Rev. DeWayne L. Davis
December 4, 2022
Scripture: Isaiah 11:1-10
Today, we enter the second week of Advent, reflecting on the central theme of peace. As we light the candle of peace, sing peace, proclaim peace, and pray for peace, we do so knowing that sustainable global peace eludes us. A global pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the mass protests in China, the uprisings and repression of women in Iran, the mass shootings and political chaos and radicalization in the U.S., the ongoing exploitation of the earth’s resources, and the resulting ecological devastation it has wrought all testify to how far we are from peace on Earth. And yet, as a wise scholar recently maintained, “the world is not full of conflict; and war is the exception, not the rule” (Christopher Blattman). In other words, we make peace often. Peace is always available to us. We can always choose peace, and it is the most important thing for us to hold onto during this season, as laid out in Isaiah’s prophecy of deliverance to the southern kingdom of Israel we read in our Scripture lesson today, despite suffering and despair, war, and aggression, God intends for there to be peace, not just for Israel, but for the entire creation.
Israel knows what it feels like when there is no peace. At this moment of Isaiah’s prophetic ministry, Israel is menaced by the superpower Assyria. In fear and anxiety about the looming threat, Israel seeks political and military allies to help prepare for war. Israel looks to everyone but God for aid, comfort, and solidarity. Before this prophecy of deliverance, Isaiah had prophesied Israel’s destruction because of the corruption and faithlessness of Israel’s kings who reigned since David’s reign. Israel assumed God’s anger would not be assuaged enough to save them in time. But the prophet assures them that war, violence, suffering, and disorder are not permanent. They will not languish in despair under the rule of unjust, unethical rulers. God’s will and purpose for the creation will come to pass, and peace will prevail. I wish there were a way for us to recapture the urgency and utter audacity of the prophetic claims here. Israel is on the cusp of disaster, and the prophet invites them to fix their gaze not on the allies and weapons of war but on God’s ideal leader and God’s promise of a transformed world. Israel was so preoccupied with security that it could not imagine peace.
Isaiah’s prophecy of deliverance begins with birth out of death, a shoot of new growth out of the stump of an ostensibly dead tree. Just because Israel has seen failed king after failed king, although destruction is looming, God works possibility amid impossibility. God’s vision for them and for creation is still alive even in what looks like death and a doomed future. By the power of God’s spirit, that little shoot, the small growth out of the stump, will become a channel of peace, bringing equity and justice to the land and realizing God’s vision of peace. As the theologian Walter Brueggemann described it, God’s vision of peace, or shalom, means “all of creation is one, every creature in community with every other, living in harmony and security toward the well-being of every other creature.” So God will pour out God’s spirit on a good leader, endowing that leader with wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and faithfulness so that the poor and oppressed will finally know equity and righteousness. But this vision is also about the transformation of creation. According to Isaiah, the impossible will happen, harmony between predator and prey, harmlessness in the presence of savage beasts, and comfort and collaboration between natural enemies.
As an Advent reading, it is easier to wrap our minds around the righteous leader on whom God’s spirit rests than to imagine a newly ordered, peaceful, harmonious creation. After all, we have read these hopes for a righteous leader in the person of Jesus. In the “already” phase of the passing away of the current age, Jesus fulfills the hope of that good leader and teacher. But it is much harder to envision an ordered creation that looks anything at all like Isaiah described. A wolf living with a lamb without violence erupting or a child playing near a cobra’s nest without being attacked is impossible. And yet God promises peace as a gift and a vocation; peace as a future possibility, a promised gift, made real in those on whom God’s spirit will fall. Where all others had failed, when despair and violence prevailed because peace was neither imagined nor attempted, God will act through God’s chosen to realize peace and newness. God’s spirit is decisive — “life-giving, future-creating, and world-forming” (Brueggemann et. al, Texts for Preaching).
Tell me, what are the limits to transformation when God is determined to restore and reorder the creation? What gets missed or left untouched when God reorders the world with peace? And what role are we willing to play in the making of peace? Could the disorder in human relationships, the disorder in the doing of justice, the disorder in how we treat the environment be the cause of disorder in creation? What impossible things can happen when we become agents and channels of peace, those who pray and accept God’s spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and faithfulness? Perhaps, now in our Advent waiting, by reflecting on God’s promise of peace, we make ourselves available to the wondrous peace that God offers as a gift and vocation, becoming workers of peace in anticipation of a reordered world.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated how the pursuit of peace must become the vocation of all people. Nearly 58 years ago, when King rose to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, he wondered aloud in his speech why the Nobel committee would award the prize “to a movement which has not won the very peace. . . which is the essence of the Nobel Prize.” By the end of his speech, King had reminded the audience that we can be channels of peace: “Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace . . . I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history.” King knew that the path to peace starts with justice. He did not live to see the peace he pursued, but he worked for justice that leads to peace. Like Isaiah, King’s message was that war, violence, domination, oppression, and exploitation are not humanity’s destiny. Perhaps we are being invited to assume the work of peace as our vocation. And just as Jesus was a signal to the world of the possibility and potential for peace, our response to God’s gift and vocation of peace stands as a signal of God with us.
But I also want to remind us that because peace is a gift and a vocation, we have that impulse for peace deep within us. I see that gift and vocation whenever I look out my office window. My office looks out onto the courtyard. I have a ringside seat to observe the trees, plants, and birds buzz into activity in the spring as if painting a picture of peace and harmony as they grow, respond, and receive light. In the summer, a veritable peaceable kingdom unfolds before the eyes, everything belonging in its expected and welcomed place, as if in tribute to the Creator just by being. And even in the fall and winter, in the absence of color or blanketed in snow, the seasonal slumber of such beauty and harmony testifies to a peace so generous that it gives the garden time to itself for rest so that come spring, it can live again, and live more abundantly and beautifully. And it all began in the imagination, and it came to life because God’s earth responded to the gardeners, landscapers, and volunteers who worked to make it so.
There is indeed tension in the human condition: we crave and imagine peace, and we despair that it can be achieved, sometimes thwarting it because of our greed and arrogance. But we do not need to despair about the promise and possibility of peace, and we can nurture and practice peace in our communities. Whenever I read this Isaiah passage and begin to doubt that we can experience a spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, and knowledge that can reorder our world. When I quibble with the prophet’s impossible vision of the lion laying down with the lamb, the cow and the bear grazing together, and babies playing around snakes, I try to remember that courtyard outside my office window or the Queen Elizabeth Quarry Gardens my family visited in Vancouver, or the hundreds of videos on social media of animals of different species snuggling, sleeping, or taking care of each other or the peacemakers in Ukraine, Africa, and the Middle East giving their lives for the cause of peace.
During Advent, we bear witness that the powers that be are often unreliable creators and sustainers of the peace we crave and that God promised us. But we remember that our forebears found peace in a lowly manger where God with us is born. They observed peace in the wilderness, where valleys, mountains, crooked paths, and rough places all became pathways transformed to make way for God’s return. And then, they became peacemakers. I don’t remember the first time I heard it, but we sang it so often we possibly take it for granted. “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me. Let there be peace on Earth, the peace that was meant to be.” We can be channels of the very peace that seems elusive and impossible, signals to the world of God with us. Amen.