Your party is about to get rolling. The food smells great, the house is lit up, shiny clean and decorated for Christmas, and guests are arriving. You are setting up to serve drinks when that neighbour comes to the door. The one who has loud, mid-week, late night parties all summer, who burns garbage in the back yard, and whose recycling and compost are always knocked over and strewn on the street. He is at your door asking you to push his car out of a snow drift. You smell holiday cheer on his breath, and are not surprised he got stuck, but what are you going to do?
A peek out your door, and around your neighbour reveals his car is blocking half the road in front of his house, and yours. It’s not even that there is a lot of snow. It’s more that the tires on his old junker are bald. You are pretty sure if you get him moving, he’ll just slide into trouble again. He’s that neighbour. So what are you going to do?
You throw on your coat, step in to your boots, and get out there. After he pulls the car in his driveway, you notice his house is dark. You remember his last partner left him when he got laid off, and his grown kids never visit. You invite him over for a hot drink and a bite to eat, hoping he will decline. But he doesn’t. He follows you home, and dominates the party with very strong, and very loud opinions on politics, and explicit details of last week’s episode of “Orange is the new black”.
Your nice holiday party has taken a turn for the unexpected.
Today’s gospel readings connect us to John the Baptist, who always seems to me an unexpected, and possibly unwelcome intruder in the days leading up to Christmas.
The first reading quotes Zechariah, on the occasion of John’s birth. Zechariah expected big things from his son, who was a kind of miracle baby. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth are described as both old and childless. It was not expected that they would be expecting. The angel told Zechariah that Elizabeth would bear a son who would be a prophet who would, “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah found this hard to believe. The angel said because he did not believe, he wouldn’t be able to speak until the baby was born. When the baby was born, Zechariah regained the power of speech, and declared his son would be called John, and that he would,
“go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, 77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven 79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
Our second gospel reading shows John all grown up, travelling around the Jordan, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” He is preparing the way, getting the people ready for the big thing coming, which is Jesus. Which is why in the season of Advent, as we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth, we end up with John the Baptist at our pre-Christmas party.
Maybe we come to church to help us get into the holiday mood. We want to hear a nice story about baby Jesus, and maybe a drummer boy. The stable is not perfect, but Mary and Joseph make it cozy, and god bless us everyone!
John the Baptist stomps on the scene, as if to say, hey, don’t get too comfortable! There are big problems, in your life, and in the world. Stop sinning. Get more exercise. Turn your life around. Spend less on yourself, and give to good causes. Stop expecting so much, and sharing so little.
In the same way we know we should probably be kind to our annoying neighbour, we probably also know, deep in our hearts that crazy eyed, wild haired John the Baptist is right.
But wouldn’t be great to get through one December without having all the violence and sadness and pain of the world in our face? Why does hardship and difficulty always interrupt our happy interludes, and puncture the illusion that all is right with the world?
We have been hearing stories about the deaths of aboriginal women in every Canadian province and territory that go largely ignored. We are hearing governments negotiate over efforts to slow global warming, but without sacrificing economic growth. We watch reports about hundreds of thousands of refugees risking their lives to flee their homes, and walk across Europe in search of safe refuge. Our relative calm is interrupted with stories of horrific mass shootings in the U.S., and apparently racist, misogynist, fear-mongering bullies competing for the right to run that country.
The story about John the Baptist, and the story of Jesus are told, and retold, to remind us that God is at work in the world. This is a hopeful message, because it reminds that things will not remain as they are. That is also a disturbing message, because things will not remain as they are.
It is easier for us, in our part of the world, to wish for things to stay mostly the same. Most of us live in safe places, have what we need to live, and some extra. We do not usually go to bed hungry, and we have a bed to go to.
I know there are poor people, and refugees, and climate change and all kinds of cruelty and injustice in the world. But I feel helpless to fix all that, and just want some peace, some quiet joy, and maybe some assurance that I do not have to feel guilty all the time, for living in a relatively safe, relatively quiet, mostly good place. Can’t we just have some peace?
Today we lit the candle for Peace. It may help to look at what we mean. Peace is the word often used in place of the Hebrew word Shalom, which means a lot more than the absence of war. Shalom is about the movement towards being on good terms with the whole of everything: God, ourselves, other people, and the world around us. Shalom is a work in progress. The word Shalom is also used as a greeting, and a blessing. In Hebrew, people say, “Shalom aleichem “ which means “well-being be upon you” or “may you be well”.
The concept of Shalom reminds us to work towards being in right relations with God and with ourselves. That is the way towards spiritual peace, which is a needed thing when we are also working towards restored relations with other people, and with the world we live in.
By ourselves, we can’t fix everything that needs fixing in the whole world. I am still pondering the little story we heard last week about the man walking along an ocean shore, stopping every once in a while to rescue beached starfish, and toss them back into the water. Watch this video: Starfish story
There is inner peace, spiritual peace, available to us when we seek to be in closer relations, right relations with God, and to take up the part of the work of Shalom that is for us to do.
The beach is a great symbolic representation of life in the world. It is a kind of in-between place, that is changing all the time. We stay there long enough and we see powerful forces at work, that are beyond our control. We look more closely and see little things we could do, to help, We start to discern where the starfish are, and what is needed to help them. We can feel a certain peace when we know that we are doing what we are able to do, as part of God’s bigger wholeness. Shalom.