For this week’s Events and Happenings at Reservoir, click “Download PDF.”
For this week’s spiritual practice led by Vernee Wilkerson, click HERE.
As I get started, I’m going to light our Advent candles – last week, we lit the first candle for joy – Jesus, we welcome you, bringer of joy to our world. And today we light the second candle, which for us this year, is the candle of peace – Jesus, we welcome you, maker, restorer, presence of peace.
Last weekend, I hope many of you had a chance to pick up a Christmas present from Reservoir Church to you. Since I had nothing to do with those, I’m really proud of our team for doing that for us all. It was a “while supplies last” kind of thing and they’re gone now, but if you didn’t pick one up, it was sweets and a beautiful Howard Thurman prayer on a card, a candle, flower seeds to hope for spring, a scratch ticket style self-care advent calendar: all totally delightful. Thank you, Reservoir staff team. Totally delightful.
That whole self-care theme had me thinking about a little experiment I’m running in my life this Advent season.
And here it is: ice cream and a grapefruit.
Which of these would you rather eat today? The grapefruit, or the pint of Ben and Jerry’s? I’m gonna tell you: I’m sure I have eaten way more pints of ice cream in my life than I have grapefruits. Not even close.
Way back when I turned 40, two of you gave me 40 pints of Ben and Jerry’s for my birthday. 40 pints, maybe more. I think the idea was that it was a year’s supply. It lasted me like 2 or 3 months. I love ice cream. I eat a lot of it.
But you know, I’m not getting younger, and I don’t always sleep quite as well as I used to. And I had some bloodwork done at the doctor the other year, and you know some of those numbers you don’t want to get too high were creeping up a bit.
And I noticed, I eat a lot of ice cream in the evening. Sometimes 1 bowl, two bowls, then maybe another sweet. A lot. And now and then, fine. But as often as I do. Well, I realized I didn’t always feel very great in the evening. And I knew this wasn’t a great way to preserve my health as I age.
So this year, I thought, I’m going to try something for Advent. After dinner every night, I will not eat any ice cream. And instead, I’ll do the same thing every evening. I’ll have a cup of tea, one small chocolate or cookie with that if we have any around. And a grapefruit.
Why a grapefruit? I don’t know, we had some in our house no one was eating. And I ate one and remembered, I kind of like grapefruit. I mean, not like I like ice cream. It’s a whole different category. But it’s clean, juicy, and I sort of like how long it takes me to peel and eat a grapefruit – honestly, I can eat a pint of ice cream way faster than it takes me to eat a grapefruit, and it gives me something to do with my hands. I could go on.
But this is what I’m doing. And now and then I miss the ice cream, but I find on the whole, I like this experiment in real self-care. In the short run, it doesn’t delight me quite like that pint, but I feel better afterwards. Maybe a lot better sometimes.
Now obviously I’m not focusing on diets or fat shaming or anything like that. Eat what you want, friends. This is just my story about preparing the way for a little more wellness in my life.
But for all of us, this whole question about what is or isn’t good for us has me thinking about Advent and Christmas and making room for God with us.
What do we need from God? What soothes and calms? How do we live in the kindness to ourselves that God has for us in the heart of God? How do we move toward greater peace? And what is peace anyway?
Is peace calmness? Or is it wellness?
Peace is one of the words of Christmas time. But when the stories talk about peace, we mostly get stuff like this that doesn’t sound very peaceful:
Luke 1:13-20 (NRSV)
13 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many people will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the Lord’s eyes. He must not drink wine and liquor. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. 16 He will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God. 17 He will go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will turn the hearts of fathers back to their children, and he will turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure of this? My wife and I are very old.”
19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in God’s presence. I was sent to speak to you and to bring this good news to you. 20 Know this: What I have spoken will come true at the proper time. But because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen.”
Unexpected pregnancy when you’re getting along in age. Rules and regulations that will make your kid God’s messenger but also really weird. Being struck silent for months, because you were unable to imagine God’s wonders. This sounds like a lot of things, but the first word that comes to mind for me would not be “peace.” This is disruption,
Our Saturday morning community group Bible study was studying this passage the other week, and was great. We were wondering: was Zechariah high on the incense he was sniffing all by himself in that temple? Did that have something to do with this angelic encounter?
And we were talking about all sorts of other things, like for instance, Mary, we heard last week, had a very similar reaction to stunning news from God. She was like: how can this be? And God was like: Mary, you’re the greatest, here’s how!
But with Zechariah, the priest, he’s like: God, how can this be? And God is like: you are not going to be able to speak for the better part of nine months, because you doubted me.
Why the difference?
We don’t know. Privately, did Mary believe and Zechariah doubt? Maybe.
I kind of don’t think so, though. They’re both surprised, maybe a little bit believing, and a little bit incredulous, just like most of us when it comes to the Christmas story and just about everything else to do with God. We kind of want to believe, but we’re not always sure if we fully do.
How can it be, God?
But Mary, with the very low standing she had in her society, is ready to embrace the world being turned upside down. She prays with gusto and joy this radical prayer of all the upending that Jesus will bring in his life.
Zechariah, he’s older. He’s a priest, a leader. He’s more established in life. Maybe he doesn’t want the world turned upside down. Maybe, like most of us, the older he gets, the less open he is to change.
For whatever reason, though, Zechariah, a person of significant standing and voice, needs longer to ponder before he can pray his prayer of the great disruption Jesus will bring into the world. His prayer is a lot like Mary’s – God will turn things upside down, deliver God’s people, help them not be so afraid anymore, defeat the enemies, show us all how to find forgiveness, and so forth.
But then, at the end of that prayer, there it is again, peace.
