By Ellen Sims
Texts:Luke 1:68-79; Luke 3:1-6
“Bare-ly Christian” is the title of my tongue-in-cheek Advent sermon series this year. It plays off the suspicion some have that progressive Christians aren’t real Christians, and it will explore a stripped-down, soul-baring vulnerability necessary for Advent hope, peace, joy, and love. This week we explore the vulnerability necessary for peace.
I don’t know if you know this about me: I love writing sermons. I tear into each week’s Gospel text as if it were a present I’ve been waiting to unwrap. Then I spend the next few days playing with it: ruminating on it, reading it over and over, reading biblical scholarship on it, reading it alongside the other lections for the day, reading it in the context of the particular book in the Bible in which it appears, reading it with the liturgical season in mind, reading it against the backdrop of the times in which it was written, reading it with a prayerful awareness of current events, trying all the while to hear a fresh word that might nourish my spirit—and yours.
But today’s Gospel reading, wrapped in our advent theme of vulnerability and tied with the Advent ribbon of peace, sat on my desk this week like a box too heavy to lift. Not because I didn’t have something to say on this text. But because the accumulation of recent violent acts—in Paris, Colorado Springs, San Bernardino—left me too dispirited to speak “peace” from the Gospel text.
I want and need to speak peace. But as the prophet Jeremiah lamented, many speak “‘Peace, peace’,” when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14). Just speaking peace, even praying for peace, is not enough. And although last Sunday I preached on Advent Hope, I’m admitting to you that at times this week I succumbed to despair at the violence we do to one another. And worse, the violence that is our knee-jerk response in the aftermath of violence. And worse still, the violence American Christians perpetrate when reflexively girding our loins for war, spreading fear like a virus, claiming that guns are our Savior, labeling all Muslims as terrorists while marking Christian mass murderers who have religious motivations as mentally ill.
Maybe after Paris, after Colorado Springs, after San Bernardino, maybe after so many instances of police brutality have become clearer to us, maybe now is not the ideal time to continue our Advent theme of vulnerability. After all that, you’re not going to buy my argument that vulnerability is the Christian antidote to violence. Especially when you know what eventually happens to John the Baptist. And Jesus. The biblical evidence might seem on the side of the gun lobby and the Fight Back Philosophy.
But it’s when we are fearful and skeptical about lowering our defenses that we most need to explore the spiritual practice of vulnerability.
Today John the Baptizer shows us what it’s like to live vulnerably. We read only a small part of his story this morning. But you know the full story. Like Jesus, he appears in Luke’s Gospel first as a vulnerable baby. Like Jesus, he lives for a time in the unprotected in the wilderness. Like Jesus, John preaches sermons that expose him to the disapproval of powerful people. Like Jesus, John dies as a vulnerable victim of violence.
Oh dear. I’m just digging myself into a deeper rhetorical hole. Mentioning the fate of vulnerable peacemakers doesn’t help my case, does it? But even though today’s story is set in a dark time, it promises that “dawn will break upon us to give light to those sitting in the shadow of death, to guide us into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79).
Today’s story—the first in Luke’s Gospel—tells of a miraculous birth. According to Luke, the angel Gabriel first visited a righteous priest named Zechariah to announce that his barren wife Elizabeth would give birth to a child, whom they were to name John. And this miracle baby, he promised, would one day “turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God” (Luke 1:6). Eight days after John was born, he was circumcised and named, as was the custom, and his father spoke the blessing we just read. No doubt holding his still bawling baby, Zechariah spoke a blessing to acknowledge that God always kept covenant with the people of Israel. Then Zechariah spoke a blessing on his son to announce the child would one day prepare the way for the Lord, who would “guide our feet into the way of peace.”
When Zechariah pronounced his infant son’s blessing, he was not so much predicting John’s vocation as confirming it. John, like his father, descended from the priestly order of Abijah. John would grow up knowing the vocational path he would follow. But John ended up rejecting the traditional form of that vocation and instead proclaimed God’s vision not in the temple but on the outskirts of society and the fringes of religious life. I imagine John creating a disreputable “new church start” that didn’t even own its own worship space! No cushy temple job for John, who’d be known as a desert dweller. No prestigious role in the community. John gave up the trappings of polite society to live on the margins. Vulnerability requires sacrifice. (I suppose I’m still not making this vulnerability thing attractive.)
