"Peace, Peace," by Claire Helton
Jeremiah 8:8, 11, 18-22
How can you say, “We are wise, and the law of the Lord is with us,” when, in fact, the false pen of the scribes has made it into a lie?
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.
My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land:
“Is YHWH not in Zion? Is its ruler no longer there?
The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?
Friends, I have really struggled with the question of how to preach a sermon about peace this week. On the one hand, I have felt the prophet Jeremiah’s words deeply, as if they were written directly to me as a word of warning. “You scribes and preachers, don’t you dare treat the wounds of my people carelessly, preaching peace when there is no peace.” In a season when we are so accustomed to seeing the phrase “peace on earth,” hanging it on our walls, on our Christmas trees, festively adding it into our email signatures, even, there is a sense of cognitive dissonance between what we’re supposed to say during this season…and what so many of us are actually experiencing.
And then, on the other hand, there are voices like Wendell Berry, reminding me that no matter how sleepless the night or how palpable my fear, the heron still feeds; the wood drake still rests, peacefully, on the still water. Peace is still, always, within reach.
Maybe it helps to realize that we find the same cognitive dissonance within the pages of scripture – even just within the gospels, in the teachings of Jesus. In John 14, while Judas is already off rounding up soldiers to lead them to Jesus, in a moment when we can imagine the disciples are picking up on Jesus’ own fear of what was to come, we find Jesus saying things like, “My peace I give to you,” and, “I have told you these things so that in me you might have peace.” And then on the other hand, in Matthew’s gospel Jesus goes around saying things like, “I have come not to bring peace but a sword.” So, if the scriptures are to be believed, peace is something Christ brings. …And also doesn’t bring. Which can only lead us to the conclusion that these are different kinds of peace we’re talking about, and to conflate them is to miss the point of either.
And the truth is, we need these different ways of relating to peace. We need the peace that Jesus talked about us finding in him, the peace he gives – we need that now, need it every day; and we need within us the more tenuous relationship with peace that Jesus describes in Matthew, a suspicion of anything passing as ‘peace’ that is, in reality, only a silencing of necessary conflict.
So let’s spend some time, first, with the peace that Jesus doesn’t bring. It’s the peace of biting your tongue and sacrificing integrity rather than risking being seen as impolite. It’s the peace of the narrow view, looking only at our own peacefully controlled environment and tuning out the wider, unpeaceful, world. And, as in the days of the prophet Jeremiah, it’s peace in the collective sense, peace on a national scale – it’s not that Jesus didn’t long for that kind of peace, I believe that he did – but that’s not what the promise was for.
When, like the prophet Jeremiah, we can look around and see death and destruction having their way with our people; when, like the prophet Jeremiah, we can look around and lament that, “the harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not yet saved” – not, in our case, from conquering nations but from a virus we have so ineffectively contained, not to mention the many social evils and ‘isms’ that continue to plague us with no end in sight, despite our best efforts – then, in some sense it is a false gospel to proclaim peace on earth. Woe to us if we cry “peace, peace,” when there is no peace.
It is telling that some of the most poignant and moving images of peace across the pages of scripture occur in future, anticipated, settings. The peaceable kingdom when the lion will lie down with the lamb; the day when God will wipe every tear from our eyes; the moment when kings and sovereigns cast down their crowns, setting aside political ambition, bowing down instead to the One who is our source, who unites us all as one: these are images that tell us of a God who holds real peace as a highest ideal, and yet they are also images of a day that is coming, but is not yet here.
So how are we to talk about peace faithfully in this season when everyone wants us to talk about peace? I think our understanding of that larger, ‘peace on earth’ kind of peace has to resemble our understanding of the kingdom of God. It’s the already, and it’s the not yet. Peace is here in pockets, and we thank God for it; and in so much of the world, in so much of our experience right now, in the experiences of others that we are waking up to, peace is elusive, it’s a dream that we, collectively, walk toward but have not yet realized, and so it is that which calls us forward, further down the road, trusting that it is surely coming.
Where there is no peace, we will not treat carelessly the wounds of our people and falsely proclaim it.
But where there is…
In the peace of wild things, in the quiet that both fills and empties the cold night air, in the warmth of familiar faces in a difficult time – whether in person or on a computer screen, in the songs and stories that ground us in the rhythm of marking the closing of one year and the opening of the next…in so many places and ways, we do proclaim peace, the peace that Christ gives. The kind of peace that says, “In this world you will know trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.”
Friends, I want you to know peace this Advent season. I want that for you so badly after the year you’ve had. I want you to know the peace that surpasses understanding because – even without seeing you, without knowing every set of eyes I’m peering into, I can say with certainty – the year you’ve had this year surpassed understanding a long time ago. It seems only right that the peace you crave would at least meet the same bar as the chaos you didn’t choose, especially around the holidays. This year has been hard. We have met challenges we never dreamed of meeting. Sometimes they have gotten the better of us, and sometimes we have managed to come out stronger and more agile and ready to meet the next one. And in the midst of a really difficult holiday season, with so much loss and pain all around us as case numbers once again soar, my prayer for you is that you would give yourself the grace to make space for peace to enter.
The peace that surpasses understanding – that’s real. I know too many folks who’ve experienced it to be able to discount it. But it doesn’t come easy. Maybe there are occasions when it settles on us, unbidden, but more often, it comes when we have created the space for it to come. It’s for good reason that it’s described as surpassing understanding because it’s the kind of peace that comes when we allow ourselves to get beyond our understanding, to get outside our heads, or maybe deeper inside them, to just somehow break out of our normal rhythm and patterns of thinking, to allow what’s divine, what’s holy and true, to fill our perception and grant us peace. When we can allow ourselves to sink down deep, that’s when we find it. And that’s something we have to create space for, or it will not happen. But it is possible. In fact, it’s already there, inside you, just waiting for you to see it. That’s gospel good news.
It strikes me that the passage from Jeremiah ends with a series of questions – questions of longing, questions uttered out of deep suffering, but they’re also the kind of questions you don’t ask if you’re not holding out hope that the answer to them will ultimately be a ‘yes.’ “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” In the midst of the kind of pain the people of Jeremiah’s day were experiencing, both on a personal and a national level, he asked the question that was on everyone’s mind, on each one’s heart, though they may have been too afraid or grief-stricken to voice it out loud. Has our God really abandoned us?
Each year during the Advent season we make space for questions like this one to be voiced out loud in an evening service called The Longest Night. It’s a space where we can acknowledge all that is not peaceful, not joy-filled, not hopeful in our lives. And a part of the purpose behind that is our belief that in voicing those questions and fears out loud, they lose some of their power over us. Peace is found in sitting with that which grieves us long enough to make friends with it, even to love it, to see – ultimately – that God is in it, too. And when we know that God is in even our suffering, we can find the true peace that comes from the knowledge that we will never be abandoned. Our God, Emmanuel, is ever with us.
So when despair for the world grows in us, and we wake in the night at the least sound, in fear of what our lives and our children’s lives may be, may we go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. May we come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. May we come into the presence of still water. May we feel above us the day-blind stars waiting with their light. And for a time, may we rest in the grace of the world, and know peace.