Happy New Year! Here we are again at the beginning of as new year for the Church. Here’s what I said.
If you know anything about the world of work today, and particularly about management, you’ll know that it has developed its own language. And that language is full of acronyms – take a phrase or list of things you want people to remember and make a word out of them. Or take an easily remembered word and come up with something rather contrived that the letters of the word stand for. Many of you will know the kind of thing I mean. And even the Church isn’t free of them. For example, when a group of people, a committee perhaps, is having to set some targets we are expected to make sure that they are SMART targets. SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-limited.
And there are hundreds of these motivational acronyms for people to remember and use in their working lives:
ACT – Action changes things
PRIDE – Personal Responsibility In Delivering Excellence
HOPE – Have Only Positive Expectations
And so on. And I must confess my heart often sinks when I hear people come out with these things. Though I quite like this one which seems particularly relevant as we start to prepare for Christmas:
STAR – Show Thankfulness, Appreciation, Respect.
Well, what can we make of the word PEACE? Peace is a word that Christians use all the time but what does it actually mean for us?
Well, a search on the internet told me that PEACE can mean Pursue Excellence And Cherish Everyone. Well, I don’t think much of that one? Or how about People Everywhere Are Created Equally. True, but not very motivational. Or People Expressing a Christ Everlasting. At least that one gets Jesus in it. But they don’t really quite fit with the meaning of the word peace for Christians. Those ways of trying to achieve peace might help bring peace about. But Christians have a whole new way of understanding peace. Remember those words of Jesus in John’s gospel: Peace is what I leave with you; it is my own peace that I give you. I do not give as the world does. (John 14.27 GNB)
Peace – the kind of peace that comes from God – is the keyword of our readings this morning on this Advent Sunday. What does the word peace mean to you? Well, later on I’m going to give you an acronym for the word peace to help you remember what Christian peace is about.
But let’s start for now with our first reading, from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. Our reading from Isaiah announces the day when the people of God will see their weapons of war transformed into tools of fruitfulness – when they will see an outbreak of peace. Too many people in our world still exist with the threat of impending violence. Civil wars still rage across our world – innocent people see their families killed or kidnapped to be forced to fight in rebel armies. Even in our own country too many people live daily with the threat of violence. Yet this passage of Scripture holds out hope for those who yearn for peace.
Let’s just look at the background to these words of prophecy. After the time of King David and his son King Solomon Israel became separated into two kingdoms – Israel and Judah. The opening chapters of Isaiah address a time of crisis in the southern kingdom of Judah. The armies of Assyria posed a serious threat as its empire expanded. The northern kingdom of Israel was being threatened first. It was sent into captivity by Assyria in 722 bc. Over the next two decades, Assyria threatened Judah with the same fate. Yet another peril involved injustice within Judah. Prophets like Isaiah warned against both sets of dangers. Yet these same prophets invited hope, as Isaiah does here.
Prophets often announce unexpected reversals. In verse 4, Isaiah prophecies that tools of death will be hammered into tools of life. Warning levied against Jerusalem gives way to this promising word of hope. Another surprising development has to do with the identity of the pilgrims who will stream to MountZion. “All nations” shall come. “Nations” translates a Hebrew word that also means “Gentiles.” The city, like its vision, is inclusive of all God’s people, not just the Jewish people. God’s “holy mountain” is a key image in this passage. Jerusalem was built on a ridge. “Zion” was the name of one portion of that ridge. Zion came over time to be a synonym for the temple and Jerusalem itself. Mountains were often identified as “holy.” They were seen as places of encounter with God. In this vision, such encounter takes the form of holy instruction. We go to mount Zion that God may teach us his ways.
Underlying this passage is a vision of God’s peace or shalom. The Hebrew word shalom is often translated as peace. But God’s shalom, God’s peace, is more than a simple absence of conflict. Shalom is the presence of conditions that make for life. It includes security and a state of “truce,” but goes beyond them. Shalom involves justice and sharing. Shalom assures freedom from want and an abundance of life’s gifts. But we need a note of caution here. Prosperity and security are not always signs of God’s shalom. Plenty and comfort can also be achieved through the oppression of others and create false optimism; Isaiah and other prophets confront the pride and denial that can then result. Our reading from Isaiah ends: Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord. We have an invitation to join this journey to MountZion. Now is the time to follow God’s leading.
Peace, goodness, and vigilance play important roles in our two other readings. In Romans, the nearness of God’s salvation serves two roles. First, it identifies Paul’s basis for hope in God’s peace. Second, it serves as cause for our “living honourably.” That hope moves us to seek the good in our relationships with God and one another. Paul urges our wakefulness, based on knowing what time it is: Brothers and sisters, he says, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake out of sleep, for salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.
On the other hand, Matthew summons vigilance because we do not know the hour of God’s coming. Both readings are urging us to remain alert and ready for the day when God’s peace will appear throughout creation, the time when, as the Scriptures promise, Christ will return.
Today is, of course, Advent Sunday. The word “Advent” literally means “coming”. It is a time in the Church when we look forward to celebrating the first coming of Jesus and prepare for the promised second coming of Christ at some time in the future. It is a time of preparation, a time to consider how we might prepare ourselves and our world for his arrival – for he may come at any time. And because of that it is for the Church, unlike the world around us, a penitential season like Lent. It is a time when we reflect upon our own lives and our own readiness to receive Christ. This is why our liturgical colour becomes purple – the colour of penitence – and our liturgy and music become a little more solemn. The readings talk of the future – a future when Christ will return to reign – of the difficulties we must encounter as his followers before that reign begins, and of the need for his peace in our lives.
Ideally these four weeks leading up to Christmas offer us time to grow deeper in our faith and to be reflective about our relationships with God, with others, and with the world. During Advent we each should be asking ourselves, “How can I prepare for the coming of Christ?” It can, of course, be a real challenge to nurture an Advent spirit in a culture where the emphasis is on the Christmas holiday itself with all its gifts and spending and where, I read recently, the average person has eaten five Christmas dinners before Christmas Day even arrives.
Yet intentionally providing space in our worship during these four weeks for reflection and preparation can be a greater gift than any Christmas package can contain. Over the next four weeks we will discover how our Advent worship listens deeply to the words of the prophets, John the Baptizer, the song of Mary and the angelic visitations in Matthew and Luke. It refrains from the festive carols of the Christmas season to enjoy the expectant but often profoundly serious songs of Advent. The prayers and litanies draw on the themes of promise and anticipation as the light of Christ grows among us.
If you take away just one thing from this Advent service this morning, may it just be this: How might you keep from rushing too quickly into the Christmas season so that you might truly observe the season of Advent and prepare yourself for the coming of your Saviour, the Prince of Peace? How might you discover the peace that Jesus gives in the midst of the frenetic preparations in the commercial world outside.
Which brings me back to where we began and the world of acronyms. And here is one for you to think about during Advent.
PEACE. We can know the peace that Jesus gives us even when life may not feel particularly peaceful. We can know the peace of Jesus even as we face the commercial pressures of the world around us and the pressure to conform to the world’s view of how we should be having a jolly good time. And how can we remember what that PEACE means?
P – Praising Jesus no matter what
E – Experiencing the joy of knowing Jesus
A – Accepting the forgiveness of Jesus for your sins
C – Contentment with the life Jesus calls you to
E – Expecting the blessings Jesus offers.
You don’t need to try and remember that. As you leave today make sure you take from me one of these – a bookmark for your Bible or prayer book with all that on it, so you can think about the peace that Jesus brings and pray for it each day during Advent.