United Presbyterian Church of West Orange

“Where Do We Find Peace?"

December 10th, 2023

Rev. Rebecca Migliore



        I am finding myself led by the candles of Advent this year.  Last week we tried to find hope in the idea of Jesus coming again into our world.  I mused that hope required courage, because our world is a mess of fighting, hatred, and division, while we squander the world’s precious resources, and grab what we can for ourselves.  Hope is something that we need to hold onto, AND something that we need to help provide to those who have lost all hope.

        Today my musing is guided by the second candle, the candle of peace.  Peace is such a complex word.  It can mean a state of relaxation and serenity, as in “it is so peaceful here”.  It can mean a place where there is no war, although this can be a tentative peace.  It can be a symbol of freedom and love as in the peace sign, often associated with the American 1960s.  But when we light our peace candle, we are evoking God’s peace, Shalom—which is a far deeper and wider idea that any of this.

        Shalom has not only to do with calm and rest, it has to do with justice and mercy.  Shalom is not done until God’s kingdom is come fully.  Shalom is something that we wish on people, we pray for in our world, we dream of seeing, and we are called to work towards.  Shalom is that picture that you put on your refrigerator, or sticky note to your computer, or place somewhere that you often see—it is the ultimate goal of God for this world. 

        So with this idea of peace/shalom in mind, let’s take a look at our gospel lesson for today (which also includes a portion of the Old Testament reading from Isaiah).  Where might we find peace, or glimpses of peace in our readings? 


        As promised, we start with the very beginning of the gospel of Mark.  And as we talked about last week, there is no birth narrative—no manger, no shepherds, no kings.  What we get instead is the first sentence that would make any English teacher proud.  “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  Mark is telling you right at the start what his gospel is about.  There may be a messianic secret within the telling of the tale (which the disciples figure out but then aren’t supposed to share)—but for us, the readers, the hearers, there is no such secret.  Mark blabs it from the beginning.  This is about Jesus, the Christ, the One of God—and the good news that he brings.

        Just an aside, I think we can see in this early gospel the supremacy of the good news.  It doesn’t focus on how Jesus got here, on who he was related to, on any stories of his childhood—that is all extraneous to what Mark is honing in on.  The good news of Jesus Christ.  We can hear his breathlessness as he says, “Let me tell you about it!”

        And he quotes Isaiah about a messenger and preparing the way.  And I’m going to assume that many in Mark’s original audience would have recognized the passage, and heard echoes of the whole thing.  About how preparing for God was a cosmic reality, with

Every valley shall be lifted up,

    and every mountain and hill be made low;

the uneven ground shall become level,

    and the rough places a plain.

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,

    and all flesh shall see it together,

    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

        Peace can be seen in the Isaiah reading, as God begins by telling Isaiah to “Comfort, comfort my people.” And ends the passage with God as the shepherd to the sheep, gently leading them, gathering them in loving everlasting arms.  That is peace, peace for people, for God’s people, for each one of us.

      We can be comforted in knowing God has our back, God cares for us, God is the one leading us to green pastures, to quiet waters, restoring our soul.

        But peace, God’s peace is also a destruction of the unfair status quo.  God’s highway requires the mountains and hills be brought down, valleys be raised up, the uneven places made level, and the rough places smoothed out.  This isn’t just talking about roadway construction.  You can hear the promise that the high and mighty will be brought down to earth (with the rest of us).  That where justice is not fairly meted out, with some being dealt with and some getting away with all kinds of things, that is going to stop—the uneven places will become even.  And the rough places, the places of the world where you wouldn’t want to go, where the least and lost among us often dwell, where justice and mercy and love and peace are just figments of some distant dream, they will be smoothed out.  They will cease to be rough.  That too speaks of peace, of shalom, for the world.

        And into this crying out for peace (for us and our world) there steps this very unusual man.  From the gospel of Luke we know that John the Baptist (as we call him) was a special baby from the beginning.  Born to parents who thought they would have no child.  Recognizing Jesus in utero (remember the baby leaping in Elizabeth’s womb when she greets the pregnant Mary?)  He was promised to be a Nazarene, to give his life to God.  And it seems that he has fulfilled this declaration of the angel in the holy of holies to his father (Zacheriah).  If you don’t know this story, go to Luke 1, and enjoy it.

        John appears on the scene.  Shouting about repentance, about turning your lives around, about getting forgiveness for your sins, about getting baptized, dipped in water, cleansed for a new life, wiping your life slate clean.  And the whole Judean region, and all of Jerusalem were going to hear him, and to be baptized.  Here was an offer too good to be true.

