December 9, 2018

People of Peace

Preacher: Speaker: Donna McIlveen

Today, on this second Sunday of Advent, the focus is on peace and our call to be a people of peace – both peace in the world, and peace in our lives and in our living. Peace that is a gift from God – the gift that God shares with us that enables us to be people of peace.

In the scripture readings for this day, we hear voices from long ago that very much speak a message for today as we prepare for the arrival of the Prince of Peace…the one who shows us how to be a people of peace. The prophet Malachi says: “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 priest Zechariah says: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” Luke, quoting from the prophet Isaiah says of John the Baptist: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” And Paul writing to the church at Philippi, prays that “they may be able to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ they may be pure and blameless.”
During Advent we take time to prepare for the coming of Christ, and today I would like to spend time with each scripture passage, moving from Malachi to Zechariah to John the Baptist to the Philippians. Each passage of scripture helps us to keep our focus as we journey through Advent. As we prepare to be the people of peace that God is calling us to be.

In the Old Testament lesson for today, we have words from the prophet Malachi. The name Malachi means “my messenger”. Malachi probably lived about 450 years before Christ. The temple had finally been rebuilt and rededicated… about 50 years before Malachi. However, life was not happy. There was corruption and oppression…some very nasty living. The people question what seemed to them to be God’s lack of concern about their fate. God responds and promises a reversal of their reality. But he first holds up a mirror before the people. The people had a ‘me’ first attitude toward God…which they didn’t see. They were no longer honouring God by their living. Malachi asks: How can they expect God to fulfill the vision when they have not committed themselves to that vision? How can they expect God to serve them when they fail to honour God? The prophet calls for a day of reckoning. The God they long for will certainly come. But God will not act simply to give the people what they want. God will act to bring about God’s purpose. Malachi prophesies to the people saying: “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.” And indeed he came. The messenger did come… though it was a long wait. Malachi is the last prophet from whom we hear spoken words. 400 years passed before the entrance of John the Baptist, the messenger who would prepare the way.

In Luke 1:68-79 – the portion of scripture read as our responsive reading earlier – we have the
Song of Zechariah. We find out at the very beginning of the gospel of Luke that Zechariah, a priest, and his wife Elizabeth – a relative of Mary – were “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord… but they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.” But their life was about to take a turn… a drastic turn… and in their golden years they discovered that they were going to become parents after all. Like Abraham and Sarah before them. Like Isaac and Rebekah… Jacob and Rachel… Elkanah and Hannah… Zechariah and Elizabeth waited and waited for a child… and when the news came it was quite a shock. Zechariah – whose name by the way means ‘God remembers’ – was visited by the angel Gabriel. Understandably Zechariah was a little terrified… and the angel said, ‘Do not be afraid’. Zechariah listened to everything the angel said… and then he questioned… and because he struggled to believe the words of the angel… we are told that his ability to speak was taken away from him… and not just for a day or two, but for the whole of the pregnancy. Zechariah would remain speechless until the promised child was born… and for a few days after. That was a long time to be silent! That was one quiet pregnancy! Having the ability to talk taken away from Zechariah comes across as a punishment.

But perhaps it wasn’t as much punishment as it was a wilderness journey of discovery…of being silent before the Lord…of listening for God’s voice in the silence. The great theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, talks of silence before the Lord as holy… sacred… and life-giving. Zechariah was silent before the Lord. He no doubt spent time praying and reflecting about what the angel had told him. I imagine he learned some patience and humility. And in the silence… the challenging silence… the weeks of silence… he heard God speak. In the silence he recognized the greatness and power of God like he had never recognized it before. He recognized that in God’s tender mercy he was offering the gift of peace. The gift of Jesus… the Prince of Peace… the One who would guide our feet into the way of peace.

And then the time came for the child to be born. Elizabeth bore a son… everyone rejoiced with
her… and then on the eighth day when they brought their new child to the temple for circumcision and naming and they are asked what the child was to be named, Zechariah – who still can’t speak – asked for a writing tablet and on it wrote: “His name is John”. Not Zechariah, like everyone expected… but John… just as the angel had said. And immediately Zechariah’s mouth was opened… and the first words out of his mouth are a blessing to God! Zechariah praised God… and offered the words we know today as the song of Zechariah… or the
Benedictus… Blessed be the God of Israel.

