May you find and share the luxury of peace this week.
Today's reading: Isaiah 40:1-11
When I was a kid, I knew exactly what we are all waiting for during Advent.
We didn't really observe Advent in church when I was growing up; we didn't use that word, or light the candles, or display the purple, or read the lectionary scriptures. But my family lived in suburban Chicago for awhile, and every winter we'd go downtown to look at the lights on Michigan Avenue and at the holiday scenes in Marshall Fields' department store windows, and before we went home we would stop on a little out-of-the-way street to join in a crowd at a little out-of-the-way German delicatessen. I remember there were all kinds of mysterious cold cuts in the refrigerator case, and among the people crammed into that tiny shop you could overhear several Eastern European languages. And at that little out-of-the-way, heavily-accented store, we kids got what was called an Advent calendar--with twenty-five numbered windows, each containing a piece of chocolate. That box of chocolates stood between us and Christmas... twenty-five never-ending days, counting down chocolate-by-chocolate toward the arrival of the person we'd been waiting for: Santa Claus. Yes, we knew what Advent was about!
To be fair, we also knew it was Jesus' birthday, and we knew that was the most important thing about Christmas. We sang the nativity story in church choir performances, we never missed a Christmas Eve candlelight service, we always read Luke 2 before we opened presents, and we even had a birthday cake for Jesus--in fact, we still do all those things. Between Baby Jesus and Santa Claus, we understood that Advent was all about anticipation and excitement... a season that was simply full to the brim with joy.
To tell the truth, I would be hard-pressed to describe Advent that way today. "Full to the brim with joy." As a grownup I know that in reality, December is as full of devastation, fear, anger, and violence as any other month. Watch the news or read the paper, scroll through Facebook feeds, hear the requests for prayer in church gatherings, walk down the street and witness the needs in our own community. Frankly, the hope, peace, joy, and love that we celebrate during Advent seem to me to be pretty far removed from the world's reality. A painful contrast. An irony. A dream. Visions of sugarplums, and all that.
Then again, maybe vision is exactly the right word.
The first chapter of Mark's gospel echoes Isaiah's foretelling:
See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’
The messengers of God---the prophet Isaiah and the baptizer John---had a vision of the Messiah's coming, but they looked around at their world and saw that the road was not yet ready. The messengers were calling out, are still calling out, for followers to join them to "Prepare the way of the Lord!" Because it's still not a peaceful way, this wilderness, this Advent path. It's uneven, twisted, roadblocked, scarred with debris. You can check its traffic reports on the news, in the paper, on Facebook, in prayer groups, on these streets. On the Advent way, peace is indeed a contrast, an irony, a dream... a vision--
Can you see it too?
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
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.
This was Isaiah the prophet's vision, as he patiently awaited the long-expected coming of God's Chosen One.
This was John the baptist's vision, as he proclaimed the coming redemption on the very verge of Jesus's ministry.
And this is the vision of everyone who still cries out into the world's wilderness, everyone who is still announcing the advent--the coming--of the Child of Hope, the Prince of Peace, the Gift of Joy, the Lord of Love.
In this season, we're likely to notice that we have more than we need of many things---more than enough trees covered in twinkle lights, more than enough sprinkle-laden cookies, more than enough reams of wrapping paper and miles of ribbon. I don't know about you but sometimes I forget that these are luxuries, not necessities, of this time of year. I think I've earned them after eleven months of not-Christmas! I’m convinced that they are the bare minimum of my requirements for celebrating the holiday; certainly I need all these important things as I prepare for the arrival of... Santa Claus.
But how can we prepare the way for the arrival of Christ, the Messiah, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God? Not just the sweet little baby in the hay, "no crying he makes," but the preacher on the mountainside proclaiming blessings on the poor and the peacemaker? How can we prepare the way for the fisherman of souls, calling disciples to life on the road? How can we prepare the way for the one who turned over the tables and turned around the tax collectors? How can we prepare the way for the parade of palms and the hill of crosses and the stone rolled away?
