Peace: Humanity’s Impossibility. [Advent 1 ~ Hope]
Malachi 3: 1 – 4; Philippians 1: 3 – 11; Luke 1: 67 – 78
When we consider the amazing things humankind has achieved – successful heart and brain surgery; landing people on the moon; communicating instantly with anyone anywhere; a closer step to driverless cars; it is a wonder that we cannot make peace. Peace-making is the one thing humankind seems totally unable to achieve. Or … is it that we are unwilling to achieve it? Is it because the price of peace requires a healthy dose of humility? I don’t know why, but we can’t do it!
On the second Sunday in Advent we light the peace candle. This is a world wide liturgical practice. Christmas and peace are synonymous in a way. Christmas carries a spirit of goodwill. It is a ‘good feel’ time. To Christians it is not surprising because the Christ-child, Jesus of Nazareth, is the Prince of Peace [Is 9:6]. Remember that amazing Christmas of 1914 in the trenches when soldiers from both sides spontaneously ceased fire, came out of the trenches and exchanged greetings. Not surprisingly commanding generals forbade such action in the future.
The theological hymn attributed to Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth and the father of John the Baptist, beautifully proclaims a great truth about the very secret of peacemaking. But let me pause here to say that I am not talking about the peace that comes from either the absence of conflict, or escapism that blocks out the conflict. I am talking about the peace where people having been reconciled to each other; having learnt to live with differences and to build just communities. True peace means justice has taken place for all and people are reconciled.
Zechariah speaks for the first time at the naming service for his son, John. Zechariah blesses God for his son’s birth and the promised birth of Mary’s child. He sees in these children God’s blessing on the nation. He speaks of ‘a mighty saviour’ about whom the prophets spoke who will rescue the people from their enemies. He recalls God’s mercy to his people of old and God’s promise to care for them. He sees in the birth of these two boys the action of God rescuing and forgiving the people. He sees that John the Baptist and Jesus, will ‘guide our feet into the way of peace’. [Lk 1: 68-79]
Zechariah was a man of deep faith and reflection. He had no access to world wide instant digital information. He only had his ordinary day-to-day experiences of home, temple and market place to inform him. He was close to his people. Jeremiah’s poem of praise expresses his knowledge and reflection on the history of his people: their longing for freedom from their enemies and the forgiveness of God. They longed to return to the time when they would rule themselves. They longed for God to act again. They longed for peace.
Zechariah says of his son John [Lk 1: 76-78];
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. … the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who
sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
This passage of Scripture informs us that peace comes from God, of God’s forgiveness and that Christ will lead us into the pathway of peace. The prophet Isaiah also speaks of ‘the way of peace’ [59:8]. Peace is what we make with God’s help. It’s not given; it’s something we work for with God. Humankind needs to walk down a certain pathway to establish peace.
Nelson Mandela said, “If you want to make peace with your enemy,
you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”
Pope Paul VI said more. “If we wish to have true peace, we must give it a soul.
The soul of peace is love. It is love that gives life to peace, more than victory or defeat, more than self-interest or fear or weariness or need. The soul of peace is love,
which for us believers comes from the love of God and expresses itself in love for humankind.”
These texts reveal three important actions that establish peace.
Firstly, peace is a pathway we take. Peace is a result of our willingness to work at it. The only way to work at peace successfully is to work with God and others. Many thinkers acknowledge that peace is the very thing that eludes humankind. Why? Well our default character of self-interest and independence always creates flaws in our human efforts. Human nature seems to default to egotism and autonomy. Altruism and community struggle to rise against the currents of self-interest and pride.
This is where we come to the second important action – Reconciliation. We need to be reconciled at every level: the personal, inter-personal and the spiritual. We need to be reconciled to who we are, others about us and to God. Loving God and our neighbours only comes about when we are reconciled to God, self and others. Here is where forgiveness received and given is so important. Forgiveness received and given results in humble people. The humble will inherit the earth Jesus said [Mt 5: 5].
The third essential action is holiness. That is not a concept we often talk about. Holiness is right living and right behaviour that builds others up and honours God. The audit we need to do is ask whether our actions, words and thoughts honour God and others? All three of our texts pick up this same point of right living and right behaviour when they speak about justice and compassion. These texts point to our responsibility to the poor and disenfranchised such as the widow, orphan, the homeless and refugee. [See Luke 1: 75 & 77; Malachi 3: 5; Phil 3: 10,11] They point to honest practices and the need for us to be refined – purified – made righteous.
The book of Malachi might help us. It provides a lovely image of how God is refining us.
The prophet Malachi speaks of God’s messenger who will come and prepare the people for the coming of the Lord to his temple. Then we are told the Lord will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver and purify the people [Mal 3:3]. We can’t offer God the service we need unless we have been prepared for that service. The image of fire is used as the metaphor for this preparation and purification. Fire is a frightening image but when we understand the image we will see how gracious it is.
There is a story of a group of women who had been studying Malachi. They were puzzled when they read –
“He (God’s anointed) will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.” They wondered what it said about the character and nature of God who holds us over a fire to refine us. It is a most threatening picture. One of the women offered to find out about the process of refining silver and get back to the group at their next Bible study. That week the woman called up a silversmith and made an appointment to watch him at work. She didn’t mention anything about the reason for her interest beyond her curiosity about the process of refining silver. As she watched the silversmith, he held a piece of silver over the fire and let it heat up. He explained that, in refining silver, one needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire where the flames were hottest so as to burn away all the impurities.
The woman thought about God holding us in such a hot spot – then she thought again about the verse, that He sits as a refiner and purifier of silver. She asked the silversmith if it was true that he had to sit there in front of the fire the whole time the silver was being refined. The man answered that yes, he not only had to sit there holding the silver, but he had to keep his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire. If the silver was left even for a moment too long in the flames, it would be destroyed.
The woman was silent for a moment. Then she asked the silversmith, “How do you know when the silver is fully refined?” He smiled at her and answered, “Oh, that’s the easy part — when I see my image reflected in it.”
When God is refining us, God does not take his eyes off us until the image of God is reflected. Then we are ready for service. So when we are feeling the heat of life’s trials it may well be the moment when God’s image is most likely to be seen in us.
Peace comes when love comes out of our soul, which has been lovingly refined and restored by our Maker.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 09/12/2018