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Advent, Peace: Isaiah 11:1-9
Good morning, church. Please go with me in your Bibles back to what we just read together in Isaiah, chapter 11.
The second week of advent is traditionally centered on the idea of peace, and you may be confused, if you know anything about the book of Isaiah, that we are going to Isaiah to find peace. Isaiah’s life and time was anything but peaceful. The fall of Israel, the siege of Jerusalem, war and overthrow and empires fall, and in the end, an extended siege. Starvation, desperation, betrayal, and exile.
Most of the time, if we, here in our day, want peace, we seek out the quiet places, we spend time alone. Peace in our family is a babysitter. Peace is a trail or a cabin in the woods, or a day spent out in the garden. Peace is that first snowfall of the year, and class is cancelled. Or, you know, here in New Orleans, that first day the thermometer dips below 70 and parents send their kids to school in winter coats. That to say, when we think of peace, usually we are thinking of an emotion—individual, inner peace. Like a ringing in the ear, the constant hum of business and anxiety in our lives dulls for a moment and we realize we can hear creation more clearly.
And that kind of peace is a beautiful thing—the Bible calls that rest. Peace is something else. Peace in the Bible is something closer to what we would call restoration—like a home that was old and damaged and is painstakingly restored, made whole, old and new at once. Peace in the Bible is like the end of a story where good has won and all is made right and they live happily ever after. Peace in the Bible both recognizes what went wrong and glorifies and amplifies that which was beautiful from the beginning.
And the reason we are looking to Isaiah to find peace, is that he knew something very valuable to our discussion of peace which we tend to forget: Isaiah knew for certain that the time and place in which he was living was not peacetime. When his people were taken by force and brought as slaves to Babylon, they knew they were exiles. He knew, if this story ends with happily ever after, we must be closer to the beginning than the end. Those same things are as true for us as they were for him, but we forget what he could see it clearly.
The Bible tells us over and over again that we are exiles in this world, that this is not the way life or the world was meant to go. But also, over and over again, our stories aren’t over yet. Read it with me, Isaiah, chapter 11, vs. 1-9.  This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
The first thing I want you to notice from the passage is this: that peace and justice are bound together. Peace and justice are bound together, meaning you can’t have peace without justice. They aren’t one and the same, but they are, to quote Jon Foreman, “like the shore and the sea.” You cannot have the one without the other.
To say it differently, Biblical peace is not inner peace. There is nothing internal about biblical peace. In v.9 Isaiah gives us this beautiful picture of peace and the knowledge of the Lord covering and filling the earth, he writes, “as water fills the seas.” Biblical peace is not internal, it flows out of restored hearts and lives into the lives of people around them, like a tree that produces so much fruit you give bags to everyone you know. Biblical peace is not individual, either. It concerns all of society.
Charles Dickens is one of my favorite writers, and A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite things he ever wrote. I reread it most every year at Christmas, one of the ways in which I celebrate. In high school I played in a musical version of it. Ironically, I played the preacher who tries to convince Scrooge to care for the poor and the suffering. I’ve been typecast, I’m afraid. But when I asked Scrooge to contribute to a fund to care for the poor, he responds with a series of questions—are the prisons closed? Are the workhouses still in operation? In the end Scrooge tells the preacher, far from moving him to generosity, the preacher gave him a fright by implying that, for some reason, prisons had run out of space to keep the poor and the hurting.
You’ve probably seen the movie, and you know the scene I’m talking about—what you may not know, is that there is a corresponding scene later in the book, because that scene, one of the most striking images in the book, rarely makes its way into the movies and plays. At one point, the second spirit, the ghost of Christmas present, who is jolly and feasting and celebrating, Scrooge glimpses something moving underneath the great big robe he’s wearing, and the spirit pulls back the robe to reveal two malnourished children whom he names ignorance and want.
