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How Can There Be Peace?

A Homily Luke 1:68-79

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

December 7, 2003 (Second Sunday of Advent)

We have come again to the season of Advent; a time when we remind ourselves that – as Christians – we should never be satisfied with where we are, or complacent about the way the world is. That’s a pretty common perspective in the secular world as well. Occasionally I’m not sneaky enough to get out of a friend’s Amway spiel, and it always begins the same way, “What are your dreams? If you could have the life you really want, what would it be?” Incidentally, the answer they are not looking for is “In my perfect life, I would be allowed to bind and gag multi-level marketers.”

Jesus’ answer wouldn’t please them much more. Advent reminds us that Christians are not looking forward to wealth, power, or prestige. Our eagerness and excitement should not be about what we hope to someday have or own or do. Christians are a people who look forward to the transformation of the world into a place that matches God’s desires; not ours.

That future we await is not unlike the big present that many of our parents would put under the Christmas tree when we were children. If your parents were – like mine – particular sadistic; they would set it out sometimes weeks before Christmas. Somehow, I would always know which one was the present; the one that my mother or father had picked out with the most care; the last one I would get to unwrap, the one that was meant to be a big surprise.

That present always held mixed emotions for me. Certainly there was anticipation and curiosity: I couldn’t wait to see what was inside. But there was always a little bit of anxiety too. What if it wasn’t what I really wanted or what I thought it was going to be? What if it was a sweater or new socks?

There is something of Advent in that mixture of emotions. The perfect future that awaits us, the perfect future that is the hope and proclamation of all Christians, is not the one we picked out. It is the one God has planned for us; and it doesn’t take much reading from the Bible to know that God’s plans are not always our own.

Consequently, this is not just a season of happy carols and pleasant homilies about Shangri-la. On each of these four Sundays we look at one part of the future God has promised us: hope, peace, joy, and love; and we honestly recognize that there is much to celebrate in that future; and some things that scare us.
Hence, our theme for this particular Advent: “Fear Not!” Last week, Tim reminded us to “Fear not! There is hope!” This Sunday, we are reminded to “Fear not! There is peace!”

Fear not, there is peace. That almost seems an absurd proclamation to make today. As Marion Shirley well remembers, 62 years ago today our nation was shocked by a cowardly surprise attack that crippled our military. Today, even as we gather in safety to worship, Christians around the world live in fear of violence because of their faith. Over a hundred thousand members of our military are overseas in an increasingly violent war zone. The city that is the spiritual center of three of the world’s most prominent religions is a site of near-constant bloodshed.

It almost seems absurd to proclaim “There is peace!” in such a world. But we serve a God who is not uncomfortable with the absurd. The speaker in today’s text from the first chapter of Luke understood that very well.

He is Zechariah, an elderly priest whom the angel Gabriel had surprised in the sanctuary where offerings were made to God. In Zechariah’s time, there was a large number of hereditary priests; and lots were cast among those who had never served in the sanctuary. When Zechariah drew the winning lot, he entered the sanctuary, only to have a messenger of God appear to him and proclaim that his elderly wife Elizabeth was going to have a child.

Zechariah was surprised. Perhaps he shouldn’t have been, since he was standing in the very place consecrated for divine encounters; but let’s be honest. How many of us expect the real, tangible, audible word of God when we come to church. Perhaps we would be wise to learn from Zechariah, because Gabriel is so offended by Zechariah’s doubts that he renders the poor priest mute until the child’s birth.

Imagine that, a priest forced to go nine months without talking! Before any of you point it out, let me be the first to admit that – no – I cannot imagine what I would do if I had to go nine minutes without talking, much less nine months. I find it easiest not to dwell on such horrible possibilities. I can, however, sympathize with Zechariah; and we can only assume that he was even more eager than most expectant parents for the birth of his child.

Our text for today joins Zechariah eight days after that birth – at the child’s naming ceremony. The crowd of well-wishers has asked Zechariah to write down the child’s name on a slate; and Zechariah scribbles “John.” The boy will grow up to be John the Baptist, the one who will prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah.

As soon as Zechariah writes the boy’s name, he regains his speech; and his first words form our text for today. Traditionally, this passage is called the Benedictus because of its Latin translation; and it is a beautiful proclamation of the hope we have in God. It is an announcement of the certain prospect of God’s peace.

It is, therefore, a fitting text for today. But if we look more closely at the text, maybe shake the box a little and try to peek under the wrappings; we see that perhaps what God has in store for us is not exactly what we expect. If you’ll allow me to step away from Zechariah for just a moment, I’d like to quote from the outstanding movie The Princess Bride. In that movie, one of the characters describes all sorts of things as “inconceivable.” Unfortunately, all of those “inconceivable” things keep happening to him.

Finally, one of the other characters says to the man, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Well, Zechariah keeps talking about the coming Messiah’s peace; but I do not think it means what he thinks it means.

