Mark 8:31-38 CEB
Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: “The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.” He said this plainly. But Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him. Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”
After calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them. Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? What will people give in exchange for their lives? Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this unfaithful and sinful generation, the Human One will be ashamed of that person when he comes in the Father’s glory with the holy angels.
“In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas [...], there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is. The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room a child is sitting [...]”
Author Ursula LeGuin imagines a city where all the happiness of its inhabitants rests upon the utter wretchedness of one lone child. The child is locked away in this basement closet, never to receive a touch of sunlight, no kind word, and it can never be let out. If it were, all the happiness and prosperity of the city of Omelas would collapse. All the citizens of this city know that this child is there, and they all know that their peace and plenty result from its misery. Now, most of the citizens can live with this sacrifice, they let their “tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it.” Not everyone can accept it, however, some of the young people and those in their elder years do not rage and sob, instead, they walk away from Omelas into the unknown reaches beyond.
Often Christians, especially in this season leading up to Christmas, hold up and promote a kind of harmonious peace, one without conflict. We will not let anything threaten our tranquil holiday spirit, and so we allow this wishful thinking to cover our harsher realities. We, like the citizens of Omelas, accept a kind of faux peace. This fake peace is often easier to maintain and swallow for many of us rather than facing the uncomfortable truths that lurk just below the surface. However, Christ in Mark confronts our fantasies, flipping them over to reveal harsh realities beneath. These realities are the things that need to be wrestled with to truly arrive at peace, the shalom of the kingdom of God, a peace that only arrives when all people find wholeness.
When I say fake peace, I mean the special kind of peacekeeping that happens during our holiday season, when we are desperate to avoid any conflict. We strive to make it through Christmas without any major blow ups with family and friends, so we avoid mentioning certain subjects. We are certain if we can make it through to New Year’s Day without any arguments or hurt feelings, we have achieved peace! It is the same kind of peace we sometimes see maintained on the global stage where as long as we are not actively fighting one another, we must be at peace! We have accepted false peace, defined by its absence of conflict, so don’t anybody rock the boat by bringing up the next presidential election or what happened to Aunt Diane’s baking dish or why cousin Stacey hasn’t gotten married yet! Surely, that’s the peace on earth, goodwill to all the angels speak about to the shepherds, right?
Except, when we take a look at the Gospel of Mark, we see a different story, a different kind of peace. Jesus is not interested in keeping the peace as much as Jesus is interested in achieving shalom. Now, shalom is a funny word, it means “peace,” but it implies not only an “absence of violence,” but also “included the presence of justice and economic well-being for all.” Now, we might be on board with the absence of violence, but many get a bit leery about talk of justice and economic well-being, as though mentioning them is somehow bringing politics into our religion. And yet, Jesus is political in Mark, as Jesus opposes “all the forces that threaten such peace [shalom] – whether those are forces within us individually or communally.” In other words, Jesus is concerned about how our world operates, especially about the systems and forces in our world that keep people hungry and neglected, promote huge disparities in wealth, and maintain indifference to human suffering.
If you don’t believe me, I would invite you to turn to Mark 11 where Jesus enters Jerusalem just before the Passover. Here his entrance into the city is an overt political act, as he processes into the city the same day that Pontius Pilate, governor of the province of Judea, processes into the city with soldiers at his back, ready to keep the peace. Their peace is at the tip of the spear and the edge of a sword, to ensure that this festival “celebrating the Jewish people’s liberation from a previous empire (Egypt) would not inspire them to rise up against their current imperial rulers.” Into Jerusalem rides Jesus, not at the head of an army but on the back of a young donkey, echoing the words from Zechariah 9:9:
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (NRSV).
Instead of achieving peace by force and threat of violence, Christ will, in the words of Zechariah 9:10:
“He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations” (NRSV).
Mark invites the gospel’s audience to compare the two. Mark uses Jesus’ entry to make a political point: here is the difference between the true peace of the kingdom of God and the fake peace of the kingdoms of the world.
