Isaiah 40:1-11, Philippians 4:4-9
In this second week of Advent, our focus is on peace, which is a word that has a lot of different meanings for us. At one end of the spectrum we tend to think of a personal feeling of rest and relaxation. At the other end of the spectrum we think of an absence of war. The idea of Christian peace encompasses both of those and everything in the middle. In the Old Testament the Hebrew word for peace is “shalom,” which almost always refers to something that we all experience together as a community, not just a personal feeling. The word can mean salvation, flourishing, or community wellbeing. Overall, in the Bible, peace means wholeness. And that’s what we are going to see in our readings this morning. One is from the book of Isaiah, specifically the second section of this very long prophetic book. We suspect that this portion of Isaiah was written to the people from the southern kingdom of Judah who were then living in exile in Babylon. The city of Jerusalem had been conquered, the temple had been destroyed, the king was captured, and many people were carried off to live in a foreign land. The exile was the worst thing to happen to the ancient Hebrews and it shaped how they thought about themselves and God. This tragedy made them ask two big questions: 1. Has our God Yahweh been defeated by the gods of Babylon? 2. Does our ancient covenant of peace with God still stand? The prophet Isaiah decisively answers these two questions. And then in the book of Philippians, the apostle Paul shares his experience on how we can live into God’s wholeness as a community and as individuals. “So let us listen now in the reading of scripture for the word and the wisdom of God.” – Iona Community Worship Book
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11
Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will 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 like grass,
and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.”
You who bring good news to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,
and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him,
and his recompense accompanies him.
He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.”
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
I cherish these Advent themes because they are such small words with such big meanings: hope, peace, joy, and love. They are not just concepts or ideas we think about; they are experiences at the core of what it means to be human and what it means for us to connect with God. Last week we said that hope is the expectation of a good future that is awakened by God promise and strengthened by our trust in God. If we don’t feel particularly hopeful, it is something that we can cultivate in our lives through deliberate practice.
Likewise with peace. Peace, wellbeing, wholeness has its source in God, but we are responsible for our part in manifesting it here on earth. That’s why I think these two selections from the Bible go so well together. The verses from Isaiah say a lot of about God’s work of peace, and the verses from Philippians say a lot about what we can do to cultivate peace in our lives.
In the Old Testament, peace, or shalom, is a great way to describe God’s dream for the world. Our ancient stories indicate that what God wants is for all of creation to flourish together. But humanity does all kinds of things to disrupt that flourishing, to deliberately reject God’s plan for compassionate justice. The Christian word for that is sin—anything that disrupts God’s plan for flourishing, anything that breaks up God’s work of wholeness, is sin.
And we see this over and over again in the Old Testament stories about the ancient Hebrews. The saga of the ancient Hebrews in the Old Testament is one story designed to represent the experience of all of humanity. The ancient people make deliberate choices to stop living in God’s compassionate justice and then they lose their place to live in the promised land. But not forever. Because even though they were sent away, God’s desire was always for them to come to their senses and then be restored and brought back to their land. That’s their story.
The experience of humanity is that each of us individually and all of us together make choices that break up God’s wholeness. And God allows each of us and all of us to experience the consequences of that brokenness. But not forever. God’s plan is to one day put everything back together, to restore the whole creation, to make everything new. And so when we read the words of prophecy about the ancient Hebrews coming back to their land, we also hear a larger promise about God restoring the wholeness of the world.
Listen again to Isaiah 40 verses 4 and 5. “Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill made low: the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places smooth. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.” This is not just about terrain; this is about the state of the world. And it’s not about reversal, it’s about evening everything out. It doesn’t say that valleys become mountains and mountains become valleys. It says valleys come up and mountains come down and everything meets in the middle, and everyone together sees God’s glory.
This is not only a vision of the ancient people coming home, it’s a vision of God restoring the world. Everyone will have what they need; everyone will be treated equitably according to their situation; no one will be left out; and everyone will have a full experience of God, instead of the limited experiences that separate us into denominations and religions. That’s the kind of wholeness, the kind of peace, that will show God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.
It’s a lovely vision, but the ancient people wondered if they would ever really get to go home, just like we sometimes wonder if God is ever really going to make the world whole. Can God really do it? And will God really do it? So the prophet Isaiah continues with the affirmation, “Here is your God. The sovereign Lord comes with power and his arm rules for him.” God can really do it. And then the image switches: “He tends his flock like a shepherd. He gathers lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart.” God will really do it. God is powerful and God is loving. God is strong enough and God cares enough to fulfill God’s promises.
Now what is sometimes hard for us to grasp is that these promises apply to the whole world AND that they are not a guarantee of our own personal health and wealth. God can be powerful and loving, strong and kind, and we can still experience individual suffering. Friends, this is a mystery of our faith. It bothers us particularly as Americans in the 21st century because we have such an individualized mindset. In other times and other cultures, people have not wrestled with the question of a loving God and individual suffering as much as we do because they thought at a community level and we think at an individual level. Now that doesn’t mean one way of thinking is right and one is wrong. But I want you to know that the Bible was written originally for people who thought at a community level so some of the answers we want just aren’t in there.
What the Bible does give us consistently are principles for faithful living, both for individuals and for communities. And that’s what we find in this morning’s verses from Philippians. These verses were written to a community, and they are also good guides for us as individuals. In here we find two promises about peace and some encouragement on how to experience these promises. The first promise is that the peace of God will guard us. The second promise is that the God of peace will accompany us. On one hand, the peace of God; and on the other hand, the God of peace.
First “the peace of God that passes understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” This happens when we practice being grateful for what we already have and trusting that God will provide what we still need. Regardless of how chaotic the world is, regardless of how much I am suffering, there is always something to be grateful for. And because I have grounded myself in stories of how God has provided in the past, both for me and for other people, I can trust that God will make a way again. When we practice gratitude and practice asking for what we need, the peace of God guards us.
Second, “the God of peace will be with us.” This happens when we deliberately focus our thoughts on goodness. These verses encourage us to dwell on what is good and noble, right and pure, lovely and admirable, excellent and praiseworthy. Regardless of how chaotic the world is, regardless of how much I am suffering, I can always choose where I direct my thoughts and how I talk to myself. When we carefully, logically, reasonably focus our mind on God’s goodness, the God of peace accompanies us.
This is how we cultivate peace, how we grow in spiritual maturity. It doesn’t happen by accident, nor just because we show up to church a couple times a month, nor just because we repost spiritual-sounding quotes on social media. Those are fine things to do but God invites into something more than that. Spiritual maturity comes from deliberately cultivating hope and peace and joy and love in our lives. Then as we make these life-giving choices, we are drawn deeper into God’s work of restoring the world. As we deliberately cultivate wholeness in our lives, we become more in tune with the ways that God wants to use us to heal the brokenness in the world.
And that’s the ultimate goal. Our spiritual maturity isn’t just for our own benefit. I heard someone say the other day that God doesn’t have a mission for the church. God has church for the mission. God is already up to something in the world and we have the very great opportunity and privilege of joining in. God wants to bless the whole world with hope and peace and joy and love, and God wants to do that through us. Jesus came to show the world what God is like, and the Church exists to continue that demonstration, to literally keep being Jesus in the world. So let us cultivate the gifts of Advent in our lives so that through us Jesus shows up every day and not just once a year. Amen.