Expecting Peace

Rev. Seth Patterson
December 10, 2023, Second Sunday in Advent

Scripture: Mark 1:2–8

Today’s Advent theme is Peace. Talking about peace at any point, but especially right now, feels a bit like shouting into the darkness, like trying to fight the wind, like trying to get a toddler to put on their shoes. It feels fruitless. Like heartfelt yet inert words. Like balloons—the illusion of substance but with no weight. Words that sound lovely and we really wish they were true, but the forces of war and violence can be so loud and push so hard that peace gets subsumed in the crushing waves of justification, power-hunger and finger-pointing.

Yet it is absolutely necessary for us to talk about peace right now. Just like we needed to talk about hope last week and joy next week. Just because something feels elusive and our words feel inadequate doesn’t mean we stop trying. Words may feel weightless, they can potentially speak to action and movement and doing, while apathy will lead only to emptiness and destruction. It may feel like talk of peace is unserious conversation or lacks an understanding of the world around us, but maybe that is all the more reason to speak it into existence, to make it incarnate.

If we feel that peace is a precarious conversation now, it was exponentially more so in the time of John the Baptist and Jesus’s birth and ministry. Their context of brutal poverty and oppression in Roman occupied lands is beyond our modern American comprehension. Yet hope was made and peace was talked about. Pathways were made and forgiveness was offered. This is what we find in today’s scripture from the very beginning of the Book of Mark. This Gospel begins not with a birth story, but with preparation, with the work of another. Let us breathe together as we open our minds, hearts and ears to the words from our spiritual ancestors:

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the strap of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

What were you taught about peace?

Who were your teachers about peace?

Who has prepared the way for your work of peace?

My memory is that peace was talked about in my home growing up. We prayed for peace, we listened to folk songs about peace, there was artwork with peace as theme. I remember saying ‘world peace’ when asked what I would wish for—not because I necessarily knew what that meant but because it sounded big and grand and equal to the impossibility of a wish being granted. Hearing Prince of Peace at Christmas sounded idyllic but also knew that our system didn’t contain Princes as leaders. I remember hearing John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band sing Give Peace a Chance and that seemed alright to me. As a child I imagined peace was a thing just waiting to be called upon, an overlooked child in the corner waiting to be asked to get in front of the classroom and display their brilliance. As if peace were merely the absence of war, something that would emerge once we cleared away this pesky violence and conflict. I am grateful to my parents who prepared the way for me in my initial and childlike understanding of peace.

Who has prepared the way for your work of peace?

My understanding of peace matured as I did, later understanding and experiencing the work and effort that went into peacemaking. Peace was not something that would just show up if we wished for it, but rather required sustained effort and work. I learned the truth of Martin Luther King Jr’s wisdom that “Peace is not simply the absence of conflict, but the existence of justice for all people.” Peace was not merely about the tearing down of conflict, but in the building up of systems and structures of justice. I was fortunate enough to witness this firsthand in travels around the world, specifically in Israel and Palestine, Egypt, India and South Korea. I met and worked with peace activists in places of embedded conflict, learning and experiencing what it means to have peace work be an embodied experience. I watched members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams in the West Bank put their bodies into the middle of conflict to disarm an escalating moment. It was there that I learned the truth in Thomas Merton’s wisdom that “Peace demands the most heroic labor and the most difficult sacrifice. It demands greater heroism than war. It demands greater fidelity to the truth and a much more perfect purity of conscience.” I am grateful to the generations of advocates who prepared a way for a fuller understanding of what it takes to be a peacemaker.

Who has prepared the way for your work of peace?

The way of peacemaking has continued to be prepared in my life. I continue to learn and grow, to question and let go of previous certainties. Just this week, a very wise person in this community prepared the way yet again by saying: “Remember Peace does not mean the absence of conflict—it’s how we deal with conflict that is important. Christmas…is about the incarnation. The divine resides in all beings, and when I can honestly see that, it helps to keep me a bit humbled and to try to treat everyone…with human dignity, because they are as divine in the same way that I am. Because of the incarnation we are all Princesses of Peace. We just have to let our lights shine…” The path is never fully prepared, more can always be done. John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus who has prepared the way for us to continue to do the work of God, to continue to love the other as we love ourselves because we are all loved ceaselessly and abundantly. I am grateful for those who continue to prepare the way.

Who has prepared the way for your work of peace?

How are you preparing the way for others?

How do you show up in the work of peace to help make straight the path for those that follow you, for those even more powerful than we are? How can you show up for peace, not as the absence of conflict, but as the presence of justice? How can you prepare the way of peacemaking knowing that it takes more heroism than war? How can you prepare the way knowing that the others are filled with the same divine love as you are?

Who has prepared the way for your work of peace?

How are you preparing the way for others?

If we want to experience peace, then we need to do the work ourselves and prepare the way for others. War is the lazy response; conflict is easy compared to the work required for peace. How can we be the ones to make straight a path for others to make peace? How can we see in others the incarnation of God’s spirit, God dwelling in each of us, and prepare the way for them as others have prepared the way for us?

When we prepare a path for someone else, the gift and complication is that we cannot control the outcome. To grip tightly an expectation of what should be will only create more conflict. Instead, we are invited to let go and breathe and prepare the best we can. We can do so with hope, joy and love, taking the abundant love of God that each of us receives and spreading it out to others. But we cannot do it alone nor control the outcome of our preparation and that by itself, if accepted, can instigate peace in our hearts that can radiate out to the world.

As we continue this season of expectation, this time of anticipation for a baby to be born and carry all of the possibilities of hope, peace, joy and love, we also get to prepare the way. Just as others, known and unknown, have prepared the way for us, we must do the same. Go and be the light and help make the light grow bigger. May it be so.

9 a.m. service

11 a.m. service