Scripture Readings: Malachi 3:1–4 | Luke 1:68–79 | Philippians 1:3–11 | Luke 3:1–6
“In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79).
The season of Advent is meant to stir up our anticipation… our desire for the coming of Christ… of God’s good Kingdom, and all it entails. This week we are invited to reflect on the theme of peace… a precious gift that seems to be in short supply these days.
Our communities and society as a whole are wracked by deep divisions, with widespread mistrust and hatred making true public co-operation seem like a dream. This has been a growing problem for years, but the pressures brought on by the pandemic have certainly thrown more fuel on the fire eroding our common good-will. Now all we hear is “it’s us vs. them”, as we circle the wagons, and point fingers… seeking security by looking out for “me and mine.”
But as we know, our homes are not necessarily places of solace either, with tensions tearing hard at the bonds of family too. Again, the pandemic has intensified this trend, and cases of domestic violence and abuse, already far too high, are rising sharply.
We know as well that so much of these interpersonal conflicts come from our own inner battles and lack of peace... reflected in the veritable tidal wave of mental health challenges. Cases of high anxiety, depression, and suicide are everywhere, but they are especially showing up among our youth.
These are all serious reasons for concern… reasons to take seriously our need to pray and work for peace in every area, in every facet of our lives.
But as we turn to our Scripture readings today, we are given a vision of a different, deeper kind of peace than we often imagine. A kind of peace that’s going to turn everything upside down.
Our Gospel reading today from Luke starts off with a list of names, introducing us to the ‘who’s who’ of political power. First off is the Roman Emperor, Tiberius, successor to Augustus Caesar, then comes Pontius Pilate, the local Roman governor. Next Luke lists for us the puppet rulers, the sons of Herod the ‘Great’ who were put in charge of various parts of his old ‘kingdom’ after his death. And finally, we’re given the names of two of Judah’s High Priests.
At one level, by giving us these names, Luke is helping us locate his Good News within the scope of history. The story he’s telling us did not happen ‘once upon a time’, but in our own world, with all of its tensions, challenges, and conflicts. But Luke is also introducing us to a particular group of people: to those who would have been seen as responsible for providing and maintaining peace. One of the primary concerns of those with any authority in the Roman Empire was upholding the Pax Romana… the so called ‘peace’ of Rome: the relative stability of their wider society… often enforced ruthlessly with the cross and the sword.
It’s worth noting that Luke lumps together the High Priests, Annas and Caiaphas, with the political Roman rulers. As a High Priest, one was supposed to be the recognized spiritual leader of Judah… the designated liaison between them and the Living God, ensuring that God’s people stood in right relationship with Him… not only in how they worshipped, but in how they lived each day. Long ago, the High Priests would have all descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses… but by this time, the High Priesthood had become highly politicized. The Roman authorities now claimed the right to choose the High Priest, selecting those that knew how to serve the interests of the Empire. Their sacred role for guiding God’s people had become a tool to appease the Emperor, which also put them in the position to find prosperity for themselves as well. Though they had wealth and political influence, Annas and Caiaphas and their crew were seen by many as corrupt… unfit to lead God’s people and guide them into life.
In complete contrast to all those powerful people, Luke then points us to John the Baptist: the wild man from the desert calling God’s people to turn around. Through John and his message, Luke is setting the stage for us to see the coming conflict between the ways of our world’s Empires, and the Kingdom of God… which in many ways will be what the rest of his Gospel, his ‘Good News’ story will be about… calling us to place our trust in God’s own Chosen King.
Luke tells us John “went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” (Luke 1:3), which Luke then connects to the ancient prophetic word about preparing the way for God’s coming rescue.
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (Luke 1:4-6).
Leveling mountains, hills, and valleys. Making straight crooked ways, and smoothing out the rough paths… all so that all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
That doesn’t sound easy. That sounds like disruption. Upheaval. Not to mention, hard work.
And how does this fit with how we tend to imagine peace in our own lives?
It can be so easy to equate ‘working for peace’ with ‘keeping quiet’… with ‘not rocking the boat’, and ‘not making a fuss.’ In some ways this makes straightforward sense: it seems unchristian to be contentious, so we try to avoid any conflict. Of course there’s a vital place for patience, gentleness, and longsuffering love in the Christian life, but there’s also a very real danger of distorting peace… of simply seeking to keep things running smoothly, of maintaining the status quo, even when that means allowing crooked ways to go unchecked, covering up abuse… and even enabling injustice. If the price of peace means doing nothing to stop the destruction at work around, and even inside of us, we need to stop and reflect on what kind of peace God really wants for us.
