Perhaps more than any one other consequence of the coming of Jesus, “peace” often takes centre-stage. Christians interpret Isaiah 9:6-7 as a Messianic prophecy, ascribing to Jesus the titles that include, “prince of peace”. The angels who appear to the shepherds in the Luke version of the nativity story proclaim “peace on earth” (Luke 2:14). The writer of Ephesians helpfully identifies the connection between “hope” (the theme of Advent Sunday, from last week) and “peace” in chapter 2:

Yours was a world without hope and without God. Once you were far off, but now in union with Christ Jesus you have been brought near through the shedding of Christ’s blood. For he is himself our peace. Gentiles and Jews, he has made the two one, and in his own body of flesh and blood has broken down the barrier of enmity which separated them…

Ephesians 2:12b-14

What does ‘peace’ mean to us? This is not an abstract - nor entirely a personal - question. For Christians, it’s a deeply theological question. Maybe you don’t think of yourself as a theologian. If, like me, you’re from a low-church tradition with a heavy emphasis on Bible reading and study (for a certain value of ‘reading’ and ‘study’), maybe you prefer to think of yourself as a Bible student. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course: you definitely have a theology. What you do with your knowledge, your interpretations, how you tie together the ideas presented in scripture: that’s theology, and you’re doing it all the time.

What’s more, it’s likely that your church tradition has a normative theology of its own, which is probably the primary influence on how you do theology. A tradition’s theology of peace is at the very centre of its witness in society, and affects how the church interprets everything from the ministry of Jesus, to the calling of the church today, right up to the fulfilment of God’s purpose with the world in the future. What does it mean to be a follower of the prince of peace? What does it look like to proclaim peace on earth?

For my tradition, which is rooted in the premillennial dispensationalist theology of early 19th century Evangelical revivalists, peace will come to earth when Jesus comes again to establish the Kingdom of God. This is very much in keeping with the spirit of Advent season, as we anticipate the second advent of our Lord. Is that future peace the central hope of Christianity? Is that kingdom-to-come the fulfilment of Bible prophecy?

Here's how the prophet behind the distinctive second section of the book of Isaiah set about proclaiming peace.

Comfort my people; bring comfort to them,
says your God;
speak kindly to Jerusalem
and proclaim to her
that her term of bondage is served,
her penalty is paid;
for she has received at the LORD’s hand
double measure for all her sins.

A voice cries:
‘Clear a road through the wilderness for the LORD,
prepare a highway across the desert for our God.
Let every valley be raised,
every mountain and hill be brought low,
uneven ground be made smooth,
and steep places become level.
Then will the glory of the LORD be revealed
and all mankind together will see it.
The LORD himself has spoken.’ ...

Climb to a mountaintop,
you that bring good news to Zion;
raise your voice and shout aloud,
you that carry good news to Jerusalem,
raise it fearlessly;
say to the cities of Judah, ‘Your God is here!’
Here is the Lord GOD; he is coming in might,
coming to rule with powerful arm.
His reward is with him,
his recompense before him.
Like a shepherd he will tend his flock
and with his arm keep them together;
he will carry the lambs in his bosom
and lead the ewes to water.

Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11

The comfort that we expect our prince of peace to bring at his second advent is a familiar theme. But in all four gospels this passage is quoted of John the Baptiser (Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4, John 1:23), who was the herald of Jesus the Christ's first advent. The comfort of Israel's Messiah has already come to the people of God. His words were preached to Jerusalem two thousand years ago. The shepherd was there to tend his flock, and if we believe that Jesus lives then we believe that he is tending it still (see especially John 10:1-18).

It's common in my tradition to push back against any hint of God acting in the present, even indirectly. Maybe it's even inevitable in Evangelical traditions that emphasise the future kingdom over all other aspects of the gospel. There's a counter-voice in the Isaiah 40 passage that expresses a similar sentiment (though for quite different reasons: biblical lament and Evangelical nihilism are not the same things).

A voice says, ‘Proclaim!’
and I asked, ‘What shall I proclaim?
All mortals are grass,
they last no longer than a wild flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the blast of the LORD blows on them.
Surely the people are grass!'
The grass may wither, the flower fade,
but the word of our God will endure for ever.

Isaiah 40:6-8 (punctuation following Baltzer) 

The prophet is expressing the trauma and pain of a people in exile. By contrast, a theology convinced that its only hope is in the future is naturally convinced of the irretrievable brokenness of the present. But Advent is the season of "now and not yet", because the Christian hope – Israel's Messiah – has already changed the world by his first coming. If we cut out the "now" from our theology, then what is left? What could we make of Jesus' own words from John's gospel?

