A Revolutionary Peace
The waiting has begun…can you feel Advent in the air, a sense of hope and expectation, the allowing for a possibility that God’s dream for our world might be unfolding all around us? Today, the second Sunday of Advent, our ideal world, the world God intends for us, is a world of peace.
In other words, it’s a world nothing like where we live now, where wars rip apart the fabric of nations, where ethnic differences divide materially and emotionally, where ideological divergence results in acrimony and gridlock, where relationships are broken by misunderstanding and betrayal…and where there is very little peace to be found. But on this Sunday, the Advent Sunday of peace, we audaciously declare that the God who created us imagines a perfect world in which we, God’s querulous creation, live together…in peace. And in Advent we wait, we wait for Messiah, the one who is coming to teach us how to be people of peace.
Today’s lectionary passage for the Sunday of peace leads us straight to Matthew’s third chapter. Unlike the writer of Luke’s Gospel, who takes great pains to give us all the dreamy details of a harrowing delivery, a sweet baby, angels and wise men and shepherds and a slew of other peripheral characters who populated the story of Jesus’ birth, Matthew begins the story of Jesus with a long and tedious genealogy, then one chapter of the birth story, and then he jumps right in to the real start of things. Emmanuel, God With Us has been born. Then he moves quickly on to the work at hand: ushering in the Kingdom of God, God’s dream for a world of peace and healing and hope.
So, naturally, hoping to help us understand God’s plan for peace in this world God imagines for us, Matthew immediately introduces us to…John the Baptist?
Did you hear the passage this morning describing John’s arrival on the scene of Jesus’ story? I don’t mean to be too critical of Matthew’s editing, but I have to wonder what he was thinking to start things off by introducing us to John the Baptist.
You probably know that every family has at least one strange bird, right? Well, one way of understanding who John the Baptist was might be to say that when we meet John the Baptist, we have just been introduced to that person in Jesus’ family.
Matthew tells us that John the Baptist was so strange he didn’t even live in town with everyone else. He preferred to live out in the wilderness surrounding the region of Judea, and whenever people ran into him he was perpetually shouting accusations about sinfulness and the need to repent. In other words, I don’t imagine that one would describe him as nurturing, say, or approachable, even.
He dressed strangely, wearing a tunic made of scratchy camel hair. He didn’t work in industry, fish for a living, or farm to support a family. Instead, he preferred to live off the land, foraging for wild honey and eating bugs for protein. He probably smelled really bad, had a scraggly beard that was way too long and, likely, a wild look in his eyes. No, I don’t know why Matthew introduces John at the very start of the story of Jesus, and why he includes all these details. It seems to me that a better approach might be to play down the crazy family member, just not mention him at all, or at least soften up some of the details. He eats bugs? Was the inclusion of that detail really necessary?
But John the Baptist, the crazy cousin of Jesus who spent his days wandering the wilderness shouting about the need to repent, had somehow become oddly compelling. Matthew tells us that crowds of people traveled from all over the Judean countryside and the city of Jerusalem, out to the muddy banks of the Jordan River because the crazy guy with the camel hair was saying something…something that got them thinking about their lives, how life as they knew it was definitely not the life they figured God imagined for them…and how it needed desperately to change.
My parents now have 13 grandchildren, of which I have supplied three, including the very first. Every time a new baby is born in our family, we follow the tradition of my Dad’s Hawaiian culture, which is that prior to the birth of a new grandchild my father, family patriarch, will give the child a Hawaiian name. It’s the tradition that a name is chosen by an elder that reflects a special quality, hope, or expectation for that child. Once the child is born and given that special name, my children can tell you: their grandfather reminds them often of their duty to live into their Hawaiian name—a prediction, a hope for everything their lives will be in this world.There must have been a similar tradition in the days of Jesus, because although Matthew doesn’t include this detail, Luke recounts the story of John the Baptist’s birth and a song his father Zechariah sang upon his birth. In it, Zechariah did what my Dad does for all his grandchildren—he looked at the potential and promise of the life in his arms, and he set out a great challenge, big shoes for that little life to fill. For the wild-eyed crazy man wandering in the wilderness catching bugs, this is what his father Zachariah had predicted for him:
Uh, the way of peace? Peace, in the words of one who chose a life in direct opposition to the culture of the world around him, who called for repentance with a strident and unrelenting voice? Who offended everyone he ran into, not just by his smell but also by his habit of calling them names and refusing to put up with the way they were living?
This was the expectation Zachariah had for his son; this was the promise of John the Baptist’s life; this was the lesson he was teaching while he stood, ankle deep on the muddy shore of the Jordan River yelling at the top of his lungs about repentance.
Peace? It seems easier, more peaceful, really to just go back to chapter two, where we can easily imagine the glow of the starlight, the soft lowing of the cattle in the barn, the sweet look of a young mother who has just seen the face of her child and fallen hopelessly, desperately in love. But instead we are here, being asked to repent, hearing the strident words of John the Baptist telling us: this—repentance—it is the true way to peace.
The Greek translation of our New Testament includes two Greek words sometimes translated repent. One, metamelomai means to have a change of feeling; one use for this word in the NT is when Judas “repented” after betraying Jesus in Matthew 27. Instead of “repent,” a better translation for this Greek word might be “regret” or “feel remorse.” Another Greek word also translated “repent” and the one used by John the Baptist three times in these short twelve verses, however, is the much stronger metanoeo. This Greek word means to have a change of mind and, more importantly, action. It goes far beyond just a sense of remorse; it entails a whole shifting of a life. In fact, it could be described as turning around—turning all the way around and starting off in a completely opposite direction.
John the Baptist seems to be saying that the first step to peace, the grand dream his father predicted he would come to usher in as he prepared the people for the advent of Jesus, begins with each one of us anticipating the coming of Messiah, the coming of God’s dream for the world, by stopping to turn all the way around and then go a totally different way than the way we’ve been going up until now. To repent.
Perhaps as we head for Christmas waiting for Jesus to come again to our world, to our lives, we imagine this dream of peace God has for our world to be something soft and fluffy and sweet. John the Baptist is here to tell us that this peace is a bit more revolutionary than that. It’s rigorous and hard, it involves change and upheaval, it’s going to be uncomfortable, it requires us to repent.
But perhaps it is also a chance—an opportunity to participate in God’s hopes and dreams for an ideal world, to create something different, to actually bring to life God’s audacious dream of peace for the whole entire world.
This was the expectation for John the Baptist’s life. And, if we call ourselves Christians, people who claim the name of Christ, then…this revolutionary way of peace is an expectation for each of our lives, too. May it be so. Amen.