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City Church

THE PARISH CHURCH OF ST MARY THE VIRGIN, HENLEY-ON-THAMES

The Second Sunday of Advent

Dec 5, 2020, Author: Fr Jeremy Tayler

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Psalm 85
Isaiah 40.1-11
2 Peter 3.8-15a
Mark 1.1-8

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

Today’s psalm, Psalm 85, is another of my favourites. It is in some ways quite similar to Psalm 80 which we heard last Sunday: like Psalm 80, it is a prayer for the restoration of God’s favour; like Psalm 80, there is the request that God’s face should be turned towards Israel: “Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?”, or in Coverdale’s translation: “Wilt thou not turn again, and quicken us : that thy people may rejoice in thee?”

The thing I particularly like about this Psalm is the pair of images that comes towards its end: “Mercy and truth are met together : righteousness and peace have kissed each other”. There is an interesting question here about translation: Coverdale uses a combination of the present and past tenses; modern translations tend to use the future. I am no Hebrew scholar, although I do know that biblical Hebrew has no future tense as such, but it does seem that the future tense would fit better in a prayer for a restoration of God’s favour. But the images of mercy and truth meeting together, and righteousness and peace kissing each other, whether in the past or future tense, raise some interesting questions: what is the relationship between these qualities? Why is it that they are portrayed in the psalm almost as being introduced to each other, or as being reconciled to each other with a kiss? Do mercy and truth, righteousness and peace, not naturally belong together?

The answer to this little group of questions is not as straightforward as we might at first imagine.

Take for example the relationship between righteousness and peace. We think of peace as an absence of violence or conflict. Absence of violence or conflict within the world, within an empire or a state, within a community or family, within the Church. Peace can be achieved in a variety of ways. In international politics, we might think of the Pax Romana, or for that matter the Pax Britannica or the Pax Americana.

Peace in this model is achieved through the political hegemony brought about by a combination of military and economic power, efficient administration, and often a certain sort of moral authority that comes from having a positive story to project to the wider world. It is ultimately a peace that comes from the dominance of one actor amongst a number of potentially or actually conflicting actors. There may be better or worse dominant powers – I think most of us would rather live in a world dominated by the USA than one dominated by Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union – but in the end this sort of peace doesn’t really have anything much to do with righteousness. It is ultimately a matter of power, and all anyone can do is hope that the dominant nation is ruled by a relatively benign regime.

An analogous situation within a family would be where a sort of domestic peace is achieved by the dominance of a single family member. One person successfully accruing decision-making powers to themselves in a household is in some respects a pretty effective way of achieving one sort of peace and quiet – a more democratic household will have many more arguments as each significant decision is thrashed out.

But the sort of peace based on dominance and power doesn’t have any natural connection with righteousness, and can often be a cover for some pretty serious unrighteousness. Just ask Boudica what she thinks of the Pax Romana, or Gandhi what he thinks of the Pax Britannica, or Salvadore Allende what he thinks of the Pax Americana. Jesus Himself was sacrificed at least in part in the service of such a peace.

And for this reason, peace based on power and dominance is always transient. A successful hegemon may achieve a couple of hundred years of dominance and relative peace, but in the end the various injustices and grievances that have been suppressed by their power will come bubbling to the surface, with more or less violent and chaotic results.

And if we think of the problem from the other end, that of righteousness or justice, we find something similar. Justice can be pursued by violent means. We can think of examples from any number of liberation struggles, or any number of American movies with their beguiling stories of redemptive violence: the hero finally comes face-to-face with the villain, gunning them down before walking into the sunset. But the justice achieved by violence turns out to be as illusory as the peace achieved through power: violent revenge becomes a habit, it takes on a life of its own, the liberator quickly becomes the new oppressor, and the cycle of injustice and revenge keeps on turning.

We can find similar complexities in the relationship between mercy and truth, although since I don’t want to keep you here all day I won’t go into that right now!

It seems to me that the psalmist has something like this in mind when they write “Righteousness and peace have kissed each other”. There is a hope here not for a peace based on power, nor for a righteousness based on violence, but for a restoration in which righteousness and peace can be reconciled. Such a reconciliation is difficult to attain, but from everything I have said already it is hopefully pretty clear that the only real peace, the only lasting peace, can be peace with righteousness; and the only real righteousness, the only lasting righteousness, can be righteousness with peace.

This reconciliation of peace and righteousness that is the prophetic vision of the psalmist is difficult to attain; this reconciliation of peace and righteousness that is the vision of the psalmist is ultimately the work of God in Jesus Christ.

And that is why John the Baptist must come first. He appears in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This is the beginning of the restoration longed for by the psalmist, the coming together of mercy and truth, of righteousness and peace. Repentance is the start, repentance is the preparation, repentance is the first step. Honesty and acknowledgement of wrongdoing renders the accusatory finger redundant, repentance makes a nonsense of revenge, and repentance prepares the way for grace in the wilderness of our wrongdoing and conflict.

When we think about peace and unity in the world, peace and unity in our nation, in the Church, in our communities, in our homes, we must not seek a peace and unity that is based on an indifference to the claims of righteousness, we must not seek a peace and unity that is based on papering over the cracks of injustice. And when we think about righteousness and justice in the world, righteousness and justice in our nation, in the Church, in our communities, in our homes, we must not seek righteousness and justice with violence, metaphorical or real; we must not seek righteousness and justice with a struggle in which the ends justify the means, we must not seek righteousness and justice with a struggle that doesn’t care who or what is damaged and trampled in the process, with a struggle that becomes a habit and takes on a life of its own.

So this Advent, let us prepare the way of the Lord with repentance, let us turn our attention to the violence and injustice within our own hearts. Let us pray that through true repentance our hearts may be open to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, so that in and through His Church the prophetic vision of the psalmist may be fulfilled: “Mercy and truth are met together : righteousness and peace have kissed each other”.

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.