Luke 1:78-79 (NRSV)
78 Because of our God’s deep compassion,
the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide us on the path of peace.”
Zechariah’s kid John is going to be a special boy, a special man, but he’s just the warm up act. He’s going to prepare the way for God to do something even more special through Jesus, to break out in compassion, like the sun breaks forth at dawn, and to guide us on the path of peace.
It’s beautiful. But what is this breaking dawn born of God’s compassion? What is this light? It seems to speak of direction from God, maybe even of modelling. These are both means of guidance, of revealing a path that otherwise wasn’t found and walked upon. God isn’t planning on using brute, controlling force to achieve God’s goals in the world. Never has, never will.
But this direction, this guidance, this picture of where and how to walk that God will provide in Jesus. To what end is this path? What is this path of peace Jesus is to give us all?
Is peace a settled bliss? Is peace an absence of conflict? Or is peace the presence of justice?
Is peace relief and calmness? Or is peace wellness and wholeness?
This Hebrew word for peace that underlies the concept in the Bible is shalom. It’s the Hebrew word you wish to one upon a sabbath – shabbat shalom. A peaceful sabbath. It’s the Arabic word, salaam, you wish in greeting. A salaam aleykum. Peace be upon you.
But in both of these examples, as with peace throughout the scriptures and the good news of Jesus, shalom is wholeness and wellness, more than simply stillness or calmness. Shalom is things set right, it is the presence of justice more than merely the absence of conflict.
May your life be made whole again in your day of rest.
Wholeness, wellness, be upon you, my friends.
Jesus is like the light breaking at dawn, the one who has guided, who can guide us still away from death, to walk in the paths of wholeness.
There are a lot of ways to avoid conflict, not all of them whole or healthy, right? But to achieve justice – shalom – takes disruption of injustice. It takes truth telling, it takes undoing, saying no, to some ways of being and doing, and it takes saying yes to new ways of being and doing.
There are a lot of ways to find stillness. You just stop what you’re doing. But to find wholeness, wellness involves seeing the truth about illness. Wellness, wholeness takes negation of what’s causing illness, and it takes words of affirmation to say yes to what will make us whole.
Getting to wellness and wholeness takes disruption of the way things are. Getting to wellness takes telling the truth about the way things are. It takes removal of poisons that are doing us harm.
Jesus makes us whole. Love makes us whole. But it doesn’t just happen to us. We partner with God with how we help, with how we welcome, with how we prepare the way.
This was exactly what Zechariah’s boy John grew up to do: to prepare the way for Jesus to lead them into the paths of shalom, wholeness-peace.
Luke picks up the story when John grows up a bit, saying:
Luke 3:4 (NRSV)
4 This is just as it was written in the scroll of the words of Isaiah the prophet,
A voice crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight.
John, for his part, would be a truth teller, a disruptive presence, to encourage people to do justice and make way for a new way of life. This type of peace-making work wasn’t stillness and calm for John; in fact, it got him killed.
We too live amidst times of disruption. Most of us don’t get to choose idyllic stillness and luxury, counterfeit peace this year, even if we want to.
What’s left for us is to wrestle with Zechariah, with the possibility of good news, and to listen to his son, John, and prepare the way for Jesus’ paths of wholeness, of shalom peace.
In his column last week, Michael Gerson – an old speech writer for George Bush, wrote, “The Advent narratives are filled with waiting people: Mary, Zechariah, Elizabeth, more. They lived in patient expectation and were receptive to the Good News when it arrived. Their hope did not come as the result of a battle. It came like a seed planted in the ground. Like the sun rising in defiance of night. Like a child growing within his mother.
We are not the heroes of the story. Our contribution is to be watchful and open. But hope arrives in awesome humility. God is with us. Jesus is with us. This is everything.
I love that line: we are not the heroes of the story. Our contribution is to be watchful and open. To welcome, to prepare the way.
For me, this year, that whole choosing grapefruit over ice cream is really just the tip of the iceberg in the preparation I’m making for Jesus to birth more wholeness in me.
Deep wholeness doesn’t grow in us just through what we eat, of course. I shared earlier that getting to wholeness takes disruption. It takes words of negation to what’s ill and words of affirmation for what’s healthy. It takes uncovering, and revealing, and truth telling to get whole.
For various reasons, this Advent, as part of my morning prayers each day, I’m asking God: what truth do you want me to see about myself? What truths do you want me to see around me? And what truths do you want me to say to others? What words of truth, what words of affirmation do I have to say?
I’ll close with a little story from a theologian I love and have been reading again this fall, Kosuke Koyama. He’s where I got the 3-mile-per-hour-God bit, if you remember that. He tells this Burmese story about truth, healing, and wholeness.
“A young boy was bitten by a cobra and was taken by his parents to a monk to be cured. The monk said no medicine would work, but he would attempt a cure by an act of truth. He said that in his fifty years as a monk he had been happy only during the first seven following his ordination, and ‘If I am telling the truth, let the poison flow out of this child’s body.” When he uttered these words, the poison flowed from the boy’s head to his chest. Then, the father, saying he would tell a truth, said that he did not like giving to the temple, although he had been doing it all his life. At this, the poison flowed from the boy’s chest to his waist. Then the other said she would tell a truth. She said that she had not been happy with her husband during their entire married life. At this the poison flowed completely out of the boy’s body.”
The un-concealing of the truth we must face has healing power.
Sometimes it is words of affirmation that drive out demons and diseases. Sometimes it is other kinds of truth that make us whole. Either way, the truth does set us free.
If you find your life disrupted, then good news, friends, you’re ready for Advent. You might just be ready for God, in great compassion, to shine in you with the light of dawn, and to guide you in the paths of peace.