It doesn’t stop there either, as immediately after this entry into Jerusalem, Jesus confronts the exploitative practices of the temple. In Mark 11:15-17, Jesus enters the temple, destroying property and kicking out the money changers. The temple used its own currency for making offerings and purchasing sacrifices. Here the money changers could charge exorbitant rates in exchanging money from the people coming to worship at the temple in order to convert it into temple currency. You’ll notice that Mark 11:15, says that Jesus “pushed over [...] the chairs of those who sold doves.” Why doves? Doves are the sacrificial option of the poor, to have Jesus target them, means we are charging more than what could easily be afforded for what should be the most accessible sacrifice. They were exploiting the people, robbing them, and putting up economic barriers between the poor and their well-being, threatening God’s shalom that should be found in the kingdom.
Jesus does not avoid conflict because conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, Jesus confronted the systems and practices of his day that kept true peace from coming about. This made him enemies! You see, fake peace does not benefit everyone. Often when we keep the peace during the holidays, it is because we are worried about upsetting somebody, whether that’s the majority or the minority, usually whoever has the power or control in our families, so we stay quiet. Shalom demands the wholeness of all people, and that things are made right for everyone, not just for some. We have a responsibility to confront the aspects of our lives, individually and communally that prevent the wholeness, shalom and true peace, of all people. Here Jesus chimes in again in Mark 8 to say “The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.” Jesus says that this is how God will achieve peace, not through power but through “humility, sacrifice, and love.” Peter gets upset, as this disrupts the fake peace he wants, that he’s comfortable with. He wants a Jesus who will be a “warrior-Messiah who will defeat Israel’s enemy.” Christ rebukes him, and so rebukes fake peace. Peace cannot be obtained through violence, domination, and the silencing of those who disagree. We have to wade into conflict and through it to find a place where all people, where both Israelites and Romans, find wholeness.
Today, we still often find ourselves looking like Peter in Mark. Today, politics demands that each of us settle in our own corners of the spectrum to proudly and stubbornly insist that we alone are in the right. If we cannot settle it through fighting, we sink into bitter silence where even a hint of controversy dredges up hostilities and anger. We don’t know how to comfortably arrive at a peace we are content with, so we accept a fake peace instead. Jesus does not desire our comfort, but the justice and the well-being of all. This cannot be found in silence. It cannot be found in saying that our peace, our vision of the world is right, regardless of others. It cannot be found in sitting back and saying that it is too difficult to deal with poverty or hunger or neglect, so we will accept its existence as the price for our prosperity. We as Christians have a different task. We are called to healthy conflict, a conflict where we take up the cross, “saying no to [ourselves]” in order to follow Christ. What in ourselves and our communities keeps peace from happening? What keeps people hungry? What keeps people poor? What silences, what stills, what kills? What do we need to end so that everyone may have enough to thrive? What do we need to do so that no one dies because of violence? What must we do to see that what is right and good for all is achieved? If any suffer, we do not have peace. If any are homeless, jobless, and alone, we do not have shalom! If there is even one child left wretched in the bottom closet of our society, the peaceful bliss we drape over our lives in this holiday season is a lie. Alone, changing the world is impossible, but that is why Christ entered this world so that we do not take up this cross alone. We go with the grace of God and the support of Jesus. With these in hand, we can prepare a world that is truly ready for lasting and eternal peace. Amen.
 Urusla K. LeGuin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters,” ed. Ursula K. Le Guin (New York: Harper Perennial, 1975), 275-284.
 Ibid., 283.
 Tracy S. Daub, Holy Disruption: Discovering Advent in the Gospel of Mark (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2022), 41-42.
 Ibid., 42.
 Ibid., 49.
 Ibid., 46.
 David Fenton Smith, “Mark” in Wesley One Volume Commentary, eds. Kenneth J. Collins and Robert W. Wall (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2020), 588-614.
Pastor Paul Grossman