We usually think of John the Baptizer, forerunner of Jesus, as fiery rabble-rouser. After all, King Herod would eventually arrest him for, essentially, disrupting the peace. Herod, of course, was concerned about peace as defined by Imperial Rome: Pax Romana, a peace that snuffed out any sign of violent insurrection through violence. Peace enforced by a brutal military regime is not God’s peace.
But John’s vocation, from birth, was to “guide the people into [God’s] way of peace.” Not the peace of acquiescence, of winking at state-sponsored violence, of being quiet and nice. Unlike Roman peace that really meant belligerently threatening the suffering populace into submission, the peace John and Jesus preached was premised upon a just and merciful life for everyone. Both Jesus and John learned that being this kind of peacemaker was dangerous. It threatened a system protected by the sword.
But its peacemaking was also a very personal commitment.
Let’s return to Zechariah’s blessing. My paraphrase of verses 76-79 is this: We can be saved through the kind of forgiveness made possible by God’s tender compassion. Then the dawn will break in on our dark violence to guide us into the way of peace.
Peace begins just this simply—with forgiveness and compassion: When we are injured, we forgive. When another attacks, we try to summon up compassion. That doesn’t mean we let the bullies in this world run over the gentle ones, the little ones, the most vulnerable ones. But it does mean that our first response to a personal hurt or an international incident is not a violent one. It also means we realize that patterns of violence are complicated. But personal and incremental change can eventually become systemic and far reaching change.
So when we unclench our fists and soften our hearts, we can interrupt a pattern of violence. When we model for our children patience and forgiveness, we can demonstrate ways of peace. When we speak respectfully, gently, we make it more likely to resolve differences. When we carve out time for meditation, a spiritual practice proven to lower blood pressure and clarify thinking and enhance feelings of well-being, we are less likely to be reactionary, more likely to consider what another person is experiencing, and therefore more likely to deescalate violence.
In the words of today’s first song: “Every good thing that’s ever happens starts from the inside out.” You and I can start by declaring, “There’s gonna be peace in this house.” How we speak to one another, touch one another, look at one another can support or undermine the Spirit of Peace.
And in the words of another song we sang, our prayer, as clichéd as it sounds, can be this:
“Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”
However, I don’t want to oversimplify or over spiritualize God’s peace, which is neither passive nor disengaged from the messiness and downright harshness of this world’s politics. We see just how dangerous it was for John to try to call for God’s peace while inside the Roman Empire. The baptizer literally lost his head for disturbing the peace for the sake of authentic peace.
We, too, must engage the bigger, largely political systems. Think of just some of the political hot potatoes you, a voter, must handle and then measure against God’s compassion and peace: the treatment of immigrants, the regulation of weapons, the persistence of racism and sexism and heterosexism, the responses to climate change, the actions against terrorism, the issue of abortion. Our shared Christian values of compassion and peace may lead some of us to take opposing positions on how to live out those values. Again, the path of peace is not easy.
I suggest that, despite the risk, the John and Jesus way of following the path of peace requires vulnerability. Factor that into your way of making peace.
Here’s why we as a people can’t commit to God’s peace. We’ve never really seen a vulnerable peacemaker of the caliber of John or Jesus or Gandhi or King make it out alive.
But we’ve also never seen violence stop violence. Never. It may go underground for awhile. Until it erupts again. Sometimes that violence re-emerges as, for instance, a young mother and father of a 6-month-old, a beautiful couple weighted down with bullets, homemade bombs, and semi-automatic assault rifles, hell-bent on . . . on . . . what? How could stockpiling more bullets and bombs be the answer to that?
John called people to repentance. Which simply means to turn around and reverse course. To repent means to recognize what you’re doing is not leading you in the right direction.
We need to be prophets calling for repentance, which is to point out the simple fact that what we’re doing isn’t working. “Hey, the path of peace isn’t over there; it’s over here,” we must shout. “Reverse course!” Today’s prophets for peace are not damning people to suffer in hell; they’re warning that we are on a destructive path that can only lead us into deep suffering—when we do not treat each other and our planet with gentleness.
In the home and in the public sphere, we are closer to God’s peace when we lower our defenses, lead with compassion, and trust that “by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
PRAYER: Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.