The Language of Advent: Peace
December 8, 2019
There are words we use with greater frequency during Advent: hope, peace, joy and love. Churches throw these words around with more frequency; marketing agencies adopt these words to sell the newest toy or gizmo. All the while, the more we hear these words, the more they kind of start to lose their meaning. The liturgical theme for the second week of Advent is peace. A quick browse of the internet right now elicits article after article offering advice on the best times and ways to shop in order to maintain some “peace and quiet” in the holiday chaos. There are articles with financial advice on how to spend so that you can have a “peace of mind” about your bank account while still getting gifts for your family.
There’s a store in Virginia that hosts an annual “Shop in Peace” event where you can come and buy the newest Christmas gadget or decoration. Biblical phrases such as “Joy to the World” or “Peace on Earth” are made into kitsch decorations or light displays. For many people this time of year “peace” has become a cheap marketing tool and for most of us “peace” describes what we’re all looking for to insulate ourselves from the busyness and chaos that often arrives with the holiday season. But as Christians, we realize that when Jesus says, “My peace I give to you,” surely this isn’t the type of peace that he had in mind. Surely Jesus didn’t intend for peace to only belong to ty-dye wearing hippies and kitsch marketing agencies. It seems we have some work to do if we want to rediscover the richness of a biblical vision of peace.
Today is our second week of Advent, and last week we looked at hope. We saw how a biblical vision of hope as waiting or eager expectation is a more holistic vision of hope than what we often settle for in our American optimism and fragile positivity. This week we will dive into Scripture as we search for a biblical vision of peace that surely carries with it greater significance and meaning than what we are marketed during the Christmas season.
When we think of peace we often think of the absence of conflict, the absence of noise or trouble. And in Scripture, peace can refer to the absence of conflict, but it also points to the presence of something better in its place.
So I want you all to put on your biblical scholar hat with me and we’re going to do a word study of “peace” as it appears throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for peace is shalom. The most basic meaning of shalom is complete or whole. The word can refer to a stone that has a perfect whole shape with no cracks. A stone wall could be in a state of shalom if it isn’t missing any bricks.
“Shalom refers to something that’s complex with lots of pieces that’s in a state of completeness, wholeness” (Bible Project). It’s like when Job says his tents are in shalom because he is missing no flocks or animals. This is why shalom can refer to a person’s well-being. When David visits his brothers on the battlefield, he asked about their shalom. (Bible Project).
The core idea throughout Scripture is that life is complex, full of moving parts and relationships and situations, and when any of these is out of alignment or missing, your shalom breaks down. Life is no longer whole; it needs to be restored” (Bible Project). And so when used as a verb, to bring shalom literally means to make whole, complete, to restore.
King Solomon brings shalom to the unfinished Temple when he completes it. In the book of Proverbs, to heal and reconcile a broken relationship is to bring shalom. And when rival kingdoms make shalom in the Bible, it doesn’t just mean they stop fighting; it also means they start working together for each other’s benefit. The Torah law that the Israelites were given by Moses was aimed at offering instructions on how to shalom with your neighbor or with God when things went wrong.
God’s desire was for his people to live in shalom, a state of completeness or wholeness, with each other and with God. But for those who have read the Old Testament, you know that this rarely happens. So the prophet Isaiah looked forward to a future king, who he called the “Prince of Peace”, the prince of shalom. And Isaiah prophesied that his reign would bring shalom with no end – “a time when God would make a covenant of shalom with his people and make right all wrongs and heal all that’s been broken” (Bible Project).
Which brings us to the New Testament—the arrival of Jesus—which is proclaimed to be the arrival of shalom. Or in Greek, because the New Testament was written in Greek, the word for peace is Eirene. When Jesus is born and the angels appear to the shepherds in the field they proclaim: “Glory to God in the highest, and Eirene to all men and women on earth who please him.” Jesus came to bring shalom to us; he came to restore our broken world to wholeness, to piece back together our fragmented sense of self, our relationships and our situations that need healing. Or in Star Wars lingo, Jesus was the one who came to bring balance to the Force.
As we saw before, the idea of shalom or Eirene – peace – in Scripture is that life is complex, full of moving parts and relationships and situations, and inevitably these break down and are no longer whole. They need to be put back into a state of shalom…which brings us to our passage today.
Mary knows that she is about to give birth to God’s Son, the one whom Isaiah and others prophesied about as being the prince of shalom – the one who would bring shalom to Israel and all the nations. As she visits her cousin, Elizabeth, she is overjoyed and humbled by this reality. So she breaks into song. I’ll read her song again for us: …
Now, some of you might be wondering: that’s great – Mary sang a song, but what does that have to do with what we’ve been talking about? The word “peace” does not occur once in Mary’s song. That’s a good eye, engaged listener. But that’s exactly why we did the word study – to understand that peace, or shalom, is less of a standalone word as much as it is an all-encompassing idea of the wholeness and completeness that comes from God’s reign on the earth. The word “peace” does not occur once in our passage, but that’s because in her song, Mary doesn’t just tell us about peace, Mary shows us what peace will look like.
Mary’s song of praise, famously known as the Magnificat, describes a new world shaped after God’s intentions. A world where the humble are blessed and the proud are scattered; a world where the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty – a world of shalom. As biblical commentator, Andrew Whaley notes: “To us, this looks like a world turned upside down, but Mary has the eyes of faith to see that this great reversal is actually the power of God to turn the world right side up.” The scene that Mary describes is the reversal of human fortunes. It’s an image of what Jesus meant when he said, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”
The picture of shalom that Mary paints is not just a picture where conflict is absent, but it’s a picture where wholeness, restoration and healing are present – we might even say this is a world with equity.