      In a world where there were so many laws I don’t know how you could follow them all, in an occupied world where so many had to make wrenching decisions to be in league with the Romans or face economic ruin or worse, for people who were probably just like us—with our sins of omission and commission, with our petty fights and our deep rifts, with our regrets and sorrows, here was an opportunity, from God John says, to wash all that away.  To be as fresh and new as a baby.  To stand before God without shame.

        Isn’t that one place where we could find peace?  If we allowed ourselves to symbolically come to the water of baptism, knowing that it always flows, and that we are drenched in God’s love and grace.  If we truly believed what we say, “In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven.”  Forgiven small things, and large things.  Forgiven our privilege and our neediness.  Forgiven our propensity to violence and our fear of others.  Forgiven our greed and hording of the gifts of this planet.  Forgiven our faithlessness and turning away from all God offers.  Forgiven all the things that press down on us.  Imagine the peace that brings.  But you don’t have to imagine, it is available to each of us, to all of us, right now—John says.  No wonder people from town and country, from high and low, from here and there were flocking to John and his baptism.

        But it doesn’t stop there.  John isn’t the whole story, and he knows it.  He is only the messenger; he is the one preparing the way.  There is one who is coming after him, one who will make all John is talking about look like child’s play, one who John says he is not even worthy to stoop down and tie this one’s sandals—in other words, he is a BIG deal.  In other words, he won’t just be talking about individual peace, but about community peace, about world peace, about shalom.  That is the good news.  That is our introduction to Jesus, the one we will come to know as Christ.

        That feels pretty good until I turn on the TV, or listen to a podcast, or read a newspaper or an enews report.  There is war in the Middle East and war in Ukraine.

     There is a rise in fascist ideas—and a portion of our own country who seems fascinated with them!  There are Christians who have even said that Jesus wasn’t strong enough for them (they should talk to Judas).  There is despair about economics, about ecology, about how the two Americas don’t seem to be living in the same mind space.  Facts are up for discussion.  Guns intrude on our lives as we keep shooting and killing each other.  It is a depressing, even terrifying time.  Where can we find peace?  How can we nurture peace in our world?

        I was struck this week by a piece written by Jim Friedrich on his site “the religious imaginer.”  He lifted up the parallels between what is happening in the Middle East right now, and Sherman’s march to the sea during our own Civil War.  Sherman intended to raze everything to the ground.  To kill anyone who got in his way.  And he was pretty successful.

        So it is fascinating to hear Sherman talking in 1865, at the end of the war.  He says,

“I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting—its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families, appealing to me … for sons, husbands, and fathers … it is only those who never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of wounded and lacerated … that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.”

Sherman has had a conversion experience, born of the things he has seen, and the appeals he can’t get out of his head.  And maybe that is a lesson for us as well.  That we can’t move towards peace by standing removed from the turmoil.  It is only in being there, in body or in spirit, that we see the true damage of what we are doing.  It is only in mourning with those who mourn, and seeing the waste of lives cut short, and realizing that this could be a never-ending circle (as it has been for thousands of years).


What good does stepping into the morass do?  How could we ever achieve peace that way?  And yet, that is exactly what Advent says God is doing in coming to be with us, Emmanuel.  That is exactly what Jesus does in living with us, in reaching out to the most desperate and lowly people and eating with them, talking with them, pulling them into his circle of beloveds, who he calls, my brothers and sisters.  That is what we believe the Spirit does, swooping down into our chaos, breathing hope into the hopeless and impelling people to not just dream of peace but work towards it, no matter how difficult that might be.

Where do we find peace?  We can find some for ourselves in God’s loving mercy.  But that is only the tip of the iceberg of what Shalom is about.  The peace John promises, the forgiveness of sins, the new life, is only the start.  It is the start of us getting our hands dirty working for Shalom.  For until it comes to the whole world, until God’s Advent is completed, peace is like that dove in the Noah story, taking trip after trip after trip to try to find the promised land.

Where do we find peace?  In the promise that God is with us, in the one who is mightier than John, in the one who will do more than just cleanse us with water, in the one who, in his own way, in God’s way, would change the world.  And in the promise that there will come a time, when we will step into a new world.  That Shalom shall flower.  That the highway for our God will be ready.

And that we will know the truth of the words from the hymn “The Church’s One Foundation”: “Yet saints their watch are keeping, their cry goes up, “How long!”  and soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song!”  Until then, we must light the peace candle in our lives and in our world, and together, with God’s help, maybe we can make it so.  Alleluia, Amen.