This is a lightly edited transcript of a sermon preached on December 5, 2021. For the original audio and/or video versions of this sermon, check the links on the Resources page.
Please pray with me.
Lord God, as we examine scripture and as we examine ourselves and as we examine our understandings of you and your love and your Mission in creation, I pray that you would give us peace. I pray that the exploration of our faith would not be terribly troubling and that it would not cause us to turn away from the things that we find, but I also pray, Lord, that it would be uncomfortable enough to convict us and uncomfortable enough to challenge us.
We need to be challenged, Lord, and we need to know what it is to have peace even in the midst of discomfort. Help us not to equate peace with comfort so that we don’t stagnate in our faith and so that we don’t shy away from growth and the trouble and struggle of growth, because without that uncomfortable guidance, we can never become the kind of people you desire.
Help us to be part of a new creation, Lord — a creation that struggles for peace and joy because of the conquering of death and not because we have conformed to something comfortable.
We love you, Lord, and we pray these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.
I’m going to be in Luke, this morning.
As I mentioned at the beginning of service, I don’t know a whole lot about Advent, but apparently we are in the season of Advent. It wasn’t a tradition that was talked about in the communities in which I grew up. Really, we just focused on Christmas as a day and as a season, and even there, it was pretty loose. We didn’t do a lot of Christmas plays. We didn’t do a lot of caroling, but apparently today is week two of Advent, and the theme this week is peace.
And I think that’s fitting because as Christmas songs enter into our lives — as we hear them in stores or on the radio or wherever it is we might go — one of the things that comes up as a regular theme is “peace on earth,” and it’s intriguing to me that that’s a theme we find in scripture, and yet, it’s kind of a pseudo-theme in the lives of many Christians.
We say we want peace on earth, but functionally, we push against it, because the problem with peace is that peace requires an emphasis on a certain group of people that we’re going to talk about, and that makes people uncomfortable. That makes people in power uncomfortable, and I think that’ll be more clear as we go, but in Luke chapter 1, we have two things happening.
We have the prediction of John, the Baptist’s birth, to herald the coming Messiah, and we have the prediction of Jesus’s birth, who will be the coming Messiah, and one of the things that happens concerning John, the Baptist, is that his father sings this song of praise at the end of chapter 1. His father is Zechariah, and he’s a priest, and at the very end, in verse 76 of chapter 1, he says,
“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;”Luke 1:76a, NIV
(singing over his son)
“for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,”Luke 1:76b-79a, NIV
The end. At least, it’s the end if you’re not familiar with the passage and if you’re just getting this kind of vicariously through a conservative, Christian community, but really the way it ends is one more line:
“to guide our feet into the path of peace.”Luke 1:79b, NIV
That’s the part that gets conveniently left out in a lot of communities, because that’s the part that’s really challenging. To talk about the forgiveness of sins leading to salvation, to talk about God’s tender mercy, to talk about the rising sun shining on us from heaven to illuminate the darkness and bring us out of the shadow of death is easy for people in power, because we can just say, “You’re a sinner. You live in the shadow of death. You need to accept God the Son and come into the light of God by the forgiveness of your sins, and then you will be saved,” but when we add in this last part, that these things are to guide our feet into the path of peace, now we have an actual dynamic. Now we have a relational dynamic that needs to be addressed.
Peace is something that exists between parties. We have to have peace, now, with people, and to have peace with people means we have to work at the relationship. That’s the part that’s uncomfortable. It’s easier to love our neighbors and hate our enemies by separating the two. It’s harder to love our neighbors when our enemies are our neighbors. It’s easier to love those who love us and hate those who hate us than it is to love those who love us and love those who hate us, and so we conveniently leave off the path of peace at the end.
But then, in chapter 2, it’s reiterated again. It’s reiterated about the birth of Jesus. He says in chapter 2, in verse 13,
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”Luke 2:13-14, NIV
There’s a reason we grab this verse and yet leave out verse 79 about the path of peace. There’s a reason we grab chapter 2 and verse 14 — peace on earth — and say peace on earth, good will toward men. The reason is “peace on earth to those on whom his favor rests.” Now we get to qualify the statement of peace. See, in verse 79 of chapter 1, we didn’t get to qualify the statement of peace. It just says it’s going to guide our feet onto a path of peace. That’s too general. In chapter 2 and verse 14, we get to say, “Yes, but the peace for those on whom God’s favor rests,” and now we get to play all of these gymnastics about who God’s favor rests with.
