“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” What a welcome to our second week of Advent! Can you imagine such a greeting on a Christmas card? You brood of vipers! Merry Christmas! Yet this is the message Advent gives us today. Not to shop. Not to decorate. Not to sing carols. Our sole purpose today is repent. Like last week, when we discussed the message of the Second Coming of Christ, once more we have an in-your-face, no holds barred, message that seems to put a damper the holiday spirit. But there it is: the message of Advent peace says to us “repent.”
We are halfway to Bethlehem. But this morning we find ourselves in the wilderness of Judea with John the Baptist, covered with camel’s hair and a leather belt, dinning on locusts and wild honey. And we find ourselves confronted by this formable character. He rants and raves. He’s pushy. Call him rude. Call him a fanatic. He doesn’t care. He’s a man with a mission. He is the prophet, John the Baptizer, upon whom the spirit of the Lord has rested. John is our unlikely guide for this part of our Advent journey. If we want to make it to Bethlehem we need to listen to John. John doesn’t mince words. He tells it like it is. Repent, he says. Make your paths straight. Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
Repent you brood of vipers! The world would keep us busy trimming the tree, buying and wrapping presents, outdoing our neighbor with lights and decorations, humming the season’s oldies and goodies. From that warm and fuzzy cocoon, John the Baptizer calls us back to the basics of Advent, because John’s task is to bring us to Jesus. So, John wants us to get honest with ourselves. Get right with God. Repent and find peace.
Instead of “Making a list, checking it twice,” John today invites us to think deeply on our lives. Are we living self-centered lives or are we truly other-centered as Jesus was? Is Jesus at the heart of our being, are we loving and giving sacrificially or we avoiding the needs of others? All these questions take time, and Advent invites us to take the time, undistracted by holiday busyness, to examine ourselves, see where we fall short, and turn our lives around, orient our hearts back to Jesus. This, Advent teaches us is the way to peace.
To repent, we need to lean in on the biblical concept of peace. Peace is an active, engaging experience, not some abstract concept. Achieving peace requires effort on our part. Who hasn’t sat quietly, trying to calm down, only to be plagued by interior drama? We have to consciously choose and work for peace. The Bible talks to us about three different kinds of peace: Peace with God which is the reassurance we receive through faith. The Peace of God - that calm center we develop through our faith in Christ, that we especially feel in the midst of life's storms. Then there’s Peace with Others. Peace with others is based on relationships that, despite differences, seek the best for each other, work for justice, right living, cooperation and forbearance. Peace with others can be peace in our family, peace with friends, peace in our community or peace among the nations of the world.
The Hebrew word translated as peace is the well-known word shalom, which means completeness, soundness, and welfare. The root of shalom means making amends or making whole or complete. Shalam is often used in terms of making restitution. Take Exodus 22:4, for example; if a man stole an ox or a sheep from his neighbor, he was to restore or shalam what he had taken under the law. This is a very important point about peace: peace -- especially peace from God -- is about healing. God’s peace is about restoration of what once was broken. Our relationship with God has been restored through Christ. That’s peace. We have a sense of wholeness inside us because of our faith in Jesus. In Jesus we have received restitution for our sins. That’s peace! Where there is peace in the world it is because of the power of God through Christ that works in us, around us and with us, bringing about just living conditions, a just relating, in all of God’s creation.
The word peace in the New Testament is from the Greek word eiréné . Eiréné means peace, quietness, and rest. It originates from the root word eirō, which means to join, or tie together into a whole. To bring what is separated together again. Eiréné means unity; it is bringing multiple parts together to form a whole or set it as one again. For example, two friends who reconcile after a fight make eiréné; that is, they come back together, and their relationship is whole. So shalom and eirene describe the heart of biblical peace: to bring together in healing and harmony that which was once apart, divided.
The peace of God is different from the peace of the world. The peace of the world is unstable, usually based on bank accounts and accumulation of resources. Worldly peace is driven by seeking security, which is elusive and changes with the times. There is a fake peace held together through by unequal power. There is a false interior peace that people seek through overindulging in pills, alcohol, and other things, like designer clothes, or fancy cars, that grabs our attention. Worldly peace comes and goes.
Biblical peace, which comes from God, on the other hand, is different. Biblical peace is the “peace that passes all understanding” because it is rooted in an Eternal God who loves and seeks the best for all creation. Grounded in God, shalom and eirene seek out restoration. It is the state of the world before sin entered the picture, and it is the state of the world with Jesus at the center of the picture – because biblical peace redeems, saves, finds us in our brokenness and restores us to life with God. Peace comes from repentance, when we turns our lives around, turn our hearts around, turn our world around – back to its primary focus: life in God through Christ.
Biblical peace is not something we can create on our own; it is a fruit of the Spirit. Ultimately God is the source of all peace, and one of God’s names is Yahweh Shalom (Judges 6:24), which means the LORD Is Peace. Jesus is the prince of peace (Isaiah 9:6) and calls us to be peacemakers who are children of God (Matt. 5:6). Peacemakers actively forgive, seek reconciliation, act as repairers of the breach (Isa. 58:12). So, Peace always seeks out what’s needed to be complete, balanced, whole. The prophet Isaiah gives us a profound image of peace when he describes:
6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.”
Isaiah’s image is of the powerful not being predators. It is an image of the weak and defenseless knowing security where once danger lurked. The experience of biblical peace, Isaiah demonstrates for us, is found in the restoration of loving relationships where once enmity and exploitation existed. Only the grace of God can bring about such change. God’s grace for Peace is available to us for the asking.
The truth is, if we are honest with ourselves, we are not a peaceful people, our hearts are pulled in thousands of directions, and we do not live in a culture that knows peace. We are more polarized politically and economically than ever. We live in lean times, uncertain times, broken times. We are in so many conflicts, conflicts with other nations, adverse policies with the homeless, the poor, and the stranger and alien. Problems ferment in our faith communities. We have deep conflicts in our hearts. We want to do what is good, but we fail.
Our advent message this week is that we seek peace and make peace. The scriptures tell us repeatedly how to find peace. The Psalmist records: “Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it” ( Psalm 34:14). Paul exhorts us repeatedly in Romans: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18) and “… let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:19); “Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.”
What fruit of repentance will we bear over the next few weeks? What peace-making tasks will we do to draw close to the Prince of Peace? How about this:
Apologize to someone whom we have hurt and mend a relationship. End a quarrel or a resentment. Forgive someone who has hurt us. Give an encouraging word. Dismiss suspicion and replace it with trust. Manifest loyalty in word and deed. Keep a promise. Forgo a grudge. Will we read the scriptures and pray for our church and world. Think of someone else first. Be kind. Be gentle. Laugh. Express gratitude. Welcome a stranger. Visit the sick. What else will you do to foster peace? The Peace of God. Peace in God. Peace with Others because God is present to all who call upon God’s name.
What will we do? We are half-way through Advent. We are in the wilderness. It is time to get ready. Let us listen to John. Repent. Bear fruit. Make the path straight. Find peace: with God, inside our hearts and in our world. Draw near to Jesus. Peace, the signpost that the Kingdom of God is near. And Bethlehem is closer than you think. Amen