a sermon on Psalm 85 and Isaiah 32:16-20
There’s been a lot of talk lately about peace, although these days it seems like that the more we talk about it, the more difficult it is to actually find any.
The Global Peace Index, which “measures peace in 162 countries according to 22 indicators that gauge the absence of violence or the fear of violence,” finds that 111 countries have increased in their levels of conflict over the last year, versus only 51 where peacefulness has increased. The whole report is pretty depressing. 500 million people live in countries at risk of instability and conflict, with 200 million of those live below the poverty line. Since 2008, only four indicators reviewed in the index have improved worldwide, while eighteen have deteriorated. And all this conflict costs us an incredible amount. They estimate that the global economic impact of violence reached $9.8 trillion dollars last year—the equivalent of two times the total economy of the entire continent of Africa or $1,350 per person around the world.
With this incredible impact of conflict in our world, it is incredibly surprising to me that we don’t spend more of our time, energy, and money sorting out a way of life that will bring peace to our world. However, our scripture readings today point us to a different way. As we receive the Peacemaking Offering to support the efforts of this congregation and our broader church in the global witness to peacemaking, these two wonderful texts from the Old Testament give us a vision of peace in our world.
As Christians, we tend to examine the question of peace from two perspectives—the internal and the external. When we think about internal peace, we focus on the peace that comes within our lives, “peace like a river in my soul,” as the old spiritual puts it, peace that comes from God to displace our fears, set aside our worries, and give us internal comfort and hope for our own individual lives. But we cannot think only about this kind of peace. We must also consider external peace, the peace that emerges between people and in communities and among the nations of the world, the peace that comes only with hard work, difficult listening, and tremendous amounts of trust built up over time.
Both of these kinds of peace are summed up in a single great Hebrew word that is found in both of our texts this morning: shalom. Shalom is the Hebrew word that always gets translated into English as “peace,” but there’s a lot more contained in that word than is implied in our simple translation. The Hebrew word shalom pulls together a wide variety of understanding related to peace that is more than simply the absence of conflict. Shalom is more about presence than absence—the presence of social justice that enables all to have the things that they need for life and living, the presence of wholeness that offers an understanding of completeness and new life, the presence of hope for something beyond the present reality that is yet still very much achievable in our lives and our world.
This kind of peace, then, filled with wholeness and justice, is exactly the peace that the prophet Isaiah focuses on in our second reading this morning. As he writes to a people who have known little more than conflict for generations and who will end up facing even greater conflict and finally exile in the years ahead, Isaiah pauses from rehearsing all their wrongs to tell them how things will start to go right.
Justice will dwell in the wilderness,
and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.
What stranger place to make things right than the wilderness! What more unusual home for righteousness than the field at the center of the harvest! The prophet knows that God’s way of bringing change and hope will be transformative, that God will challenge the expectations of our world and upend the understandings of our lives that have become the norm.
And then this justice and righteousness will bear even more fruit: peace. Shalom will be “the result of righteousness, quietness, and trust forever.” Peace will come when order is restored, when quiet listening is at the center of all relationships, when trust in God stands at the center of all things. This peace will take root and bear fruit in so many different ways. The people “will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.” The wild forest, filled with terrors and destruction, will be tamed into something new. The city where conflicts rage will find comfort. God’s people will be connected to the land and find comfort in the waters of every stream.
These visions of peace from Isaiah go right along with the words of our psalm for today. Toward the end of these thirteen beautiful verses, we find some of the most unusual imagery of peace in the bible.
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
If only this vision could be real! If only we could find this sort of peace in our lives! If only our world could settle into such ways! These things may seem impossible, difficult, and even far off, but it is our call and challenge as followers of Jesus Christ to bear this vision of peace into the world. This vision seeks not simply to eliminate conflict but to promote a way of life in our lives and our world where justice and righteousness will flourish for all people. This vision of peace doesn’t seek to squash conflict here so that it later emerges over there, like a perpetual high-stakes game of “whack-a-mole,” but works to change the structures and systems that allow conflict to flourish and replace them with a way of life that promotes social justice and peace. And this vision of peace doesn’t proclaim peace when things aren’t actually whole and complete and calm but instead gives us a vision of something more so that we can be encouraged in the work of making peace each and every day.
The vision of peace we have in these words from Isaiah and the psalms is one that is still a long way away from being known in its fullness, but that doesn’t mean that we are freed from doing this work in the world now. God’s shalom is still very much distant from us in its fullness, but there are yet little glimpses of it here and now. We see God’s shalom whenever a broken relationship is mended or a new start emerges amidst uncertainty and challenge. We see God’s shalom when we welcome the presence of the Holy Spirit into our lives to feed our hearts with new life. And we see God’s shalom when we work to bring justice and righteousness into the relationships of our lives and our world.
It is not easy to live lives that show this vision of peace. A lot of people will object to the pathway that we offer along the way. Some want an easy peace, simply declared by someone in power without any real consequences for that person—and so without any real consequence in general. And some will say that peace just needs to be put off until some bigger conflict gets worked out. But the work of bringing peace and justice and righteousness to our world begins with each one of us every day, with honest assessments of the relationships in our lives and the things that we do to foster or limit peace, with simple steps to increase communication and build trust when there is uncertainty and fear, with openness to a new and different way that we find first here at this table, where the one with great power and privilege emptied it all to share it more abundantly.
Each Sunday, as we did earlier today, this community passes the peace with one another. I was told when I came to be your pastor nine years ago that we could change most anything in the order of service—except for the passing of the peace! That time of connection and sharing peace with one another is one of the great visions of peace in our life together. The Iona Community of Scotland, in one of its communion liturgies, has taken that ritual and given it new and deeper meaning by introducing it with these words:
not an easy peace,
not an insignificant peace,
not a half-hearted peace,
but the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ
is with us now.
May the vision of this peace be with us every day, and may God guide us as we share it with one another and all the world until all things are made new in Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God! Amen.