Sunday, January 17, 2021

Love In Practice

1 Corinthians 8: 1-10 & Mark 1: 21-27
Roger Lynn
January 17, 2021
(CLICK HERE for the audio for this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video for this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video for the whole service)

Paul debates with the Corinthian church about eating food offered to idols. Jesus drives out an evil spirit. These two scripture passages are obviously from another time and another way of looking at the world. In our modern view, we tend not to believe in demons or unclean spirits, and food offered to idols is really a non-issue. So, at first glance both of the scripture passages for this morning would seem to be completely irrelevant for us. OK, I’ll just stop talking now.

Or, we could spend a few minutes exploring what these ancient and seemingly irrelevant passages might have to say about faith even in these modern times in which we live. First, it must be noted that while spirit possession and idol worship are not generally a part of our world view, they were very much a part of the way in which people understood the world 2,000 years ago. They were not silly superstitions which could simply be dismissed. Second, it is important to recognize that what they have to teach us is not so much related to the specifics of those issues as it is to the broader topic of how faith shapes the ways in which we live our lives in the world.

Paul was writing to the new Corinthian church because it was being torn apart by people’s selfish disregard for the well-being of others with whom they shared fellowship. This took a number of different specific forms, but the one which is addressed in our scripture for today centered around an arrogant self-confidence in personal knowledge which had failed to include love in the formula. The issue was whether or not to eat meat which had been offered to idols. The city of Corinth was a very cosmopolitan center with a poly-theistic world view. Amongst the abundance of gods being worshipped, animal sacrifice would often have been involved. One of the side-effects of such activity was the sale of the excess meat which was not required for the sacrifice. This is where the problem arose for folks newly converted to the Christian faith, with its emphasis on One God and the mandate to worship only that One God. Did the eating of meat which had been a part of a pagan sacrifice constitute participation in that sacrifice and thus a compromise of their faith? For some, having only recently come out of such religious practices themselves, the answer was clearly yes. For others, filled with the new notion of “freedom in Christ”, the answer was just as clearly no. “Since we know that there is only one true God, then whatever other idols and gods might be found have no real power or substance. Therefore, whatever sacrifices are made to such gods are also empty and without meaning. Eating such meat cannot affect the person whose confidence is in Christ.” To some extent, Paul was in agreement with this position, but that was not ultimately the point. “Freedom in Christ” and the “knowledge” which comes to us through our new faith cannot be the ultimate guide for our lives. If, by exercising such freedom and knowledge in “non-essential” areas such as eating meat, we injure the faith of someone else, however much weaker we might consider such faith to be, then we have sacrificed the heart of the gospel, which is love, and we have ignored one of Jesus’ central teachings, which is wholeness. For Paul, faith is more than a personal matter and it is more than an intellectual exercise. We are called to care for the needs of others and we are called to do so in practical, real-life ways. This doesn’t mean ignoring our own values and sacrificing our personal integrity, but it does mean considering the well-being of others when we make our choices.

In Mark’s Gospel we find an interesting combination of stories which says much about how Jesus understood faith. The passage begins with Jesus teaching in the synagogue and the people being amazed at his teaching. Then we are told about the incident with the unclean spirit. And finally, we return to the theme of Jesus’ teaching. These are not unrelated incidents which have been accidentally or carelessly lumped together by an inept storyteller. Mark apparently understood Jesus’ teaching to be about more than just words, since the whole Gospel of Mark reports far fewer of Jesus’ words than any of the other Gospels. What we do hear about, however, is Jesus’ actions. And we hear about those actions within the context of Jesus’ teaching. They are not separate issues. To speak about his teaching is to speak about what he did and who he was. Jesus came teaching about God’s love and he demonstrated that love by getting personally involved in the lives of those around him and doing what he could to make a positive difference in the quality of their lives.

