Sunday, January 15, 2012

Peace on Earth

Isa 40:1-11; Mk. 1:1-8[1]

As most of you know, I spent about 5 days last week in Cameroon. What you may not know is that I was for the most part accompanied by Presbyterian nuns. Yes, in Cameroon there is an order of nuns called the Emmanuel Sisters who are Presbyterian! I think they’re probably the only Presbyterian monastic order in the whole world! But based on my experience with them, I say may their tribe increase! Of course, my view may be biased a bit. They did look after me with kindness and vigilance—concerned to make sure my every need was met!

But there was something more to it than just the fact that they treated me like royalty for those few days. What I experienced among them was an incredible amount of joy. Make no mistake—they live rigorous lives. They are up at 5 am for the first of 7 rounds of worship throughout the day. And when they are not at their prayers they are at work, making ordination gowns and stoles for all the new Presbyterian ministers, making communion wafers for the whole Presbyterian Church in Northwest Cameroon, making yogurt and butter, cooking, cleaning, etc. Their lives are full of work. And they do it with such amazing joy it’s hard not to be infected by their spirit.

I think one of the things that enables them to live such difficult lives with so much joy is that they experience the peace that we all hope for and long for at Advent. I think in part it is their constant spiritual focus. Their days are literally punctuated by worship. They sing the Psalms and read the Scriptures and pray, and they do it all with an African flair. That means when they are singing their praise songs, they’re dancing and shaking rattles and playing drums and other instruments. It seems to me that their joyful focus on worship is a powerful means of enabling them to be filled with peace.

Advent is a special time of year for us. Or at least it can be. If we can survive all the hustle and bustle, all the pushing and shoving of the pre-Christmas buying frenzy without letting it completely sour the way we view life, Advent can be a special time of year. It is a time of looking. A time of looking for the promise that our faith holds out to us: “peace on earth to all whom God favors” (Lk. 2:14, NLT). That translation may be different from what you’re used to. The traditional one says, “peace on earth, good will toward men.” But I think they say the same thing, except the first one says it better. It’s God’s peace on earth that is the promise of Advent. It’s God’s good will toward the human family that Christmas is talking about! [2]

And that good will is very specific. In the book of the prophet Isaiah, the good news of Advent is that God comes to reconcile and to heal and to restore all people, along with all creation. That’s why Isaiah could speak of God’s coming like a shepherd who gently carries the lambs who are either too weak to make it back to safety or who perhaps have been injured (Isa. 40:11). And the prophet’s message of restoration fills the whole book of Isaiah—with promises of the end of violence and warfare (Isa. 2:4), of the end of suffering and oppression (Isa. 25:8); a promise of a rich feast set for all peoples (Isa. 25:6), of God coming to set right everything that has gone wrong (Isa. 28:5-6) and to restore and heal those who are weak and injured (Isa. 35:3-6).[3]

And part of the “Good News According to the Prophet Isaiah” is that “the word of our God will stand forever.” In this context, that is a bold declaration that God will not leave the promises of salvation, restoration, and renewal unfulfilled.[4] In another passage, Isaiah puts it this way: “as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace” (Isa. 55:10-12). The prophet declared in the name of the Lord that “the word of God” does not return empty, but accomplishes what it was intended for—to bring joy and peace.

I think I got to experience a little bit of that joy and peace on earth, right here, right now. The Sisters of Emmanuel were generous enough to embrace me into their fellowship and share the joy and the peace that defines their lives. I think that’s one of their secrets to a life of joy and peace—embracing all who come into their path. They called it “the heart of Africa.” And it means that you embrace everyone you meet as “my” sister or “my” brother. I only hope and pray that I can cultivate that “heart of Africa.” I pray that I can keep that joy and peace in the midst of all the stress and frustration that we call “the Christmas season.” In fact, I hope that I can keep that joy of “peace on earth to all whom God favors.” And I hope that you can too.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/4/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX:65; Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 36; F. Bovon, and H. Koester, Luke 1 : A commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1-9:50, 91.

[3] Brevard Childs, Isaiah, 298-301.

[4] Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 10; cf. Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 36-37, 42-43.

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