Luke 3:1-3, 7-20
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree, therefore, that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply, he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Advent, this “getting ready” season, can so easily become a season that is all about doing. Mostly, we get ready by working really hard. We cook, clean, decorate, study, take finals, rehearse, attend concerts, write cards, mail cards, throw parties, go to parties, and shop for just the right gifts for family and friends. There is a common understanding among us that this is a very busy time.
So what a relief to come to worship on the second Sunday of Advent and hear the promise of PEACE. Yes, isn’t that just what we need peace: some quiet time to put our feet up and rest peace: an end to political bickering and partisan one-upmanship peace: the absence of horrific conflict in places around the world. What a relief to come here and discover that embedded in this season is God’s promise of PEACE.
Which begs the question: if the second Sunday of Advent is the Sunday of peace, then why is it also the Sunday when we hear the fiery preaching of John the Baptist? Because his words we just heard don’t sound very peaceful. They sound more like John is picking a fight with God’s people. According to John, it’s not their ancestry that matters to God that they are, as he puts it, “children of Abraham.” What really matters is their ACTIONS.
If you were here last week for our annual Carol Sing, then one of the pieces you heard was a musical setting of a poem by Quaker Civil Rights activist Howard Thurman titled “The Work of Christmas.” Here’s the poem:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.
For us, the song of the angels hasn’t yet rung out, the star has barely appeared in the sky, the kings and princes haven’t left home, and the shepherds’ haven’t received their invitation to the stable, but today’s words from John the Baptist call us to look ahead to what Thurman calls the work of Christmas.
Apparently, getting ready for Christmas is NOT the most important work
because Christmas is not the goal; it is merely the starting point for the ongoing transformation God wants for the world, for all the ways God calls our lives
to more clearly reflect God’s love and mercy. So if we spend these weeks only doing and not heeding the words of John the Baptist, not only will we not know peace, we will never have the energy to attend to the real work of Christmas.
Several years ago, Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In became a bestseller. In it, she encouraged women that, contrary to what they may have been told or experienced, they could have it all high-powered leadership positions satisfying marriages intimate and meaningful involvement in their children’s lives. Many women took Stanberg’s encouragement to heart and worked really hard doing MORE, furthering their careers while nurturing relationships and staying involved with their children.
After Rosa Brooks read Sandberg’s book, she decided the fact that she had friends, family, children, and hobbies, and that she took occasional vacations,
stopped working at a sensible hour and got eight hours of sleep most nights did not mean she was a well-balanced, bounded person, but that she was, in fact, a self-sabotaging slacker. So she starting saying yes to every professional opportunity and volunteering for every role at her children’s school. Her professional and social networks rapidly expanded. She got promoted not just once, but twice, and other parents began to look at her with admiration and approval. But not too long after all this, she realized she was miserable. She never saw her friends and the challenge of working so hard was taking a toll on her work and her health. Writing about this time, she reflected that we have strict legislation mandating adequate rest periods for truck drivers and airline pilots –
not because they need their beauty sleep, but because when overtired drivers and pilots make mistakes, people can die. While the stakes may not be quite as high in every line of work, the reality is that, as Brooks writes,
“When a workplace is full of employees who always lean in and never lean back, it’s full of employees who are exhausted, brittle and incapable of showing much
creativity or making good decisions.”
Sometimes, instead of continually trying to do more, we need to say, “Enough!” This is also true in the workplace that is the church. For both love and work – including the real work of Christmas finding the lost, healing the broken, feeding the hungry, releasing the prisoners, rebuilding the nations, bringing peace this work requires a protected space in which creativity can flourish, for we need new solutions to these age-old problems.
John the Baptist was a preacher utterly unafraid to call out the need for people to say “enough!” He didn’t hesitate to tell people to stop consuming, stop acquiring, stop accepting the status quo; He calls people to return to God by getting rid of not only our stuff but some of the terrible habits we fall into. After his fiery claim that no one simply inherits the favor of God, the people he is preaching to ask him to get more specific. “What should we do?” they ask. In response, he has different suggestions for different kinds of people those who have more than what they need should give some away to those who don’t have enough; tax collectors should quit skimming off the top and collect only what people owe;
soldiers should quit taking bribes. All of these suggestions are similar in nature,
so we can pretty easily predict what advice John might have for the rest of us:
quit holding on so tightly to our reputations and our stuff, to the things we have been taught that people like us should do. Let it all go so that we can make room for God. Because what’s about to happen next the start of Jesus’s ministry is going to require some creativity and out of the box thinking. So rest up! God is about to do a new thing, John is saying, and the old rules will no longer apply. We need to make room in our minds and hearts and souls to encounter God in a whole new way.