So, how do we put our faith into action? How do we make love a practical part of how we live our lives? Today both unclean spirits and meat offered to idols take different forms and are called by different names, but the need for us to be involved remains as real as it was in the days of Jesus and Paul. We don’t think in terms of unclean spirits, but there are certainly a myriad of disruptive forces in our world which prevent people from experiencing whole and abundant living. Such forces range from the very personal, such as loneliness, grief, depression, and various addictions, to the truly global, such as poverty, ethnic hatred, violence, and unbridled greed. And we in the Church, as the Body of Christ, can still bear witness to the power of God when we participate in healing such brokenness in our world. We do this through the various outreach ministries of this congregation, including the monies we give and the other community organizations we support. We do this through the wide variety of efforts made by individuals within the congregation whose work makes a difference in our community, including volunteering in the schools and working at Food Share. We do this simply by being the kind of congregation we are, offering a non-judgmental environment where people are welcomed and invited to experience first hand the love and grace of God through the accepting fellowship of this faith-community. We do this whenever we allow love to be our guide in the choices we make and the ways in which we relate to others – when we value connections above rules, and when we remember that our own self-interest is intimately connected with the well-being of everyone.

May we continue to become the people whom God is calling us to be – people who put love into practice as we seek to make a difference in the lives of those around us. May the Spirit of God continue to be present in our midst, binding us together, and leading us into the world to share God’s love in practical, tangible ways. Amen.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

The God Of New Beginnings

Genesis 1: 1-5 & Mark 1: 4-11
Roger C. Lynn
January 10, 2021
(CLICK HERE for the audio for this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video for this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video for the whole service)

I prepared this sermon prior to last Wednesday. And as it turns out, it seems an even more appropriate message for us to hear in these following the events of this past week. I am grateful for the ways in which God’s Spirit is actively present and working in my life and in the world, often even before I am aware of it.

* * * * *

Chaos! A formless void! Darkness! Since the very beginning, God has been remolding and shaping such material into something new. In one way or another, new beginnings are the gifts which God offers to the world and those of us who live here. God’s Spirit, sweeping over the face of the chaos, brings with it the refreshing breath of change which is, finally, the hope of the world. From the opening verses of Genesis, “In the beginning...God created...” (Genesis 1: 1) to the closing verses of Revelation, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21: 5), the scriptures speak over and over again of the God who offers us new beginnings.

And that is good news indeed. Words like chaos, formless void, and darkness often seem to describe more than merely the world as it was before God formed and molded it. Sometimes (often) they are descriptive of our lives and our world as well. The year we have just exited seems like a prime example. There are times when we need nothing more desperately than a new beginning. Whether through unfortunate and unhelpful choices, or circumstances beyond our control, in relationships or our jobs, finances or our internal emotions, we all reach places in our life journey where we find ourselves at the end of a road or the end of our rope, with no idea where to turn or what to do next. Fortunately for us, we worship the God who specializes in transforming dead-ends into new beginnings. We must still do our part – opening ourselves to God’s guidance, stepping out in faith by taking the risk of trying something new. But gifts of insight, wisdom, and courage help to equip us to take such steps with confidence and hope.

John the baptizer stands as a road sign pointing to the ultimate example of God’s gift of new beginnings. He came preaching a baptism of repentance, challenging people to turn their lives around and choose another path. But he also knew that by itself such a message was not likely to produce much in the way of long term results. Even for those folks who took his message to heart and genuinely wanted to begin again, they were still faced with the overwhelming challenge of being human. On our own we are simply not very good at turning around and going a different direction. At least we’re not very good at finding a more helpful directions in which to go. So John’s message did not end with the call to repentance. He also proclaimed the coming of One who would do something to shift the balance in favor of making a lasting difference. “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me... I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1: 7-8) The odds of a new beginning actually sticking increase dramatically when, a) God stands behind it, and b) God’s Spirit is present in the midst of it. No longer are we simply called to change course. God offers us the strength and encouragement and inspiration to make the change in the first place, and then the ongoing guidance and support of God’s presence to keep us moving in the right direction.

