A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York
Today instead of a psalm, we read the Canticle of Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father. In the Gospel of Luke, it interprets the meaning of John:
In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us. To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
John the Baptizer was a tough guy. There was nothing soft about him. He called people to repentance, and he was not afraid to say hard words to those who tried to game the system. And those who profited by power in the system reacted to him with violence. Ultimately they cut off his head. But these things can distract us from what John was about. “The tender compassion of our God,” the song says. John was out there in the wilderness. He was a voice crying, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” The song continues, “to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
We live in dark times, violent times, and it is difficult to see that path towards peace. Since we were last here in this church together, another mass murder in a public building has taken place. For a couple of days everyone was darting all over, asking: “Who’s to blame?” “Who can we be angry at?” “Who should we be anxious about?” “Is is terrorism?” Of course it’s terrorism. Such acts are designed to provoke fear, to get attention, to affect the world by a show of power and violence. It really, really, does not matter what the terrorists believe or who their targets are. Their target, their aim, is to suck us all in to increased participation in the violence and fear of violence in this world. They are the agents of chaos, fear and anger—that is to say, they are exactly, precisely the opposite of the messengers of God’s peace.
John was out there in a situation not that different from our own, and he courageously called for repentance. “Step back from the chaos of violence, the chaos of fear.” Comfort ye my people, says the prophet. Prepare the straight way of the Lord—the superhighway of Peace, not winding around every up and down, but going straight through to peace—without fear, without revenge.
It’s easy to get sucked in to violence. We imagine that somehow we can put together power and use violence to destroy violence. I remember how angry I was after 9/11. But the anger and the war that followed did not destroy the violence—it moved it around, recruited more angry and violent people on all sides, in our country and others. It increased intolerance and xenophobia in our country as well as elsewhere. The more that we attempt to crush violence with anger, violence and exercise of power, the more violence is multiplied in more places. This fear-laden atmosphere of violence even effects the way in which police interact with civilians—separate and apart from terrorism or weapons. We cannot stop gun violence and mass murder in our country with power. We must stop it with peace.
This season of Advent is about “the tender compassion of God” which guides us into the way of peace. The world is filled with lazy cowards who think that peace is a passive thing, that you don’t have to do anything about it, to bring it about. So look at who God sent to proclaim peace. The prophets, especially John the Baptist, were not passive or lazy or soft. I can’t think of anyone in the whole Bible tougher than John the Baptist. Except Jesus. The path of peace is not the path of fearfulness, and it is certainly not the path of surrender. The path of peace requires fortitude and courage.
Yet, peace is not something we can achieve alone. It is only the presence and action and judgment of the living God that brings peace. In the lesson from the prophet Malachi today it says, “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 purify.”
We will be purified from anger, and fear, and violence and clinging to power, by that messenger of God’s peace. The righteousness of God comes into this world not through being powerful but by serving that one who is powerless, the one who John foretold. We bless the Lord, the God of Israel. He is here. His salvation is among us. He lights our way, and guides us toward peace. It is not in some sort of program that you write up in 500 pages and send off to be implemented. God guides us toward peace each day, in us, between us and through us. It is in our lives that peace grows.
St. Paul got himself put in prison toward the end of his life. He wrote to his friends at the church in Philippi which he had founded. He knew them, and he was confident, not simply in them, but in what God was doing among them. It could not have been an easy time for the congregation or for Paul. This is what he said to them, as was read this morning:
“I am confident of this, that the One who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. … 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.”
For the glory and praise of God may your love overflow, as God guides you in the way of peace.