Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior[a] for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
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.”
Good morning. By a show of hands, how many of you are done with your Christmas shopping? How many of you are done with your decorating? How many of you still have a bunch of shopping, cleaning, and decorating to do? How many of you have a bunch of holiday gatherings, still?
This is the second Sunday in Advent, the Sunday of peace. How many of you are feeling more crazy than peaceful? How many of you are feeling overwhelmed by all of the expectations that come with the Christmas season? You have to be at all the different gatherings, you have to get the kids or grandkids to every single activity. And the stores are so crowded, and you still have a couple more presents to buy. Hard to find the peace, huh?
In the chaos of the Christmas season, I can think of two cultural touchstones that illustrate the emotional challenges of this time of year. The first one is a song by Joni Mitchell called, “River.” Do any of you know the song? It was released in 1971—like me—so some of you might be a little too young to get the reference.
“River” is a really interesting tune. It begins with just the piano playing the melody of “Jingle Bells,” except, Mitchell changes the chords.
Wait! Instead of me telling you about this… Oh, John? Can you help me out a little? Play a few bars of “Jingle Bells,” please.
Thanks, John! Did you play that in C?
C is a major key. It’s happy. It’s peppy. Like “Jingle Bells.”
The song “River” uses that melody, but as I said, Joni Mitchell changed the chords a little. John, could you demonstrate?
Instead of the happy, peppy tune we’re used to, Mitchell plays something that’s tinged with sadness, yet we still recognize the happy melody. The song begins with these lyrics:
It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh, I wish I had a river
I could skate away on
Now for those of you who aren’t familiar with Joni Mitchell, she’s originally from Western Canada, but she was living in Los Angeles when she wrote this song. It’s a song about her breakup with Graham Nash; she’s sad at a time when she should be happy. Instead of singing songs of joy and peace, Mitchell wants to get away—she’s not at peace herself and she wants to get away from people who are filled with joy.
The other cultural touchstone that comes into my mind of the Sunday of peace is an episode of Seinfeld called, “Serenity Now.” I thought about using that for the sermon title. I’m sure some of you’ve seen it. For those of you who haven’t, there’s a character named George Costanza, and he’s very neurotic. George’s father, Frank, tells George if he’s feeling stressed out, he should simply repeat the mantra, “serenity now,” until the stress has passed. Of course, when Frank Costanza repeats the mantra, it sounds a little different. Instead of “serenity now,” it’s, “SERENITY NOW!” It;s effective, but only for a little while—eventually George and Frank both go crazy because they’re ignoring their real problems.
The joke works because Jerry Stiller, the actor who played Frank Costanza, is a masterful comic actor. The joke also works because there’s nothing serene about him screaming, “SERENITY NOW!” It’s the comedic equivalent of Joni Mitchell putting sad chords behind the happy melody of “Jingle Bells.” Both of these items from pop culture remind us how far away we can be from joy or peace.
The darkness is never far away for any of us. Yet our gospel reading this morning offers a psalm of praise to God and it closes with the lines: “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.” The way of peace, it seems, is difficult to find.
Luke places these lines in the mouth of a Jewish priest named Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. It’s worth pointing out that Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, were both quite old. And like so many figures in the Old Testament, they were childless. Think of Abraham and Sarah.
In this hymn of praise, Zechariah reminds us of God’s faithfulness; he reminds us that God never forgets or forsakes the covenant with humanity. Zechariah speaks of the great things that his son will do: John “will be called the prophet of the Most High;” he “will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,” and preach the forgiveness of sins. But this is more than just a prediction of what is to come for John, “but rather … the speech itself was spirit-event, a moment of God’s Holy Spirit breaking into the ordinary, mundane world … bringing with it God’s preferred and promised future.” In that promised future, we are all at peace with God, reconciled to God, and also at peace with one another.
Peace is always difficult to find. Sometimes it seems dumb to put up reindeer and sing songs of joy and peace. And we know that repeating the mantra, “serenity now,” won’t change anything. Yet Zechariah tells us that God, in His mercy, “will guide our feet into the way of peace.”
The world that Jesus was born into was just as crazy as our world is now. There was no peace, there was no serenity. The Jews were being oppressed by the Roman Empire. The people of Judea believed that God would deliver them from Roman oppression. Some believed that God would fulfill the covenant by sending a great military leader, another David, to drive the Romans out.
As I said last Sunday, Luke probably wrote this gospel 40-50 years after Jesus was crucified, sometime after the temple at Jerusalem was destroyed. So, Luke is perfectly aware that Jesus was not a military leader like David. Jesus doesn’t bring peace through strength. “Peace that is achieved through strength is always vulnerable to the attack of one who is stronger.” Luke believes in something different:
Throughout the Gospel peace is closely associated with God’s redemptive work and the salvation that comes to God’s people. Angels announced Jesus’ birth with the refrain of “peace on earth.” Jesus brought peace to those who received him: Simeon (2:29), the woman who wept on Jesus feet (7:50), and the woman with a hemorrhage (8:48). Through faith, each found peace.
The key here, is that these people received Jesus—they received the grace that he offered each of them.
I’m not suggesting that salvation comes to us through our own efforts. I don’t believe in works righteousness. Salvation comes from God through Jesus and we are saved by God’s grace alone—but just saying “I believe!” is only the beginning of the process. The language of this morning’s reading from the Gospel of Luke is covenantal language; it echoes the covenants of the Old Testament. The implication, then is that we have to live into this covenant. How do we do that?
Jesus brings peace through the forgiveness of sins. Jesus brings peace through reconciliation with God and with all of humanity. This is God’s peace, and we cannot be redeemed without it. When we say the Lord’s Prayer, we ask for the forgiveness of our own sins—we ask God to honor the covenant He established through Jesus. At the same time, we honor that covenant by forgiving those who have sinned against us.
That’s not easy. How many of us are holding on to some piece of hurt or anger from a long time ago? Maybe you’re still angry at your mother or father, or your brother or sister, for something that happened years and years ago. Maybe it’s something more recent. Maybe it was another member of this congregation.
Or maybe it was someone you unfriended on Facebook. You know the one! He posted something political that you don’t agree with—or worse, he questioned something you posted and, and, and he’s really stupid because he can’t see the truth that you see! Have you forgiven him? Have you asked for his forgiveness? It’s a lot easier to unfriend someone and say, “serenity now,” isn’t it?
Forgiveness brings about peace. This is why salvation and redemption are inseparable from the achievement of peace: “God’s people cannot have redemption without peace, for each is necessary for the realization of the other.” Thus, we are called to spread God’s peace. This means that we are all called to prepare the way for Jesus; we are all called to follow in the footsteps of John the Baptist. So, we have to cast off the hurts and the anger and anything else that keeps us from being at peace. Only then can we truly spread God’s peace. Only then can we truly be the agents of God’s peace and reconciliation! Thanks be to God. Amen!
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that God never turns away from us. Remember that in these uncertain times, we are called to watch and wait. Remember, too, that we must first find peace within ourselves. So, find that peace, then go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Rolf Jacobson, “Luke 1:68-79 Commentary,” retrieved from: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2703
 Rolf Jacobson.
 R. Alan Culpepper. The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections. The New Interpreters’ Bible, vol. IX, Nashville: Abingdon Press (1995), 60.
 Culpepper, p. 60.
 Culpepper, p. 59.
 Culpepper, p. 60.