The Peace That Passes Understanding


“The Peace That Passes Understanding”

Isaiah 11:1-10 – Rev. Rebecca Littlejohn

Vista La Mesa Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), La Mesa, California – December 8, 2013

Holy God, bless the speaking and the hearing of these words that we might open our hearts to your vision of shalom for our world and witness to your life-changing grace. In Jesus’ holy name we pray, Amen.


I used to lead a workshop that was aimed at helping people make their family Christmas celebrations less stressful and complicated. The idea was to focus on what was really meaningful for you and drop the rest of it. One of the activities in this workshop was to describe your ideal Christmas. What was interesting to me, when I led this workshop in Alabama, was that 85% of the ideal Christmases described didn’t take place at home. It seemed like everyone wanted to go to Gatlinburg.

Have you even heard of Gatlinburg? It’s in a vacation destination in Tennessee. I’ve never been myself, so I can’t really tell you what’s there, but that doesn’t really matter because the point was that these folks wanted to be somewhere pretty – where it would snow. Alabama, after all, has hardly more winter than we do here in San Diego. And while they would freak out about it if it fell at home – where you have to be able to get around in your car and do things – everyone seemed to think that, “as long as we’ve no place to go,” it would be lovely to have Christmas in a nice cabin with a fire in the fireplace, looking out the window at a winter wonderland.

I’m guessing that if we held this workshop here, some of you might share similar fantasies, substituting Julian for Gatlinburg. I don’t think it’s just that we associate snow with Christmas, even when we’ve never had it for Christmas. I think there’s something about the way snow covers up the barren, brown ground with a layer of pretty sparkles that simply feels peaceful. I can tell you from 20-some years of living in the Midwest that snow doesn’t stay pretty for all that long, but right when it first falls, it really is quite beautiful, peaceful even. As long as you don’t have to drive in it.

If I were to ask you to close your eyes and imagine a scene that brings you peace, what would the eyes of your heart see? The ocean? A rose garden? The view from Sam’s Peak? Perhaps something like the sunrise over water on the screen right now? What I’m getting at is that for the vast majority of us, when asked to imagine a scene that brings us peace, we think of a nature shot. It isn’t a city street that comes to mind, or the mall, or even the chambers of the UN. There are rarely people in these peaceful pictures, or if there are, it’s just one person at a time, sitting quietly appreciating the wonder of nature. The only exception might be a sleeping baby. But the baby has to be sleeping, right? And really, we’re safer just sticking with the pretty nature shots.

The picture Isaiah paints mostly sticks with nature and small children as well. It’s even more farfetched than finding time to enjoy a sweeping mountain vista. I mean, did you hear what those animals are doing? Wolves with lambs, leopards with baby goats, cows and goats eating grass together, and the lion eating straw? Actually, that last part is probably a mistranslation. The lion is more likely eating hay, which has nutritional value, not straw which is just empty roughage. But seriously, Isaiah’s vision of peace is not just remote from human existence; it’s make-believe, fantasy land even compared to real-life nature.

What is it about Peace that is so disconnected from reality? Or is that a silly question? It’s not that we never had a moment of peace, but truly, our lives are not peaceful. Our world is not peaceful. Our families, our communities, our schools, our civic discourse – all of these aspects of our lives are roiling with conflict. Greed, insecurity, prejudice, abuse of power, nationalism, jealousy – there are so many forces working against the aims of peace, and most of them seem to live within the human heart. When Christmas rolls around, we try to set some of that aside. We try to forgive or at least endure our aggravating family members. We give donations to help those who are struggling against the violence of poverty. We make time in our lives to sit quietly by the light of the tree and listen to music about angels singing about peace on earth and good will to all people. But mostly? Our lives are not peaceful. Our world is not a peaceful place. And Isaiah’s description of the way things will be just sounds loony, impossible, utterly disconnected from the Way Things Really Are.

Except – Except then there’s Nelson Mandela. The first black president elected in South Africa, after years of brutal apartheid rule. A man who endured 27 years of tortuous imprisonment, who was considered a terrorist by our own government, who somehow emerged with grace in his heart for all peoples and invited his former prison guards to sit in the front row when he was inaugurated. Nelson Mandela was a real person. And the occasion of his passing this week, coming as it did mere days before we were to contemplate God’s peace this morning, speaks to us of the reality of peace in ways that we might be tempted to ignore otherwise. Nelson Mandela was a real person. He was not some super-species totally unrelated to us. Who are we to insist we cannot forgive a wrong? Who are we to hold a grudge, to refuse to reconcile with someone who has hurt us? Mandela has shown us what humanity is capable of – not the horrors that while seemingly unbelievable are far too common, but the depths of grace that can stretch the human heart. Peace is possible, Mandela’s life tells us.

Now there is a connection between Isaiah’s vision of peace and Mandela’s life that is important for us to note here. South Africa didn’t just shift from apartheid to democracy like flipping a light switch. They didn’t simply move on, or “forgive and forget”, or “live and let live.” Terrible crimes had been committed, atrocities and torture and violence of all sorts. To leave that unaddressed would have fed a festering rage that would have eventually erupted in more violence. But rather than follow the twisted highway of vengeance, Mandela led his people forward in the paths of peace. They created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that led the country through a process of facing their past together, listening to one another, asking forgiveness, and offering pardon. This was a peace grounded in justice and mercy. And Isaiah also understands how vital that is.

“With righteousness he shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth,” Isaiah writes of the coming Messiah. Interesting how savvy this prophet is, recognizing that in order for justice to be done, “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.” The powerful of the world are far too practiced at manipulating what is seen and heard. The truth is harder to discern; it requires a pure heart, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a soul that is grounded in “the fear of the Lord,” as Isaiah calls it.

Peace comes when we center ourselves not just in justice, but in mercy. There are times when such grace seems to surpass our understanding, but if we are honest we must acknowledge that the witness of Nelson Mandela shows us that it is not impossible. It’s just that it’s hard enough that we’d rather pretend it’s impossible or at least impractical enough that we can give up trying. We’d rather satisfy ourselves with sunsets so brilliant that they block our view of hungry children and ethnic cleansing and repressive regimes massacring their own people. But that is not how the light of God works. It does not conceal the truth, but illuminates it. Not as a harsh reality we must resign ourselves to, but as a world desperately longing for the transformative power of Christ’s love that we share here. As a world broken, fragmented, crying out for healing and wholeness. And as a world where courageous people like Nelson Mandela show us new ways to approach our enemies. It’s not just him, after all. There are people in your life who have shown you that following Jesus is not impossible. You have been forgiven of something awful. You have found the grace in your heart to move forward without bitterness. These examples are all around us, if we open the eyes of our hearts. And what’s more, they are not disconnected from the beauty and wonder of nature that we find so much more peaceful than humanity.

The sun rises every day. And some days, that itself is a miracle of hope and peace. Whether we’re stuck in the unhealthy rut of a longstanding grudge, or trapped in depression, or in prison for 27 years on Robben Island, the sun rises every morning. Whether we see it or not, the transformative power of God’s love in Christ is arriving anew every day, bringing peace to our broken, hurting world. We are invited to be part of that. May God grant us the hope and the courage to join the journey. Alleluia and Amen.


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