In one sense we see the dawning of God’s new age as Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan. To follow where he leads is to be a part of God’s great gift of new beginnings. In another sense what we witness in that dramatic moment is nothing new at all. It is simply the definitive declaration of what God has been declaring since the opening moments of the world – God believes in new beginnings, and will keep offering them for as long as we need them.

In Genesis, chaos and darkness are no match for the Spirit of God sweeping over the face of the waters. Something new emerges and God declares it to be good. In our lives, the chaos and darkness which sometimes threaten to overwhelm us are no match for God’s Spirit sweeping over our world and blowing through our lives. The despair of a relationship gone wrong, the boredom of a job without purpose, the pain of a past which seems to control us still, the turmoil of a life without direction, the upheaval of a world turned upside down by a pandemic, social unrest, and political strife – all of these begin to pale and fade in the face of God’s overwhelming desire to offer us a new beginning. As we learn to trust God and seek God’s direction for our lives, we begin to discover new options to explore. We are touched by this new life whenever we dare to risk leaving the old behind and beginning again with God’s help. We have but to remember that the touch of God’s grace is an ongoing reality which we can experience over and over again. God is always and forever seeking to transform our dead-ends into new beginnings, in every moment of every day. It is a gift which is ours for the asking. Indeed, it has already been given. We have only to accept it. May our lives be transformed by the ongoing gift of new beginnings.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Celebrating God’s Light (Epiphany Sunday)

Isaiah 60: 1-6 & Matthew 2: 1-12
Roger Lynn
January 3, 2021
Epiphany Sunday
(CLICK HERE for the audio for this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video for this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video for the entire service)

Light! Light shining in the darkness! Light illuminating our lives and our world! For longer than anyone can remember, in more places than can be counted, across vast expanses of culture and geography and time, light has been understood as a powerful symbol for that which is good and right and true, or the sacred, or even the presence of God. We see it in so many forms – the shaman dancing around the sacred fire, the druid celebrating the solstice, the ancient astrologers watching the lights in the sky, even the writers of our own scriptures. Isaiah encourages the people to “Arise! Shine! For your light has come!” (Isaiah 60:1) The Gospel of John describes Christ as the Light of God that has come into the world. The reason we celebrate Christmas on December 25th is because that was the winter solstice before the reform of the calendar – the day the light begins to return. The early Church found the symbolism of light returning to the world to be a wonderful way of understanding Christ.

In the liturgical calendar of the Church, January 6th is Epiphany. Traditionally it has been the occasion when we remember the story of the Magi who followed the star to find the child Jesus. But it can also serve as an opportunity to celebrate all epiphany experiences. An epiphany can be understood as an experience when we become aware of the Light of God’s presence in a particularly powerful way. Sometimes epiphanies carry with them specific content. The Wise Men could be said to have had an epiphany which led them to understand the appearance of a new “star” as the herald of something new breaking into human history. Sometimes epiphanies are more general. The day at church camp many years ago when I was dancing and singing across the lawn while my small group pondered the possibility that their counselor had gone insane represented a moment when I was overwhelmed with the awareness that life is good and God is intimately present. Sometimes epiphanies occur all in a flash. The Apostle Paul describes such an experience when he was on the road to Damascus. He had an intimate encounter with God that literally transformed his life. He went from being a persecutor of Christians to being one of Christianity’s most ardent and far-reaching advocates. Sometimes epiphanies build over a long period of time until the cumulative effect of a variety of experiences finally comes into focus and a new understanding emerges. But regardless of the particular form and flavor, epiphanies occur all the time to a wide variety of people, including probably even us. I know they have been a part of my life experience. This is true because God’s presence is all around us all of the time, and God’s desire is for us to be aware of that presence. The only question is whether we pay enough attention to notice.

