“Peace” by Quinn Dombrowski, 2017 (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Luke 3.1-6 (NIV)
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— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 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.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’”
These Sundays leading up to Christmas, I want to think about what it might be like to prepare ourselves spiritually for Christmas … I want to look at the themes of our Advent candles and discover what it could look like to prepare our hearts to celebrate Christmas … I want to ask what it might look like to have a hopeful heart, or a peaceful heart … and I want to wrestle with how John the Baptist, the one sent by God to prepare the way for Jesus, could speak to our preparations.
Today the Carpenters lit our Peace Advent candle … I remember hearing a pastor say something like, “It is one thing to be peaceful when everything is going good, but it is another thing to be peaceful when it seems like the world falling apart all around you.” I noticed that in my heart this week – it is one thing to be peaceful when I am hiking with you all on a perfect, beautiful, Fairplay summer day … it would be pretty hard to not be peaceful under those circumstances … but it is another thing to be peaceful when my plans don’t work out … when all kinds of things come up and I just can’t seem to check anything off my to do list … when I have gotten crossways with someone I love and respect … when I feel completely stuck … those are the times when having a peaceful heart really means something.
The passage Jim read to us from Luke 3, was first heard by people who were longing for peace … they were longing to not be exploited or hurt any more … they were longing for God to act and make things different.
I think that is a big reason why people would go to all the effort to see John in the middle of nowhere.
Why would these people go so far out of their way to the wilderness so they could hear this wild, hairy, honey and bug eating, camel-skin and leather belt wearing guy call them, “A brood of vipers?” Why did they respond the way they did when he told them to repent, to line up and get dunked in the water of the Jordan River, to give up their extra coats, share whatever food they had, and to stop using their positions in life for their own advantage…
Why did they do this? Why were the crowds so receptive to John’s preaching?
It is because they were being squashed.
They were stuck.
They longed for something different.
They were the people of God, God’s holy and blessed people, but they were strangers and slaves in the land God promised them.
The Roman empire was ruling their country. Rome’s peace came from oppression and subjection … the Pax Romana (the peace of Rome) came from defeating … from squashing their enemies.
What Rome wanted to happen was what happened. When the emperor wanted to take a census (probably to make sure he was collecting enough taxes or had enough young men to serve in his military) everyone had to cancel their plans, put their lives on hold, and go wherever they were told so they could be counted. Things weren’t terrible when Augustus was emperor, but the next emperor, Tiberius, was really bad news. In some parts of the Empire people worshiped him as god (which would be difficult for Israelites to stomach), he expelled the Jews from Rome – the years at the end of his life when his mental health was fading are remembered as “pure terror.”
God’s people didn’t have their own king.
Herod, the ‘king’ was really more of a puppet. Herod didn’t have any legitimate claim to rule Israel. He came from a wealthy family that collaborated with Rome. He could only do what Rome gave him permission to do. Herod must have been pretty insecure. He was ruthless. He would go to any length to protect the power Rome granted him. Family, or anyone else, it didn’t matter, if anyone seemed like a threat he wouldn’t hesitate to do whatever it took to protect himself.
One of Herod’s big projects was rebuilding the temple – he didn’t care all that much about creating a space for people to worship God … He hoped the project would make it look like he had more of a legitimate connection to rule Israel.
They were being squashed by empires and people who were looking out for themselves …
John’s preaching promised release…
His words were like a weight being lifted off someones’ chest.
They were like fresh air …
Just like God’s prophets, God’s messengers in the Old Testament, John announced God was bringing a change … John quoted a passage from the ancient prophet Isaiah, that pointed toward God’s action to bring comfort and relief to his children who were discouraged and suffering during the time of exile.
John wanted the people to be ready for what God was doing. Soon things would be different, but first people needed to reorient and recommit themselves to God.
When we talk about Christmas peace, the peace that comes in Jesus, we are pointed to the Old Testament, and to the ancient Hebrew understanding of peace. The Hebrew word for peace is “shalom.”
Shalom is bigger than an end of conflict or war.
Shalom is bigger than quiet and tranquility … more than an escape.
Shalom has to do with wellbeing … with thriving … with wholeness … health … right relationships with God and with the people around us … Shalom depends on God’s action and it can be present in our hearts in any situation … John the Baptist prepares us to see God’s shalom … John invites us to open our hearts to Jesus Christ, the one God has sent to bring peace … wholeness … wellbeing … to us. Christ’s peace can show up in the chaos … Christ’s peace can surprise us.
Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest serves congregations in Los Angeles and works with gang members, drug addicts and drug dealers to try to point them toward new life and transformation in Christ, tells a story about a 17-year-old who was trying to change his life and figure out how to be a father to his son, and a new life away from the gangs he had been part of, had a glimpse of what he calls paradise, but what I might call Christ’s peace, or shalom.
Father Boyle writes:
After a few months of being with Homeboy [Industries – this is Father Boyle’s organization that helps former gang members to gain work experience and find jobs], Fabian stops in and plunks himself down in my office, telling me he has had a “Paradise sighting” …
“Yesterday,” he begins, “I was tooken on a ride by God to Paradise.”
“Wow,” I say to him, “I’m all ears. You had me at ‘tooken.’ ”
“Well, I drove my lady in my tore-up bucket to drop off an assignment at her school. We fought the whole [dang] time. Petty [stuff]. But we didn’t stop. The whole time. She gets out, drops off this thing, gets back in the car, and we fight all the way home. Constant. Nonstop. Gatos y perros. [Cats and dogs.] Small stuff. [Stuff] that don’t matter. Then this noise comes from the hood and smoke starts to pour out. I get off the freeway and pull into this Shell station. My [car] dies as I pull in. I had to push it the rest of the way. I called the [tow truck] and it took three hours for the tow truck to arrive.”
He pauses in his narrative long enough to smile with the tenderness of the memory.
“Paradise,” he says simply, and nods. He’s lost me here.
“See, G, for three hours we talked. We decided not to fight. We told each other how grateful we are to have each other in our lives. I mean … where would we be if we didn’t have each other. We just talked.” The smile broadens and gets fixed there. “Yeah,” he says, “Paradise” (Gregory Boyle, “Barking to the Choir,” p. 75).
There was so much about Fabian’s day that wasn’t peaceful … arguing with his girlfriend … his car breaking down on the freeway … pushing it to the gas station … having to wait 3 hours for a tow truck …
but then when he is waiting … when he is stuck … God’s peace breaks in … Fabian and his girlfriend find a moment of healing … of wellbeing … of wholeness.
God’s peace doesn’t depend on our situation … God’s peace can show up in the most chaotic and painful times … John the Baptist calls us to turn toward God and to open our hearts to Christ, so that we can recognize God’s peace and that peace can grow in us and shape our lives.