So what might God’s peace look like?
We can catch a good glimpse by looking closer at the Hebrew word for peace: shalom, which means far more than the ‘easy, unsteady peace’ that we too often settle for. According to John Goldingay, and Old Testament scholar, “The word shalom can suggest peace after there has been conflict, but it often points to a richer notion, of fullness of life.” And another scholar goes even further explaining what this peaceful fullness entails: “It describes the ideal human state, both individual and communal, the ultimate gift from God.”
And another scholar writes: “The concept of shalom… implies much more than mere absence of conflict. At root shalom means wholeness or well-being… shalom implies absence of conflict due to an absence of those things that cause conflict. The peace that God is after does not come from covering up corruption, or refusing to look at and deal with the difficult things in our relationships, and in our lives. God’s peace calls us to seek wholeness, completeness, fullness of life… not just for me and mine, but for all. For everyone.
The Pax Romana, the peace of Rome was about what’s best for Rome. It worked pretty well for their economy, and for all those at the top, maintaining a fairly reliable status quo, with many benefits. But in doing so it perpetuated a society built on slave-labour, and the violent suppression of conquered people, and any who ‘stepped out of line’. It was driven by greed, and fear, and only upheld by bloodshed. But God’s shalom aims to set things right. God’s peace is pure peace.
Our Old Testament reading today from the prophet Malachi gives us this image of God’s coming messenger as one who will purify His people:
“For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.” (Malachi 3:2-4).
Refining silver requires first melting it down, then removing all of the dross, the non-silver bits, so that all that’s left behind is pure. Malachi’s vision is one of God coming to cleanse and purify His people. Removing everything from them that gets in the way of true life. Fast forward to John the Baptist, who called all God’s people to wash in the waters of baptism… to repent, to turn from their crooked ways and find God’s compassion and forgiveness. To prepare for the coming of God’s Chosen King, the Messiah, who would not simply cleanse them with water, but with the refining, sanctifying fire of God’s Holy Spirit… purifying them inside and out so they can share God’s shalom.
God’s shalom, His pure peace is not about avoiding conflict, but being remade… the hard work of having our hills and mountains brought low, our valleys filled in, our crooked ways straightened.
What are some of the ways this cleansing work needs to happen in us? Where have we made peace to easily with the crooked ways of our world? Maybe we too have been guided by greed, or driven instead by fear? Maybe we just go along with it all because we simply can’t see any other way?
Thankfully, Luke’s whole Gospel shows us another way… the way of the Good News of Jesus Christ, God’s Chosen King, the Eternal Prince of Peace. Luke wants us to see that in Jesus, the Living God
“has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” (Luke 1:68-71).
John was to prepare God’s people for the pure peace that Jesus would bring: God’s great rescue, not through hiding our crookedness, but through forgiving us. Not imposing peace by shedding the blood of others with the sword, but creating shalom, cleansing us from all that stands between us and the LORD by taking our sins upon Himself on the cross, shedding His own blood to bring us life.
At the cross, Jesus did for us what we could not do: He gives us His own pure peace, so that His saving work can remake us. And continue remaking us more and more as we await His return. St. Paul makes this point in his letter to the Christians in Philippi, “that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” And he goes on to say: “For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 3:6, 9-11).
The pure peace God longs to share with us is His gift of wholeness, of holiness, of fullness of life through Jesus our Lord. It is the result of His Spirit at work in us, remaking us to share in His Kingdom… to rid us of all that keeps us from truly loving and striving for peace within ourselves, with those closest to us, and even with our enemies, just as our Saviour Jesus Christ did for us to set us free.
At this time, when so many are finding themselves sitting alone in darkness, may the work of pure peace Christ has begun in us continue to grow more and more, not just for our sakes, but so that through us, God’s compassion and salvation might be known by all, and in all that we do may our Risen Saviour guide us into the way of His peace.
I’ll end now with the well known prayer attributed to St. Francis:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is discord, union;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that we may not so much seek to be
consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
 John Goldingay, Numbers and Deuteronomy for Everyone, Old Testament for Everyone (Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press; Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2010), 204.
 Mark Allan Powell, ed., “Shalom,” The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Revised and Updated) (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 942.
 Joanna Dewey, “Peace,” ed. Mark Allan Powell, The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Revised and Updated) (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 763.