The birth of a baby, especially one that has been long anticipated as was John the Baptizer in today’s Gospel lesson, is cause for great celebration. Which reminds me of a typical baptism joke – capturing the concerns of both parents and clergy alike.
Before performing a baptism, the priest approached the young father and said solemnly, "Baptism is a serious step. Are you prepared for it?"
"I think so," the young father replied. "My wife has made appetizers and we have a caterer coming to provide plenty of cookies and cakes for all of our guests."
"I don't mean that," the priest responded. "I mean, are you prepared spiritually?"
"Oh, sure," came the reply. "I've got a keg of beer and a case of whiskey." That’s one baptism party I’d love to be at! (You know I can only tell that joke here at Union Church.)
Zechariah’s prophesy about John at his circumcision (the equivalent to a degree of a Christian baptism) echoes the prophecy Zechariah first heard nine months earlier when he was serving in the temple in Jerusalem. Quite the honor it was. There in the Holy of Holies, as he was offering the incense and prayers, the Angel Gabriel appeared and announced to him that he and his wife Elizabeth was going to have a baby boy named John in their old age. A boy who would be a joy and a delight to them. A boy great before the Lord. A boy filled with the Holy Spirit, who would turn the hearts of the sons to their fathers, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, and make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
Zechariah, however, doubted. Because he doubted, he became mute. Mute for nine long months. He could tell no one what happened in the temple, although he kept making signs. They realized something happened. He must have seen a vision. But of what?
Then Elizabeth got pregnant and she went into seclusion. She spent time with her kinswoman, Mary, also pregnant with the Savior, the very person that John would be preparing the way for. Even in the womb, John sensed Jesus’ presence, the scriptures tell us. Then at John’s birth all the neighbors’ gathered to share in the joy. At his circumcision on the eighth day, they were planning to call the baby Zechariah, after his father, but Elizabeth spoke up saying, no, his name is John. Zechariah had to be consulted. So he wrote out, “His name is John” to confirm Elizabeth’s knowledge of the prophecy. With that his tongue was loosed and he was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke of his son, and the coming messiah. A beautiful prophecy – a prophecy that gestated for nine months along with his baby son, how God remembers, God rescues, God prepares by sending us servants to teach us and guide us, to see the salvation of God: every valley filled, every Mountain made low in the advent of Peace. John would be the light to the way to Peace.
With all that is happening with Muslim-American relations, I think of peace, as we all do these day, with San Bernandino, the 355th mass shooting of the year still tender on our hearts. Let’s be real, Sandy Hook, Paris, Charleston, Cleveland, Tuslsa, Ferguson, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan-- all the broken places of our world -- it’s all tender on our hearts. The Poem by Arab-American poet, Naomi Shihab Nye, entitled “Jerusalem,” speaks of the entrenched conflict of the eternal city, and the entrenched conflict within ourselves—and all around us-- that eludes the presence of peace.
I’m not interested in
who suffered the most.
I’m interested in
people getting over it.
Once when my father was a boy
a stone hit him on the head.
Hair would never grow there.
Our fingers found the tender spot
and its riddles: the boy who has fallen
stands up. A bucket of pears
in his mother’s doorway welcomes him home.
The pears are not crying.
Lately his friend who threw the stone
says he was aiming at a bird.
And my father starts growing wings.
Each carries a tender spot:
something our lives forgot to give us.
A man builds a house and says,
“I am native now.”
A woman speaks to a tree in place
of her son. And olives come.
A child’s poem says,
“I don’t like wars,
they end up with monuments.”
He’s painting a bird with wings
wide enough to cover two roofs at once.
Why are we so monumentally slow?
Soldiers stalk a pharmacy:
big guns, little pills.
If you tilt your head just slightly
There’s a place in this brain
where hate won’t grow.
I touch its riddles: wind and seeds.
Something pokes us as we sleep.
It’s late but everything comes next.
It’s late. But John has prepared us for everything that comes next. John, a light, for the True Light of the world, John who is the voice crying out in the wilderness, that every valley of oppression and depression be filled. Every mountain and hill that has caused an obstacle to growth be made low. The crooked-minded be made straight. The rough ways and tough choices to right living be made smoot; all is preparing the way for what comes next. Peace has got to come next.
Not the peace of a soldier guarding a pharmacy. Not the peace of a cemetery or a woman speaking to a tree instead of her son. Not the peace of Wars’ Monuments. But Peace that comes when we learn to repent from all the ways of war and conflict. Peace that comes from the leveling of valleys and mountains of unjust experiences. Peace that comes from the forgiveness and the repentance of sin of unrighteousness and ungenerosity.
Peace is more. Peace is a Way; that Jesus is the that way. Peace stands for completeness and wholeness of being that is woven into the fabric of our being. We are born that way—the way every child is, the way John was. There is nothing we can do to be made more in the image and likeness of God. We are complete. In God’s eyes, nothing is missing. Yet we get lost in the valleys and mountains of our contrived differences. We lose who we and whose we are in following false gods of divisions; “you belong in the valley, I get to be king of the mountain.”
We feel incomplete and empty and spend our resources and our time searching to fill the hole in ourselves, in our collective psyche, in our national psyche – a God-shaped hole – that only God can fill. Only God-oriented, love-centered, justice & righteousness oriented deeds can fill this hole. This is the light Jesus brought into the world to lead us to peace. Jesus shows leads us to the wholeness already within ourselves and to which Jesus restores to us with his very life.
John over the centuries calls us over and over. To give light to those who sit in darkness. We don’t have to anymore, you and I. We are made compete and whole. In the image of love and kindness. We can return. That is what Advent calls to do. Johns says, to those who sit in the shadow of death, “I am a voice crying out.” Turn around and see. There is a light, a way to Peace. It’s late.
Something pokes us when we sleep. Because there’s a place in our brains where hate won’t grow. Find it, And there, Jesus meets us, Jesus waits to make us whole, once again. Then, we shlll have peace, as Jesus says, that passes all understanding. Peace for our broken, aching hearts.