Isaiah 40:1-11 and Luke 3:7-18
Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston
It’s the 2nd week of Advent--Christmas is coming--the pace has picked up. Tasks have multiplied. Lists have gotten longer. Patience has gotten shorter. In the midst of the hustle and bustle, we may have a time when we put our hands over our ears and cry out as the Grinch who Stole Christmas did, “Noise, noise, noise.” 15 days until Christmas Eve. Many of us may be looking forward to that moment when all the shopping and wrapping are done, we can do no more, and we get the end of the church service and sing that beloved hymn Silent Night, which ends with “Sleep in heavenly peace.” We look forward to sleeping in heavenly peace. But, for now, just a little peace in our lives would do just fine.
According to the dictionary, peace means quiet, tranquility, serenity, cessation of war. The image that comes to mind is a babe, free of stress, struggles, and strife, asleep in heavenly peace.
But, according to the Bible, peace has a different meaning. The word we translate as peace is actually the Hebrew word Shalom, which means wholeness or completeness. It doesn’t mean the absence of stress, struggle, or strife, but the restoration of relationships with others, oneself, and with God. Peace is not about silencing the discord, but finding a harmony within it.
Both readings from the bible today are about peace, but the messengers are hardly quiet and the messages are far from serene.
Isaiah comes on the scene crying out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God..every valley lifted up, every mountain made low, uneven ground level and the rough places a plain..., for mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
And then there’s John the Baptist. Who let him in to ruin another perfectly good peaceful Advent? John is in the wilderness, crying out: “You brood of vipers...Repent….Bear fruits worthy of repentance….Whoever has two coats, share with one who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise”...With many exhortations he proclaimed the good news to the people.
What’s so good about this news?
Isaiah and John stir the pot and turn up the heat, when we just want to keep calm and carry on.
Isaiah and John preach fire and brimstone, calling us to examine our lives and open up the closest of our consciences, when we just want to sing Silent Night, Sleep in heavenly peace and drift off to sleep….
Isaiah and John take us into the wilderness, when we just want to stay inside our perfectly decorated houses, and stay comfy and cozy and peaceful.
Isaiah and John announce the coming of the Prince of Peace, but this is only a peace that can only be found in the midst of the wilderness.
The wilderness is not just a place far away and long ago. It is not a metaphorical literary device. It is a real place in our lives today. It lies just beyond our comfort zone. It lies just beyond our programmed responses, “I am fine,” “Everything will be alright,” “It just takes time.”
We keep a firm line drawn between us and the wilderness, but it doesn’t take much to slip into it.
Throughout my ministry, I have discovered just how close the wilderness lies to many seemingly put together lives:
To a woman I mentioned the name Brent Dugan, who died 12 years ago, and instantly tears filled her eyes, her voice quivered, and out came grief and guilt mixed together in a stream of emotion. I realized we were in the wilderness.
To a woman I asked, “how is your mother?” She said, “good, the pet scan was clear,” but then with a shaky voice, she said, “This is the third time she has battled cancer, and I am scared.” I realized we were in the wilderness.
To a man whose son died I expressed sympathy. He said, “It’s for the better, he doesn’t have to suffer any more.” I said, “yes, but it is still hard to lose a son.” He got quiet for a long time, then said, “yes it is.” I realized we were in the wilderness.
From the man who could not forgive himself for his addiction to the woman who could not forgive her husband for his infidelity to the couple who could not forgive God for the death of their child, I have been in the wilderness with many people and it is deep.
Whoever we are, we all have things in our lives that lie just over the line of our happy face life. We all have pain we would rather not face, people we would rather not forgive, sin we would rather not confess, hurts we don’t know how they could ever be healed, …..We all live right on the edge of the wilderness.
Isaiah and John take us into the wilderness. Why? Because that’s where we can best hear the Good news. That’s the only place we can find peace. Not the peace that comes by pretending that all is calm and bright, but by acknowledging the stress and strife and inviting God into our struggles--so that God can come to lift up the valleys of grief and make the mountains of guilt low. To make the uneven ground of anger level and make the rough places of anxiety a plain. That’s the only place we can find healing, wholeness, restoration of relationships, harmony, the true peace of shalom.
One time I asked a group of church members what was their favorite part of the worship service. I expected to hear “music” and I did. I expected to hear “the Lord’s supper” and I did. I expected to hear “Time with the Children” and I did. I hoped I would hear “sermon” and it came up eventually. But what I did not expect to hear was “the prayer of confession and declaration of forgiveness.” After the woman said it, everyone got quiet. I realized that we had stepped just over the line into the wilderness. The woman said, “Every Sunday I come to church needing to confess my sins. And then I wait, holding my breath, hoping and praying and needing to hear you say, “Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace.” And after you say those words, I can breathe. I am restored. I am whole. I am at peace.
I came across this poem this week: Toward the Light (Ann Weems, Kneeling in Bethlehem)
Too often our answer to the darkness
is not running toward Bethlehem
but running away.
We ought to know by now that we can’t see
where we’re going in the dark.
Running away is important…
separation is stylish:
separation from mates, from friends, from self.
Run and tranquilize,
don’t talk about it,
Run away and join the army
of those who have already run away.
When are we going to learn that Christmas Peace
comes only when we turn and face the darkness?
Only then will we be able to see
the Light of the World.
This Advent, what if we did not close our ears to Isaiah and John? What if we did not run away from the wilderness, but ventured in? What if we turned and faced the darkness? What if we called some of our demons out of hiding? What if we let go of some of the past hurts? What if we opened our minds to the possibility of reconciliation? What if we made a list of the changes we can make for good or who or what we need to make peace with? What if we made room in our hearts for the coming of the One to make all things new? Then we might find true peace, the peace that passes understanding, the peace the world cannot give, the peace that only comes from Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. If we did, then, only then, will we truly be able to sleep in heavenly peace.
This time of year, on this Sunday of Advent, as we light the second candle, we pray for Jesus to come again as the Prince of Peace. We trust he will come again, and not as an infant no crying he makes, asleep in heavenly peace, but as a voice for justice, for righteousness, for mercy and for peace. He is coming to bring peace to the world, but the way in which he brings it is through you and me, through our reconciliation and right relationships, through our healing and harmony, through our confession and completeness, through our willingness to go into the wilderness and come out whole. He is coming to give us peace with the hope and expectation that we will pass it on, for that is when we discover the true power of peace.
The peace of Christ be with you.