It seems like every day we listen to the news we learn about some act of violence somewhere. It may be the act of a terrorist group on the international scene or it may be some crazy kid with a gun on a college campus – an endless cycle of shootings and violent reactions. In our own network of people connections how often do we encounter someone who is angry with us or someone who for whatever reason no longer wants to be in a friendly relationship with us? Is peace possible in such a world? Is peace possible in our families, in our schools, in our places of employment, among churches and diverse religious communities, between races and groups that have different political and social agendas, among those with different educational attainment and economic status. Can we make a way for peace? Can we come together? This second Sunday of Advent highlights the longing and need for peace.
Our Scripture text today has been traditionally called the Benedictus. It is Zechariah’s canticle of praise at the circumcision and naming of his son, John who we know as John the Baptist.
This hymn of redemption caps the end of Zechariah’s story which began with him serving as a priest in the Temple. Zechariah was visited by a messenger of the Lord who told him that he and Elizabeth would have a son and they would name him John. Zechariah was terrified and incredulous. As a result he was stricken mute. For the entire time of Elizabeth’s pregnancy he could not speak.
When I read such stories in our sacred scriptures with the intention of discovering spiritual truth I do not ask whether or not the story actually happened, because for me in the process of discovering spiritual truth that is irrelevant. The questions I ask are: What might be the meaning of this story? What did this mean for the first Christians? And what does this mean for Christians today? What can I learn from this, take from this, and appropriate from this that might help me and help others as we progress in our discipleship to Christ and walk the spiritual journey?
Instead of reading the silence of Zechariah as God’s judgment, what would happen if we read it as God’s grace to Zechariah? Perhaps this is exactly what Zechariah needed at this point in his life – to be quiet, to be silent, to learn how to ponder and marvel at the strange workings of God and the paradoxes of life.
Gerald Coffee was a captain in the U.S. Navy whose plane was downed over North Vietnam during our war with that country. He spent years as a POW confined to a small cell. In his book Beyond Survival he tells of the third Christmas he spent in prison. It was 1968 and he remembers it because it was the Christmas Eve the Vietnamese distributed some candy bars to the prisoners. The candy bars were wrapped in foil that was red on the outside and silver on the inside. Coffee flattened one wrapper and folded it into a swan. He made the second wrapper into a rosette. And with the third and final wrapper he fashioned a star. And he thought of the star of Bethlehem.
He removed three straws from the broom in his cell and attached the paper ornaments to them. Then he jammed the straws into a crack in the wall above his bed. As he sat watching them in the light of the one yellow bulb that always shone in his cell he thought about the simplicity of the birth of Jesus and what it meant in his own life. It was his faith, he realized, that was sustaining him through his imprisonment.
He wrote, “Here was nothing to distract me from the awesomeness of Christmas—no commercialism, no presents, little food, I was beginning to appreciate my own spirituality, because I had been stripped of everything by which I had measured my identity: rank, uniform, money, family. Yet I continued to find strength within. I realized that although I was hurting and lonely and scared, this might be the most significant Christmas of my life.”
Think of that for a moment! Alone, in prison, stripped of everything and he says that this was the most significant Christmas in his life. Why do you think it was so? Was it because he was tuned into the mystery and wonder of it – which certainly included the mystery and wonder of his own soul. Apparently he discovered through solitude and suffering the significance of who he was in God apart from all the trappings of an affluent life. Stripped of everything that we Americans think is necessary for a good and happy life he found a deeper source of life.
What would it mean for us to discover that? To discover the significance of who we are in God apart from appearances, apart from what makes us look good or feel good, apart from other people’s perceptions and image of us, apart from any sense of honor or reward or recognition, apart from all our possessions that we tend to use to both distract ourselves and to project how important we are. What if we were to discover our true self – who we are in God – and realize that who we are in God is the only reality worth anything.
If we are to discover such a reality, not merely in the head, which doesn’t really change anything, but in the heart where real change occurs, then we will need time to ponder, to question, to pray, to probe our inner life, away from all the noise and hustling crowds and the chattering voices vying for our attention.
The children’s pastor was giving the children a lesson on the Advent wreath and what the candles symbolized. After she was finished she asked the children if someone could tell her what the four candles represent? A little girl raised her hand, “I know. There’s hope and peace and . . .” But before she could get out the next one, her little brother blurted out, “peace and quiet.”
