The Fire of Peace

A sermon preached on December 9, 2012
Based on Luke 1:68-79 and Malachi 3:1-4

If a bus station is where a bus stops and train station is where a train stops, and on my desk I have a work station… what does that mean?

Can atheists get insurance for acts of God?

Does fuzzy logic tickle?

If they arrested the Energizer Bunny, would they charge it with battery?

How come you never hear about gruntled employees?

If a tin whistle is made out of tin then what, exactly, is fog horn made out of?

If quitters never win, and winners never quit, is it possible to “Quit while you’re ahead”?

What hair color do they put on the driver’s licenses of bald men?

What WAS the best thing ‘before’ sliced bread?

Finally: Why is it that sermon titles almost never match up with the sermon preached? (At least for me!) Today’s title would be better stated as: Those which shall not be asked – the unspeakeable questions – or – the question with no possible answer (that I’d care to hear). Well, for starters, that title is too long for our sign out front. But the reality is that if we posted that title, people might actually run in the opposite direction. I mean, after all, isn’t church where we’re supposed to come to get answers. (and hopefully, answers we want to hear?)

Well, I’m not sure we’re going to get those kinds of answers today. I’m not sure I know what to make of the texts we have just read. Theologians who are way smarter than I am describe Malachi’s vision of renewal and re-creation and Zechariah’s revolutionary vision of mind-blowing change are meant to inspire and encourage. If tradition holds true, after hearing such uplifting words, our hearts are supposed to leap for the kind of joy which should last us at least until Christmas day.

But I’m finding that after reading and re-reading these passages, I have been left with a hollow feeling inside and more than one “unutterable” question. Like “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” in the Harry Potter novels, we dare not speak our questions out loud because to speak the words so that others may hear is to summon the very spirit that at a minimum we want to keep under lock and key, in the dark closet of our lives but that we really wish could be eradicated from our lives.

But, this is a safe place, right? Here in this welcoming place, we are supposed to be allowed to say what we believe and are guaranteed acceptance, right? Here in this place, where we sing of the meeting of hopes and dreams, I should be able to speak the unspeakable, right? Well, here goes:

We have all heard these poetic words for as many Decembers as we can remember. Every time we go to a singalong Messiah, or play it at home, we hear Malachi’s prophecy of renewal and rebirth from the refiner’s fire. Zechariah’s vision for the mighty savior, for great mercy, for rescue from oppression and forgiveness is great news that is sung and read almost every year. We are told to look forward to gladness instead of mourning, repair and restoration instead of devastation and ruin, light instead of darkness and death, and PEACE. Oh my! How I would love to see all those things take place! How I wish that the tiny baby Jesus in my manger scene would wake up, grow up and get busy fixing everything that’s wrong with the world.

Every year we hear these words and every year, it seems we are farther and farther away from these visions. And even the glimpses of hopeful changes are repeatedly dashed. It seems like just when some of the oppressed are being lifted up, a new group is trampled underfoot. Some of those in prison are freed, while others walk the “green mile” to execution without ever having experienced a single word of good news. For every family that finds a home through Habitat for Humanity, as many as 10 new families will become homeless. The list is quite long and even a cursory recital of local concerns is enough to squelch our peace of mind, never mind the reality that the kind of everlasting peace the prophets point to seems WAY out of reach.

Over the years, as I have listened to these familiar words and watched as the state of the world seems to spiral ever downward, some serious questions have formed in my heart. These are of the Questions-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named variety. They shall not be named because to name them is to summon all the doubt and worry and even frustration and anger that are the antithesis to a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Yet I have to wonder: Am I the only one who has such questions? Am I the only one who has heard these promises and asked with the psalmist: How long, O Lord? Am I the only one who sees the state of the world, the circumstances of my life, and like Jeremiah, wonders whether God has shut out my prayers? Am I the only one who frequently finds myself in a state of confusion as I struggle to keep what seems like an overabundance of skepticism, pessimism, and cynicism from turning into abject despair?

I’m pretty sure that I am not the only one.

How many of us have, at one time or another cried out: WHERE IS GOD’S GREAT TRANSFORMATION? WHAT IS GOD DOING RIGHT NOW TO MAKE HOPE AND RESTORATION A REALITY? WHEN IS GOD REALLY GOING TO COME INTO MY LIFE AND MAKE THINGS RIGHT? BRING ON THE DAY OF THE LORD!

Pause

What if these are the wrong questions? What if we’ve got this whole “fix-it” God thing completely wrong? What if the questions we should be asking are so much harder to answer, so much more painful for us to face? What if the questions raised by Zechariah’s vision of peace are more like these:

WHAT DO I NEED TO CHANGE ABOUT THE WAY I LIVE IN ORDER TO ALLOW GOD’S TRANSFORMATION TO TAKE PLACE IN ME AND ULTIMATELY THE WORLD?

Now that’s a scary question – nobody really wants to speak that one out loud on a regular basis. And even if we did dare to speak it, hardly anyone wants to listen – really listen for the answer.

In his Christmas Oratorio, W.H. Auden suggested that what we really want is for God to put away justice and truth because we cannot understand them and really in our heart of hearts, don’t want them or the changes they would bring. What we really want is a benevolent Uncle who would come down to entertain us, to babysit our children, to go with us to the Symphony or to the Wine Country, someone who would connect us with our soulmate or find us the job we really need. This God is what I fondly call the magic wand God – the God who comes and magically provides everything we need – from good health, to a good home, to a wonderfully gifted church family.

Yet for each one of us who has journeyed through grief, for those of us who have suffered with poor health, for those among us who have struggled with life’s unpredictable demands, we know this to be true – real Peace doesn’t really happen with a magic wand. In fact, as Barbara Brown Taylor points out, it is more likely to happen when we do not get what we want and we find ourselves centered and grounded in work we thought that God ought to be done doing.

We have to change our questions – instead of how long before you fix things, O Lord, we have to ask: how can I get involved in the work of repairing, restoring and renewing? And if we’re honestly going to ask such a question, we have to take the dangerous step of submit our own wishes, even our own needs to the refiner’s fire so that like pure silver, God’s image can be reflected in us. And that is actually scarier than any of the questions-we-dare-not-speak. For God’s justice and peace to flow, we have to follow God’s Son through the refiner’s fire of Peace.

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