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Good morning, church. Please go with me, if you will, to the Psalms, and I’ll be preaching out of the psalm we just read part of, Psalm 85; we’re going to read it as a whole here in just a minute, if you will turn there.
This psalm is a song of lament, and in most of our minds, those two ideas, peace and lament, are pretty far apart. When I think of my own life at peace, I think of getting off work, turning my phone off, like I’m looking forward to over the next few weeks, getting out of the city. We’re headed to Memphis again this year. Last time we were there it snowed, and we spent the two days leading up to Christmas sledding and making snow men, (tiny snow men, because it’s Memphis and it only snowed like two inches). Their house is at the end of a cove, and we can let the kids just play in the street. Good food, nothing to do, walks, lunch dates, a church I can just attend, and playground friends in the park. I always forget how tall trees grow when there’s nothing but age to bring them down. You might be forgiven at such times and in such places for thinking peace has nothing to do with lament.
Yet if you think again, peace in Christianity, just like hope, requires us to admit we aren’t there yet, which means the only real path to peace, true peace, in our world is through lament. One of the main tactics of the enemy is to convince us we are already receiving in the world what is promised in Christianity. To say the same thing differently, Satan wants to sell you fake, plastic imitations of the real things God alone can give you. Lament helps us know what we’re missing, and knowing what you’re missing is vitally important. So often, you don’t know the things you don’t know.
I mentioned this a little bit last week; I’ve been thinking a lot about this. When I was young, I thought faith in God was mostly about denying myself things I wanted, and there is certainly an aspect of our faith of ignoring disordered or worldly desires. But working as a pastor, I find I spend most of my time trying to awaken desire, not pare it down. I find myself “irrigating deserts, not cutting down forests” as Lewis writes—trying to bring out in people things we maybe knew in childhood but have forgotten. What it means to really love a friend, for instance, especially with men. Most men I know have very few, and often feeble friendships because we trade love for respect. How to trust is something we need to irrigate in ourselves, both the Lord and other people. How to lose yourself in play, or remember the joy we had at first in the Lord. How can we grow in simple belief and obedience of God without getting lost in petty debate? The wonder of small things, and the peace of knowing you aren’t really necessary for anything important. We forget these things, and when we do, we forget ourselves.
AJ, my eight-year-old, and I are deep into a book series right now we’re both enjoying called the Wingfeather saga. In the second book—sorry, spoiler; I’m on a roll with spoilers the past couple weeks—the main character, Janner, is captured and brought into—they call it the fork factory, but they actually make weapons. When he arrives, he is told he is a tool, not a child, and that tools either work in the factory or they are corrected by chain-wielding maintenance managers, which are just other children who have worked well and long enough they’ve been promoted to management to ensure the obedience and efficiency of the other tools.
Kids try to get out every once in a while, but the punishment for trying is severe, and no one ever succeeds, so most of the kids just work. They’re given good food and decent accommodations if they do. After a while, the children stop telling each other their names, they become ever more mechanized: wake up, work, eat, sleep, all with efficiency and precision. If they never cause any trouble, there is no trouble, so slowly the children come to accept, this is the way life is. I thought that kind of extended metaphor was such a good way of showing the kind of status quo that so often replaces peace in our lives. Normalcy is the fake plastic version of peace the enemy wants to sell us. It’s easy to forget, just because something is, doesn’t mean it should be. And even difficult change is worthwhile if its pointed in the right direction.
What I love about psalm 85, this psalm of lament, it reminds us what peace really is, what it looks like, and points us toward a road we can travel to taste and see the Lord is actually good, and so is the life he calls us into. Life in Christ is not just workable or decent, but good, already and not yet in this life, like seeing family again after a long absence, like green and growing things coming up through the earth after a long winter. To quote one poet, the Lord wants to do with us “what Spring does to the cherry trees.” Let’s read it, psalm 85. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God.
The reason I wanted to read the whole thing: I wanted you to see not just where they will be when the Lord returns, but also where they are now. Vs. 3-8 tell a story of a people who have made mistakes, done foolishly, provoked wrath rather than approval from the Lord, and they lament it, regret it. Peace is made this way, it’s forged through truth and forgiveness. Going back to the fork factory, orderly is not the same thing as peaceful. Absolute order without truth or forgiveness is dystopian. I don’t want to live in 1984, either George Orwell’s version or the real version that actually happened. I’ve seen pictures. I don’t want to go back there.
