Being Present with Peace

December 10, 2023
Mark 1:1-8; Genesis 1:1

The Gospel of Mark, like the Gospel of John, does not offer us an account of Jesus’ birth. Instead, it jumps right into the heart of the matter: Good News. Mark 1:1:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the child of God.

As I spent time being present with the text this week, the first verse began to ring for me like an echo of Genesis 1:1:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

For fun I tried interweaving the two verses as a sort of poem and found this:

In the beginning

The beginning of

God created

The good news

The heavens

Of Jesus Christ

And the earth

The child of God.

In this interweaving we find an expansive image of creation – one that reminds us that good news is imbued in the celestial, in that which is earthy, and everything in between. All of creation is part of God’s good news.

Good news is something we may not easily expect in this day and age. My phone has a news widget on it that updates the current headlines multiple times throughout the day, notifying me of potentially significant breaking news. Rarely do I find those headlines leading me on a path towards life-giving, good news. Most often those headlines offer phrases of warning, caution, death, and destruction. They are often an invitation to anxiety, fear, and unrest.

I cannot totally blame the media for the leaning of these messages. After all, what they are reporting is some of what is happening in the world. People are treating each other poorly, we are caught up in systems of consumption, power, and greed through which, and in defense of which, we are killing each other and creation. And yet I also won’t let the media off the hook for how it tells and spins the messages it offers us to sway our thinking and allegiances.

The media isn’t required to feed our anxiety. Other models are possible. In addition to the mainstream media headlines that swirl around me, I also read news sources that are specifically looking for the good happening in the world. I get daily email updates from The Good Newspaper which reports on things happening around the globe that are hopeful signs of people choosing connection, justice, and compassion. And they don’t just report a story – they also explicitly help me understand why it is good news – what the rippling impact and potential these activities might have in the world.  And yet these are not the stories and headlines of mainstream media – in part because messages of fear and uncertainty pique our interest. They call to us with noise and chaos through which it can be hard to hear and sense the good news that is relentlessly bound to all of creation.

The good news of Jesus, as recorded in Mark, begins with a voice crying out in the wilderness. Here we encounter John the Baptizer embodying the words of another earlier prophet: Isaiah, who cried out: “Make ready the way of our God. Clear a straight path.”

Make a way for God in the world, John cries, make a way for God in the world by turning towards God and turning away from the noise and chaos, the systems of consumption, power, and greed that drive us away from justice, peace, and life. Repent is John’s cry – reconnect with the source of life and thrive!

John offers those who respond to his call a baptism with water – a sign of their repentance – a sign of turning towards God, of choosing to be present with God and to be a presence of God’s love in the world.

John’s message is an invitation for us to take part in the preparation, in the making of space and a path for God’s love in the world. A message of good news deeply needed.

Much like the message Isaiah originally offered was another message of good news needed in its day. Isaiah’s message is one that, instead of calling for action and repentance on the part of the people, is a message of comfort and presence: Comfort, o comfort, my people.

These are words spoken to a group of people who have been in exile, whose time of exile is coming to an end: It’s time of service is ended.   

People who will be traveling a long and winding path out of exile, through the wilderness towards home. And the message is a reminder that God will be present on the road. In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight a highway in the desert for our God.

This is not a path for the people to travel – this is a path for God’s presence and movement in the world. A presence that is transformative:

Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low; let every cliff become plain, and the ridges become a valley!

Turn the world as we understand it upside down, transform expectations and patterns – and then:

Then the Glory of God will be revealed and all humankind will see it.

And what is revealed after all that tumult and transformation?

A care-taking shepherd who feeds the flock, gathers them in, holding them close, and leading them with gentleness and presence in the midst of their relationships with each other.

After all of Isaiah’s grand imagery of expectation and promise and turbulent preparation – what comes to pass? A care-taking shepherd in relationship.

This revelation is the antithesis of turmoil and unrest. It is peace.

God’s presence invites us to spaces of peace.

When we participate in preparing and clearing a path for God, we are remembering and claiming the good news ringing throughout creation: peace is possible.

