First United Methodist Church
December 10, 2023
Rev. Lauren Hall
Our Just Peace
Have you ever wondered how the two scriptures we just read relate to the theme of peace we began the service with? One of the definitions of peace is freedom from disturbance or tranquility. If we describe a peaceful setting, we may use words like calm, quiet, or still.
Both Isaiah and John are preparing an oppressed people for the coming of the Messiah, but the preparations they are calling for will disrupt people’s lives, and in some cases completely undo a lifetime of understandings of what a person might consider traditional or normal.
And so I ask you, when we light the candle of peace, what things come to mind? What path needs to be made straight? What comfort can Christ bring to a society that is experiencing sensory overload, political polarization, inflation, inequality, brokenness, fear and hopelessness?
When I attended college I met Lois, who was one of the Academic Advisors for the athletes. She was an interesting person with an adventurous past. She enjoyed kayaking, white-water rafting, rock climbing and a number of other outdoor adventure sports which tested the spirit and pushed people to their ultimate limits. She married young, and she and her husband began a family. Then one day Lois found herself recovering in a hospital bed, unable to move and missing one arm. She eventually recovered her mobility, but her husband divorced her while she was still in the hospital and her child was placed in his custody. She was fortunate enough to be classified as a “disabled person,” and her social worker informed her that she could obtain a free college education because of it. And so she took advantage of that – she took all her bitterness to college and graduated with a degree in Sociology. She eventually earned her Master’s Degree, and by the time our paths crossed, she had been working for the Athletic Department for a number of years.
Lois was a popular Advisor. She always had students in her office, and throughout the semester she never seemed to be alone. After I graduated, I began to work for the Athletic Department as a tutor, and this is when we became friends. Although we interacted quite a bit, I never thought about her when it came time for the holidays. Since my work schedule revolved around the student schedule, I went home for Christmas, and I didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about what happened in Blacksburg when I wasn’t there.
But when I got back that year, Lois seemed overly excited. She told me she wanted to show me something and asked if I could stop by her office. I did, and she opened a box and carefully unfolded a San Diego Charger Football jersey, signed by every player on the team. I was overwhelmed just by the shirt. But that wasn’t why Lois was excited.
She told me what had happened. It was Christmas Eve, and she was home alone, preparing to celebrate Christmas as she usually did, quietly sipping away a bottle of wine, waiting for the holiday to finally be over. She had no family to celebrate with. Her husband took her daughter and they were not on speaking terms. Because she married a Christian, her Jewish parents didn’t speak to her much, and Christmas day wouldn’t be one of the days that they would choose to call her anyway. So she was alone, expecting nothing, full of bitterness for a holiday that really didn’t bring her much joy.
But then the doorbell rang, and the Federal Express man stood there with his signature pad, holding a large box, surprising her on Christmas Eve. “Do you see, Lauren?” she asked. “It’s the first Christmas present I have received since the accident.”
I was in shock. It was the first time I ever fully understood loneliness. I had been alone before, but I had never been lonely. Even the first Christmas that I spent away from my family, I wasn’t alone. My mom sent me this Christmas tree. Most of the original ornaments are gone, but I still decorate it every year, reminding myself that I am loved. My mom sent me a tree, a tin of Christmas cookies, a phone card reminding me to call home, and some presents. Even though I had to work both Christmas Eve and Christmas, I still celebrated with my family. And I wasn’t lonely.
But Lois had experienced loneliness. And that Christmas, a rookie quarterback on a professional football team made the effort to remember her, and in a single act of kindness he changed the course of a very bitter woman’s life. She found peace in a holiday she had come to despise. She discovered new life at Christmas.
In our Gospel Mark introduces John the Baptist with a quotation from Isaiah: “See I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.”
Through Christ, we are formed into a new body with new, extended family members. Our existing family remains, but at the same time, new family members are found, bringing additional love into our lives and sometimes filling existing voids.
Love needs to be embodied. Incarnated. Peace needs to put on flesh. We need real flesh-and-blood arms to gather us up. We long to be gathered. To be loved. To experience peace in a personal, practical way that we can feel, even when we think we don’t.
As we reread these familiar stories, we have to rethink what it means to be on a mission of peace, to be the ministry that we proclaim even as we seek to gather and cultivate new believers. Why do we need people like John who will prepare the way and make our paths straight?
Part of it is because we live in a world where the path to our hearts isn’t straight. It’s not because God can’t find us, but God needs to know that we want a visit. God doesn’t come where God is not welcome. If we build a barricade and block the door to our heart, God may respect our wishes rather than trying to open it.
And that’s why it’s so important that we find ways to be like John. John’s message isn’t exactly one of comfort and peace, at least not the way we understand it. John is stirring us up and changing the way people think. He is confident that the one who is coming will offer true peace. A peace that transforms, equips and unites. A just peace that lifts up those who have been pressed down, gathers in those who have been ignored, and strengthens those who have been made weak. We are called to move beyond individualistic thinking. To be messengers for Christ. To prepare the way for the Lord.
The comfort proclaimed in Isaiah and echoed by John in the Gospel of Mark is not my comfort or your comfort, but it is our comfort. We are called to think beyond the “I” into the “we,” from the “me” to the “us.” That’s the Advent call, the invitation to invite God to inhabit our world by working together to open the roads, remove the barriers and fill in the pits so that we can see God coming and open our arms in welcome and worship.
The world needs more people who are ready to share love in places where everybody else wants to spread hatred. Let us pray:
Gracious and loving God, you enter our lives and call to us to be open to hearing the cries of people who feel lost and alienated, who feel that no one cares or ever will care about them. Guide us and gather us, Lord. Teach us again to be people of peace and hope, responding with acts of compassion rather than negativity and violence.
Lord, attune our ears to hear the voices of those who cry out in their need. Open our hearts to respond in caring ways. Teach us the great truths about how we should live as your children. Forgive our failings and help us to try again and again to be the kind of faith-filled people you would have us be.
As we cry to you, offering the names of loved ones who are sick, who mourn, who are lost, who live in anguish and in anger, keep us mindful of the ways in which we can be of help. Likewise, as we rejoice with all those who are happy, who dance with delight at the wondrous gifts you have given, remind us that joy and peace are what we all seek and what we can accomplish.
We have been given that opportunity to reach out through the ministries and mission of our church, bringing hope and peace to all. Awaken us to action. Stir us to courage. Rouse us to prepare a way in the wilderness for your coming, clearing the brush of oppression, racism, injustice and hopelessness – so that all may see your light and perceive your coming. Amen.
Invitation to Discipleship
As you go back into the community this week, go knowing the Jesus loves you. Seek out those who may be lonely or hurting, and find ways to make Christ’s peace real. Go in peace.