Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sermon: The Peace of God

"The Peace of God"
Isaiah 40: 1-5; Mark 1: 1-8
by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
December 10, 2017
The Second Sunday of Advent

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.’
- Isaiah 40: 1-5

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.’
- Mark 1: 1-8

Some words will only bear the weight of their full meaning when held in tension to its opposite. Here are a few dynamic duos that are common to all ages: night and day, cause and effect, right and wrong.

The Bible is full of such opposites that are pregnant with meaning when we hold them side by side: sin and grace, debt and forgiveness, death and new life.

But today we are peeling back the layers of a particular word that we are longing to find fuller meaning within this second week of Advent; and that word is PEACE.

What opposite would you pair with the word “peace?”

Many say the opposite of peace is conflict. But Scripture offers another word pairing.

The prophecy of God’s peace comes from Isaiah. According to the prophet, the opposites of peace are injustice and unrighteousness; they threaten the wholeness and wellbeing of God’s shalom, or peace.

God’s people of Israel cried out for God’s peace to comfort them in the wilderness. God’s people lamented. The most weak and vulnerable were being oppressed by an unjust society. God’s people felt completely disconnected from right relationships.

The wilderness of the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles felt like walking through the valley of the shadow where mountains seemed merciless and immovable. The path that seemed to lead to no where was chalked full of stones of judgment, pitfalls, and potholes where large gaps of integrity were missing.

Isaiah speaks comfort to God’s people. “A Spirit from on high is poured out on us; in the wilderness justice will dwell and righteousness will abide. Justice and righteousness will abide in the fruitful field of God’s possibility. The effect of righteousness will be peace. The result of righteousness [will be] quietness and trust forever (Isaiah 32: 15a, 16-17).

You see, the peace of God is a divine prophetic reversal to make things right for God’s people; particularly the oppressed: In the wilderness [the Spirit] prepares the way of the Lord. Every valley is lifted up in to the light of God’s bright hope. The merciless and immovable mountains of injustice are made low by the justice of God’s Law of Love. The uneven ground with all its stones and potholes is made level by God’s faithfulness, paving the way for right relationships.

The wilderness that led to nowhere now clearly leads to a highway where we meet our God Emmanuel, God-With-Us. The peace of God reveals the glory of the Lord and all people shall see it together (Isaiah 40:3-5).

The word of the Lord will not return empty. It shall accomplish God’s purposes of peace (Isaiah 55:11). Its full result is God restoring us to see one another, especially the weak and marginalized, in our full God-given dignity and personhood today and to experience the glorious new life of God’s security and trustworthiness through Jesus Christ forever (Isaiah 32:17).

This past week I found the prophetic peace of God at work in an unlikely person. August Pullman is a ten-year old boy. He has been walking in a wilderness his whole life. He has felt shunned for something completely out of his control. Auggie has a severe craniofacial deformity. He has had twenty-seven surgeries to breathe, to see, and to hear without a hearing aid; but Auggie says none of them have helped him to look ordinary.

Auggie was homeschooled from a young age. His parents now think it is time for him to take the next step by starting fifth grade in a nearby middle school. Every fifth grader would be beginning the fated middle school wilderness together as new students.

Auggie was petrified but willing. He dreaded the unwanted stares from those who did not know him. While his new wilderness got really rocky at times, Auggie experienced a complete reversal in that school year that brought an inspiring and profound peace.

On his first day of school his dad dropped him off with a big hug and the wise words, “Auggie, I know you are going to feel all alone but you are not.”

Auggie found the gift of connection among a few true friends who looked past what made him different. These friends saw Auggie’s character of quiet strength, humor, and rock star science skills.

When the valley of bullying overshadowed Auggie with hurtful words and actions, Auggie’s principal shined a bright light into the darkness of that bully saying, “August cannot change the way he looks, but we can change the way we see.”

August saw a new beginning unfold as he envisioned where he wanted to be. Over the course of his fifth grade year, Auggie went from being treated as “less than human” to receiving the highest honor for pulling up the most hearts with his quiet strength and his deep resolve to overcome cruelty with kindness.

August Pullman is a “Wonder,” as told in the book and movie. He is a wonder because his story displays God’s powerful promise that justice will dwell and right relationships will abide in the wilderness no matter what age we are. This story is bringing great comfort to children and families facing similar struggles who have been silenced and marginalized. This story is giving them a voice.

You and I have also seen God’s prophetic peace unfolding in one of the fastest moving reversals of our time.

Women and men who have long been silenced as victims of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse are now truly being heard. As a result, powerful figures across the board are resigning from these allegations. This reversal has given many a great hope because abuses of power cast a shadow of shame which feels less than human. Abuses of power blame the victim for something they had no control of. Those words, “abusive power,” “shame,” and “less than human” no longer have the last word.

And this is just the beginning towards God’s peace which seeks to bring healing, wholeness, and security where trust has been violated. As The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.”

God promises the human wilderness will be transformed into a field where all may flourish according to God’s law of love and his gospel of peace. Advent anticipates the great kingdom reversal that the Prince of Peace brings and will bring to completion. And we are seeing glimpses of God’s glory together.

These stories are important because they hold profound implications for all people of faith today. There is something at stake for the church to understand God’s prophetic promise of peace: “When the church is deaf to the voices of women, children, powerless men, and other peoples at the margins, the health of [the church’s] faith and witness is compromised.” [1]

The church is called to listen for and respond to these voices for the sake of the integrity of the gospel.

The peace of God invites us to prepare the way of the Lord. The work of Advent is to listen in the silence. Listen in the noise. Listen for the Spirit’s voice.

The voice of God’s Spirit is saying, “Comfort, O comfort my people.”

Look into your own heart of personal valleys, immovable mountains, and rocky paths. Where is God’s peace missing in your life? Know that God longs to bring about reversals for you to find healing and to flourish this Advent season.

Look outward too. God’s mercy and grace are on the move to shine the light of Christ upon the women, children, powerless men, and the marginalized. “The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble” (Psalm 9:9). The body of Christ is to be on the move too as a sanctuary for a weary world when the wrong seems oh so strong.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is Emmanuel; GOD IS WITH US. His gospel is peace.

In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources Referenced:

[1] “Feminist and Womanist Essays in Reformed Dogmatics” (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), p. 208 “The Gifts of God for the People of God,” by Leanne Van Dyck.

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