Scriptures: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13; Mark 1:1-8
Last month I had the privilege, along with several of you, to hear Julia Dinsmore share through her stories, poems and songs, her personal experience of living in poverty. Growing up in a large Catholic working-class family in Minneapolis, Julia Dinsmore put a face on poverty through her internationally-acclaimed poem entitled “My Name is Child of God…Not ‘Those People.” I was challenged by her powerful, outspoken presentation as she laid open both her personal pain and struggles and the failings of our nation’s social, economic, and political systems that undermine the lives of so many individuals and families today in our nation.
As I began to prepare last week for today’s message and was reflecting on the ministry of John the Baptist, I was reminded of Julia Dinsmore and realized that like John, Julia serves as a prophet, a voice of one crying in the wilderness. Both of these prophets confront us with important truths that address the gap between our inner hopes and dreams and what we actually experience. This gap is especially felt during the holiday season as on the outside we are smiling and cheery at holiday greetings and gatherings while on the inside we may be acutely aware of the loneliness and pain within ourselves and within the hearts of those we know and love. We feel this gap even further when we are confronted with media images of happy families preparing for the perfect Christmas and celebrating all their extravagant abundance versus the hard realities of an increasing number of people struggling to pay their bills and trying to keep their families intact.
Yet today is the Second Sunday of Advent, the day we lift up the theme of peace. So what can we learn from the prophets of faith that might help us fill in the gap with the things that make for peace?
What the prophets point to is the truth that making peace is not something we can do alone. We need the power of God and the support of one another, the community of faith.
Peace begins with faith in a power greater than ourselves. John the Baptist pointed to One beyond himself. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me.” It is God in Christ entering the chaos of this world and taking on the pain of human life that gives us hope for peace. Jesus, the heart of God beating in the world, steps into the gap between our diminishing dreams and the harsh realities of life and death to infuse his love and his Spirit of hope. We are a community of faith because we share the presence of a God who so powerfully loves the world that no gap, no reality can separate us from this love or from this power.
The loving presence and power of Christ’s peace is what fills in the gap of hopelessness and loneliness in our lives and empowers us to create community with one another. This truth is illustrated in the personal story that one of our church members shared with us years ago in an Advent devotional booklet. As she described it, “That year, Christmas loomed ominously. I wasn’t sure I could face the holiday with the joy and anticipation of previous years. The house felt oddly cold, still and weary. My husband of 26 years had recently passed away, leaving an aching hole in our family. I found myself with many thousands of dollars of debt, so I knew it was foolish to try to go anywhere. But I desperately wanted my children to have a little happiness, and I didn’t think we would find it at home where their father’s absence was so palpable. A few days before Christmas, I found a deal on a two night stay at a nearby resort. There would be many outdoor activities to keep us active. ‘Well,’ I told myself, ‘we will at least stay busy. That alone should be worth the expense.’ I scooped up our few small gifts and Christmas stockings, packed the kids in the car and headed north. We checked in at noon on Christmas Eve, and hung our stockings by the little fireplace in the room. After dinner we went on the horse-drawn wagon ride. It was chilly, but we had hot cider and were surrounded by people happily chattering and bells tinkling merrily on the horse’s harness.
But for me, something was missing - the Christmas Eve church service. There was a non-denominational service scheduled in a conference room at 8 p.m., led by a chaplain from Camp Ripley. As I entered the room, I looked around. It didn’t look much like a church, but a small group of guests had gathered. We sang a few time-honored carols and heard the old familiar Bible verses. Then, instead of a message from the chaplain, there was a time of sharing. Dutch, the resort owner, described how a car accident led his family to decide to keep the resort open for Christmas. That was followed by stories of joys and sorrows told by other folks. As I listened, I felt a warmth steal into the room, thawing the frost in my heart. When my turn came, I described how, while I was making coffee that morning, I felt my husband come into the room behind me. Forgetting he was gone, I had turned to ask why he was up so early. No one was there, but I was left with the certain impression that he had come to reassure me. By the time we got to the final verse of ‘Silent Night, Holy Night,’ I was no longer surrounded by strangers but by new friends, sharing a spirit that made this one of the most meaningful Christmases I remember. I knew I would not soon forget the way the Love of Christ had surrounded and lifted up all those strangers turned friends that Christmas.”
