We read a passage from Baruch this morning which may be quite unfamiliar to many as it is drawn from a translation of the Bible that is typically not found in what we call the canon of Protestant Bibles. Baruch is named for a scribe of Jeremiah and he uses this poetic language to speak about the coming of the Messiah, a day when we may take off our mourning clothes, realize the righteous justice of the Lord and live in peace. Each Advent, we are invited to once again dream into such a reality. The words of Scripture have been spoken to generations of people over time, people, who like us, were yearning for a different kind of world, one that is gentler, one in which justice reigns and people may live in peace. I’m sure that most of us have come to realize that this work is the work of our lives; sadly, it is never fully accomplished and must be taken up by each generation because gains are made and then lost, conflicts continue whether among families or among nations, and far too many of our brothers and sisters struggle every day for a better life. What is absolutely clear is this:Without justice, there is no peace… Let us Pray, O Prince of Peace, we are in the midst of preparing a welcome once again for you, in our hearts and in our world. Be with us today, instill within us your deep peace and a thirst for justice. Bless us and all who yearn for peace in their lives. Amen.
We will be reading Luke’s Gospel this Advent Season as we draw near to Christmas. It is important to be reminded of what a “gospel” is. The Gospels were originally meant to be read aloud, as there were so few written versions of the text and the oral stories were passed down over time. As one commentator noted, “Luke is a kind of story-sermon meant to declare good news — “gospel” — in ways that invite us as listeners to reflect, repent, believe, and serve the wider world. Luke’s Gospel is a practical, poetic work of art, layered with multiple levels of meaning and grounded both in Luke’s immediate situation and in the broad, astonishing sweep of salvation. In short, a “gospel” is a form of strategic storytelling that aims to change your life.” (Salt.org)
Usually, the second week of Advent centers on lighting a candle of peace, a light to shine against the shadows of conflict and war. It is an important time to reflect once again on war and peacemaking, conflict and reconciliation, hearts that are often too full of violence and the lion laying down with the lamb. As John the Baptizer called the people of his time to “Prepare the Way of the Lord,” so too are we called to prepare the way by fostering peace in our own hearts, families and communities. Too often our hectic preparations for the holidays leave little time for peace in our days; however, the lovely rituals of Christmas, the ways in which we decorate our homes and trees, the beautiful lights which adorn our towns and cities-all of these may bring a deeper peace to our lives.
In college, I became friends with a couple, Alex and Kara. Alex was a tall football player with a gentle spirit and Kara was an intelligent, energetic, and amazingly gifted person. Near the end of Alex’s senior year, he visited Kara in France where she was studying for the semester. On his way home to the US, he became critically ill. When he returned home, he was hospitalized and soon was diagnosed with a life-threatening blood disorder. Thankfully, his sister was the perfect match and he received a bone marrow transplant in Seattle which saved his life.
In my early days of teaching in an urban community in Boston, I invited Alex to share his story with my students, many of whom came from families which struggled with racism and economic issues in their daily lives. They were captivated as he told about his harrowing experience and how he, a tall, healthy athlete, became terribly thin in the aftermath of his transplant and how long and grueling his recovery was. Kara stayed with him throughout that time and they later married.
Our paths have crossed many times over the years and so, when Rich and I lived in Chicago, we met up again as Alex was doing graduate work there and Kara was working at a foundation in the city. Because of his bone marrow transplant, they were unable to have their own biological children, but they decided to go through what is called an ‘open’ adoption, which meant that there could be some contact between them and the biological mother. They underwent the long process of being vetted while they waited with eager anticipation for the arrival of their baby.
One Friday, they received a call that there was a baby boy for them. Even after the long wait, they were not fully prepared, but in one day, friends and family showed up with everything needed to transform their guest room into a new baby’s room. The following day, they went to the hospital to meet their new son. About two years later, they would welcome a daughter to their family as well. This couple is a remarkable one and they have worked hard to ensure that their children are raised in communities of racial diversity since they are white and the children are bi-racial, and they have committed their lives to working against racism on the local and national level. In fact, Alex has done extensive academic work on Black Liberation Theology and written about what responsibilities those of us have who are white to work against systemic racism. It has been a personal commitment of theirs to work for a world in which their children and all children of color are treated equally and with dignity and respect. Their path has not been an easy one, but I believe that they would say that the journey and the commitments of their lives, their ability to create a family together, has brought them a deep sense of peace through their abiding faith and love for one another and for our world. I know they have inspired me.
Luke is a subversive Gospel of peace written during a time of military occupation. In the opening lines of this passage today, he shares a list of the imperial, regional, and religious authorities of the day — an intro that may seem unimportant, but as one scholar notes, Luke is using this literary convention to make a profound and audacious point: the last figure he names in the list, John the Baptizer, is both a) a relative nobody compared to the eminent officials, and b) the only person on the list given divine authority. The phrase Luke uses here — “the word of God came to John” — is the same as the phrase used the ancient Greek translation of Hebrew Scripture, in the Book of Jeremiah (“Jeremiah…to whom the word of God came;” see Jeremiah 1:1-4). Luke’s point is very important; despite appearances, the real power and authority resides neither in the imperial palace nor the sacred temple, but rather in a scraggly figure, alone in the wilderness, preaching repentance. He represents an important idea that God is active far beyond the confines of any empire or government or religious authorities.
In the Book of Exodus, the Hebrew word for “Egypt” is mitzrayim, literally, “the narrow places.” Luke presents Jesus’ ministry as a New Exodus, a liberation or “release” from the narrow places of sin, oppression, enslavement, violence, conflict, and despair. A new era of God’s shalom is dawning, John insists, but shalom isn’t simply the absence of discord. Rather, it is the presence of genuine freedom, liberation from whatever is holding us back from becoming living testimonies to God’s good news for all creation. Our lives are full of “narrow places” I’m sure and this is an important time to consider what it is that undermines the peace we all seek. We might pray for a healing from long-standing conflicts, resentment, anxiety, injustice…whatever it is that we too often carry and that, in fact, undermines the very peace we seek. We know that Jesus is coming to “proclaim release to the captives” (Luke 4:18). May that be so for all who feel captive to whatever grips them or intervenes with a full and flourishing life.
As we prepare for this new day to arrive, John challenges us to change our hearts, our minds, and lives — for the days of peace and freedom are truly coming! Make way! Remove the obstacles! The Prince of Peace approaches — not on a warhorse like other authorities of the day (Tiberius, Pilate, Herod), but rather as a humble prophet, teacher, and healer, God’s beloved child born homeless in a manger. Particularly in our time of division, God is calling us toward greater peacemaking between all peoples.
Our friends in the Jewish community have been celebrating Hannukah over this past week, the festival of lights in their tradition. For us as Christians, Advent is a season both to long for God’s shalom and to become candles of shalom in the darkness. The peace of Christ is surely waiting for us, a peace that may center us and inspire us to be people who work for justice on behalf of our brothers and sisters, people who believe that God wants us to know peace in our own lives and in our hearts.