Our Advent worship this year follows a Circuit-wide theme, which in turn is inspired by the national Methodist Church’s Christmas campaign: ‘God is with us’. At a time of social distancing and greatly increased isolation, the theme picks up the traditional Advent promise of ‘Emmanuel’ to emphasise the good news of Christmas: God is truly with us. Each week in our Sunday worship, we shall start with an advent candle liturgy that picks up a different outcome of that incredible promise: hope, joy, love, and in this third week, peace.
The readings today, therefore, follow that theme of peace – although it may not yet be apparent why! The first is the opening of Mark’s gospel, which speaks about the ministry of John the Baptist – whose ministry the Church traditionally recalls on this third Sunday in Advent The second is less familiar and comes from the Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah. It comes towards the beginning of the book that bears his name and records Jeremiah’s warning about the imminent destruction of the nation and the city of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. He speaks about those who falsely claim that there will be peace in the land, and condemns those who have brought disaster upon the people.
Mark 1:1-8 (The Proclamation of John the Baptist)
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight” ’,
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
Jeremiah 6:13-15 (‘Peace, peace’ when there is no peace)
For from the least to the greatest of them,
everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
and from prophet to priest,
everyone deals falsely.
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying, ‘Peace, peace’,
when there is no peace.
They acted shamefully, they committed abomination;
yet they were not ashamed,
they did not know how to blush.
Therefore they shall fall among those who fall;
at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown,
says the Lord.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
When we think of the word ‘peace’ we usually equate it with silence or stillness. This is especially so at Christmas time arguably. Our carols often emphasise the peace of the night on which Christ was born, for example, or the peaceful image of the baby Jesus cradled by his mother, Mary.
That sort of peace is vital for us all, and it is something that many people have found distinctly lacking in 2020. Those quiet moments of silent reflection, when we can gather our thoughts and listen to ourselves. It is in such moments throughout history that people have often experienced the voice of God or the movement of the Holy Spirit.
Yet, in our scriptures and the Christian tradition, there has always been an emphasis that true peace is not simply the absence of noise. In our hymn books (Singing the Faith), for example, the section from which our next hymn is drawn is entitled ‘Peace AND Justice’. Our faith teaches us that when we say God is with us in peace, we do not simply mean that God is with us in silence, but in the true state of real peace. As the psalmist put it in our call to worship today (Psalm 85:10):
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
We see this very clearly in the lessons we have just heard read today. Both record the work of prophets: John the Baptist and Jeremiah. Their ministries were separated by around 500 years but both of them often acted and spoke in similar ways. (Hence why John was recognised by so many of Jesus’ contemporaries as a true prophet – Matthew 11:9-11 and Mark 11:27-33.) Both were also very clear that the true peace of God required more than simple silence or an outward show of acquiescence.
John the Baptist bursts onto the scene in the dramatic opening to Mark’s gospel, proclaiming not only that the Messiah was near but calling for “a baptism of repentance” (1:4). Literally, a baptism of turning your life around. Together, the gospel writers make it very clear that John was more a disturber of the peace than a silent witness! He told soldiers and tax collectors to change their ways and respect their fellow citizens (Luke 3:12-14). He told the ruling Sadducees that God had little patience for outward shows of piety that were not reflected in right living (Matt. 3:7-10). And later in Mark, he tells the vicious King Herod that there is no room for immoral rulers in God’s coming Kingdom (Mark 14:6:17-20). John would ultimately pay with his life for challenging the false peace of the establishment and proclaiming God’s truth as loudly as possible.
In so doing, he was following firmly in the footsteps of his prophetic forebears, many of whom suffered a similar fate for refusing simply to be silent. One such example would be the prophet Jeremiah, who was called to preach at an exceptionally difficult time in the history of Israel, just before the Exile. He lived in an age of extraordinarily poor leadership, with weak kings led astray by their own folly and who refused to listen to any voices that spoke the uncomfortable truth. (So different from our own times!) Repeatedly, Jeremiah rightly warned that the kingdom was heading for disaster and would soon be destroyed by the all-conquering Babylonians. Yet his words were rejected and the voices of others preferred:
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying, ‘Peace, peace’,
when there is no peace.
Jeremiah’s contemporaries did not want to hear God’s message, as spoken by the prophet. They did not want to face the consequences of their actions. Instead, like so many people throughout history, they preferred silence and easy, comfortable lies that made them feel better, instead of facing the hard truth. They chose just to say ‘peace, peace’ and hope that all would be well, without engaging in the hard work that peace actually takes to create.
In fact, hard work links the two kinds of peace I mentioned at the start of my sermon: a something I have only really learned since coming to Putney. On Tuesday nights, some of you will have attended the Christian Mediation meetings. I had never practised such meditation before coming here and sadly I am not able to attend as often as I would like. When I do, though, I find the effort of being silent and truly meditating incredibly difficult. My mind seems immediately to start racing at a million miles an hour and my head is filled with endless ‘to do’ lists. That is because true stillness of mind takes hard work and discipline. You cannot simply sit down, empty your mind and say, “I am at one with the world.”! That is what some false prophets seem to offer in quick, self-help courses but they inevitably leave folk disappointed. Instead, real inner peace requires effort, self-discipline, honesty and sacrifice. And that is equally true of God’s peace, which the prophets spoke about, as well.
Those words of Jeremiah – “‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace.” – have always really struck a chord with me and it is a verse upon which I have often had cause to reflect. (We also hear them later on the lips of the Exilic prophet Ezekiel – Ezek. 13:10.) They have come to mind during difficult times in my work, my private life and sadly my ministry within the Church, when silence has been mistaken for peace. When injustice and falsehoods have gone unchallenged because those in authority have preferred the easier path of silence than doing the hard work of challenging sin.
2020 will inevitably be remembered as the year of the pandemic. As we look back, though, we can also see plenty of examples of the kinds of false peace against which Jeremiah and John railed, in many cases exposed by the disease. The Black Lives Matter movement, which challenged the culture of denial and silence about the racial injustice that continues to reject the humanity of all God’s people. The social inequalities so cruelly exposed by the pandemic, which showed that in practice our world values the lives and health of some of God’s people much more than others. The crisis in our care homes, which has been allowed to develop silently for decades because it predominantly involved those who have no voice in our society – the elderly, the disabled and, so often, the migrants who care for them. In all these cases, and so many more, we have fooled ourselves that just because these issues were not being talked about, then there was no problem. We were all guilty of the sin of Jeremiah’s contemporaries, “carelessly saying, ‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace”. In this respect, COVID has acted like a prophet of old, crashing into the complacent silence of our society and challenging the false peace we have accepted for too long.
As this year draws to a close and a new year beckons, all of us hope and pray that 2021 will be a better year for everyone. As we rebuild our world and our society, though, we will need both the promise and the challenge that Emmanuel – ‘God with us’ – brings. The promise of the Christ child gives us the hope that God will never desert us and has come to bring healing to our broken world. But the coming of Emmanuel also brings the persistent challenge – spoken by prophets like John the Baptist – to pursue real peace. A peace which ushers in the reality of God’s Kingdom now, for all. A kingdom not built on earthly power but upon the unshakeable foundations of God’s justice and righteousness. As we recall the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour at his table, let us each pledge ourselves again to the service of the Prince of Peace and take our part in ushering in the true Peace of God. Amen.