Zechariah didn’t begin by berating God for taking away his ability to speak. He didn’t even begin by cooing to his newborn child or talking to his wife. Nor did he feel compelled to say everything he hadn’t been able to say for so many months. No, Zechariah’s first words were words of praise for God, the Creator, who through the prophets of old had promised to raise up a mighty savior… and now that promise was to be fulfilled. Following his words of praise to God, Zechariah, the proud father at long last, then spoke to his eight day old son of the important task which was before him. His son John was to “be called the prophet of the Most High”… not the Most High but the prophet of the Most High. Zechariah knew that his son John was not the way… but the one who “will go before the Lord to prepare the way.” Zechariah knew that the ancient promises of God were being fulfilled. God’s covenant was not broken. Promises were being kept. In the tender compassion of God, light was breaking through the darkness. Zechariah had something to sing about… and he sang. He announced to all who heard his song
that God had come to redeem his people.

And in time when John was about 28 years of age, his wilderness voice was heard. John the Baptist, had spent his life preparing…and now it was time to speak. John preached basically one message…a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins… to make straight the paths… to get in line with God… for the long awaited One was coming.

The gospel writer Luke presents John the Baptist with all the historical figures of the day. He
makes it clear that John spoke in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar… and on he goes listing many other important people, politicians and religious leaders. Luke wants everyone to know that God chose to speak, not through Tiberius Caesar…nor any other politician. He didn’t speak through the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas… nor anyone of great renown. Rather, “the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.”

Imagine if the message came today. In a light heated way consider the following…John the Baptist prepares the way…when Justin Trudeau was Prime Minister of Canada… during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II… when Donald Trump was President of the United States, and Theresa May Prime Minister of Great Britain…when Doug Ford was Premiere of Ontario and Tony Fraser was Mayor of North Dundas…the word of God came to John and he went everywhere… throughout Winchester and the surrounding towns and villages… announcing that it was time for people to wake up to themselves… to turn things around… to get back on the right track.”

When John the Baptist traveled up and down the banks of the Jordan River, he proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He used the words of the prophet Isaiah saying: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his path straight.” His message was not an easy message… nor is it today. God is going to lift up the valleys and bring the mountains low…and we are called to do the necessary roadwork to prepare the way…in our calling to e people of peace. John was speaking to the people and telling them to make it personal. Each of us has work to do. Repentance is a word we do not hear often today, but it is an ancient, good word. In Greek, it means “to change.” It indicates a change…a change of direction…a change from going one’s own way to going God’s way…to move in God’s direction.

On Friday night my husband and I went to hear John Houston give his one man performance of
Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. If you ever get the chance to see his performance, do so.
It’s a powerful way to tell the story of Ebenezer Scrooge. I was thinking about the production as I re-read the gospel lesson about John the Baptist and his message of repentance. Ebenezer Scrooge repented. He turned his life around. When he woke up after the visit of the third Spirit he happily, and with great relief, discovered that “the bedpost was his own, the bed was his own,
and…best and happiest of all…the Time before him was his own to make amends in!”
All of us can think of something in our life where we should make amends…where we need to repent…where we need to make a change so that our life is more reflective of the ways and purposes and spirit of God. Changes that will help us be the people of peace we are called to be. As we examine our choices, our actions, our responses…we need God’s guidance. And there is no better way than to take it all to the Lord in prayer.

In our last reading for today, Paul prays for the Philippians. Paul loved the people of Philippi. He prayed for them and kept them in his heart – and he knew they kept him in spirit while he was in prison. Paul was living with the consequence of his teaching. Locked up – more than once – for preaching Christ. He wasn’t writing from the comfort of his lazy boy. He was in prison. And yet in joy he wrote to the Philippians, including this prayer (vs. 9-11):
“And this is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”
Paul says a lot in a few verses. Writer Nan Duerling sums up Paul’s prayer this way: “Paul’s prayer says that we should seek to understand more about God…which leads to knowledge and insight. Knowledge and insight lead to discerning what is important in life. This discernment leads to living a life more in concert with Jesus. As we live closer to Jesus Christ, we also become closer to God and are able to see our fellow human beings through eyes of love. Living a life of love is constant praise to God and to Jesus Christ because every day actions reflect love
that is centered in Christ. A life like this is a reflection of Jesus Christ in the world today.”
A reflection of Jesus Christ. People of peace reflect Jesus Christ. We live a life that honours Jesus Christ, who we welcome at Christmas time. When we do that, we are people of peace. People of peace that pray for peace. People of peace that don’t give up even in the face of darkness…but rather bring light to the darkness and help others to see the way to peace.

Today is December 9th. We are entering the second week of Advent. We know what is coming. So, prepare the way… make straight the paths… walk in the way of peace…be a people of peace. As you continue your preparations over the next couple of weeks… take time for prayer and remember why we wait… and who we are waiting for. Take time to prepare the way – ready your heart – for Jesus, the prince of Peace, is coming. Amen.