December 5th 2021 homily on Luke 3:1-6 by Rachel Snack
I cannot believe how quickly December got here and how close Christmas feels already. While a lot of years, I delight in getting all the decorations up before Thanksgiving, turning up the Christmas music, and getting all the right presents before stores get crazy – this year, it all feels very overwhelming to me. Maybe it’s also because we haven’t had a “normal” Christmas in quite some time. Having our traditions brought to a halt by a global pandemic might bring some of us a greater eagerness to get together with family and pick up where we left off. But for others – the lack of expectations, and the space where the holiday traditions used to be was actually nice! It gives us time to reevaluate how we actually want to spend the holidays, and we might dread going back to old routines.
There’s nothing wrong with any of those feelings about the holidays – it can be equally joyful and overwhelming and magical and disappointing, many times a mixture of all of these things at once. But on years where I feel a disconnect from the holiday cheer – I always think of the 2000 Movie “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas”, the one with Jim Carrey. It opens with Cindy Lou Who with her parents, who are frantically, but joyfully putting up lights and shopping for Christmas presents. Cindy is clearly dejected, confused by the whole thing – and says that it all seems a bit excessive and strange – it is Dr. Seuss, after all. But the part that always gets me is when she sings her song, all about how everyone seems to understand Christmas but her – everyone is feeling this joy that somehow she just can’t get in touch with. The older I get, the more I resonate with Cindy-Lou Who in this scene – because she’s right, something doesn’t feel quite right a lot of the time as we approach the Christmas season, and it’s hard, because we’re also surrounded with the idea of what we’re “supposed” to feel at Christmas.
Maybe it’s because the ever-growing expectations of the holiday season are unrealistic and out of reach. We can’t get the perfect presents to celebrate others the way that we think they deserve. We don’t have as much time as we hope to for spending with our families – or maybe we do, but it’s not the happy, cozy gathering we think it will be. Because it’s a time where all is supposed to be merry and bright – the most wonderful time of the year – it can actually do more to highlight all the things that aren’t so wonderful. The financial pressure put on families to provide holiday magic can be overwhelming for those who were already just getting by, especially when juxtaposed with the constant pressure to buy more and do more. People who have tough relationships with family have more attention drawn to it this time of year – and may be feeling the weight of those tensions and broken relationships more as Christmas approaches. And certainly those who have experienced loss feel it more during the holidays – knowing that it marks one more Christmas spent without a loved one and thinking about the memories they shared. I think, especially, this week of the lives lost at Oxford High School in Michigan – and the four high schoolers whose families will be mourning them this Christmas. It was only nine years ago that there was a shooting this time of year at Sandy Hook – and when I think about how little has changed since then, I’m reminded of how broken our world is, and how little hope I have that some things will get better.
This week is the week of Advent that highlights God’s promise of peace – but I can’t help but think of the years where I’ve spent Christmas feeling quite restless, knowing that there is a so much in our world that makes despair seem like a reasonable response! I find myself yearning for something more – for a kind of healing that seems urgently needed but endlessly far-off – more of a promise for our spiritual future than the here and now.
In Philippians 4, God’s peace is described as something that surpasses all understanding – and at times, that feels really comforting – gosh, I would like to have peace like that. But other times, in my human thinking – I feel annoyed at this. It seems to me like someone sitting in a room that’s on fire, and thinking “hmm, strangely enough, I feel at peace.” Wouldn’t urgency – fear, even – be a practical response – perhaps one that drives us to look for a way out of the room, or a fire extinguisher?
I sometimes find more comfort then, in reading the words of the prophet Jeremiah, saying: “They have treated my people’s wound superficially, saying “Peace, peace” when there is no peace.” I know that God’s peace is not something that is hollow – something that disregards the pain and suffering for which urgent action is needed, but how then, do we experience that peace in the midst of so much suffering? Is there a way that peace that passes human understanding can also be cognizant and sympathetic to our human needs?
Jesus Cares About Our Human Reality
I think we get some clues that the story of Jesus is supposed to connect to our real, actual reality – of course, through the coming of Jesus – but even down to the way that it’s described. While the other gospels could communicate in metaphors and parables – the Gospel of Luke, written for Gentiles, needed to be based in facts in order for it to be believed. That’s why the author makes sure to connect to SO many points of reference for the time at which this occurred. It is specifically in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius, with Pontius Pilate, and Herod, and Philip and Lysanias. This was written for a specific people in a specific time who would’ve known the sociopolitical struggles of the world Jesus was born into – struggles that didn’t go away after he lived and died. But still, they are mentioned – and just as they were important to the people around Jesus, they would have been important to Him, too.
However, there were many who heard prophecies of the Messiah’s coming and wanted him to be a political savior more so than a spiritual one. And the thing is, that desire of theirs was pretty understandable. The Jews of this time were still living under foreign rule, and longed for a political leader to overthrow the Roman Empire. As people who had lived under slavery and exile – they longed to see Israel restored to a place of peace, freedom and prosperity – and why wouldn’t God intervene to do so?