Societally, truth and forgiveness together can heal deep wounds and make great strides toward peace on a variety of levels, when truth is spoken in love and in confession, and when forgiveness is both genuine and practical. I know some of you are familiar already with the truth and reconciliation commissions in South Africa, and now in some other places, led initially by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He introduced the Christian practices of truth telling and forgiveness on a societal scale to help heal the wounds of apartheid, and many scholars, secular and Christian alike, have noted, without those commissions the nation almost certainly would have plunged into civil war.
Here, in our society, there is healing to be done as well along many of the same lines, and time will not do it. Time usually can only bury, not heal wounds. Some wounds fester in time; some sicknesses grow if left alone. Truth and forgiveness is the only way to move toward peace, which is a road societally I would like to walk down. Truth, again, spoken in both love and confession, asking for genuine forgiveness. We can model this in our churches. We can be microcosms of a kind of peace that isn’t mere order, but messier than that, where we know each other inside and out, admit when something in the body is not as it should be, and work toward healing.
This isn’t just true of societies. In our relationships, too, peace isn’t forged through order, but through truth and forgiveness. There are a lot of marriages, for example, which are very orderly—they go to work, there’s food on the table, the house is clean, and yet they are sapped of all life. Many working relationships, too, because order doesn’t produce peace; forgiveness does, truth and forgiveness together.
Before I will officiate a marriage as a minister, I have a rule. Even if they know and love Jesus and love each other, you have to have had a real fight, because I don’t want to send anyone off into a bad marriage, and the way you recover from sin and hurt is crucial. Can you admit you were wrong? Are you able to apologize to each other and forgive? Are you speaking the truth to each other boldly enough that you’ve learned where you really disagree?
The same is true in our own, personal lives. Are you able to admit the truth to yourself that you are not yet at peace? You aren’t now the way you were created to be. You’ve made mistakes. You’re not ok. Can you sing a lament along with the psalmist? One that admits you’ve sinned in what you’ve done and left undone, but which also admits in Christ there is hope for all of these things to be turned back, undone? In Christ there is hope of peace, already and not yet in this life, and fully in the next.
I want you to see, too, in vs. 4 and 7, the salvation of the Lord is spiritual, but not only spiritual. In that section of the psalm, the author is asking for God to restore, revive, and save his people again. But God doesn’t save people again, not spiritually anyway, so what are they asking? One commentator I read said, given the agricultural imagery in the psalm, they are probably lamenting a bad harvest, and what I want you to see in that is, the salvation of the Lord is spiritual, but not only spiritual. I don’t mean in any way to diminish the value of the spiritual salvation of the Lord in saying this. If he had not conquered the grave, or if he would not forgive sin, the sufferings of this life would give way to the sufferings of eternity. We would have no hope.
But praise God, he does save us from our sins. “Our sins, they are many; his mercy is more,” and because he lives we have hope for resurrection and life everlasting. His salvation is spiritual, it’s just not only spiritual. I’m re-reading When Helping Hurts right now, which is a book the church has on our shelf upstairs for congregants to borrow, and one I recommend. They do a good job of explaining in it the ways our sin, and the wrong things people have done in the world, have affected more than just our minds or our spirits, it’s affected everything, from the crops, to our evening routines, to the banking systems. And God’s desire is to redeem and restore everything.
When Christ came to bring peace on earth, as the angel declares at the first advent, he came not only to die an atoning death, but also to lead a restorative life among his people. Not only did he forgive sins, he also made crippled people walk. Not only did he heal relationships, he healed blindness and illnesses. He disrupted the scammers at the temple and asked Zaccheus to give back what he stole. He set people free both from spiritual possession and from debt-based slavery. All of this is part of what the Bible means when it uses the word peace. Peace, in the Bible, is not just order, or the absence of conflict, and it’s not just spiritual—peace in the Bible is not an absence at all, but the presence of restoration in a community and in individual people’s lives.
This is why Christianity doesn’t teach peace in the individual. Peace in our faith has nothing to do with yoga pants and herbal tea. Peace is restored relationships. I love the picture in this Psalm, the beauty of verse ten. “Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other. Faithfulness springs up from the ground, and righteousness looks down from the sky.”
Two images, back to back. The first image of meeting and kissing each other—this is not romantic, this is how people who loved each other would greet each other. This is an image of friends, family who have been apart, maybe for a long time, coming back together. And the second image of springing up from the ground, looking down from the sky, is an image of green and growing things, the sun shining down the crops coming up, which in that culture meant feasting and food on the table. This pictures both the family and the harvest restored through and because of the steadfast love and faithfulness of the Lord.