In disbelief, since the spirit is so vibrant and jolly, Scrooge asks him, “are these your children?” And the Spirit replies, “They are man’s.” They’re your children, yours and mine. And Scrooge asks why they have no refuge, no one to care for them, and the spirit just repeats Scrooge’s words to him from the first scene: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”
We talked all through the Proverbs series about the value of stepping outside of your time and place to see the water you swim in, meaning the ideas and worldviews so common in our time that we’ve stopped looking at them and instead we look through them. Individualism is one of those ideas in our day. We believe we can be at peace by ourselves, inside our houses on our side of town. If others are poor, or ignorant, or in prison, what is it to us? Let them do what we have done to position themselves well.
But wisdom from past centuries tells us, we are all one continent of humankind, one body. And if any part of us hurts or dies the rest is crippled by it. In the biblical sense, you can’t be at peace by yourself. Because, v.4, biblical peace looks like equity for the meek. Impartial justice for the poor. Peace isn’t peace unless it’s shared. Christ is coming to set the whole earth set back to rights and fill it with knowledge of the Lord.
I’ve heard a lot of different interpretations of vs.6-9, talking about the wolf and the lamb laying down together and lions eating straw—everything from a biblical mandate of vegetarianism, to snake handling, to trying to assign different animals to ancient empires. I think the picture is probably more simple that that, just one of peace overflowing in the earth so abundantly that even creation itself is changed radically. This peace is so abundant and inclusive that even the animals are part of it.
Thinking about this kind of peace overwhelms me with both joy and sadness. Sadness because I’ve never known this kind of peace. Every town I’ve lived in had a railroad track running through it, and there was always a wrong side. And even on the right side of the tracks we had problems. But I long for peace. We talk about peace in advent because peace is something we’re still waiting to see. The earth hasn’t known peace since its infancy, and I long for the restoration of the ancient creation, but it will take more skill than I have to restore it.
The joy in looking at this kind of peace in Scripture is knowing that somehow, in the midst of all of the brokenness of our world, biblical peace is mysteriously here already. When Christ was born the angel declared peace on earth, which is a great mystery and a bold declaration of victory at the very beginning of the Lord’s work. I wait and look forward to peace in this life just as I look forward to daylight when I see the dawn break—not as a distant possibility, but as something which is already happening, inevitably and soon.
I think sometimes our work for justice and peace overwhelm us because we don’t see any progress in people’s lives. You walk with the same person through addiction and relapse over and over again for a lifetime. It starts to feel like your efforts to bring light into the world are like a match in the night and if you hold it too long you’ll be burned. But that’s not right. Dawn is breaking. Our match is a foretaste, bearing witness, to the peace to come.
So “don’t grow weary in doing good.” And don’t grow complacent or selfish, ignoring the suffering of those around you. Ignorance and want are our children. We need to care for them or else we are negligent and our peace is a cheap imitation of the real peace into which God calls us.
Peace and justice are bound together and also peace and judgement are bound together. Peace and judgement are bound together. All the young people in the room are like, oh no, judgement? No, go back to what you were saying just a minute ago about justice. Louis is like, yes, finally, break out the brimstone. I’m looking at v.4: “with righteousness [God] shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”
Denying a need for judgement is a luxury many people in our world cannot afford. For the falsely accused, and the wrongly imprisoned, the overly policed, and the disproportionately sentenced, peace and judgement are bound together. Many people in our world long and wait for a day of just judgement, a day of good news preached to the poor, where the prisoners are set free. Judgement is a good and beautiful thing, and we need the judgement of God if we are ever to see the peace of God in our lives or in the world.
You may remember, if you were here, last year when we preached through Isaiah, the picture of God’s judgement given to us in this book. We think of courtrooms, but judgement in that day would have happened at the city gates by the city elders, mainly to decide who was allowed inside the city walls, and who would be excluded. Usually to be allowed into the city, you would have to prove that you were not a threat to the peace of the city, so you would have to lay down your weapons of war and leave them at the gates to enter in.
Isaiah says the judgement of God is like a king who descends from his throne, and comes down to the city gates, but he doesn’t stop there. He goes out of the city and greets people along the way to invite them in. But before he does, he asks them to lay down any weapons of the enemy, anything which might make them unsafe to the other people already in the city, in order to welcome them into his inheritance. Judgement.