I want to pause for a moment to ask us a question, and this is an important question that we should always be asking ourselves while reading Scripture: “Who do I see myself as in this story.” Do we read ourselves as the hero or the villain, the proud or the humble, the rich or the hungry? Chances are, because we’re human, we tend to read ourselves into the story as the good guys, the ones who are righteous, heroic, humble or godly. But we need to be careful about doing this, because most of the time that means we are missing the point of the story; when we are the hero, the good guy, the righteous/humble one, then the story is no longer speaking directly to us – it no longer has the power to correct something inside of us.
So who do we read ourselves as in Mary’s song? Are we the humble and the hungry, in need of God’s healing and restoration; or are we the rich and the proud, the ones who are the cause of breaking others’ shalom? If we read this passage honestly, I think we will see bits of both in us. Of course it’s not hard to recognize the parts of our lives, the relationships and situations that feel out of our control and that we need a Savior to bring shalom to. But all of us tend to have a blind spot for the relationships and the situations where we are the cause of someone else needing a savior. We are quick to notice how other people have broken our shalom, and we are often blind to the ways that we break others’ shalom.
And so Mary’s song of praise, her vision of the shalom that Jesus will bring, comes as good news to us, but it also makes us a little uncomfortable. We praise God for the broken pieces that Jesus came to put back together and for the way he is subverting the world and turning it on its head; we rejoice because we see how desperately our world is in need of shalom, how desperately it needs to be made whole and complete. But at the same time, we know we’re part of the problem. We know that we have broken shalom; we have hurt others, we’ve hurt ourselves.
We have this tendency to look down on others who are different from us – who look different, who dress different, who live or believe differently. Our knee-jerk reaction is to always assume it’s the others’ fault that something is broken. Republicans blame democrats; democrats blame republicans. We all blame China and Russia. Christians like to blame our secular culture; our secular culture blames Christians. Someone else is always the reason that shalom is broken. But in those moments of honest self-reflection—if we slow down enough to have those—we recognize that we are not off the hook; we are part of the problem.
But God decided to still include us, the problems, in his grand plan for the redemption of shalom. Jesus came to offer his shalom to us. In the gospel of John Jesus says to his followers, “my peace I give to you all.” “The Apostles claimed that Jesus made peace between messed up humans and God when he died and rose from the dead. The idea is that he restored to wholeness the broken relationship between humans and their Creator. This is why the Apostle Paul can say Jesus himself is our Eirene. He was the whole, complete human that I am made to be but have failed to be, and now he gives me his life as a gift” (Bible Project). And this means that as Jesus’s followers, we are now called to create shalom and carry Jesus’ shalom with us into the world.
Shalom is something we carry with us in our very bodies out into the world. Our words, our actions, our service have the ability to restore what is broken and to bring wholeness and completion where it is missing. But shalom starts with ourselves. It starts with recognizing that we are part of the problem and we are in need of redemption and healing.
The author C. Joybell C. has a beautiful quote that perfectly encapsulates this idea: ““In order to change the world, you must first change yourself. In order to have the right to see what is wrong with the world, you must first earn that right through seeing what is wrong with yourself.”
Luckily we do not have to change the world or ourselves on our own. It is Jesus’ shalom that has the ability to transform us from the inside out, and it is Jesus’ shalom – not our own – that we carry with us into our broken world. The shalom that Mary’s song envisions is a peace that Mary knows can only come from God. She along with all of Israel had waited for God’s shalom for hundreds of years.
And even after Mary gave birth to Jesus—the Prince of Peace—her song did not entirely come true. We know from our own experience that God’s turning the world right side up has still not happened. The rich and the proud still rule and the humble and the hungry are still trampled under their feet. The shalom that Jesus was supposed to bring does not seem to be so evident most of the time. But as Eugene Peterson writes: “When it comes to doing something about what is wrong with the world, Jesus is best known for his fondness for the tiny, the invisible, the quiet, the slow.” Jesus spends most of his time talking about yeast, salt, manure, mustard seeds – small and insignificant things that become something quite significant with enough time.
Mary did not live to see the full consummation of the shalom Jesus came to give us, and we likely will not either. But Mary surely got glimpses of it, and we too, if we have the eyes for it, catch glimpses of shalom all around us – broken people, relationships and situations being made whole. It is but a foretaste of what is to come and of what we are called to be a part of.
I’ll close with a story:
There once lived a king who announced he would offer a prize to the artist who painted the best picture depicting peace. Many great painters sent the king several of their best art pieces. One of the pictures among the various masterpieces was of a calm lake perfectly mirroring peacefully towering snow-capped mountains. Overhead was a clear blue sky with fluffy clouds. The picture was perfect. Most of the people who viewed the pictures of peace from various artists thought that this was the best among them all.
But when the king announced the winner, everyone was shocked. The picture that won the prize had mountains too, but they were rugged and bare. The sky looked very angry and there was lightning. This did not look peaceful at all. It looked like the artist had mistakenly submitted a painting with the depiction of a storm rather than peace. But if you looked closely at the painting, you could see a tiny bush growing in the cracks in the rock. In the bush a mother bird had built her nest. In the midst of the rush of angry weather, the bird sat on her nest in peace.
Peace does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise or trouble. Peace is the presence of God in the midst of the brokenness and the chaos of our lives. Peace comes from trusting that God is in the midst of it all, slowly and often quietly bringing wholeness to things that are broken. Jesus came to give us his shalom. Jesus has made us partners in his ministry of restoration, and that begins with allowing Jesus to redeem the parts of our hearts that are broken and in need of healing. Peace is not the absence of conflict, noise or trouble; peace is the presence of Jesus’ healing touch. Amen.