So jump ahead with me to chapter 4, because Jesus addresses this issue when he goes to Nazareth and he reads from the scroll of Isaiah in chapter 4 and verse 18. It says,
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”Luke 4:18-19, NIV
One whom does the Lord’s favor rest? The poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed, and if we go back through the Old Testament, we see that same thing, because the groups of people in the Old Testament who are most favored by the Lord — who are given special treatment throughout most of the prophets: the poor, the orphan, the widow, the foreigner in your land. In other words, the disenfranchised — the marginalized. Those people in society who need to be taken care of or have struggles taking care of themselves. Those people who are alone, who aren’t connected, who aren’t “plugged in.” These are the people on whom the Lord’s favor rests, so when we cut out the idea of the path of peace and only take the idea of the Lord’s favor bringing peace, then we can spin it however we like, and if you’re in a powerful position, that’s “good.”
Then, when we get to chapter 4, we now struggle again, so what do we do? We say, “Well, I’m the poor and I’m the prisoner and I’m the blind and I’m the oppressed, and therefore, this is happening to me.” Once again, we spin it, and we say, “Lord’s favor rests on me. Therefore, peace to me, and we cut out that path to peace thing.”
This is the way we enter into the Christmas season in conservative Christian circles. This is the way we enter into this idea that there is an advent of the coming Messiah that we’re going to celebrate. We start to cut people out of it. We start to say these people shouldn’t be here, and those people shouldn’t be here. We start to do exactly what the disciples did when they say don’t let the children bother the master. Don’t let the children come and inconvenience the teacher. We do the same thing that they tried to do in Luke chapter 7.
In Luke chapter 7, in verse 36— Jesus is combatting this idea all through Luke.
When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”Luke 7:36-39, NIV
The Pharisee is honed in on that easy part of Zechariah’s song — about the forgiveness of sins and being lost in the shadow of death and being pulled up and having a light shine on you — and identified this woman, probably correctly, as a sinner, and he has missed out on the last part of Zechariah’s song about creating a path to peace and on the emphasis of the scroll of Isaiah that there is a certain people on whom the Lord’s favor is being proclaimed, so Jesus answers in verse 40:
Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
“Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”Luke 7:36-50, NIV
The woman receives the peace. Simon doesn’t receive the peace. The other guests don’t receive the peace. The woman receives the peace. She’s the one proclaimed in Isaiah. She’s the one to whom the year of the Lord’s favor is proclaimed — the marginalized — as evidenced by Simon’s response to her. If Jesus knew who this person was — a sinner — and the implication is then he wouldn’t be letting her cry all over his feet and touch him.
The path to peace is one that involves and, more importantly, emphasizes those people who are marginalized and disenfranchised, so when he declares glory to God in the most high and peace on earth for all the people on whom the Lord’s favor rests, he’s not talking about the people who are “in.” He’s talking about the poor and the oppressed and the captive and the blind — those people lost in the shadow of death, as Zechariah calls it — and not in a condemning way but in a way that says, “Rejoice! Be at peace, because the year of the Lord’s favor has come, and it has come for you.”
If we look at Luke chapter 6, Luke reiterates this, again. Luke chapter 6, in verse 20:
Looking at his disciples, he said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
“Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.”Luke 6:20-22, NIV
This is why a lot of Christians favor Matthew over Luke, because Matthew spiritualizes it, and when I say blessed are the poor in spirit, I’m off the hook for “blessed are the poor,” but you have to take them both, because Luke doesn’t say “poor in spirit.” Luke says blessed are the poor. “I’ve been anointed by the Holy Spirit to come and proclaim the good news to the poor and the captive and the blind and the oppressed.” Blessed are the poor, for theirs’s is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now. Blessed are you who weep now. Blessed are you when people hate you and exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil because of the Son of Man.
And he goes the one step further that Matthew doesn’t do, and he says after that, in verse 24,
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.”Luke 6:24-26, NIV
Luke doesn’t just say blessed are the poor, he says woe to you, also, who are rich. In other words, Luke draws the dividing line in the sand. Peace to everyone on whom the favor of the Lord rests. Who are those people? They are the disenfranchised and marginalized, and more than that, the people who are not disenfranchised and marginalized, you’re going to have a hard time. It’s reminiscent of that story where Jesus says it’s harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.
