Sermon for December 5th

First Reading Malachi 3:1-4

Second Reading Philippians 1:3-11

Gospel Readings Luke 1:57-80; Luke 3:1-6

Sermon “Getting Ready for Peace”

As we began our service this morning at the Advent wreath this morning, we lit the Candle of Peace to add to the candle of Hope that we lit last week. We heard the stirring words of the Prophet Isaiah describing a glorious time yet to come when the wolf will lie down with the lamb and the earth will be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea. Dear Lord, May it be so soon! What wonderful, beautiful thoughts and images those verses give us. Then as we read the scriptures appointed for today, we hear of a messenger with a job to do, and of a refiners fire from Malachi, of a prayer from Paul for completion of a bare beginning and a longing for the knowledge of God not yet fully realized. Then we heard from the beginning of Luke about the birth of that very prophesied special messenger and his call in the wilderness to prepare and make ready.

By these words, we come to understand that some serious, seemingly unbridgeable gaps exist between that future and our present state. Today, as things exist, merely putting the lamb and the lion together will not result in peace, quite the opposite in fact. Its not in their natures – not yet, but one day it will. In the meantime – preparations and must be made and transformations await. That’s what Advent is about. Its a time of preparation and taking stock of ourselves, as we approach the mystery of the incarnation – God doing the unthinkable and taking on human flesh, so that we might come to meet him face to face and learn better of God’s great love for us. The net result will be a profound and blessed peace with God and across the created order.

Peace is one of those words that English has a hard time with. Like the word love, It can mean so many different things! What do you think about when you hear the word peace? The absence of noise perhaps? – as in Peace and quiet. Maybe it’s the absence of violence, fighting and war? But the absence of violence doesn’t necessarily mean peace does it – it might merely reflect the inability to do anything about some terrible injustice. We speak of peace in worship as well. Just a few minutes ago following the prayer of confession, we heard the words of the Assurance of Pardon which concluded with the words “The Peace of Christ be with you all”. That peace is different yet. It implies an absence of the fear of judgement – a new and abiding relationship with our God. It might be thought of in this way: We are the lambs and Lion of Judah invites to come to him in Peace and security. It is a great and gracious gift, which requires only that we realize we are desperately in need of it.

There are other words in other languages that have more specific meanings closer to what scripture has in mind when it uses the word Peace. As Jesus was with his disciples near the end of his ministry on earth – he said. (John 14:27 NIV)

[27] “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” What needs to change for us to have that kind of peace? The Hebrew word often translated as peace in the Old Testament is Shalom. It has a fairly specific meaning above and beyond quiet or the absence of conflict. Interestingly, it is also used to this day as a blessing when meeting or parting from someone – a bit like they use the word Aloha in Hawaii.

In his book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, author Cornelius Plantinga, former President of Calvin Theological Seminary, describes the Old Testament concept of shalom this way: “The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.”

I like that definition a lot – so the question is, how so we get there from here. Take one quick look at the newspaper, TV or computer screen and you must immediately realize that things are NOT the way they should be, not even close. Malachi reminds us this morning that when God and humans meet, things are going to change. That’s the message – God is coming, things are going to change. His words, like many of those of the OT prophets are true more than once and in more than one way.

Yes, they were aimed at the situation in his day where the temple had become corrupt and Malachi was the messenger God had sent to warn them – that actually what his name means in Hebrew – “my messenger”. His words also look forward to the ministry of John the Baptist who we read about from Luke this morning – one sent to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah – God’s own son – or as John would eventually name him – “Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world”. Thirdly, it seems a direct prophesy of what happened when Jesus came to the temple of his day and cast out the money changers and sellers of sacrificial animals and folks using the sacred temple court, intended as a place of prayer for the nations as a shortcut to the eastern gate of the city. An example of Laundry soap in action – cleaning away the things that foul and spoil. Though these are not what we think of as “peaceful” actions and words, they do point us to the way of God’s shalom.