Zechariah proclaims that God “has raised up a mighty savior for us.” A mighty savior. So far – so good. In Zechariah’ time the children of Israel lived under the tyrannical hand of the Roman empire; and their dearest hope was for a leader to come and unite their strength to overthrow the emperor’s stranglehold on their land.

A mighty warrior to save them is just what they needed. One tiny problem. This mighty warrior, whom we know as Jesus, gave the following advice. “Blessed are the meek” he said [Matt 5:5]. He also said that the only response to violence is letting someone hurt you more, and that the only response to theft is to give everything you have to the thief. Even worse, when the agents of the empire Jesus was meant to overthrow came to capture him, Jesus would not allow anyone to fight in his defense [Luke 22:50-53]. He was, in fact, beaten and executed by them; and he did not even try to fight back.

God’s people have asked for a warrior to free them from oppression. God promises a mighty savior from the line of the warrior king David, and Zechariah proclaims that the fierce savior is coming. And when he does, the mighty hero lays down and dies.

Maybe we should be careful what we wish for. God doesn’t fight the way we do, and God certainly doesn’t win the way we understand winning.

To see another example of that, simply keep reading Zechariah’s prophecy. The priest tells us that the coming Messiah will save the people of God from their enemies and from those who hate them. That’s good stuff, certainly worth looking forward to.

Of course, let’s look at what that Messiah actually had to say about enemies and hate. Less than five chapters later in this same gospel Jesus teaches, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. [Luke 6:27-36].

Love our enemies? Pray for those who hate us? That’s not exactly a formula for total victory in a war. It almost seems sneaky. It’s one thing to triumph over people we don’t like by kicking their butts. That feels good. But “winning” because they stop being our foes and instead become people we care about – people we love and pray for – that’s no fun at all.

Not to mention, even if we were to ask God to deal non-violently with our enemies, we would almost certainly ask God to change them. Jesus, however, doesn’t say a word about them. Instead, God wants to change us.

Be careful what you wish for. God’s victory may not be the kind of victory we expect. I don’t think it’s what Zechariah expected; because he goes on to mention God’s covenant with Abraham. The covenant was that Abraham’s children would be safe and know God’s mercy. Imagine his surprise if someone had told him that God’s solution would be to extend that covenant (and that mercy) to all humanity.

That’s not unlike a child saying that he doesn’t want anyone but his siblings to play with his toys, and the child’s parents saying, “Fine, we won’t let anyone but your brothers and sisters play with them.” Imagine the child’s surprise when his parents go out and adopt all the children in the neighborhood.

Be careful what you wish for. God’s mercy has a habit of overflowing and touching everyone. It comes freely, but not without changing us – as the next part of Zechariah’s prayer reminds us.

He explains that the whole point of the prophecy is that, “God’s people may serve, without fear, in holiness and righteousness all our days.” So not only does God free us in strange ways; God frees us to serve; to serve God and those around us. It’s the choice Jesus offers us elsewhere in Scripture, to carry our own heavy burdens or give them up for the light yoke of faith in Christ [Matt 11:28-30].

So what’s the point then? The mighty savior teaches us to fight by sacrificing his life. We’re given victory over our enemies by turning those who hate us into those we love. We get the mercy we are promised, but so does everyone else; and we are freed only to serve. If that’s Zechariah’s prophesy, why does he bother.
Zechariah has an answer to that too. He looks down at his newborn son and says, “You will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go to prepare the way of the Lord; to give knowledge of salvation to God’s people by the forgiveness of their sins.”

It’s not about defeating emperors or gaining land at all. It’s about what Christians have called the “Good News” for thousands of years. The real oppressors – our own failings, weaknesses, doubts, mistakes, and sins – cannot hold us down any more. In the person of Jesus God’s love and mercy has become real; and that is where real peace will be found.

The value of that victory cannot be overstated. How often do we carry our own internal battles to the outside world? When we cannot find peace or happiness in our own skins we blame the people and institutions around us; thinking that – if we can only change them – we will be happy. But we won’t, we can’t, because at the end of the day we still have to face who we really are. Zechariah reminds us that God has seen us just as we are and loves us anyway – we are forgiven, understood, and welcomed into the family of God.

Zechariah goes on to say, “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.”

We gather in this season of expectation, looking toward the horizon for that dawn; and – as we do so – we proclaim with certainty that there will be peace. Not peace treaties. Not cease fires. Not the oppressive “peace” of a police state. All of those things can end as quickly as they began.

To quote the theologian Tim Shirley, “It’s not about our kind of peace, it’s about God’s peace.”

That means we won’t “win” – at least not in any way that means other people will lose. Instead the very concept of winning and losing will become meaningless in a world transformed by the perfect love of God.

Zechariah’s prophecy is one of hope for us. He reminds us that – as Christians – we have set our feet onto the way of peace. When we look at how that prophecy was lived out in the person of Jesus, however, we realize that we should not be surprised if that road takes us in a direction we never would have expected. Sometimes peace does not mean what you think it means.