God’s peace has to do with every aspect of our lives and societies—our relationship with him, with ourselves, with others, with creation itself, a peace of broken systems being undone and injustice turned back. It’s tempting in church to focus on the spiritual restoration the Lord brings, because truly without that we’re lost, but we as the church should facilitate and celebrate every kind of restoration. Our God didn’t just give us the law and wish us well, see you next Sunday. He took on flesh and came down. He preached liberation of captives and good news to the poor. He died to set us free. In the same way, our peacemaking should take on flesh, and our peacemaking should empty itself and come down.
The body of Christ today is the church, in our communion here and in our lives in the world. Christ is still the head, we are his hands and feet. His hands touched those who were unclean in order to heal them. His feet walked through crowds focused on other things to find people who needed him. He sat at the feast tables of those who were despised for their wealth and broke bread with those who were despised for their poverty. He spoke the truth of the kingdom, and he washed feet. He restored families, his own and others, giving parents back their children and sisters back their brothers. He forgave sins and made just judgements. In short, he made peace, in the biblical sense. If we are his body today, we are called to the same kinds of incarnation.
We’ll have peace when love and faithfulness meet. We’ll have it already and not yet in our lives in this world when we respond to the constant, steadfast love of God with faithfulness to him as his people. I’m always blown away at the peace that enters my life just by living according to the law of God, even as inconstantly as I do. I teach and preach the law because I have tasted and seen that it is good. I am the lowest sinner in this church, but when I do follow God, I see peace in our marriage, from remaining faithful to each other and submitting ourselves to each other. When I do follow God, I see peace in our home arising from teaching our children the ways of God. We see peace in our church whenever we seek the kingdom first, and set other matters aside. What a glorious thing that he has told us what is good and where to find peace and life. As Jesus tells the rich young ruler, if you would have life follow God’s commandments.
It’s amazing to see the peace of restored families as people seek to follow the Lord. I’ve been so impressed with Louis over the past several months. I asked him if I could share this. Not only is he a humble servant in our church, running slides, serving communion, working in the clothes closet, the man has been an agent of reconciliation in his family this year. Not only has he sought out and talked with his dad about some things in their relationship that needed to be set right, things that have caused division for years, but he also helped his dad reconcile to his brother, who has been estranged for years. That’s peace.
Peace can’t exist apart from righteousness. “Faithfulness spring up from the ground, righteousness looks down from the sky.” They are paired. Because peace without righteousness is oppression, it is sin quietly swept under the rug. That’s not God’s peace.
Every advent on this second week, I think about how Jesus was born into what history calls the pax romana, meaning the peace of Rome. Historians will tell you it was a time of unprecedented peace in the world, with the steadiness of Roman rule quieting the turbulence of previous eras. Then I think about what we know of Christ’s birth and life—the puppet king of Judea slaughtering all of the children in one of his districts in order to retain power. Jesus the refugee, fleeing for their lives to Egypt, returning to live as laborers in an impoverished district. A violent theocratic ruling elite, a brutal foreign ruler demanding taxes through a corrupt system where the tax collectors made themselves wealthy by fleecing the poor. Public crucifixion of the innocent to appease the mobs. This is the peace of Rome.
Peace without righteousness is not God’s peace. In the kingdom of God, he reigns in truth and justice. Every dark deed is brought to light and undone. He gives generously to his people rather than driving them into poverty, inviting them to his table and even into his family and household. Many of those who have made themselves first in this world will be called last in the next, and many of the last will be held in high esteem, the unknown saints going meekly about the work of the kingdom day by day, their deeds will be made known, too.
Instead of grasping at power, the king of the coming kingdom left his throne to live among his people. He gave his life for us when we were still enemies. He came to his own, and we rejected him, but he died for us. Instead of calling in legions when we turned against him, he prayed that we might be forgiven. Christ makes the faithful person to spring up from the ground. He makes his face to shine on us, and is gracious.
What an apt image comes to us in this psalm, of our righteous king shining like the sun. The sun, which hides itself across space and time because we wouldn’t be able to bear being even a few inches closer. It is placed as close as it possibly can be. The sun which provides and upholds all life on earth, which nourishes plants and animals, both, and to which everything that has ever nourished us, from our daily bread to rich feasts, every last bit of energy can be traced back eventually to the sun. If we hide from its light we become malformed, sicken, and die. God through his creation speaks.
Remember, church, this morning, who upholds your life. The source of all hope, peace, and life, in the end, no matter how it comes to us, or through what means. Christ our daily bread, his truth that which nourishes us day by day. We are meant to imbibe his truth, that it becomes part of us, integral to our life and being. Christ, who greets us with a holy kiss. Christ, who causes us to spring up from the ground. Christ, who longs to do with us what the Spring does to the cherry trees. I would invite you into his peace this morning.