John the Baptist holds a special spot in our Advent texts every year. He occupies a special spot of connection between the OT prophets and the Son of God. He appears as one hundreds of years out of the past to announce something wonderful and new. Just like the OT stories, he speaks in the wilderness. That sacred space of preparation and formation. The significance of the wilderness was established in Jewish history long before John the Baptist showed up there. The Bible portrays the wilderness as a place of desolation and scarcity, but also as a place of safety and divine provision. Millennia before, Moses had lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. But they were not ready to be a nation yet, much less ready to faithfully serve God. The wilderness was the place of preparation. It was there that they saw the powerful works of God – water from the rock, bread from heaven, the law spoken from the mountaintop and the tabernacle established in the center of their camp. There, in the wilderness, they were disciplined and instructed and prepared. They were taught to depend on God.

Think also of young David as he runs to the wilderness to escape Saul’s wrath, or as the prophet Elijah flees from persecution of Ahab and Jezebel into the wilderness. The imagery of the wilderness repeats often in the prophets texts, and also includes promises of abundance and joy (such as Isaiah 35:1: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom …”). So patience dear brothers and sisters, we will get to the Christmas carols shortly – Joy to the World and Silent Night will be sung in Candlelight in a few short weeks. But we need to get ready. We need to put away some things and take up others. This is a time to listen and ponder. Its a time to be honest with ourselves and with our God.

We need to be attentive to an inner process of self-preparation in our our hearts and minds. This is captured so well by Steve Garnaas-Holmes in his daily blog “Unfolding Light” this week: he begins with the Luke’s recollection of Isaiah’s prophesy about the mission of John the Baptist and focuses our attention, not out there, not “those people” who need to be transformed, but to me and you, in here, in our inner most being. Listen:

Prepare the way of the Holy One,
                      make straight paths for God.
           Every valley shall be filled,
                      and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
           and the crooked shall be made straight,
                      and the rough ways made smooth.

                                      —Luke 3.4-5

The driveway into my heart is an obstacle course.
My trust of God goes up and down like a mountain range.
The words I say twist and turn around
what ought to be clear and true.
My thoughts are rough, rumpled and pitted and marred.
Roots of the trees of all my desires
have heaved up the sidewalk.

The wilderness where you, O Mystery, prepare a way
is my own troubled mind.
Simplify my trust. Undistort my eyes.
Still me.
Smooth my heart, Love, till you can roller skate there
with your eyes closed.

That is a poetic description of peace, where peace must start – in me, in you before it can spread among us and out from us

As I conclude this reflection, let me bring that last passage out of Luke up to date for us. Remember that list of impressive old names that Luke uses to set the place and time from John’s appearance and proclamation? The mention of the names of these mighty powers elicits some rather poignant and profound irony. Remember how it went? Luke 3:1-6 NIV [1] In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— [2] during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. [3] He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. [4] As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. [5] Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. [6] And all people will see God’s salvation.’ ”

In Luke’s lifting up the names of the celebrities and powerful figures of his day, it seems that even to this day, nothing has changed. Our tendency to immortalize our influence with names on towers, to capitulate to people who wield power with their wealth alone, to bank the promise of our future on those who have only themselves on their minds, continues. Those names, now carry no weight outside of history books. Those empires are dust and are only evidenced by eroded ruins and broken old statues. The supposed glories of then “Pax Romana” is a footnote in the history books (and it was never very peaceful by the way). And yet, the name of Jesus remains and his kingdom is forever. Present now in fledgling form – yet to come in its full power and glory. The word still goes out: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” We look for the day when the true Shalom of God shall come upon the earth. Come quickly Lord Jesus – we remember your deeds of grace and mercy as the sing the words that John’s Father Zechariah lifted up as he named his messenger son: Luke 1:76-79 NIV

[76] And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, [77] to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, [78] because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven [79] to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”