Hear the good news: we have everything we need to take up this work. In fact, we have more than we need. We have everything we need... more than we need... to help to straighten the road, to smooth its rough places. We have more than enough of Advent luxuries that we have not earned and do not deserve. We have an inheritance that has been given to us in grace: a limitless wealth of hope, of peace, of joy, of love.
And they are luxuries indeed.
At this time of year the contrast between haves and have-nots is so sharp it’s almost painful. It's financial, of course: on every channel, commercials remind us how few days remain and how many great bargains exist to allow us show love to our family, friends, and even pets... and at the same time, on every corner, there is a red bucket and a bell-ringer, or a Toys for Tots collection box, or an angel tree dripping with names. Many of us set Christmas-shopping budgets that other families could live on for months. But the spirit of Christmas is a luxurious spirit and a sharing spirit, and we are heart-warmed to have so many opportunities to give out of our abundance. We know for sure we don't want to be the "before" versions of Ebenezer Scrooge or the Grinch.
But there's also a spiritual contrast between having and having-not, and for that there are no red buckets or collection boxes or name-tagged trees. The world is full of people who have-not hope, or joy, or love, or that most elusive luxury, peace. There are people who can see themselves fading away, withering away like grass, desperately in need of comfort, of feeding, of cradling by a carrying Shepherd, of guidance along a safe path. And there's no simple way for those of us who have such peace to donate our excess to those who have not. When it comes to the luxury of peace, there's no tidy "God bless us every one" for the Cratchetts, and there's no quirky happy-ending rhyme for all the Whos down in Whoville.
If only we could write a check for peace and send it to Ferguson, Missouri, or to New York City, or to Washington DC. To the Ukraine or Afghanistan or Nigeria. If only we could host a peace-drive, raise enough to send truckloads of it to homes racked by alcoholism and abuse, to communities flooded by uncontrollable waters or by unconscionable threats. If only we could spread it virally on Facebook, infect the op-ed blogs and the gossip columns. If only we could cover it with clingwrap like a warming casserole, and pass it along to friends and strangers who are facing diagnoses or deployments, dismissals or death notices.
If only we could fill our accounts with peace and live off its interest, resting secure in its stability and giving generously out of its payouts. But peace is indeed a luxury we have not earned and have done nothing to deserve, and we know only too well that even if we are haves today, tomorrow we may suddenly be rendered have nots.
Hear the call: "Prepare the way of the Lord!" Let us use today's luxury to attend to these rough roads, to straighten the twisted paths, to smooth the way for those who are in need of it. Let’s pave the way with peace by walking it together, always making more and more room for others to join us. Let’s pave the way by going to the places where we are most uncomfortable, and walking alongside those who are seeking peace there. Let’s do it by filling buckets with coins, and saying prayers, and giving casseroles, and writing checks. Let’s do it by speaking truths, and by holding our tongues, and by knowing when to do which. Let’s make the way of peace around tables, with soup and cornbread, and with bread and wine. If we believe Isaiah and John, we are not to wait impatiently, just counting down the days until Jesus comes to set things right and do all the straightening and the smoothing himself. We're being called out--by Isaiah, by John, by Jesus--to be disciples on this always-Advent road. A road that is under constant construction, in a wilderness that is fraught with dangers, where peace is as delicate and as imperative a luxury as it ever was.
Because even though Santa Claus may come on Christmas night at the end of the chocolate pieces, the Advent journey does not end at the nativity. This season is only the beginning... this is only the birth of the Jesus road. From here we set off to make the way.
give us ears to hear the call to prepare
--the call to peace--
even in the most unlikely places.
Give us courage to claim peace
to speak peace
to walk for peace
to make peace
even when it seems the most impossible.
Give us wisdom to know
when to prophecy
and when to pray;
when to proclaim
and when to listen;
when to give
and when to receive;
when to stand alone
and when to join together.
Show us how to make this Advent journey
a life journey,
so we may be always preparing Christ’s way
until he comes again.