Into those expectations, the Son of God is born – a tiny baby, already with a tremendous job ahead of him – the hopes of all mankind. It’s no wonder that He wasn’t what people expected. And yet, in the years in between his birth and his death, Jesus shows time and time again that he cares about our physical realities. He takes time to heal the sick and raise the dead – knowing that in His lifetime he could not heal everyone, but that it mattered to those who he could heal. He ate and drank with the poor and the marginalized, knowing that when he was done, they would still be poor and marginalized, but they would know that they had value in the eyes of God. What he did was as scandalous and revolutionary as it was common, humble, and exceptionally human. For someone who was God in the flesh, and knows no limits – He also didn’t do ALL the work that could possibly be done, and instead opted for small, intimate moments of deep transformation.
When we look at the bigger picture of Jesus’ life, and not just his birth, we can see how much His ministry meant to a world that was hurting. Not in a vague way that makes us feel better momentarily – but in a way that’s personal, and physical – that restores honor to a woman caught in adultery, or that brings a leper back into community. These promises that God gives us about peace, hope and restoration are not empty words – but they might not come in the ways that we expect.
We Are Called to Walk the Path of Peace
But before we even get to Jesus’ ministry, we instead zoom in on John the Baptist – who, while well-known among the Jews, held none of the power that the first five people mentioned in this Scripture do. John would gain the attention of leaders like Herod later, but famous, now for the message he was preaching: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” While some may hear this as a warning – “God is coming, so you better get your act together” – I find it reassuring, as it implies that God, too, wants our paths straight, and intends to make the world the way that it should be. John is telling us that God is near, and holiness is his goal – what a relief to those who have suffered and long for justice and healing.
However, if you pay attention to the wording – it is not “get out of the way, because God’s about to straighten you all out”, but that the listener is the one called to do the straightening. While in other scriptures, we get a picture of God creating a place in heaven for us – instead, here we are called to forge a place for him to walk with us on earth. What more of a statement could be made to show that God loves the world here and now – that He would call us to do the same work that He does before, during, and after His life here.
I think we tend to see holiness, or peace, as a state of mind more so than a life lived out. The image that comes to my mind is one of meditating on a secluded mountain, apart from all the world’s troubles, as if you’re somehow above them. We can feel peaceful, we can be at peace, but what does it mean to co-labor with God in bringing peace into the world? This sort of language is mirrored in the earlier promises of a Messiah in Luke 1: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” For there to be a WAY of peace that we could physically walk with our feet – that means that God’s peace is not just a warm feeling. It is a path that we can follow – and that God leads us into as we follow Him. And if it’s anything like the life of Jesus, it means grappling more with the suffering of the world, not less.
Living a Life of Peace
So, what does it mean to live a life of peace? If this life of peace looks anything like the John the Baptist who was preaching it – it not exactly peaceful. John lived in the middle of the wilderness, leading people to the idea of a Messiah, still not knowing fully what it would entail. When the time came for Jesus’ ministry to begin, John could have had a sizeable following of his own – but he instead, sent people on to follow Jesus, and deferred the power that could have been his by seizing this attention. I mentioned that John also caught political attention – and it was not in a positive light at all. The following John had amassed by preaching Jesus’ return threatened Herod, and when he spoke out against King Herod’s sexual misconduct with his brother’s wife, John was put to death for speaking truth to power. But it goes to show that being a person of peace does not mean keeping the peace at all costs. Sometimes being a peacemaker means breaking the illusion of peace that comes with pretending all is right when it is not.
In Jesus, we see him pursuing peace through the aforementioned caring for the marginalized, and, similar to John, in speaking truth even when it cost him greatly. What’s more, Jesus managed to not only upset political powers of the time, but also the religious powers – who, in theory, held to the Scriptures that Jesus embodied. I wonder how often Jesus was seen as divisive, by those who would rather ignore the brokenness and live with the status quo.
For us, though, living a life like Jesus doesn’t have to be dramatic, or catch the attention of local officials. I think we see it in the way that Jesus is always looking out for the people who are on the outside – who is not included here who would benefit from feeling valued? Who has been hurt and needs someone to listen? Sometimes, we have been a part of making people feel unwelcome in faith spaces, but the cool thing about that is that we can equally be a part of the healing.
Like Jesus and John, we can also be present where we are – looking for the people that God has placed around us, and the work he has called us to do. We can use the power He’s given us, while still remembering that all of that was meant to give honor back to God, and not ourselves.
I think that the peace described in Scripture is meant to be experienced in community – because it’s far too big of a job for any of us alone. You can also feel more of a peace when you know that you’re not relying on only yourself – if we’re all looking to each others’ needs, valuing each others’ hurts and putting them above our own, we can trust that our needs will be met as well. It’s easy to feel at peace when you’re by yourself – who else is going to bother you, or make a demand of you that challenges you in any way? But together – we get something more complicated, but stronger, and more beautiful. This type of community is the kind that we long for – one that sees each other fully, puts our needs above our own, and works together to make the world around us a better place. One that values each of our individual gifts, and that seeks to understand – even if that means slowing down, and acknowledging where all is not right.
Let me pray for us. God – thank you for leading us into the path of peace. I pray for those of us who are not feeling peaceful this holiday season, and might be feeling grieved or overwhelmed by the state of the world. Thank you for gifting us in different ways and giving us different things that pull on our hearts and draw us to action. I pray that we wouldn’t ignore the ways that you’re calling us to be your peace in the world, and that we’d do so, together, as a community – knowing that we will not finish the work, but knowing that you have all things under your control where we are not enough. Amen