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Sermon | Peace and release
Texts: Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-14
Speaker: Joel Miller
It’s the second Sunday of Advent and the candle of peace has been added to the candle of hope. For those of us who identify as Mennonite, or at least Menno-curious, this is a familiar theme. Mennonites have long believed that peace and peacemaking, rather than being an optional extra for Christian living, is essential to the gospel itself. Jesus models for us the kind of peaceful humanity we both aspire toward and can never quite reach. A peace-centered faith has all kinds of implications in how we relate with our militarized national government, the international community, and immigrants and refugees who enter our country; where we invest money; advocacy for ending the death penalty; our relationship with creation and our neighbors and ourselves. Kind of everything. We believe in peace so much we have two peace candles going right now.
On a personal level, another dimension of peace for me is that whenever I have taken the Enneagram personality type indicator I have most often been identified as a Nine, which is called…wait for it…The Peacemaker. This could be because I like to get right answers on tests and being “The Peacemaker” is clearly the right answer for a Mennonite pastor to be. Or, more likely, as I am learning, this type does seem to capture my own potential pitfalls and strengths. When The Peacemaker type is not overly healthy we can simply blend with other’s opinions and preferences, essentially losing our sense of self, all the while building up unexpressed anger toward others for taking away our autonomy that we’ve stopped trying to work for. That’s what I hear can happen. When The Peacemaker is healthy, we have the ability to be all inclusive and bring out the best in others without it threatening our own ego. Those are the good days.
The lectionary scriptures for today don’t necessarily come across as primary peace messages. And the main character, John the Baptist, is nobody’s idea of a peacemaker. But like all other things, for those with eyes to see, matters of peace and right relationship are there in abundance.
More than any other gospel passage, Luke chapter 3 situates itself firmly within the political and religious landscape of its time. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiphas.” In the ancient world, naming such leaders was a way of telling time. The ruler of the day served as the primary reference point of when, in the long arc of history, certain events took place.
For Luke’s first audience, and for us, these names are also freighted with meaning beyond just points on a timeline.
Tiberius is an emperor, meaning that the story we’re about to hear takes place within the reaches of a vast and powerful empire, held together, as empires tend to be, by a flow of wealth from land and poor toward landholders and rulers, the threat of violence an ever-present means of enforcement. Tiberius is the guardian and enforcer of what has been called Pax Romana. The Peace of Rome.
Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea, will show up later as the one who approves and oversees the execution of Jesus. Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great, puts John the Baptist in prison for his public criticism. Pilate and Herod are the quintessential keepers of the peace. Even the religious figure heads, the high priests, navigate their way through this arrangement, subject to Rome’s wishes and regulations, requiring an annual re-appointment. And so it went that Annas was deposed by Rome, which installed in his place his son-in-law Caiphas. Tensions between the religious establishment and the deeper demands of love for God and neighbor, especially the vulnerable, run throughout the gospels.
Naming these rulers also serves another purpose.
The story I’m about to tell you is no fairy tale, Luke could be saying. It happened at a specific time, in a particular location, under these circumstances. There were real people involved, people with names and stories of their own. People whose daily lives were enmeshed in the kind of world these rulers and religious leaders oversaw. What I want to tell you, Luke goes on, is that under these conditions, “the word of the Lord came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.” The Word, that life-creating, mind-shaping, path-making Divine force, came, through John, in the wilderness, away from these centers of power.
Luke writes: “He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” That Greek word for “forgiveness” can also be translated “release.” A release of sins. It’s the same word Jesus uses in the next chapter when he returns to his home village of Nazareth and declares that he has been sent to “proclaim release to the captives.”
Divine peace has something to do with a release from all the actions and patterns and entrenched systems which trap us in a false sense of peace.
Political leanings aside, naming of our own context in this way would sound something like this: In the first year of the presidency of Joe Biden, when Mike DeWine governed Ohio, when Andrew Ginther was mayor of Columbus, when Francis was Pope of the Catholics, and Glen Guyton the Executive Director of the Mennonites. In the second year of the Covid pandemic and the dawn of omicron. At this time and in this Advent season we gather here, in this place, to listen for the Word - that life-creating, mind-shaping, path-making Divine force which comes to us through song and scripture and speech and relationship with friend and stranger.
Advent, like Lent, springs from wilderness – those places untamed and unregulated, where the wildness of creation holds space for our own conversion. Our own remembering of who we are and where we come from and how we might live peacefully in this world.
Luke wants us to know that John’s appearance on the scene should not be a surprise. It was, in fact, to be expected. Centuries before, the prophet Malachi had spoken of a messenger who would come like a refiner’s fire, burning away all that was not essential. The prophet Isaiah had another image. “The voice of one crying 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.’”
The salvation of God apparently looks something like a massive infrastructure project complete with heavy equipment leveling hills, filling in valleys, making a straight and smooth highway for God’s salvation, coming to a town near you.
However God’s affinity for awe inspiring mountains and beautiful valleys might indicate that the prophet is being subversively metaphorical, suggesting that it’s the structures we’ve created that elevate some high and relegate some low, that God wishes to bulldoze.
When John makes his grand entrance into the narrative out there in the wilderness he does appear to be revving the motor of Isaiah’s vision. His opening words to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” This, I can assure you, is not the way an Enneagram 9 Peacemaker would kick things off for some group processing on what is and isn’t working for us right now.
But it seems to do the trick. Rather than turning away, the crowds are compelled to press for more , hungry to hear where they fit in to the great leveling, the coming of God’s salvation for all flesh.“And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’”
What then should we do?
Now there’s a haunting question.
It’s haunting because once you’ve asked that question, you can never quite unask it. Once you’ve made the connection between what’s going on out there and the need to have some kind of personal response to that reality, you can never again act as if your world is disconnected with the larger world.
This year our city has had the highest homicide rate in its history. What then should we do?
The pandemic has had a devastating effect on mental health for young and old alike. What then should we do?
We are inheritors of a culture of White Supremacy and racial terror. What then should we do?
Global warming is threatening current and future generations. What then should we do?
You see what I mean? It’s a very, very annoying question to have rattling around in your head.
It’s a very necessary question that won’t go away. It rarely has a satisfying answer.
And we may very well be unsatisfied with the way John answers the question.
“10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
This is unsatisfying because sharing a coat or a canned good does not solve the systemic problems of homelessness and hunger. And tax collectors and soldiers doing their jobs more humanely doesn’t solve the problem of the jobs themselves being part of Rome’s apparatus for maintaining its control over populations.
If this is the great leveling, if this is the coming of a release from sin and imprisonment, then it is the first crack in the foundation, the first tremor of the quake to come.
What it does suggest is that peace and peacemaking can never be separated from relationships. Even as we long for deeper shifts, we are released to act peacefully and justly toward those standing on uneven ground, real people and households who are our neighbors and friends.
The Advent story contains larger than life figures of Rome and Herod, overseers of structures and systems, but it is in the wilderness, and in the life of a young previously unknown woman who accepts the invitation to birth a child that the Word of God flowers and blossoms.
This is the time of year we pray impossible prayers and dream impossible dreams of peace. And we do what we must do to participate in the answering of those prayers. One is coming who will show us the way. Who will again wake us up to the possibility of being peaceful people in a violent world. Who will refuse to leave anyone out of the grand vision of our Creator. “And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”