Preparing for Peace

2nd Sunday of Advent
Luke 1:67-80 and Matt 3:1-6                                          
8 December 2013
Elizabeth M. Deibert                                                         

Preparing for Peace, capital P, has been exhausting and exhilarating.   We’ve been preparing to move into this new home for a month or more, and after one week here, I’ve got to admit, I am very tired.  So this past week, I slowed down a little to hoping to appreciate the wonderful people around me.  At this time of year, many of us engage in energy-intensive preparations for Christmas.   We are so busy shopping and decking the halls with boughs of holly and going to parties that we become impatient with the people around us, we find it hard to pause for worship and to reflect on the real reason for the season.   We lose the peace of Christmas, that light that comes to shine in the darkness, that birth of a child who will reconcile us to God, that gift of all gifts – the gift of the incarnation that saves us and calls us into a new life of love, of reaching out to those who are suffering, as Immanuel always does with us.  

Zechariah had been visited by the Angel Gabriel.  He was silenced by this visitation.  If we had been in a forced silent reflection like Zechariah for nine months, we might have a little more perspective on the significance of the moment.  These are the first words of Zechariah after a prison of silence. 

Luke 1:67–80 and Matthew 3:1–6

67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:

68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.  69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.  72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant,73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”  80 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,                        “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
                                                 Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.                                 (New Revised Standard Version)

This song that Zechariah sang on the eighth day, when John was circumcised and named is called the Benedictus, which is the Latin word for blessed.   In the first part there are seven active verbs of which God is subject.  God has looked with favor on us and redeemed us.  God has raised up a mighty Savior as God promised us.  God has saved us from our enemies.  God has shown mercy and remembered his covenant.    In other words, God has been faithful.  God has not let us down, even when we were faithless.  God has kept his promises to us.  These words are uttered by Zechariah before the birth of Jesus, but they speak of the Savior as if he already is.  Remember Luke is crafting the story, knowing already the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.

We then, being rescued by God, are called to serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness all our days.  It is important to note that we are first rescued.  God doesn’t call to us when we are drowning in the deep waters of fear, sin and death, and tell us to swim to shore so God can forgive us.  No, God rescues us.  Then we are called to serve without fear of death and in thankfulness for our rescue.  Our holiness and righteousness are in response to his rescue.  

The Old Testament reminds the Israelites sixty times that it was God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt.  Our grateful response is to live holy and joyful lives.

John the Baptist is called the prophet of the Most High, the forerunner.  He goes to prepare the way, to give knowledge of forgiveness.  John prepared the way for the first coming of Christ.  We Christians are called to prepare the way for the second coming, which we anticipate during Advent.  Our responsibility, like John’s, is to share the good news of God’s forgiveness.   We tell people that God forgives them and we embody God’s forgiveness in our own lives.  You see, if you are really in touch with the fact that you nearly drowned and God rescued you, you cannot help but be filled with gratitude and with forgiveness of others.   And you want to share it.  You want to invite someone to come to church with you to hear this news next week because this is good news. 

You might want to share the good news in this season simply by being extremely kind. Random acts of kindness are a great way to share the good news.   Pay the toll for the person behind you on the Skyway Bridge.   Buy someone’s coffee at Starbucks.   Give a harried person your place in the line at the grocery store or the mall.  Give an angel gift to the families at Beth-El.  If people ask you why you are being kind, tell them because it’s Christmas or because you want to share Christ’s love.   What a great way to prepare for Christmas – to engage in random acts of kindness.   For followers of Jesus Christ, the one who showed us the fullness of love, kindness should not be random but regular.   Expressions of love should not be occasional but often, for it is that love that defines who we are.

It is that reconciling love, that peacemaking love that God sends us in the Incarnation, in the birth of Christ.   Twice in Zechariah’s song, we hear that we are rescued from our enemies, from those who hate us, from those who would do us wrong.   But this salvation is not for revenge, but for healing of the relationship – that we might serve God without fear, and might be faithful and true, the Biblical words are holy and righteous, and I’d like you to think of those words in a better light.  When we hear holy and righteous, we often hear holier than thou and self-righteous.  But John like his cousin Jesus, never leaves us in a self-righteous place. No true Christian can hold that attitude. 

No, John he challenges us to prepare for the light of the coming of Christ by being humble, by repenting, which means turning away from sin and turning toward God.

The last two verses of Zechariah’s song are the beautiful promise of what God will do.  That promise is what gives hope to those longing for peace.  By tender mercy, God will make the dawn break upon us, giving light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, guiding us in the way of peace.   This message is peace is just what we need – whether we are stuck in a dark place of our own making or whether we have landed in a dark prison of another’s abuse or neglect.  We are people who know the Prince of Peace.   We know God’s tender mercy is always bringing peace by liberating those who are oppressed and giving hope to those who feel forsaken.   

A beautiful example of one who prepared for peace in the dark silence of oppression without losing hope, is Nelson Mandela.   Imprisoned for 27 years for taking a strong stand for the civil rights of the native people of South Africa, he faced years of mistreatment, hard labor, and considerable isolation.  Not allowed except every six months for an hour, somehow in that small cell on Robben Island he held to a vision of peace, and built relationships of reconciliation with his captors, without letting his passion for justice wilt.   The remarkable thing about this man, whose life changed the world in the direction of peace is that once he was elected President, just four years after his release from the prison, he used his power to continue to rebuild relationships, not to take advantage of those who had brutalized him and so many others.   While in his early years, circumstances require him to be fiery advocate for justice, a radical like John the Baptist, the mature Mandela knew how to prepare for peace by making peace, being kind and gracious as President even to those who had despised and mistreated him for decades.   Three days after Mandela’s death, let us hear a tribute to his life as a peacemaker in the poem of Dr. Maya Angelou.