met together, righteousness and shalom have kissed each other.
The peace that God promises is, as we often hear, “the peace that passes understanding.” This is God’s peace. God’s peace is not a wimpy absence of activity. God’s peace is a fullness and strength, a safety in God’s hands in whatever the circumstances. God’s peace is not contrary to God’s righteousness and truth, not contrary to mercy and God’s loving commitment to us. God’s peace is found in and through all these things.
This is why repentance is a call not just away from sin, but toward God. The advent call of repentance is not just “be a good person” and certainly not “be a good person by the world’s standards” (whatever those standards are today). The advent call to prepare and repent is a call toward God—toward the rich, robust, full and complete wholeness and righteousness of God. This is not just a passing feeling, this is a powerful peace, this is a durable and lasting and transforming peace. God’s peace changes us.
In my line of work, I’ve walked with many people going through huge challenges in their life. Illness, job loss, divorce, waiting with a dying loved one. Some people have been distraught or angry, or wounded so deeply they find it hard to move forward. At least this is true at first. Some turn away from God because of the hurt they feel.
But I’ve seen others who have traveled that road sustained by God’s peace. And I’ve seen others who for years had turned away from God, finally find God’s peace again. This peace changes things. When someone’s father is dying, there is so much taken away. But for those who turn toward God’s peace, they find strength that shows them something beyond the suffering and loss. God’s peace, God’s wholeness opens their eyes to the joy and blessings of the life lived, and the holiness of being there through the suffering.
God’s peace—God’s shalom—God’s wholeness is also the power that saves those struggling with addiction. What feels like a trap, what feels impossible to overcome is overcome by God’s peace and wholeness. We often call it serenity. The addict usually chases something to avoid the pain of life. A false peace can only paper over that pain. But the true peace, where righteousness and truth meet together, this is God’s peace, this is God’s serenity and God’s wholeness. In that serenity is found the surrender to God that transforms a life, and frees the soul from its traps.
When we embrace God’s wholeness, we are safe in God’s hands through whatever storm we find. Even where we are weak, in God’s wholeness, we lean on God’s strength, with the hope of his restoration in our lives.
In Advent, we prepare our hearts to receive God. We start with the belief and trust in his salvation—that God is powerful enough to make a difference. We look for God’s peace in our lives, we acknowledge that peace, and embrace that peace where we find it. Then we rest in that peace, letting it change how we see the world around us and how we see ourselves.
The exiles heard the proclamation of the prophets that God will bless them with his peace. And in that strength and trust, they returned to the Land and God built them up as a great nation again. And in time, Jesus came to save them and us from our sins, to give us a peace stronger than our sin and stronger even than death.
Embrace that peace this Advent. Look for God’s peace in your life and celebrate where God’s peace and wholeness are renewing you.
Comfort! Comfort! Says God to his people.
God speaks peace to his faithful people, to those who turn their hearts to him.