We can’t force an epiphany. They do not show up on demand. In fact, they can be quite elusive if pursued too directly. But we can set the stage so that we are more likely to recognize them when they come. If an epiphany is becoming aware of the Light of God, then it will be helpful if our awareness is not blocked by walls of narrow, rigid dogma, or a certainty that we already know how the world works. All the enlightenment in the world would have done the Magi no good if, after recognizing the importance of the star, making the decision to follow it, and traveling a great distance, they had been absolutely certain that God could not or would not work through something so mundane and ordinary as a child born to peasant parents. Be prepared to be surprised. If our God is incapable of surprising us, then perhaps we should consider the possibility that our God is too small.

We can also help to encourage epiphanies by talking about them. When you have one (even a seemingly small and inconsequential one), tell someone about it. When we take the risk of putting it out there in the world it stands a chance of becoming real, not only for those who hear it, but also for we who tell the story. And if you are fortunate enough to have someone share their epiphany experience with you, listen. Really listen. Listen for the places where their story resonates with you. Pay attention to the ways in which their story lights you up. In both the telling and the hearing of epiphany tales, our awareness is elevated and we are more likely to recognize other places where God’s Light is shining.

Winter is upon us, and occasionally that means we get to experience snow covering the landscape. And when it happens, all that snow blanketing the countryside gets there one small flake at a time. Our world is filled with the Light of God’s presence. And yet we often notice only the darkness. We can begin to change that perception by celebrating every glimpse of light we find, no matter how fleeting. One small epiphany at a time. One moment of insight leading to another. And soon the shadows won’t stand a chance.

God’s Light is shining all around us and within us. Let’s celebrate. Let’s arise and shine.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Another Shepherd’s Story (a Christmas story)

a Christmas Eve story
by Roger Lynn
December 24, 2020
(CLICK HERE for the audio for this story)
(CLICK HERE for the video for this story)
(CLICK HERE for the video for the entire service)

From the time of the Beginning until now the world has always been filled with Wonder. Everything was called into being by the very Word of God, so how could it be otherwise. But it is also true that for all of that time from then until now we humans have often forgotten to notice. We get busy doing whatever it is that’s right in front of us, and we stop seeing the Wonder. Sometimes, however, usually when we least expect it and are busy not noticing, the Wonder shines through so brightly that we can’t help but pay attention. And on those occasions, when we are lucky enough to be present and awake, our lives are transformed and marked by the experience forevermore. I want to tell you about one night many years ago when that happened to me.

My name is Caleb, and I come from a family of shepherds. I am old now, and no longer spend my nights out in the field with the sheep, but in my younger years, now long past, that was often where you would find me. On one of those occasions, when I was a young man, there were several of us gathered around a fire to keep warm, for there was a chill in the air. The sheep were quiet, and we were talking among ourselves. It was one of those times when we weren’t particularly paying attention. Oh, we were mindful of the sheep, but the larger picture was not in our awareness. It was just a night like so many others before it. And then, suddenly, everything changed. Some of us noticed, and some of us didn’t. I’ve never been able to comprehend how anyone could fail to catch at least a hint of what was happening, but I guess we each have our own unique ways of experiencing the world. Even for those of us who did come awake to the wonder of it all there is no one way of telling the story. You may have heard my cousin, Jonas, tell his version of that night. He was there, just a kid though he was at the time. He talks about the air exploding with life, and being intoxicated with joy. And I can understand why he would describe it that way, but it felt different from where I stood. There really are not enough words to tell this story, at least not that I’ve been able to find. The closest I’ve ever come is to say that one moment the air was full of snow, and then next moment it was full of God.

Some folks talk about angels – manifestations of sacred presence. And maybe that’s what I’m trying to describe. There were no wings and halos, or trumpets and fiery swords. In fact, as far as my senses were concerned there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary at all. But whatever it is in us that senses what lies just beneath the surface of things knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that the air was full of something, and it sure felt like holiness to me. There is a Hebrew word, Emmanuel, that means “God with us”, and that’s what it felt like. God was with us! Not in some ethereal, out there somewhere sort of way. This was a right here, right now, filling every bit of everything kind of experience. Earlier, when I was talking about Wonder – this experience is what I was talking about. Even now, all these years later, I can still feel it.