‘Peace is my parting gift to you, my own peace, such as the world cannot give. Set your troubled hearts at rest, and banish your fears. You heard me say, “I am going away, and I am coming back to you.” If you loved me you would be glad that I am going to the Father; for the Father is greater than I am. I have told you now, before it happens, so that when it does happen you may have faith.

John 14:27-29

Yes, Jesus is coming back: but if we accept the whole of Jesus’ message then we also have to believe that he left his peace with us. So where is it? What is it doing? Is it only inside us, a shadow of a promise of a peace to come at a future time? Are we only to proclaim the existence of the straight way in the wilderness, the potential of paths that are no longer crooked? Are we nothing but museum tour guides in The Jesus Of Nazareth Experience, a static exhibition of the life and times of a man who came from God to teach people about the future?

The straight way in the wilderness is not there for us to admire like tourists: Jesus made us a straight way so that we could walk it. Jesus brought peace, and spoke comfort, so that we could recognise and demonstrate that peace in our lives, our churches, and our world. We are waiting for Jesus to come again, but we already confess that "Jesus is Lord". If the Reign of God has not already begun, then in what sense is Jesus our 'Lord'?

Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers." (Matthew 5:9) What does that mean for the church as a community? If the peace of God dwells only in our hearts then Jesus only reigns within each person, separate and disconnected. Why even start a church? What purpose does a community serve if the Jesus Experience is only an individual, personal, internal spirituality?

I believe that Jesus lives, I believe that Jesus is Lord, and I also believe that he’s coming back. But I don’t feel at peace. I think there’s something missing here in the "now", even as we acknowledge that there is more to come in the "not yet".

A psalmist reflects on the peace of God, and just as we found with ‘hope’ last week, we find that ‘peace’ does not exist in the abstract.

LORD, you have been gracious to your land
and turned the tide of Jacob’s fortunes.
You have forgiven the guilt of your people
and put all their sins away.

You have withdrawn all your wrath
and turned from your hot anger.

God our saviour, restore us
and abandon your displeasure towards us.
Will you be angry with us for ever?
Must your wrath last for all generations?
Will you not give us new life
that your people may rejoice in you?
LORD, show us your love
and grant us your deliverance.

Let me hear the words of God the LORD:
he proclaims peace to his people and loyal servants;
let them not go back to foolish ways.
Deliverance is near to those who worship him,
so that glory may dwell in our land.
Love and faithfulness have come together;
justice and peace have embraced.
Faithfulness appears from earth
and justice looks down from heaven.
The LORD will grant prosperity,
and our land will yield its harvest.
Justice will go in front of him,
and peace on the path he treads.

Psalm 85

As Jesus’ blessing upon peacemakers implies, peace is not just something that God bestows - it is something in which the people of God participate, in contrast to their prior “foolish ways”. Not only that, but this way of peace brings near the deliverance and glory of God! That's not to say that we can make Jesus come back sooner. It's not about proximity in time, but proximity in experience: the people of God can build a community that will show people what that deliverance will be like. How? Because the peace of God is entwined inextricably with justice.

Read the final verse of Psalm 85 again: as God treads the path of peace, justice goes before him. If we are to be disciples of Christ, if we are to follow the way of God, then we too must be led by justice. Dr King succinctly identified this key to the Jesus way of peace in his Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963). He described the biggest obstacle to the abolition of segregation and 'Jim Crow' laws in the US as

...the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice...

We are a people waiting for their Messiah to return, but if we are a people who focus our theology of peace on living unobtrusively, comfortably, biding time until deliverance simply arrives, then we are not living the peace of Jesus. We can talk about the way of peace until we are blue in the face, but Jesus expects us to walk the way. If we are not following justice, then we are not being peacemakers.

As we reflect on the peace of Christ this Advent, reflect too on this most biblical of rallying cries: "No justice, no peace." What does our God require of us? Only to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). And if like me you do not find yourself at peace in this season of the prince of peace, then perhaps you too are feeling the call of justice.

So follow the call. Justice is ahead of us on the straight road of peace through the desert, waiting for us to follow her in the way of peace. There will be a time when justice arrives fully, in the coming of our Lord Jesus; but Jesus is also Lord now, and blessed are the peacemakers.