The judgement of God is a good thing. This is not the judgement of man, of your family where you’re anxious about the holidays, or you feel like you can’t even go home because you’ll be berated, shamed. This is not that—shame is one of the weapons of the enemy. The judgement of God brings peace. Does anyone else in the room want to learn how to put down your weapons, or is it just me? I know I’m carrying something with a sharp edge, because I keep on hurting myself and hurting the people around me.
How many times do I need to see the look of disappointment on my son’s face or see my wife crying on the other end of the couch before I realize something in me needs to change? Before I start to pray along with the psalmist, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! …see if there be any grievous way in me,” and lead me into the peace of your kingdom. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence,” O God, don’t leave me out here alone.
We talk about not wanting anyone to judge our lifestyles, not wanting anyone to change us, but if we never change we never heal. If we never learn to set down our weapons we’re going to keep hurting people, and wandering further and further from where we know we belong. The judgement of God is not like the judgement of people. People judge others to gain a sense of superiority, to blame others for the problems of the world. God judges people in order to heal them and make them whole. In order to bring them home and give them peace.
Peace and judgement are bound together. We love to judge others, but if we want to make peace in the world, we need to ask the Lord to judge us. What weapons are you carrying? In most families, the steak knife isn’t the only weapon set out on the dinner table at Christmas. Between politics, and money, and generational divides, we’ve got enough ammunition to stick the whole family full of barbs if we want. Or we could lay it down. We can’t control other people, but we can be honest, in the whole mess of relationship, we can be honest about which wrongs are ours.
If you want to make peace in your family this year, disarm yourself. Confession is one way to set down a weapon. It’s hard to argue with someone if your goal going into the conversation is to admit your own wrongs. Humble service is another. Someone has to do the dishes. Genuine love is another. If you want to make peace in the world, make yourself vulnerable. Open yourself to the judgement of God and set down your weapons until only what is of him remains.
So peace and justice are bound together, peace and judgement are bound together, and lastly this: peace is found in the presence of God. Peace is found in the presence of God. V.9: “for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”
If you are willing to abide with the Lord, meaning, to believe I him, put your faith in him, and live your life together with others seeking him, your experience will be one of peace. But not cabin-in-the-woods peace, renovation peace. You don’t have to worry that those things which are beautiful or individual in you will be taken out or torn down. This is not conformity, but renovation.
My family lives in an old house, about 100 years old. And there are many things which we’ve changed in the house, because it needed to change. We needed new insulation under the floors. They put in air-conditioning, praise God from whom all blessings flow. But Adam and Gary also came over and helped us open the transoms again, attach transom rods. I feel pure joy every time I open them. The brick of the fireplace is still there—it’s beautiful. The original cedar floors I wouldn’t trade for anything. If you told me to cover them in linoleum I would lose all confidence in your judgement. Like, my opinion of you would change. Renovation.
In our lives, if you are willing to trust in the Lord, he will bring you peace. That which is beautiful in you brought out, amplified, the paint, which was a mistake long ago, scraped off, linoleum taken up, bricks exposed. The stain of sin removed while the person is beautifully restored. God changes you, but in good ways. He was there when you were made and knows the intent of your design. He knows how to restore you to everything you were meant to be. And yes, it’s work, but peace is good work, in our lives and in our world.
As unlikely as it seems in the world today, there is peace on earth, enough to cover us like water the sea. It would have sounded just as strange, just as unbelievable in Isaiah’s day, or Jesus’s own, these words of prophecy we read that peace will cover the earth, but with my faith in God’s ability to restore people and creation to peace, I believe them to be true. There is peace on earth, because God abides here with us still. Real peace, bound up with justice and judgement. It comes with knowledge of the Lord, and one day every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord.
In our own lives, too, peace comes with knowledge of the Lord, bound together with right judgement and justice. It’s not enough to just know about the Lord, you have to let him search you and invade your life, every inch of it. Any limb exposed to the enemy is a limb that will become infected and kill the whole body. Knowledge of God will bring you peace in this life, but know that it will fill you, like water the seas.
Peace. I pray this morning God would give you peace. Peace enough to pass to one another, peace enough to fill your homes and your hearts. Will you wait with me, and pray, and watch for peace this advent? Pray with me now.