Maybe that’s where we need to begin as we pursue the path of peace. Perhaps we need to set aside some peace and quiet and enter into some silence and solitude. Perhaps we need some time to pray and ponder and discover who we really are in God apart from all the false trappings of success, work, what we have or don’t have, what other people think of us, and all the rest.
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Zechariah’s canticle of praise is a celebration of God’s redemption of God’s people. And while the focus is on Israel, Israel simply represents all of us. The redemption here is a holistic redemption. The way of peace is not just our own private peace with God, but peace with all others in whom God dwells and with creation itself.
The redemption here is both personal and corporate affecting all society. It’s a redemption of the individual that brings personal healing and renewal, but it is also a redemption of the systems, structures, and institutions of society yielding justice and peace for all people.
And before it is inward, before it calms the inner churnings of the mind and heart it is relational. This is why forgiveness is highlighted – “to give knowledge (or experience) of salvation (read salvation as healing and liberation) to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”
Forgiveness is always a two way street which is why we pray, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” We offend and are offended. We get hurt by others and we hurt others. So forgiveness must be sought and received from the one or ones we have offended, and it must be granted to the one or ones who have offended us. There is no future without forgiveness. There will no healing, no coming together, no reconciliation and peace without forgiveness.
This is God’s work and it is our work. It is God’s work in and through us in whom God dwells. God in “tender mercy’ as the text says wants to bring light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death and God wants to guide our feet into the way of peace. And this is what we should want – not just for ourselves but for all people.
Advent is not just a time to wait – it is also a time to work for the good of our neighbor, whoever that neighbor may be. It’s waiting and working. It’s prayer and social action. It’s solitude and service. It’s silence and prophetic speech. That’s the balance of authentic spirituality.
In his book, It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It Robert Fulghum tells about the remarkable work done by a remarkable man named Alexander Papaderos. He leads an institute that is devoted to healing the wounds left by war. The institute was built on land where the Germans and Cretans killed each other in the conflict that was WWII. At the wars end this man came to believe that the Germans and Cretans had much to give to one another and learn from one another. He believed that if they could forgive each other and construct a creative relationship, then any people could.
Fulghum attended a seminar at that institute led by Dr. Papaderos. At the end of the seminar, Dr. Papaderos invited questions. The seminar, says Fulghum, had generated enough questions for a lifetime, but in the final moments there was only silence. So Fulghum decided to break the silence, “Dr. Padaderos,” he asked, “what is the meaning of life?” Laughter followed as the participants stirred to go. But Dr. Papaderos took the question seriously. He held up his hand and stilled the room. He took out his wallet and brought out a very small mirror, about the size of a quarter.
He explained that when he was a small child, during the war, his family lived in a remote village and they were very poor. One day, on the road, he found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had wrecked in that place. He tried to find all the pieces and put it together, but that, of course, was not impossible. So he kept the largest piece. By scratching it on a stone, he smoothed the edges and rounded it off. He began to play with it as a toy and was fascinated that he could reflect light into dark places where the sun did not shine — into deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for him to get/reflect light into the most inaccessible places he could find.
As he grew up, he realized that the game he played with the mirror as a child wasn’t really a game at all, it was a metaphor for what life was calling him to do. He realized that he was not the source of light, but that the light of truth and understanding, the light of forgiveness and peace would only shine into the dark places if he could somehow reflect it.
He said to Fulghum, “I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of the world — into the black places in the hearts of people — and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about.”
And this is what we are about as well as followers of the prince of peace. Our task, our responsibility, our calling is to reflect the light of hope and peace into all those dark places marred by prejudice and hate. Our calling is to shine the light of forgiveness and grace into broken relationships torn apart by resentment and bitterness.
We can mirror a greater Light than can be found in our little, false selves if we will. We don’t have to be confined to and entrapped by our own personal interests, attachments, and addictions. We can become more. We can draw upon a greater Source of love and mercy. And we can do this because of the great Love that is at the heart of all reality. We can participate in the shalom of God, the redemption of the world because the great Lover of all people and all creation, the God of Jesus, your God and my God is able to guide our feet into way of peace.
Gracious God, you are the God of all peace. Teach us to walk in your ways and to be your messengers of peace wherever we go. Amen.