Well, as I said, some of us noticed and some of us didn’t. And those of us who noticed couldn’t sit still a moment longer. Those who didn’t seemed perfectly content to stay with the sheep, so we let them. I don’t know why we headed into town. I don’t know how we ended up by the stable out behind the old inn. I don’t where the young couple came from. I don’t know when the child had been born. There is so much that I don’t know. And none of that matters. What matters is that we were there and we were awake and paying attention. The sense of God’s almost tangible presence had softened, but it was still very real. In fact, maybe it was even more real in the quiet of that moment. What I know is that it felt as if I had come face to face with God shining through the face of that newborn child, and my life has never been the same since. I was touched by Wonder, and I was paying enough attention to notice.

I have walked through all of the long years that brought me from then to now with my eyes and my heart wide open, always on the look out for another glimpse of that Wonder. And what I want to tell you, what I want you to know, is that I found it. Over and over again I found it. Every day I find it. Emmanuel – God with us – is the story of my life. In every moment it is the great story of the world. Wonder is everywhere. Pay attention.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Love That Stoops To Greatness (Advent 4)

Micah 5: 2-5a & Luke 1: 39-55
Roger Lynn
December 20, 2020
4th Sunday in Advent
(CLICK HERE for the audio for this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video for this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video for the whole service)

I think that sometimes we find understanding God to be a challenge, not because God is so big, but because God acts in such small and unexpected ways. We appreciate stories like the creation story. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” It has a certain grandeur and spectacle about it. Such stories fit with who we want God to be. We really want a Cecil B. DeMille/Charleton Heston kind of God. There is a certain comfort and security which comes with believing in such a God.

The problem comes when we begin to discover that much of Scripture is filled with a very different image of who God is and how God works. Over and over again we find God choosing backwater places, obscure situations, and ordinary people as the focus of God’s action and attention. Look at Abraham – a nomadic sheep herder. Look at Moses – a fugitive from the Egyptian government hiding out in the wilderness. Or David – the youngest son of an unknown family. Or, for that matter, look at the whole nation of Israel – a small collection of tribes who kept getting run over and conquered by their more powerful neighbors. None of these cases would appear to be likely candidates for providing a showcase for God’s divine action. But in every case they became defining pieces in the tapestry of God’s relationship with the world. It is not what we would expect. It is not even necessarily what we would choose. But it appears to be how God does things.

Which brings us to the scriptures for today. Again we find God working, and promising to continue working, in obscurity. “But you, O Bethlehem, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel.” (Micah 5: 2) Not from some major capital or trading center of the world. Not from some long-standing ruling dynasty. But from backwater Bethlehem. And when it happens, when God finally does bring forth this long-promised ruler from Bethlehem, it is the same story all over again. We find Mary (who?) and her kinswoman, Elizabeth (who?) about to have babies (babies?). In those days women often didn’t count for much in the large scheme of things, and babies counted for even less. So why in the world would God choose women and babies to serve as primary players in this auspicious undertaking? Because that is what God does.

There is a song which gets sung about this time of year that says, “Love came down at Christmas.” It certainly did! God’s Love is so great that God isn’t afraid to bring it down to where we live. I remember seeing an ad for a movie once which announced that it was “larger than life.” Such descriptions appeal to us. We like the big and the dramatic. But if God had chosen to be simply “larger than life” then most of us would be left out. The problem with a Cecil B. DeMille/Charleton Heston kind of God is that most of us don’t live in that kind of world. Most of us are ordinary folks living ordinary lives in backwater places. That is where the vast majority of life takes place. So it is a very good thing that God chooses to devote so much time and energy to just our kind of living. It is a good thing that God chooses places like Bethlehem, because we live in places like Bethlehem. And it is a good thing that God chooses unknown women like Mary and Elizabeth, because we have a lot more in common with them than we would have with someone like a Caesar or a Pharaoh. And it is a good thing that God chooses babies, because it reminds us that it isn’t how educated, or powerful, or famous, or attractive, or anything we are that matters. What matters is God choosing to love us no matter what. The truly remarkable message of the gospel is that there is no limit to how far God will go to love us. God’s love knows no bounds.

