Peace Like a Riveter

A sermon for the congregation of Kingsway Baptist Church on the second Sunday of Advent, based on Isaiah 9:2-7, Isaiah 11:1-9, and Matthew 3:1-11.

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Advent is a season of reflection, and when we take the time and invest the energy to truly reflect we discover things – particularly things about ourselves. Something I find interesting about myself is that certain pursuits fascinate me immensely but hold little attraction for me. Do you ever feel that way about anything? For me, they tend to be skilled trade crafts such as metal working and glass blowing.  I can watch an artisan blow glass for hours. The sight, the skill, even the science of it just amazes me. Yet, I’ve never had any real desire to try my mouth at it.

The same holds true for metal working. At historical sites and Scottish festivals and the like, I always make a point to search out the blacksmith(s). Again, I could watch them work for hours – I find the process of heating and shaping the metal so very engrossing. Yet, I’ve never thought, “Hey – hand me a hammer. Let me take a crack at that.”

All this is in contrast to many other pursuits I enjoy and have tried my hand at. The first time I saw Andre Agassi play tennis, I did think, “Hey – somebody hand me a racquet; I want to try that.”

What gives?

It might be the heat and the skill and the sweat. But tennis involves all of those things, too. (Few places are hotter than an outdoor hardcourt on a sunny August afternoon). So that can’t be it – not really – even though I’ve used that as justification. No – it must be some sort of internal, subconscious sense of inadequacy or self-judgment that prompts me to conclude (without ever actually trying) that I can’t do it or wouldn’t be good at it – or wouldn’t become good at it fast enough to warrant the effort. It would definitely take effort. No one blows a gorgeous glass water pitcher with an elegantly contoured handle on their first try. But it can be done. Through trial and error, study and practice, and perhaps above all persistence, it most definitely can be done. And not only done but handed on: passed down, generation to generation to generation.

This is why we need seasons of reflection like Advent: to discover and ponder and gain new understanding about our interests, motivations, hesitations, and potential. We’re not just preparing to welcome Christ, to receive the gift of Christ; we’re also preparing for the new journey, the new life, to which Jesus calls us: a life of hope, peace, joy, and love – a way of life dedicated to hope, peace, joy, and love. If we don’t know ourselves we won’t know how to pack and prepare. We need to know ourselves as much as we need to know where we’re going and what we’ll be doing on the way.

Preparation is particularly key for the peace leg of the journey.

Last week we explored hope by lantern light. We can do that with hope because hope is something that, by its very nature, isn’t fully tangible. It’s not something we can ever quite fully grasp even when we hold onto it as tight as we can. Hope always remains, at least somewhat, on the horizon – and that’s part of its power in drawing us forward toward the dawn.

That’s not the case with peace – any peace that really is peace; peace that has substance beyond the cliche of a holiday greeting. Real peace has to be worked at; it has to be built. In the words of Jesus, it has to be made. “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9). In the words of Walker Knight, the founder of Baptists Today, peace has to “be waged”. We have to study peace by the the light of the architect’s lamp, by the light of the artisan’s forge, even the light of the furnace that disposes of the unwanted debris.

*This* is the light that “the people who have walked in darkness” have seen: a light that breaks the yoke of oppression; a light that burns all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood. A light embodied in the person of a child born unto us – whose name is Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. But the Prince of Peace is more than a name. Accompanying this prince is a reign, a reign defined by equity and justice.

This is a light that changes things, that changes people. It’s a light that calls us forward toward hope and also to repentance, which is why we need the confrontational witness of John the Baptist, the herald of the coming of this Prince of Peace, alongside the jubilant vision of the Prophet Isaiah.

Part of seeing this light – really seeing this light – is recognising the darkness for what it truly is, both in us and around us. That’s where repentance starts: a new width and breadth of seeing that leads to observation that leads to discovery that leads to conviction to change our ways. That’s how peace comes about – in us and through us: changing our ways, our habits, our presumptions, our priorities. That’s how peace is waged.

A vision of repentant change is what Isaiah’s “peaceable kingdom” illustrates for us, and that’s why we read it together as we lit the candle of peace this morning. This isn’t a sketch of some children’s tableau to be acted out once a year. It’s a vision of a new reality – a new possibility – if we see God’s light and respond to that light with repentance. If we are willing to study and train and practice and give ourselves over to the work of peace, the ways of peace – ways that manifest themselves not so much like a river that washes over us but like a ship that takes shape in the dry dock: piece by piece, section by section, as we build it, as we heat and hammer each rivet into place. The work of peace, the choice of peace, the repentance necessary for peace is what Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom foresees and imagines. A lion willing to change his diet. A lion willing not to eat the ox anymore – not even to view the ox as food. A lion, in fact, willing to adopt some of the habits of his former prey, such as eating straw. That’s not just a change of heart, it’s an act of solidarity. A viper that no longer bites children, even when the child puts her hand over the viper’s den – messing around where she shouldn’t be.

This is what the establishment of justice, of equity looks like. Yes, it includes the cessation of violence – but it’s so much more than that. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so eloquently phrased it: peace is more than the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice; the presence of love, of mutual respect and concern.

That is how peace takes shape, takes form – and why it is so rare. We have to work at it.

Peace is one of those things that we find so very fascinating and alluring, which is why we wish it to our loved ones every Christmas. But at the end of the day, if we want to receive it, it’s something we have to find more than fascinating; it’s something we have to be willing to try our hand at it. We have to be willing to try our hand at tools and techniques that we may not feel ready for; things that might make us uncomfortable or test our understandings of self and society. But let’s not miss whom John the Baptist challenges most directly and specifically when he comes preaching his message of repentance along the banks of the Jordan. The Pharisees – the committed, religious folk of John’s day and time – that’s who John singles out.

Do not presume to say to yourselves we have Abraham for our ancestor…,” John warns them. We should not presume to say to ourselves that John is talking about someone else – someone other than us. We need to repent as much as anyone.  Because despite our presence here week after week; despite our devotion and our worship and all our praying and professing, peace remains elusive in this community, in this city, in this nation, in this world.

No – I’ve never had the inclination to pick up the hammer and tongs and give blacksmithing a try. But if I’m honest… I bet I could do it. I bet I could learn to do it. If I let go of all my anticipated discomfort and fear of failure. If I’d simply be willing to pick up the tools and work up a sweat and give it a go… I bet I could do it. I might even enjoy it.

How about you? If we’d all be willing to try, to give it our best shot, I bet we could build something beautiful in and by the heavenly light of the forge.

Blessed are the peacemakers. Amen.

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