Malachi 3:1-4, 6; Luke 3:1-6
It is the second Sunday of Advent. Tradition offers us the theme of “peace.” Then, in the scripture readings, John the Baptist shows up! From what we hear of John, he seems anything but peaceful! Malachi warned the people of his time that when this messenger shows up, he will be fearsome! He will be strong as lye soap on the skin, rough as sandpaper! “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”
Now I invite you to take out that little piece of sandpaper from your bulletin. Hold it in your hands. Run your fingers over it. What does it feel like? … hear responses
I actually don’t like it and would rather not touch it. Not quite a fingernails on a chalkboard sensation, but similar. Some of us have fragile skin, and sandpaper seems threatening.
I know about that too. To earn money in the summer while I was going to college, I packed fruit – put peaches, plums and nectarines into box after box. With really good peaches, we could pack a box of about 40 peaches in a minute! But there was a cost. Each peach had to be spun in the hand to make sure it did not have any blemishes. So after a few days of peaches, the fuzzy skin worked on our fingers like sandpaper. Our finger pads lost their finger prints and would begin to bleed. Most of the summer we got enough smooth nectarines and plums to give our fingers a break, but not always . We made a lot of money with the good big peaches, since we were paid by the box, but it could be painful.
So there were mixed feelings when we got to those big peach harvest weeks. One side of us rejoiced and had fun competing for who could pack the most. The other side of us knew it was going to hurt.
The peace of Advent, the coming of the Prince of Peace, is sort of like that. Peace is finally coming. But it is costly to ourselves, as well as to our enemies. The high places will be made low and the valleys will be filled, to level the playing field.
I have noticed a phenomenon on Facebook that when people need a break from the political posturing, and aggressive posting, they post baby animal pictures. Adorable. My favorite one I saw this week was of one kitten rubbing another kitten’s back. I am not sure how they got that one videoed! But it made me smile. Just like it was supposed to do. With all of our Christmas delights, it is easy to think of the coming of the baby Jesus this same way – all soft, and warm and cuddly, a break from the rough road of life.
But the Christ Child was born in the midst of chaos, more like the eye of a hurricane. Terrible wind, then terrible stillness (because of the dread of what comes next), then more terrible wind.
Advent is a time to hear the words of Isaiah again:
‘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.’ (Isaiah 40:3-4)
But imagine that you have a lovely ranch with a clear trout stream in that quiet valley; or, imagine that your mountain cabin was rumbled down amongst the valley landfill. Yet this kind of leveling is what leads to a clear path for the Prince of Peace. It can be like sandpaper, but sandpaper with a purpose – to make things beautiful and sweet to the touch
I have studied nonviolent communication, peacemaking, community-building – all ways of speaking about peace. One thing which is consistent about peace-making in all these many forms is that its first and primary skill is listening. Be quiet. Quit speaking. Let the story of the other hold the day. Let the other’s story be the most important thing you ever heard.
This can feel like sandpaper on the skin. We want to jump in and give our why’s and wherefor’s. We want to defend ourselves. We want to lift the weight of their story. But building the highway for the Prince of Peace takes the slow work of listening, like the long slow drawing of sandpaper over rough wood surfaces.
So John the Baptist came from the wilderness offering baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sin. We will never make peace by making excuses. The only way to make peace is to repent, let forgiveness wash us clean like laundry soap. Let the water of baptism wash over us so long that it shapes and smooths our rough edges. And that water, though it can feel harsh, is forgiveness. Why does it feel harsh?, you ask. Because it washes away all our excuses, all our pretenses, all our privilege. It lifts the valleys of regret, and crumbles the mountains of pride. It levels us. But we become whole humans, full of wrongs and rights. We have hurt others, we have been hurt by others. All of us. “There is no one who does good, no, not one” (Psalm 14:3).
We have been leveled. Listening, true listening, without interruption, without judgment, levels us. Sometimes it is joyous. Sometimes it is like sandpaper. That is the nature of this thing called peace. It levels us. And sometimes we don’t want to be leveled.
So John asks us today: Will we submit to the fire and soap, the straightening and smoothing? What will we do with the sandpaper which makes for peace?
Peace is not painless. But it is good. And once we have done the listening, the leveling, there is real hope of a new relationship of peace, trust, cooperation.
And the good news? Jesus will help. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). It looks impossible to level the playing fields of this world, or even of our community or family. But, with the surrounding presence of love itself, the load is lifted.
What must I do to make ready? Whatever it takes will not be painless or without loss. Transformation requires radical change and change entails discomfort. That’s the truth we face on this second Sunday of Advent. Peace means relinquishing our attachment to contentment or apathy or fear, long enough to hold the other as level with us, like us, fully human, and fully broken, and fully loved. The reshaping will look different for every person, community or congregation, but it will include some upheaval for all as the earth is reordered into a place of peace.
And there is more good news. The Prince of Peace is also the Prince of Presence. What do I mean by this? Well, as we have said, much of the process of peacemaking is difficult, and can feel like sandpaper on our fragile egos.
The truth is that not long after John the Baptist came saying that the One was coming, he announced: He is here! I am baptizing him in the water of the Jordan River. The Spirit comes upon us, God speaks to us. God is here!
This may have been John the Baptist’s ‘eye of the hurricane’ moment. When he heard God’s voice, and felt the divine presence in his own hands. It was enough. All that sandpaper, scratchy clothing, meager diet – all that fell away in a moment. The moment that God became present. Not just a dream. Not a prophecy. Not a hope. But a here-and-now, in-my-hands presence. Even for John the Baptist, this was not something that got him through every doubt, or pain for the rest of his life. He still had questions. But in the moment he, with Jesus, heard and felt the holy presence, there was peace, thrill, joy.
What I am trying to say is that peace is always available to us, even when the leveling of the earth feels as chaotic as a hurricane. Remember that wind is the breath of God, after all, and in that confidence, we can have peace. Yes, heaven and earth may pass away, but God is. Always was, always is, always will be. Like we sing every Sunday morning:
“As it was in the beginning,
is now and ever shall be,
world without end.
God is with us in our suffering, loving us, walking with us, comforting us. We believe in a God who is always working for good, a God who is somehow able to take horrible, rotten things
and create something out of the rubble. God came into the world amidst violence, oppression, and despair and was able to bring life from that darkness, and we believe that God is with each one of us in our challenges and suffering, comforting us and consoling us and trying to bring good out of that which was so bad.
Placing our lives with this God, we are at peace.
Grace & Peace,