Peace Within, Among & Around the People
During the pandemic, I picked up a new interest: watching a show on famous engineering disasters. Sometimes an engineering disaster happens because a part was built incorrectly. Badly made cast iron braces… are partly what caused 1876’s Ashtabula Horror, when a bridge snapped under their own weight and dropped a train into a river because its badly made iron girders were filled with air bubbles. Sometimes all the parts are built correctly… but a disaster occurs because they do not work well with each other. The 1955 car race disaster at Le Mens was so bad because a magnesium alloy body was great at making the racecars ultralight… but if a car crash set the engine on fire, the magnesium body would also burn. And when you toss water on a magnesium fire, it explodes… which is how some unwitting fire fighters turned a car crash into a rainstorm of burning magnesium. The parts were built to design… but did not work well together. And lastly, sometimes parts are all built correctly and work well together … but a disaster occurs due to something outside the machine, usually humans being stupid or a natural disaster. In Louisiana in 1980, an oil drilling team failed to fully research the lake they were drilling… and so drilled down right into an active salt mine under the lake… creating a sinkhole that caused a river to flow backwards for several days, transformed a 10-foot-deep freshwater lake into a 200-foot-deep saltwater lake, and caused 400-foot high geysers around the mine entrance. Every machine part was built right and worked together well. But a few guys who didn’t look before drilling brought disaster. What I’ve noticed is safety measures often can hold things together if one or two things go wrong. And so the worst disasters usually occur from bad parts, working together badly, being badly handled by humans. But conversely, I’ve seen that for machines to work well, each part needs to be good on its own… and good in relationship to the other parts… and good in relationship to its environment and user. And the same is true for us as Christians.
When the Lord God creates the world in Genesis 1, after each step in creation we read, “And God saw that it was good.” But at the end, after God has made everything, the pattern changes. After creating the last item—humanity—we read, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” So at the outset of the Bible, God creates the world where every part is good on its own… and when you put all the parts together it is even better. So in the Fall later on in Genesis 3, notice how everything is the opposite: the man blames the woman, the woman blames the serpent, and they lose their garden home. In a sense, the universe is like a machine in my engineering disasters show. Good individuals are now bad. Good relationships between those people are now dysfunctional. And their relationship to the rest of creation and to God has also fallen apart. Confessing sin is admitting the machine ain’t working as-is.
And so… on this Second Sunday of Advent on which we celebrate peace, I think it is no mistake that Isaiah’s vision of peace is so all-encompassing. The Lord reveals to Isaiah a vision of the world restored to an Eden-like state, where the people are individually good, have good relations with each other, and moreover live in peace with God and the world at large. In verses 3 and 4, each person receives peace within themselves: the minds of the rash gain good judgment, stammerers now speak clearly, and those who can see and hear now watch and listen attentively. But not only does God promise peace within: in verses 1-2 and 5, a messianic king emerges who brings righteousness and justice to human relationships. And in addition to peace within the people and peace among the people, the Lord tells Isaiah peace shall flow around them in nature itself in verses 16 through 20. “Justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.” And so this messianic king of peace promises not just a stopping of wars… but a restoration of reality back to how it was meant to be: within, among, and around all people.
I think each of us needs this all-encompassing message of peace, not just at Christmas but every day of our lives. Some of us do not have peace inside ourselves: we feel torn up by guilt or shame… we find ourselves in cycles of behaviors we just can’t seem to break… or as the Apostle Paul confessed in Romans 7, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Others perhaps feel at peace with who they are inside, but their relationships with others are tormented… by petty one-upmanship… or disagreements turned into grudges… or wrongs done by us or to us that seem unforgiveable. Still others may be at peace within themselves and at peace with all their neighbors and family, yet even then we may feel at war with nature itself as we rage against sickness and injury… or grieve a death… or find ourselves unable to secure employment in such desperate times… or are left puzzling over why fires, blizzards and the like target some people but not others. The truth is we all feel at war with ourselves, with other people, with the world itself. And at our worst, when we don’t find peace within ourselves, among others, or in the world around us… how can we ever build back up from such instability? Heaven help us when we find no peace in any such place in our lives!
And indeed, heaven does help us. When the Lord reveals this vision of peace to Isaiah, it is not a peace that comes to people who already have everything together. The peace of the Lord—the peace of Christmas we look forward to—God’s peace is not an extra thing you add onto a life that is already complete, like adding a pool to an already fancy backyard. No. God’s peace involves uprooting the entire house, re-tilling the entire farm, replanting the entire harvest. God’s peace is not something that is added on top of a society or even a single person but must be woven into every heart, every relationship, and even our relationship with creation itself at a foundational level. Because the peace of Isaiah 32 comes only after desolation has cleared away the old ways that did not work. “The forest will disappear completely, and the city will be utterly laid low.” The ten verses in the middle we skipped over today likewise foretell God’s people nearly losing everything in the woes that are to come to them. But once they have lost everything, we get this hope of peace in verses 15 and 16: “Until a spirit from on high is poured out on us, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest. Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.” God is saying his peace is not an add-on optional item but integral element, which must be in every fiber of creation… and so the peace God brings must involve an overhaul of the world and our lives.
And that is the joy and the excitement of Christmas. This promised overhaul of the world has begun! Certainly, the project is still ongoing—turn on any TV to find just how far from peace we all are as individuals, as a society, as a world—but still, God’s peace is entering our world. This peace began with the baby born on that first Christmas Day. This peace was purchased for us on a cross on a hill all those long years ago. And this peace shall at last arrive in full when the ruler of peace, Isaiah 32’s messianic king who “will reign in righteousness and… rule with justice” at last returns again for us. And this peace shall not merely be the end to wars among nations. It shall be the stopping of wars within our hearts, a ceasefire in our petty wars against our neighbors and family, a cosmos-spanning peace that restores us to the harmony with nature itself as disasters and disease fade away. The Bible does not promise us this mortal life will be trouble free. Rather it promises us that—when we are in trouble, when we are not at peace—the Bible promises us through prophets like Isaiah that peace is on the way, that peace shall blossom out of our war-torn hearts and flourish across our very souls, society, and all creation. Peace within us, peace among us, peace around us: that is the holistic nature of Biblical peace. And it is the promise carried by the Christmas child. Praise be to God for this gift of peace. Amen.