A case could be made that we are incredibly naive to be lighting the Candle of Peace today and, even more, declaring that Peace is on the way. Long-range ballistic missiles have flown over Hiroshima from North Korea in recent days, and I can only imagine what the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki must feel, especially those who remember those other nuclear bombs. Sadako stretches up her arms in the middle of the peace park where our four small origami cranes fly, or flew perhaps for a little while. And Jerusalem! The city holy to at least 3 faiths, once again the scene of tear gas and stones thrown and rubber bullets fired.

Rather than Isaiah’s “Comfort, o comfort my people,…tell her that her warfare is ended,” perhaps Jeremiah’s warning would be more appropriate– “To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear? See, their ears are closed, they cannot listen….For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”

Is there peace?

Isaiah–actually the one we call Second Isaiah–wrote to a people who had been in exile in Babylon for at least a generation. Looking back, the people understood their exile as God’s punishment for their unfaithfulness, for their forgetting God’s ways, for selling their souls to the strongest army and the wealthiest culture. Many had forgotten Jerusalem and the hills of Judah and instead had become accustomed to the glitter and gods of Babylon. What was the point of even dreaming of going home?

And “How you gonna get ‘em back on the farm after they’ve seen Parie?” as the old song goes. Babylon was a wilderness of materialism and false gods, and it was into that wilderness that the prophet cried out–”Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God!…Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill made low, and the rough places a plain. The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together!”

There is another Reality–with a capital R–possible, the prophets proclaimed. Those sidewalk gods and shrines on every corner are nothing compared to the God who is coming in might, whose faithfulness endures, not like the people’s, which fades like the grass and wild-flowers. “Lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings. Life it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God! See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him…” Ah, a god who will counteract the Babylonian armies with force, who will march in and save us!

But wait, there’s more to this picture–”He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” What? Might and gentleness?

Craig Barnes, current president of Princeton Theological Seminary, and former president of Pittsburgh Seminary, where our pastoral candidate Mark Blank recently graduated from, wrote about a memorable wedding service he performed early in his ministry.

He was a burly, muscular lineman for his college football team. He spent years going nose to nose with opponents on the field, but now he was standing at the altar with his petite bride, reciting marital vows. He said most of the traditional things like ‘in sickness and health,’ but then he added a clause no one saw coming: “and I will always be gentle with you.” At that point, [Craig says] I started to tear up. I’ve officiated at hundreds of weddings over my 36 years of pastoral ministry, but I have only heard that phrase once in the exchange of vows. Blessedly it came early in my service to the church. Since then it has inspired my understanding of how Christians should face each other: in gentleness. [The Christian Century, Dec. 6, 2017, p. 35]

“I will always be gentle with you.” Gentleness is one of the fruits of the Spirit described

by the apostle Paul, and while we tend to think of gentleness, Barnes says, “as a weak or fragile

thing,…as a virtue it arises from strength, from strong people who choose to honor the sacredness of their relationships. The gentle don’t find their strength in the ways society has privileged them, nor in the success of their pursuits on the many field of competition. Among Christians the gentle find their strength in their identity as people created in the image of God, people whom Jesus Christ was dying to love.” {Ibid}

In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord. In the wilderness of crass interchanges, of assuming the worst about each other, of cynicism and disgust at things and people that we hear of every day in the news, in the bombardment of messages to buy, buy, buy to get ready for Christmas, can we even hear that voice that cries, “Prepare the way of the Lord! In the wilderness, make straight a highway for our God! The One who is coming with might and strength, who will gather up the lambs and gently lead the mother sheep.”

Those pathways for our God lead through our dealings with one another here at Second Congregational Church. Do we not know each other well enough to give one another the benefit of the doubt? Must we assume that others are out to pull something over on us–is that really where our conversations start, or don’t even begin? Might we not be gentle with one another, and seek first to understand where the other is coming from, rather than jumping to conclusions?

The pathways for our God run through our families, in our everyday encounters with one another–at the breakfast table, if there is such a thing, in the car on the way to work or school or practice, at night when we’re tired and maybe overwhelmed by the events of the day. “I will always be gentle with you.” “Prepare a way for the One who comes with strength and gentleness.”

And that highway for our God must pass through Washington DC, through Pyongyang, through Baghdad and Kabul, through Jerusalem and Ramallah, through Charlottesville and Ferguson, through L.A. and Puerto Rico, through boardrooms and dressing rooms and capitol offices. The prophets who call out to lift up the valleys and level the high places, to make the path straight and prepare for the One who comes in strength and gentleness–those prophets “re-describe the world,” as Walter Brueggemann says (cited by Matthews in sermonseeds, 12/10/17). “The work of Advent,” he says, “is based on the conviction that we are not locked in to the despair of our culture. Newness is ‘at hand’ of an elemental kind. It issues in turned hearts, restored relationships, and revivified social structures and policies.” [Journal for Preachers, Advent 2017, p. 2]

We must not cry “Peace, peace” when there is no peace, but we must also be rooted in the peace that is deeper than the peace that the world offers up. “Peace I leave with you,” Jesus told his disciples. “My peace I give you; not as the world gives.” The One who is coming, and who even now is in our midst, offers us a vision of peace that is not for some far off, heavenly time and place, but for right here, right now. The path of peace has already been laid down for us, beneath the sidewalks and highways and paths we walk each day. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,” Mark begins his gospel right away. Right now, practice peace, like we are to practice active hope. Prepare the way. Repent– look at what you’re doing, where you’re headed, and get back on track. Be gentle with one another. Pray for God’s deep peace to permeate our discussions and decisions about our next pastor. Pray for the peace of Bennington and our country. Make room for the Holy One in your relationships with one another, in the way you structure your social policies, in the way you live with your fellow creatures on this planet.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ…God is coming–and now is–in strength and gentleness, make a path ready in your heart, in your mind, in your life. Good news! Peace!

Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark

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