As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, the temptation is to make everything big and flashy and spectacular. Let us remember that the One whose birth we are preparing to celebrate once said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35) God’s love stoops to greatness. May it be so for us as well.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Rejoice? (Advent 3)

Isaiah 35: 1-10
Roger Lynn
December 13, 2020
3rd Sunday in Advent
(CLICK HERE for the audio for this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video for this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video for the entire service)

“Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Isaiah 35:10) That is the promise of Isaiah. To which we are tempted to respond, “Yeah, right!” Everlasting joy doesn’t seem to be a very likely possibility in these dark times in which we find ourselves. The list of things stacked against it would include: a global pandemic; massive unemployment; social and political upheaval; to say nothing of the personal challenges and disappointments we face on a seemingly daily basis. Everlasting joy, indeed!

But such an attitude, while understandable, would represent a significant failure to look at anything beyond the surface of our existence. It would be to forget that we are people of faith who, by definition, seek to grasp the bigger picture. I am reminded of what Frederick Buechner says about joy. “Happiness turns up more or less where you’d expect it to – a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it.” (Wishful Thinking) The kind of joy which Isaiah promise is not about what appears to be true when we look with just our eyes. Rather, it is about what is ultimately true because we dare to believe that God makes it so. “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.’ ” (Isaiah 35:4) God is always bringing something new into our world and the promise of this ongoing renewal can serve to counter our exhaustion, our despair, and our hopelessness.

It doesn’t mean we ignore what is going on around us. It simply means that as we become aware of God’s presence in our lives and in our world, as we seek to allow that awareness to seep down into the core of our being, we gain a fresh, new perspective on reality. We discover it is possible to declare with confidence that, “Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, God is at work even now healing the brokenness of our world and bringing new life into the midst of the death which surrounds us.” We can join with Isaiah in believing that a new age is dawning – an age which is defined by joy rather than sorrow, peace rather than conflict, wholeness rather than brokenness, community rather than isolation, love rather than hate, life rather than death. “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” (Isaiah 35:6-7) And as this vision of divine extravagance begins to take root in us, rejoicing becomes not only possible but unavoidable. The exuberance of Isaiah begins to bubble to the surface of our lives, and we cannot contain it. “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. . . For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.” (Isaiah 35:1-2&6-7)

And, of course, once we become infused with this joyful perspective we also find ourselves both challenged and empowered to share such joy with the rest of the world. “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.” (Isaiah 35:3) God’s abundant work in our world is accomplished through our efforts on God’s behalf. How we live matters – we are the agents God chooses to use to reach the world and make a difference. Returning again to the words of Frederick Buechner, he says, “[Compassion] is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.” (Wishful Thinking) Faith always pushes us outward, beyond ourselves. When our connection with God leads us to discover a source of true joy, we also discover a prompting to share that joy with others. To ignore such prompting is to risk losing touch with the joy – not because God will take it away from us, but because sharing it is intrinsically woven into the very fabric of the experience.

And so we come again to where we started. Our faith still calls us to a life which is defined by rejoicing. And our experience in the world continues to challenge the very concept of joy as something irrelevant and contrary to the realities we face. The choice is stark and dramatic – choose joy or choose despair. Either God is working in the world towards the ultimate goal of a transformed and transforming creation, or God isn’t. Either we are called to participate in a vision of life defined by joy and peace and hope and love, or we aren’t. Isaiah chose joy. What will we choose?

