Today is the second Sunday of Advent. And today, we hear a part of a story that we don’t hear very often.
There was this priest, Zechariah, and his wife, Elizabeth. They were righteous before the Lord. And, like so many people in the Bible, they were old and they were childless.
And, one day, an angel appeared before Zechariah and said to him, “Elizabeth will bear a son and you will name him John… and he will prepare the people for the Lord.”
And, like so many people in the Bible who are old and childless, when they hear that they will have a child, Zechariah said, “That… seems unlikely.” And the angel struck him mute. And Elizabeth conceived.
Later, Elizabeth bore a son. They took him to be circumcised, and their friends and family wanted to name him Zechariah, after his father. Elizabeth said, “No. His name is John.” And, like so many people do when a woman contradicts the crowd, they say, “Let’s check with your husband.”
So they hand Zechariah a tablet, and he writes, “His name is John.” And right at that moment, his tongue is freed and he is able to speak again.
And he does what all new dads do when they are able to speak to their newborn son for the first time: he prophesies.
He praises God. And he says that God has remembered her covenant with Abraham, and raised up a savior from the house of David, who will rescue God’s people from the hands of their enemies.
And he says to John, his son, “You will be a prophet. You will go before the Lord and prepare his ways. You will give knowledge of salvation to God’s people by the forgiveness of their sins.”
And he says, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Dawn will break… there will be light for those who live in darkness… to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Today is the second Sunday of Advent. Today, we light a candle—a light in the darkness to guide our feet—for peace. And God knows that we need it. We do not have peace.
Peace is a hard thing to talk about. It’s a word that has many meanings.
On the one hand, there is the little peace: the absence of conflict. Or, sometimes, even less. “Peace is not the absence of conflict,” said Ronald Reagan, “but the ability to cope with conflict by peaceful means.”
And God knows that we need that little peace. We do not have it.
Some of the conflicts that we face, and that we cannot resolve, are huge. There is a generation in America that only knows a nation at war. There are people in high school—there are people in this sanctuary—who are younger than the war in Afghanistan.
And the truth is that most of us only know a nation at war in one way or another. In its two hundred forty-two year history, the United States has only been not-at-war for about seventeen years. There are people about to graduate from high school who have lived longer on this earth than our nation has lived in relative peace.
We can all name some of the famous wars: the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Spanish American War, the Civil War, two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. But there have been so many others: against Native peoples and in far-off lands. Official and unofficial. Hot and cold.
And it isn’t just us. War is a living reality for countless people around the world. There are big wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Mexico and Syria and Yemen. And there are dozens of other wars and conflicts and skirmishes and clashes that don’t make the news.
And it isn’t just war. Communities across our nation and around the world face police brutality, mass shootings, gang wars, and other forms of violence. For too many of us—which is to say, for any of us—violence is part of life.
God knows we need that little peace; that absence of conflict. We do not have it.
Some of those conflicts of huge. But some of them are small and intimate.
Some of us are in conflict with our families: our spouses or partners, our parents or children, our siblings or cousins or nieces or nephews.
Some of us are in conflict with someone at work: a supervisor or an employee, a client or a vendor, a coworker.
Some of us are in conflict with a friend, or someone who we go to church with, or a complete stranger who blocked the aisle with the grocery cart while looking at spices.
Some of us are in conflict with ourselves. Some of us have inventories of our faults—real or imagined—and fight against ourselves mercilessly.
And sometimes those conflicts turn to physical violence. And sometimes they are verbally or emotionally violent. And sometimes they just just are.
God knows we need that little peace; that absence of conflict. We do not have it.
But the absence of conflict is just a little peace; it’s an imitation peace.
“Peace is not just the absence of conflict,” said the Rev. Dr. King, “it is the presence of justice.”
And he went on. He recalled a conversation with a man who was upset about… ‘the bus situation’.
“Yes, there is more tension now,” King said, “but even if we didn’t have this tension, we still wouldn’t have real peace.”
“If Black folk accepted their place,” he said, “their place of exploitation and injustice, there would be peace. But it would be obnoxious peace of stagnant complacency and deadening passivity.”
“I do not want a peace,” he said, “if that means that I have to accept second class citizenship; or keep my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil; or be well-adjusted to a deadening status quo; or be willing to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated, and segregated.”
“Peace is not just the absence of conflict,” he said, “it is the presence of justice.”
And he was right. The absence of conflict is a little peace; it’s an imitation peace. Real peace comes when there is also justice. And there is not enough justice. And it is often the same people who face violence who are denied their share of justice.
God knows that we need the little peace; the imitation peace. We do not have it.
And God knows that we need the big peace; the real peace that comes alongside the presence of justice. We do not have it.
But we do have Zechariah—a priest serving in a land occupied by an empire—prophesying to his son.
“You, my child, will be a prophet of the Most High. You will go before the Lord to prepare his ways. You will give knowledge of salvation to his people. And by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
His name is John. And he will become John the Baptizer, who proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
He will become John the Baptizer, who will proclaim the good news to the people. He will become John the Baptizer, who will baptize the Messiah, our Lord, Jesus the Christ.
Think about that for just a minute.
It is tempting to imagine that peace—whether it’s the little imitation peace as the absence of conflict, or the big real peace as the presence of justice—is a big systemic thing that is… out there. And that’s a little bit true. Peace is a big systemic thing. And reaching it will take big systemic steps like the tender mercy of God and the dawn from on high.
But it is also true that big systemic things have their roots in individual acts of every day life. It is true that when I—or you, or anyone—stand up for peace and against not-peace, there ends up being a little more peace in the world.
John was not the Messiah. He baptized people. He told them to repent. He told people who had extra to share with those who didn’t have enough. He told tax collectors to only collect the amount they were supposed to. He told soldiers not to extort money.
I can do that. You can do that. Anyone can do that.
When we see injustice, we can say, “There is injustice.” And we can call people to repent and turn towards the God who is just.
When we see violence, we can say, “There is violence.” And we can call people to repent and turn towards the God who is love.
When we see not-peace, we can say, “There is not-peace.” And we can call people to repent and turn towards the Prince of Peace.
John did that. And so I can do that, and you can do that, and anyone can do that.
And I know that’s hard. I know that’s scary. I know that I fail at it.
I know that I don’t like conflict. And I know that, among my many privileges, is the privilege to avoid conflict. And I know that sometimes—often, maybe even usually—my desire to avoid conflict is so much greater than my desire to work for peace.
I know that I stay silent when I should speak. I know that I stay still when I should act.
So I light a candle.
I light a candle as a light in the darkness.
I light a candle to remind myself that there is always a light in the darkness, a dawn from on high, a light that can guide my feet into the way of peace.
I light a candle to remind myself that I—and you, and everyone—am called to be the light of the world, preparing the way of the Lord, and calling others to the big peace that comes alongside the presence of justice.
I light a candle… for peace.