Often when we hear the word peace we bump it up against the realities of violence and war. Peace is much more complex, or perhaps nuanced is the word I am looking for because God’s peace isn’t about the absence of war or violence, though that may be a side effect. The opposite of peace is more like: unrest – which comes in all sorts of forms – societal, cultural, political, interpersonal, intrapersonal – it is multifaceted – which, in turn, means that peace is also multifaceted.

Being present with peace takes many forms.

One of the forms it takes is personal peace, internal peace. One of the ways we can practice tapping into that is through breathing. Last week Cindy invited us to practice being present with hope through breath…let’s practice that again, this time, being present with peace. Cindy reminded us to breathe deep into our bellies and then breathe in some more… [breathe]

Dr. Amy Oden, author of Right Here, Right Now: The Practice of Christian Mindfulness shared the following in an interview:

“What breath does, what the breath practice [does is that] we are created in our neuro systems, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system, that when we slow down and take some good deep breaths, and [I want to point out that] in the United States, we do shallow, breathing – we breath up here [in our chests] and which is constantly sending the message to our brains be anxious, be anxious! So when we slow down and take a deep breath that is one of the things that resets our nervous system. And it doesn’t automatically make us all warm and fuzzy and all our problems go away. What it does do is give us a beat, to pause [and] connect to the Source of Life who is peace.”

I remember learning some of this about our brains and nervous systems through a webinar I took during early covid days that often felt like a space of wilderness void of peace. Specifically, I remember learning that the Parasympathetic Nervous System, which is about rest & reserve (as opposed to our fight or flight reactions) is activated by exhaling! So when we breathe deep and then exhale even deeper – it allows our body to enable things like: play, creativity, energy reserves, bonding, and nurture. Breathing, and in particular, exhaling creates positive spaces in our lives. It literally makes new pathways possible.

Next time you find yourself sighing in exhaustion or exasperation, take comfort, o comfort, my people – you are clearing a path and actively being present with peace!

Breathing practices help us be present with peace even in the midst of spaces of wilderness.

Again I invite you to take a deep breath, and breathe in a bit more. And as you exhale, invite a path to peace.

When we release the breath – we are resetting, reorienting ourselves – much like those who were committing themselves to repentance as they received the waters of baptism from John. We open ourselves to new possibilities and create a space for peace of heart. A peace which doesn’t only serve ourselves, it moves us to seek the peace of others, including creation.

Being present with peace and stripping away distractions through the practice of opening our hearts, clears a path towards internal peace for us, and it also opens us to the painful, heartbreaking, suffering that is present in the world. The more we experience peace, the more clearly we begin to identify that which is not peace around us all. Practicing peace increases our empathy and invites us to be present and outraged in the midst of suffering.

It moves us to be voices crying out for paths that make ways for peace in the midst of violence and suffering.

A voice cries out in the wilderness…voices crying out in protest, voices crying out for a ceasefire in Gaza, voices crying out for creation care, voices crying out for systemic change. Clear the paths through these spaces of wilderness – make way for life!

John’s ministry is rooted in the wilderness. God, who imbued all of creation with goodness, opens unexpected paths to peace in spaces of wilderness – right in the midst of the most difficult of places and circumstances. We are invited to take part in preparing those spaces by being present with peace in our relationships with ourselves, each other, with creation, and with God. In so doing, we are voices crying out in the wilderness, offering comfort to spaces in need of comfort, and clearing a path for the transformative kindom of God which is already and not yet present – is both, and, just as peace is present now, and is still to come.

Transformation isn’t a once and done event – there isn’t one way, one solution of peace that we can find and make happen. Peace is multifaceted. It is active in and through relationships and ongoing efforts to clear pathways towards life again and again and again as we continuously encounter spaces in need and choose to participate in crying out for and helping create possibilities for realignment.

John’s baptism of water invites people into participation; to being present with God and to be a presence of God’s love in the world. John’s ministry also reveals that the one who has and is still coming into the world offers a baptism not of water, but of the Holy Spirit – the transforming presence of God with us.

Peace is made possible through relationship. Us being present with ourselves. Us being present with each other. Us being present with creation. Us being present with God and God with us. Emmanuel. That’s good news.