Video of the Divine Service here.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This time of the year seems to inspire in people a sort of nostalgia for the past, as well as a hope for the future. Nostalgia for the past, even if that past never actually existed. We have a strong tendency to blur out the sharp, painful edges; to look only at the past through snow-softened snapshots and candle-lit glimpses. And our hope for the future is often vague and idealistic. We don’t know exactly what we want things to be like; we just know we want them to be better. We seem to alternate between that nostalgia and that hope. Have you ever noticed how many Christmas songs are about the past? About how things used to be; about childhood memories; about white Christmases, just like the ones we used to know; and about what happened last Christmas. And then there are the ones, maybe not as prominent, about how things are going to be better this year, or next year.
And then we swing back and forth, not only between nostalgia for the past and hope for the future, but between optimism about how things could be, and pessimism about how things are. So John Lennon sings in his Christmas song that war is over, if you want it. On the other hand, U2 can’t find the promised peace on earth, as Bono sings, “Heaven on earth, we need it now…Peace on earth…I hear it every Christmas time; but hope and history won’t rhyme.”
And then we hear these prophecies by Isaiah. Isaiah 2, last week, spoke of peace between people, between nations. He promises that swords will be turned into plowing implements, and spears into pruning hooks; that nations will lay down their weapons and not learn the art of war anymore. Perhaps passages like Isaiah 2 explain why the Christmas truce of December, 1914 holds such an iconic place in our corporate memory. At Christmas, enemies lay down their arms, cross battle lines, sing carols, and exchange gifts. We can easily forget that that happened at the beginning of one of the bloodiest wars in human history. Today, we hear Isaiah 11, about peace in the creation, about former predators and prey lying down next to each other, eating the same food. Even of a little child who will play around the den of a poisonous serpent, and is not afraid or harmed. No wonder so many people love Edward Hicks’ painting of the “peaceable kingdom.”
But all of these images, desires, hopes for peace on earth have the same shortcoming. They make peace an abstract idea, a vague ideal, something to be attained if enough people would just want it enough. But that tears these passages out of the context of Isaiah, out of the context of prophecy, and out of the context of the Scriptures. The Scriptures do not know about any kind of abstract peace. They do not know peace as a state of affairs that people will bring about, if only they cared enough, or really wanted it. It is not, first of all, the ceasing of conflict. Peace on earth comes, but only as the Coming One. Isaiah 11 doesn’t simply hold out the hope of a peaceable kingdom, but preaches the one in whom the kingdoms will find their peace. Isaiah 2 doesn’t simply say that eventually enough people will get together and decide they’re tired of war, so why don’t we all just stop fighting. That peace only comes with the Day of Yahweh, and the Day of Yahweh comes in the Branch that grows from the stump of Jesse, descended from Jesse by way of David. There is no such thing as peace apart from the one who stands as a beacon for the nations. Peace isn’t the way things are; peace is a person. Peace is a baby, the Son of God wrapped up in the flesh of the virgin. And there’s nothing peaceful about His life in this world full of the corruption of sin and death. From the beginning, His life is under threat of violence, all the way to His violent and bloody end on the cross. Isaiah 11 makes clear that peace comes in the one who is anointed with the Spirit, but it doesn’t come until wickedness is eradicated from the earth by the Word of Yahweh’s Branch. He will bring the final, faithful, and righteous judgment. And then there will be full and final peace.
And it is exactly in the violence of Jesus’ crucifixion that we see the peace of God. Paul reminds us that it is in Christ’s own flesh that peace is made. There is peace between God and man, joined once and for all in the one who is both God and Man. And because there is peace between God and people, there can also be peace between people. He breaks down the dividing wall of hostility, and nails the hostility of sin to His own cross. The fire of judgment is poured out on Him completely, so that there will be no more for you. And when Jesus rises from the dead, a new creation begins, from which sinners, who eat in faith from the Tree of Christ’s Life, will never be cast out. This is a creation in which there is nothing but peace, nothing but life, nothing but joy.
And Advent grounds us in that hope and peace. Advent has nothing to do with the blurry nostalgia of the past, or the vague idealism of an undefined future. Advent grounds us in the concrete promise of Jesus, whose Word always does what it says. And Advent grounds us in the certain hope that Jesus has indeed begun and finished the work of peace on earth. All that remains is for His coming, when we will see the full and final peace among the people of all nations, and in the creation itself, because God will dwell in His creation with His people, and will be our God.
In light of the Christ who stands as a beacon of peace in a restless and violent world; in light of the Christ of whom the nations will inquire, and in whom the nations will hope; Paul speaks this final word to us this morning: May the God of hope fill you with all peace and joy in believing, by the power of the Holy Spirit, who descended and remained on Jesus, you may abound, overflow, in hope. His rest will be glorious.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/3/16