It’s not that the Lord doesn’t love people who are “in.” It’s not that the Lord doesn’t love people who are in power. It’s that the people who are in power are often the ones who oppose the path to peace to begin with — like Simon the Pharisee, like the people who would rather stick to their traditions than allow Jesus to heal a man’s withered arm on the Sabbath, [like] the people who would rather watch people starve than allow them to pick grain on the Sabbath. Those people are opposed to the path to peace, and so we look forward to passages like Luke chapter 12.
A lot of people come here, and they say it’s a contradiction between Jesus’s proclamation of peace and what he says in chapter 12, in verse 49:
“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”Luke 12:49-53, NIV
But how can that be when he just proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor? How can that be when the angels proclaimed peace on earth? How can that be when Zarcheriah proclaims that now is the time when we will be led into the path of peace? And yet, Jesus says, “I didn’t come to bring peace. I came to bring division.” Or, as he says in another place, “I came to bring a sword.”
It can be, because on the path to peace, we encounter the opposition of power. We encounter the opposition of authority. We encounter the opposition of people who rather have their status quo than have actual peace. Why should I bring in the disenfranchised into my circle? They will only upset the balance I have created that keeps me in power and keeps them out? Why should I discomfort myself with all of these people — with these sinners who come in and weep, with their dirty clothes and their poor lives? Why should I make myself uncomfortable by the way that they look in my presence when I can keep the status quo, now, and be clean and be pure and be separate from them?
There can’t be peace when people think that way, and the problem moving into this “season of giving,” this “season of peace,” this season of “glorifying the risen savior,” is that we often come with this mindset that we are going to be the gatekeepers of who gets the Lord’s favor, of who comes into the light and who stays in the shadow of death. We’re going to be like Simon. We know who the sinners are, and we know that if God knew, God would reject them the way that we do, and yet, Luke evidences all the way through the gospel that Jesus doesn’t play that game.
Jesus is for the poor and the hungry and the mourning. He’s for the orphan and the widows. He’s for the people rejected by society — the captive and the slave. He’s for the people who are oppressed. Those are the people who the Lord’s favor rests with, and it is for them that the peace of God comes. Jesus is here to bring a fire that will cleanse out those of us who fight against that kind of peace.
What does this mean for us? And when I say “us,” I’m talking now to those of us who probably aren’t counted among those disenfranchised. What does it mean for those of us coming into this season of celebration when we’re not the poor and disenfranchised — when we’re not the captive and oppressed, when we’re not the blind and the hungry and those who mourn?
What it means for us is that God is calling us to find that path to peace. What it means for us is that we have a responsibility to step outside of our comfort — outside of the status quo that gives us privilege and authority and into the place of Jesus who spent his life serving people around him — who spent his life welcoming in people who were different, who spent his life emphasizing those who didn’t meet the status quo.
To celebrate the Christmas season, to celebrate the birth of Jesus, to celebrate the advent of Christ in the world without serving the marginalized in our communities is pure hypocrisy. It completely misses the point of everything that we claim about this time of the year, and it doesn’t matter if it’s historically accurate — if Jesus was born in December or he was born in April. It doesn’t matter if we get all the details right. It doesn’t matter if our nativity scene matches a particular gospel. It doesn’t matter if we have presents under the tree or not. It doesn’t matter if we have stripped out everything we think is pagan about the holiday. It doesn’t matter, because anything that we do that isn’t built on the glorification of this announcement we see in Jesus’s life — the proclamation of the Lord’s favor on those who are marginalized and disenfranchised — anything we do that doesn’t glorify that completely misses the point.
So this season, whether you’re celebrating Advent or you’re just celebrating Christmas or you’re wondering what you should be doing at all, consider carefully that peace on earth was declared for those who were “outside” — those who were marginalized — and if we want to part of that path to peace, we need to go to where the Lord is going. We need to go to where the God of peace is present. If God is working with the disenfranchised, then we should be with the disenfranchised, because that’s where the path of peace is found, because that’s where the Lord’s favor is found.
I hope you will take that to heart. I hope you will join us in looking for opportunities to be part of those in our communities who are marginalized. They exist. Let’s find them, and let’s welcome them into the year of the Lord’s favor.