Today, everywhere around the world, various expressions of the Christian church are beginning a new adventure of the life of discipleship . . . the season of Advent.
It’s a season of waiting and expectation and allowing the possibility that God’s dream for our world might be unfolding all around us . . . the world He intends for us . . . a world of peace.
But that’s not the world we live in is it? We live in a world . . .
- Where wars rip apart the fabric of nations,
- Where fear and terror dictate our lives
- Where political differences divide and destroy
- Where relationships are broken by misunderstanding and betrayal
- And where there is very little peace to be found.
But on this Sunday, the Advent Sunday of peace, we declare that the God who created us imagines a perfect world in which we, God’s creation, live together . . . in peace.
And in Advent we wait for the Messiah, the one who is coming to teach us how to be people of peace.
Today’s passage for the Sunday of peace leads us straight to Matthew’s third chapter.
Unlike Luke, who takes great pains to give us all the dreamy details of a sweet baby being adored by his loving parents as the light of the star shines directly on his crib, and there are angels and wise men and shepherds and glory and majesty . . .
Matthew begins the story of Jesus with a long and tedious genealogy, then we get one chapter of the birth story, and then he jumps right into the real start of things.
Emmanuel, God with Us has been born . . . and here’s why; to usher in the Kingdom of God, a kingdom of peace and healing and hope.
So, naturally, Matthew immediately introduces us to . . . John the Baptist?
I don’t mean to be too critical of Matthew, but I have to wonder what he was thinking to start things off by introducing us to John the Baptist.
Every family has at least one strange bird, right? And if you are not sure who that person is in your family . . . well, then it’s probably you.
John the Baptist is that guy in Jesus’ family.
He was so strange that he didn’t even live in town with everyone else. He preferred to live out in the wilderness and whenever people ran into him, he was always shouting accusations about sinfulness and the need to repent.
I don’t imagine that anyone would describe him as peaceful and nurturing . . . or even approachable, for that matter.
He dressed strangely, wearing a tunic made of scratchy camel hair. He didn’t have a real job. Instead, he preferred to live off the land, foraging for wild honey and eating bugs for protein.
He probably smelled bad. He had a scraggly beard that was way too long with stuff stuck to it. And he had a wild look in his eyes.
I don’t know why Matthew introduces John at the very start of the story of Jesus. It seems to me that a better approach might be to play down the crazy family member, just not mention him at all, or at least soften up some of the details.
But John the Baptist, the crazy cousin of Jesus who spent his days wandering the wilderness shouting about the need to repent, had somehow become oddly compelling.
Crowds of people traveled from all over the Judean countryside and the city of Jerusalem, out to the muddy banks of the Jordan River because the crazy guy with the camel hair was saying something . . . something that got them thinking about their lives, how life as they knew it definitely was not the life God imagined for them . . . and how it needed desperately to change.
But it makes sense because there is something else about John the Baptist, a little detail that Matthew doesn’t tell us, but we can read about in Luke.
On the eighth day after His birth, his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth took their newborn son to be circumcised, which was and still is a requirement for Jewish males.
And during the liturgy of circumcision, the baby boy was named.
It was usually a simple process . . . the Rabbi who performed the ritual of circumcision – said something like, “Name this child,” to which the parents responded. And there it was. He was named.
Now in that day, people didn’t choose names because they sounded good. People chose names for their children very carefully because the name should describe some aspect of a child’s character or identity.
A “good” name would say something about who the parents hoped and prayed their child would become. And often the name told a story. For example . . .
- Adam meant "earth, soil," from which he was created
- Adam named his wife Eve, which means “Life” because she was the mother of all the living.
- Abram’s name was changed to Abraham which meant "Father of a Multitude."
- Isaac meant "Laughter," because Sarah laughed when God told Abraham that she would bear a son even though she was ninety years old.
You get the point. Names often told a story. Sometimes they were earned, and sometimes they were given. Sometimes they were prophetic, and sometimes they simply reflected the hopes and dreams of the people who gave them.
The infant John was named prophetically. The Angel Gabriel, which means “God is Strong”, had come to Zechariah and told him that Elizabeth would give birth to a son and that he is to give him the name John which in Hebrew means, “God is gracious”. And that he would be the one to prepare God’s people to receive God’s grace.
On the day John was named, Zechariah sang him a song. A song that reflected a special quality, hope, and expectation he had for his child.
Zechariah looked at the potential and promise of the life in his arms, and he set out a great challenge, big shoes for that little life to fill. For the wild-eyed crazy man wandering in the wilderness catching bugs, this is what his father Zachariah had predicted for him:
And you child shall be called the prophet of the Most High for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way to give God’s people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on High shall break upon us. To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Uh, the way of peace?
Peace, in the words of one who chose a life in direct opposition to the culture of the world around him, who called for repentance with a strident and unrelenting voice?
Who offended everyone he ran into, not just by his smell but also by his habit of calling them names and refusing to put up with the way they were living?
This was the expectation Zachariah had for his son; this was the promise of John the Baptist’s life; this was the lesson he was teaching while he stood, ankle deep on the muddy shore of the Jordan River yelling at the top of his lungs about repentance.
It seems easier, more peaceful, really to just go back to chapter two, where we can easily imagine the glow of the starlight, the soft lowing of the cattle in the barn, the sweet look of a young mother who has just seen the face of her child and fallen hopelessly, desperately in love.
But instead we are here, being asked to repent, hearing the strident words of John the Baptist telling us: this—repentance—it is the true way to peace.
The Greek translation of our New Testament includes two Greek words sometimes translated repent.
- One means to have a change of feeling; one use for this word in the New Testament is when Judas “repented” after betraying Jesus in Matthew 27. However, a better translation for this Greek word might be “regret” or “feel remorse.”
- Another Greek word also translated “repent” and the one used by John the Baptist three times in these short twelve verses is the much stronger. This Greek word means to have a change of mind and, more importantly, action. It goes far beyond just a sense of remorse; it entails a whole shifting of a life. In fact, it could be described as turning around; turning all the way around and starting off in a completely opposite direction.
John the Baptist seems to be saying that the first step to peace, begins with each one of us stopping to turn all the way around and then go a totally different way than the way we’ve been going up until now.
Perhaps as we head for Christmas waiting for Jesus to come again to our world, to our lives, we imagine this dream of peace God has for our world to be something soft and fluffy and sweet.
John the Baptist is here to tell us that this peace is a bit more revolutionary than that. It’s rigorous and hard, it involves change and upheaval, it’s going to be uncomfortable, it requires us to repent.
But perhaps it is also a chance—an opportunity to participate in God’s hopes and dreams for an ideal world, to create something different, to actually bring to life God’s audacious dream of peace for the whole entire world.
This was the expectation for John the Baptist’s life. And, if we call ourselves Christians, people who claim the name of Christ, then . . . this revolutionary way of peace is an expectation for each of our lives, too.
May it be so. Amen.