It is because Jesus comes to fill in the aching gap triggered by our feelings of hopelessness and loneliness that we are able to help create community within the walls of the church where all people are welcome to find refuge and peace. As my family continues to grieve the death of my father this year, I thank God for the gift of community I find here with all of you who share the compassion of Christ with me each and every week. While most of us know the pain and empty feelings which loss brings, experiencing Christ and his love in this community provides refuge, strength and even a peace that as the Bible says, “passes all understanding.”
At the same time, when we look fully at the Scriptures, we recognize that the peace proclaimed by the prophets and embodied in Jesus reaches beyond our own personal, inner peace. In biblical times to pass the peace, to extend “shalom” toward one’s neighbors, meant being willing to work with them to create the conditions in the community necessary for the general well-being of their whole family. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, grants us today the power of his Spirit to help us create here in this place not only a community of refuge for one another but also a community of mission, engaged in training peacemakers to make a difference for good in the greater community.
This fall and winter in small group listening sessions we, along with our partner churches in ISAIAH/GRIP, have begun to hear more about the struggles families in our community face on a daily basis. People have openly shared heartfelt stories describing the challenges created by gaps in our society such as lack of adequate wages, affordable health care, accessible child care and affordable housing. A similar story was repeated several times over in our sessions: as one family member put it, “we work hard, but our income is so low that after housing and health insurance is taken out, we have $265.00 left over to pay all the other bills – utilities, car insurance, food and so on. We do not qualify for assistance of any kind because our income is $400 a month too much. Despite our income from working, our family lives in fear that one unexpected problem such as a car repair or a medical expense will put us into a crisis.”
As with many people in our day, those in Israel who came out to see and hear John the Baptist in the wilderness some 2,000 years ago felt weighed down by financial burdens and by political, social and religious oppression. Their world was marked by gaps between rich and poor, slave and free, men and women, God-worshippers and followers of Caesar. John pointed to Jesus as the One who was about to do something dramatic about these gaps that created such unfair burdens and unjust divisions. John saw in Jesus the One who would fulfill the prophet Isaiah’s vision where every valley is lifted up and every mountain is made low. Jesus would start a movement to create a level playing field, to fill in the gaps not only in our personal lives, but in our world of inequality and injustice.
As followers of Jesus today, we are called into this movement to help create more just communities that lead to peace. As the saying goes, if you want peace, work for justice. Following Jesus, we are to help fill in the gaps, creating communities where all children have the opportunities needed to thrive. This is the path to peace we see in the vision of the Psalmist who proclaims a day of salvation when righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
As I thought about this vision of a more peaceful world I was reminded of the movie Carla and I watched –again – a week ago Friday evening. Our daughter gave us the Collector’s Edition of the classic 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz.” As you may recall, about five minutes into the movie, Dorothy, the main character played by Judy Garland, sings the song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” This comes in response to her failing to get her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry and the farmhands to listen to her story of an upsetting and unjust incident related to her little dog, Toto, and the town bully, Miss Gulch. Aunt Em tells Dorothy to “find yourself a place where you won’t get into any trouble.” This prompts Dorothy to walk off by herself, musing to Toto, “Some place where there isn’t any trouble. Do you suppose there is such a place, Toto? There must be. It’s not a place you can get to by boat or a train. It’s far, far away. Behind the moon, beyond the rain.” At which point Dorothy starts singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Like Dorothy, it is in our DNA as human beings to hope for a place of refuge, a place of peace where all troubles are over. At the same time, as followers of Jesus we trust that this vision is not just a fantasy or wishful thinking, but a vision given to us by God. It is God’s vision that can lead us on the path to peace as we join together with other travelers who share our hope to fill those empty places in our lives and in our world.
May we as a church seek to be a community of refuge even as we continue to work for peace in the greater community until that day when God’s kingdom comes to make the whole world a place “where there isn’t any more trouble.” Amen!