Imagine my surprise: I began my renewal leave in the middle of October by spending eight days in Ontario, Canada in silent retreat. When I returned, I was surprised to find out major construction was underway just off Guernsey Road, just down from the church. On my short commute, I am now often slowed down and treated to a view of construction and change. The land is moved from here to there. Machines transform the landscape. I wonder if road work is not what the prophet John the Baptist had in mind when he talked about repentance, literally, turning around.
Our sermon series continues this morning as we take to unpacking our expectations of peace. Last week, we began to expect with hope that God is at work in your life and changing your life to be more like Jesus. This week, we hear the call to expect peace and receive the Spirit’s gifts of resiliency. Peace is what we are looking for when
– we would rather close the internet browser or turn off the TV than hear another new story or headline.
– a night’s sleep has us rested, but not renewed.
– we carry the loss of our loved one in our stomach, as well as our heart.
Peace is more than absence of war, it is the very gift of the Holy Spirit for each of us!
The Holy Spirits gifts us through resilience. Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from them. Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity or trauma in their lives. In fact, the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress. Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. (1)
This week in Pittsburgh, the larger community gathered together with the Tree of Life synagogue to light the menorah during Hanukah celebration. After the horrific shooting, community solidarity began to build resilience. One of the songs included this line: “Go away darkness, banish the blackness, go away in the face of light. (2) Our peace comes from resilience. When pain and heartache is around us, we lean on the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to turn back to God’s peace. In the midst of the world of division over political decisions, job losses, financial challenges, where do you find peace?
For some of us, it is hard to imagine how John the Baptist would fit into a Christmas nativity. In a nativity with a sweet chubby cheeked baby, tender mother, and proud father, where does the unruly man with the compulsion to bear fruits weary of repentance fit? A man more at home with orange construction cones and long-term construction projects who calls us to repent, to literally, turn around and go a different path. A prophet, whose role is to set the stage for Jesus’ public ministry with shocking calls to action and intense requirements for life. And yet, it is our understanding of this season of Advent, preparing for the coming of Christ, preparing for Christmas that has room for change, instead of booting John the Baptist out of the Christmas story.
John preached repentance and following Christ. John called people beyond the comfort of their known ways into the ways of Christ, the life of the unknown and the preparing for and building of the kingdom of God. John called the people to unknown territory, dangerous thing to do as a preacher, a way of living they had never known. A place that nurtured many questions. Many of us have been raised with the understanding that asking questions is done in the quietness and stillness of our own company, if at all. We have been taught that asking questions including the words Why? When? And How? Are not appropriate for a faith-filled person.
Elie Weisel, the Jewish writer and Novel Peace Prize winner, recalls a childhood story. When he was a boy coming home from school, his mother asked him the same question every day. She did not ask “What did you do today or What did you learn or who did you play with? She asked, “Did you have a good question today”?
The prophet Malachi, we heard today, is one of many voices in the Bible who reminds us that God invites the questions of our hearts and lives. Malachi asks How has God loved us? Where is the God of justice? Who can stand before God? In fact, he asks 22 questions in just 55 verses. I think that a few of us have had weeks, months, and seasons like that. With many more questions that there are answers. These can be times of resilience, if we let the Holy Spirit walk with us.
In fact, Advent, if we take this time of preparation seriously, is a time of self-examination and questioning. Asking ourselves how we are preparing for the coming of Christ, where we experience Christ in the world, and how will our own lives work out? The words of the prophet Malachi find themselves not only within our lectionary reading, but also within the larger Christmas story, the story of our faith. Handel included the first three verses in our reading within the Messiah, his greatest work telling the whole salvation story. An old legend tells that when Handel reflected on the Messiah after a first presentation, he wrote to a friend: “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wished to make them better.(3)”
We are made better, or as John Wesley would say, we move onto perfection, through the preparation for the coming of Christ, bearing the fruits of repentance, and the sharing of visible hope in the world around us. Peace is often a hard thing to find and an even harder thing to maintain. Maintaining peace is most often a multi-person event. We need others in our lives who will help us keep the peace alive that we have in a different outcome, in a desirable outcome, in God’s outcome. We need others who will show us signs of peace in the midst of loss, death, scary diagnoses, health troubles, difficult family situations, tangles with the law, and any time that our experience is different than we were imaging it to be. I speak this as one who is learning. In fact, peace at its heart involves our imagination and delicate way to hold the future.
Peace seems like an impossible concept to nail down and hold on to and yet, peace is as visible in the proclamations of John the Baptist as in the construction work on Guernsey Road. Peace is glimpsed each time we see one person seek a life of resilience in the midst of challenge. Every time, we read and hear unsettling news. Each time our family, coworkers or friends upset us, we think our peace has failed. We need to experiment with how to participate in the building Christ’s peace. This is resilience! In fact, Deanna Thompson, breast cancer survivor and blogger suggests that, “Lament is the necessary precursor to hope.” I believe that John the Baptist would agree. Peace allows us to patiently wait expectantly for the intangible to become reality. True peace does not disappoint. We find this peace as individuals, as communities, like Pittsburgh, and as a body of Christ.
This morning, we have the privilege of baptizing Ellie Marie into the family of Christ. As we prepare for baptisms in Advent, as a community, we celebrate her and her big her brother, Carter. We remind ourselves of the gift of life as we prepare for the coming of Christ. We commit to teach her as a community how to live as a child of God by modeling our lives after Jesus.
And as we wait and prepare together, we hear the call of the prophet. John the Baptist and Malachi have been calling to us. Peace is not a far-off possibility. We know that there are plans and designs on the future and into the future, but we need some visible signs of peace that sometime is moving forward. We need to see the orange road cones and construction equipment to know that this is not merely a suggestion, but an actuality. Peace is visible in Jesus Christ our Lord, who was and is and will always be.
For this is the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, Thanks be to God, Amen.
Old Testament Lesson: Malachi 3:1-4
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
Gospel Lesson: Luke 3:1-6
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler 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 region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
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;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
Meditations For Your Week
Sunday, December 9 ~ Saturday, December 15
Sunday: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.” Malachi 3:1. Consider that the role of a messenger is to announce the coming – the advent – of peace, change, of Christ! Let your life announce the coming of peace, change, and Christ.
Monday: “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.” Malachi 3:2-3. Pray for your growing edges, where you need to be refined. Offer yourself to God in humility. Peace allows us to let go of the illusion of perfection and lean on sanctification.
Tuesday: “Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.” Malachi 3:4. Where are there ties across generations in your life that reflect the fullness of the kingdom of God?
Wednesday: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” Luke 3:1-2. Consider that the word of God that came to John, he had been waiting for all of this life. His parents waited all of their lives for him. Consider how you might wait and act for peace.
Thursday: “John the Baptizer went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Luke 3:3. Consider that repentance is to turn around. Where are you being called to turn around in order to know peace?
Friday: “As it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Luke 3:4. Pray for those who call out that change is coming. Prophets who speak truth to power need our prayers. Making the way straight necessarily changes those who are comfortable. We fight for the status quo.
Saturday: “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; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”’ Luke 3:5. Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of God’s way. God’s way has been constructed with the movement of mountains and hills, hearts and minds. Where is God changing your life to instill sustainable peace in the world?