Sunday, December 6, 2020

God’s Uncomfortable Peace (Advent 2)

Isaiah 11: 1-9 & Matthew 3: 1-6
Roger Lynn
December 6, 2020
2nd Sunday in Advent
(CLICK HERE for the audio for this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video for this sermon)
(CLICK HERE for the video for the whole service)

“Prepare the way of the Lord!” John the Baptizer – the wild prophet in the wilderness – proclaims this challenge to the people around Jerusalem in the middle of the first century. And 2,000 years later the message still resonates with us. It is dramatic. It stirs the soul and gets the blood flowing. It urges us to do something. But what does it mean? What is the “way” we are being called to prepare? I suspect that much of the reason why we enjoy hearing “prepare the way of the Lord” in this season of Advent is because we are looking ahead to Christmas and thinking about the sweet little baby Jesus. This is a season which we often fill with warm, cozy feelings, and we like it that way. But if we are to take John’s message seriously, we must look beyond the manger. The voice of the Baptizer, crying out from the Jordan river, calls for a change in the very fabric of our world. He joins the likes of Isaiah in offering a new vision of hope, but it is hope which comes at a cost. We cannot continue “business as usual” because a new age is dawning. God is bringing something new into our lives, and nothing will remain unchanged.

The theme for this second week of Advent is “Peace.” It is a word which we love to hear and love to speak, particularly in times such as these which we now find ourselves facing. We long for peace to find its way into our lives and into our world. But as with most things associated with this season, we tend to reduce our understanding of peace to a simple message that will fit on the front of a Christmas card. We don’t want it to challenge us. We don’t want it to cost us anything. We just want it to feel good. Fortunately, for us and for the world, the peace of God is bigger than that. One of the word which Jesus would have used to speak of peace was the Hebrew word “Shalom,” which can also be translated as “wholeness.” I find that to be a helpful concept. True peace is founded upon and emerges out of regaining and restoring the sense of wholeness and unity which God intended for all of creation.

This is the vision which comes to us through prophets such as Isaiah and John. In a world filled with violence, destruction, and despair, they see God’s active presence moving us towards a bold, new future of hope and peace. There is a coming together of the broken pieces into a new wholeness. It is a powerful vision. But for many of us who would look to such a vision for comfort and security, we may well be in for a serious shock. The wholeness which forms the Shalom of God will require a new way of relating with each other. We will no longer be able to profit and benefit and enhance our own lives at the expense of others. Justice (in the Biblical sense of restorative justice) for all means exactly that. When God’s peace begins to find root in the world, our lives will change. And for those of us who are used to being on top and being in control, we may find the experience uncomfortable and challenging. In describing both the promise and the threat of this new vision of peace and wholeness, Isaiah uses some disturbingly strong language. I find myself wishing he had found some other ways to express himself, but at the very least it has the virtue of making it very clear that abusive imbalances of power have no place in God’s peace. What will have a place, indeed the central place, in such a vision of peace is a fundamental re-orientation towards harmony, community, and interdependence. “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6) The old ways of living in the world – ways based on power over and self-preservation – must give way to a basic awareness of the ways in which we are connected and interdependent. I invite you to spend a moment reflecting on all of the myriad ways in which our lives would be dramatically altered by such a radical new understanding of life.

So John comes along and calls for us to “prepare the way of the Lord.” In Matthew’s Gospel, the first word out of John’s mouth is, “Repent!” That word literally means to “turn around and go the other way.” “Carefully, and urgently, examine the ways in which you are living your life,” John is saying, “and look to see if it is consistent with a vision of God-centered wholeness, peace, and justice.” We are to “make the paths straight.” “Level the playing field” might be another way to put it. The “way” we are called to prepare for God involves making sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to experience the fullness of God’s presence in their lives. Everyone!

It is not the kind of peace we might have chosen, because it will require that we change in ways which will be uncomfortable and might even be perceived as threatening. But ultimately it is the only kind of genuine, lasting, meaningful peace which is possible. And it is only possible when we begin to let go of our need for power and control, and begin instead to trust in the God who is calling us to a new sense of wholeness with each other, with the world around us, and with God. God is always coming into our world in bold new ways. How are we preparing the way?