Second Sunday of Advent: Peace

(This is part of a set of daily Advent meditations I'll be posting. They're going up a day early so that you can use them, if you wish, for private reflection in this season of anticipation and preparation.)

It shall come to pass in the latter days
    that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
    and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
     and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
    and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
    and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
    and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war anymore.
O house of Jacob,
    come, let us walk
    in the light of the Lord.
-Isaiah 2:2-5

The second Sunday of advent is traditionally associated with peace. That is something we all instinctively applaud – people rarely see songs or speeches lauding peace as particularly disagreeable. Yet our sense of what that word means is impoverished by its limits within our language.

In English, when we hear the word “peace,” we think about it as an absence. An absence of conflict, an absence of war. America is at peace with some country, we say, but that just means we aren't bombing each other. Peace in a home means nobody is shouting or throwing dishes.

In the Bible, the idea of peace is rooted in this Hebrew word “shalom.” Shalom does include an element of absence, but it runs much deeper. Shalom in Scripture also includes friendship and relational intimacy. Being close to people, open and honest and yourself with them. Shalom includes well-being – it is the word ancient Hebrews used for being healthy. It also includes a sort of health for the world as a whole – shalom means creation is working together right, that there isn't destruction or disaster or famine. It is used to describe security. And shalom also includes a right relationship with God – it is our shalom with the almighty that our sin destroys and that God is working to restore by reconciling us to Himself.

The best way to define “peace” when you see it in the Bible, then, is something like “the way things ought to be.” This world in its current state is both beautiful and broken. Shalom-peace is this world, but with the broken parts of it repaired. It's all that is good and beautiful in God's creation set free to live and grow and shine.

Here at the beginning of Isaiah, the prophet is anticipating this coming “day of the Lord.” This theme is picked up by several other prophets, and it represents that future time when God will come and things will be made right. In the New Testament is is pictures as something that has both arrived (Acts 2) and as something that is still to come (1 Corinthians 1:8, 2 Corinthians 1:14). The day of the Lord has begun to arrive with Jesus and the coming of the Spirit; it will fully be realized on the day of His return.

The promise is that, on that day, peace will be restored. Remember, though, we are talking about peace in the big sense of the word. Peace as flourishing, as everything being what it was meant to be. That does include the end of violence – Isaiah's hope of swords being beaten into ploughsares is a familiar one and still sings with beauty. Yet it is more than that. It is God deciding the disputes of the nations. It is people of every race and place living together in harmony. It is God's word flowing out to the ends of the earth and people walking in His light.

Advent is a celebration that peace has come and that peace is coming. It has been birthed in the world with Jesus. It is imperfectly but truly being realized among us as we live as His people. One day it will fully arrive and creation will bubble up with the goodness of it.

While that is still a process we are in the middle of, it is a process we can trust to run to its completion. Not because we see it fully realized, mind you. Not because it is clear to us in this age that peace will triumph. But because, at Christmas, we celebrate the truth that the Prince of Peace has come. The peaceful conqueror has arrived, and He will rule until one day the shalom we lost in the garden is once more restored.

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said:
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!"

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day