This making room may not be what we think of as peace, but peace is what John the Baptist is preaching, the peace that is described by the Hebrew word shalom. Shalom doesn’t just mean the absence of conflict. It’s Hebrew root literally means to make whole or complete, and we can only make something whole or complete
when we first acknowledge how it is broken. For God to make us whole, we must acknowledge our brokenness which includes all the ways we grasp and strive and cling especially during this season. Acknowledging this brokenness, in ourselves, in each other, in our culture and in our world, is the beginning of the hard work that leads to deep peace, to shalom. Maybe this is why on this Sunday of peace, we hear John the Baptist reminding us that we are broken and need to be restored.
When Barbara Brown Taylor was working on a book about darkness, she met a Presbyterian minister who is also a serious caver, and who loves to take people down into some of his favorite caves. He took Taylor down so deep into a wild cave beyond the part of the cave with a few lights and handrails so deep that when they turned off their headlamps, she experienced the most palpable darkness she had ever known. But, to her surprise, as tangible and complete as the darkness was, she didn’t feel afraid or anxious. Instead, she experienced the darkness as a loving mother wrapping her up in her arms. And in letting go of her inherent need for light and certainty, she discovered in that darkness a new kind of peace.
What might happen if we gathered our courage and approached the rest of Advent by keeping in mind the true work of Christmas, by giving up some of our DOING in order to discover what peace we might find when we SPEND LESS:
less time, less energy, less money, less expectation? That might feel as foreign and frightening to us as venturing deep down into a wild cave and turning off our headlamps. But only when we make room, when we give up some of our assumptions and expectations, will we discover something new about who we are and who God is, and have the energy to participate in the world to which God calls us.
Today, both Isaiah and John the Baptist remind us that preparing a way for God requires some rebalancing as Isaiah puts it, Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. John the Baptist says it a little differently, but he’s telling us something similar, to look at where our lives are out of balance, to make adjustments, to figure out where we have done too much or taken too much. Or acquired too much or said too much, and to know that we can stop doing, we can give away, we can make do with less, we can listen instead of speak,
we can take small but meaningful actions that impact the challenges of our time.
We do all this by first making space, not just in our homes but in our hearts, space where Christ might come and dwell and bring us the very peace for which
we secretly and desperately long, the peace which names our brokenness so that we can join in God’s work of becoming whole again. Steve Garnaas Holmes reflects on this in his poem, “Prepare the Way”:
Enough of your junk drawer clutter bucket of old used punctuation heartthrob amusement ride of distraction. Prayer is a snow shovel. You plow it all aside. All of it. Clear a space. Admit it: your heart is a hoarder. Clean out your piety’s basement. You don’t build the way, don’t accrue it. You empty it. Rough made smooth, crooked made straight, busy made empty. Empty it all. Silence the noise, the chorus, the committee, the crowd. The empty place is not long, stretching away. It’s just right there, around you, a circle of light, empty air, silence not what you hear, but how you listen, what you practice. Silence. Now there’s a way. Wait. For the Coming One, who speaks silence, who blesses the emptiness, the Presence who is the negative space itself…
 Rosa Brooks, “Recline, Don’t ‘Lean In’ (Why I Hate Sheryl Sandberg),” Washington Post, February 25, 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/she-the-people/wp/2014/02/25/recline-dont-lean-in-why-i-hate-sheryl-sandberg/
 Taylor discusses this in an interview on the podcast “Everything Happens,” with Kate Bowler. https://katebowler.com/barbara-brown-taylor-life-after-dark-s2e2/
 Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “Prepare the Way,” Email Devotional, December 5, 2018. https://www.unfoldinglight.net/reflections/79e323399tgcb8a3r3bmezwtcsaz7t