What do you want more than anything in the world? To put it another way, what would you prioritize above all other things, if you had the power to bring it about?
In the film “Miss Congeniality,” Sandra Bullock plays FBI agent Gracie Hart, who goes undercover in a beauty pageant to foil a plot to violently disrupt the event. At the interview portion of the pageant, the emcee Stan Fields (who is played by none other than William Shatner), asks Gracie, “What is the one most important thing our society needs?” Without missing a beat, she replies, “That would be harsher punishment for parole violators, Stan.” The crowd, not expecting this particular answer, is stunned to silence. So Gracie quickly adds, “… And world peace!” And the crowd cheers loudly at her quick recovery, and the quintessential correct answer.
Everyone wants world peace. Or, everyone is supposed to want world peace.
The state of the world, however, would suggest otherwise. In another, more current film, two different linguists are asked what is the literal translation of the Sanskrit word used for “war.” One answers, “disagreement.” But the other says, “a desire for more cows.” World peace is a worthy goal, until one party needs more cows, and the other party disagrees. The pursuit of peace isn’t general. It’s specific, and it challenges us to keep at that question: What are we willing to put aside to find it? What if we need more cows? How do we find peace then?
Today's scripture can be found here...
John the Baptist, the man at the center of today’s gospel lesson, would not seem too interested in peace as a goal. At least, not at first glance. And yet, the crowds he draws to himself would seem to suggest he might be onto something, in the way of bringing people together. John attracts all types of people—young and old, rich and poor, even liberal and conservative. He attracts Pharisees and Sadducees, and that means he appeals to people from across the religious spectrum, from those considered most tradition-bound to those pushing the boundaries of progressivism. He appeals to all these different kinds of people, and we have to wonder why. What is it about this cranky prophet who suddenly appears in the wilderness, proclaiming a message of tough love that has crowds flocking to him? What is it about John, about whom Matthew makes an astonishing claim—that five hundred years earlier the prophet Isaiah was referring to him when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” What is it about this man who dresses strangely, wearing animal pelts, and who survives on a diet of insects and wild honey? What is it about this man who urges people to be baptized, because, he promises, “The kingdom of heaven has come near”?
When John says, “The kingdom of heaven,” he is using a euphemism. John says “heaven,” but he really means God. It was not permitted in Judaism to use the name of God casually, or to even write it down in its entirety. In New York City, just north of Columbia University on Broadway, you will find Jewish Theological Seminary. There is a room in the seminary dedicated to the permanent—which is to say, eternal—storage of pieces of paper that have the name of God written on them, but which are no longer being used. That paper cannot be destroyed, recycled, or otherwise re-purposed. The name of God must be preserved. John uses a euphemism to indicate God. He uses the word “heaven.”
At this point in the gospel, John knows that something, someone extraordinary is coming, but he doesn’t yet know who or what it is. At this point, John simply knows that something amazing is on its way, that God’s presence will be made manifest among people in a wholly new way. And John’s judgment is that the best possible way to be ready for this presence is to throw off the old, to be done with the sin and failure of the past. John invites everyone to come with a clean slate, a new lease on life. Peace. Peace at last.
I really do believe that, at heart, people want peace… it’s just that one person’s peace and another person’s peace might look different, might not even be compatible. But peace is what has Pharisees and Sadducees elbowing each other to get a better place in line. Peace is what appeals to young and old, to rich and poor: the chance know, deep within themselves, that they are at one with God, no barriers, no limitations, nothing standing between them. No guilt, no shame. Peace.
It is only the second Sunday in Advent, but you and I know the truth: out there, it’s already Christmas. Everyone’s lights are going up, the carols have been playing since mid-November, the magazines and TV shows telling us how to have that elusive “perfect” celebration are all around us. I think one of the things that appeals to us in this season is that promise of the perfect Christmas celebration. I think it represents a kind of fresh start for us, a day when old hurts—or perhaps recent ones—are healed and we come together with loved ones in perfect harmony. Peace.
And so we do all kinds of things to make the holiday everything we think it should be. We cook and we clean, and we bake and we decorate, and we buy and we buy and we buy, because we have somehow become convinced that the amount of love in our hearts is directly translatable into dollars and cents. And we come to the day itself, and we find that the preparations have left us exhausted and numb, and the only peace we can imagine is a nap.
I wonder whether John the Baptist has any encouragement for us. John’s deal is repentance… that’s clear. And it’s good to remember that repentance isn’t about hating ourselves, or deciding we’re the worst things ever. The Greek word we translate “repentance” is “metanoia,” and what it means, really, is, “turn around.” That’s it. Turn around. Correct your course. You don’t like where you’re going? Try going somewhere else. You don’t feel that what you are doing is bringing peace, either to you or to anyone else? Turn around, and try something new.
“Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” John says. In other words, let the fact that you’ve turned around show in what you’re doing. Do you want peace? Go ahead and create it.
This is not always the easiest thing to do. We humans have life experiences that impact us, and stay with us. We have painful memories. We have losses. We grieve. For some of us, we live in a greater state of risk than others… For the person who is hungry, “peace” is not their first concern. Bread is. For the person who is the victim of bigotry, “peace” may need to take a back seat to the “safety,” or “survival.” We cannot, as Jeremiah reminds us, “treat the wounds of God’s people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14).
What to do? There is a saying: “If you want peace for an hour, take a nap. If you want peace for a day, go fishing. If you want peace for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want peace for a lifetime, help somebody.” Peace—indeed, happiness—is one of those strange things that, when sought for its own sake is elusive. But when forgotten awhile, and put aside while we seek to bring peace or happiness to others, comes back to us a hundredfold. It’s like Saint Francis said, “It is in giving that we receive.”
We can’t “find” peace for ourselves. But we can create it for others. We can’t manufacture peace for our lives with candles and bubble baths (thought those things are very nice as a temporary fix). But we can discover peace within ourselves by turning around and seeking to create it for those who are most desperately in need of it. The poor. The struggling. The oppressed.
John the Baptist challenges us to prepare for the arrival of Christ by bearing fruits worthy of repentance, and so we end where we began. What do we want more than anything in the world? What would we prioritize above all other things, if we had the power to bring it about? We will find peace—even peace within and for ourselves—by simply turning around, and pursuing it with all our hearts for one another.
Thanks be to God. Amen.