Learning a New Script
Text: Luke 1:67-80; 3:1-6
The weekly Advent themes of hope, peace, joy, and love do not align well with our world. Today, we lit the Advent candle of peace and then heard words of peace that were set in a time of incredible violence and crushing political oppression.
For most of my life, “peace” has been followed by two words “through strength.” The age-old script is simple enough. The way to achieve more peace is through more violence, more arms, more war. It is the same age-old script that humans have followed since they could walk upright.
Those who believe in this script often turn to the Bible for support. They cite passages from the Old Testament about a Warrior God and they quote Jesus out of context when he says, “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). Fellow pulpiteers add their own pious paranoia to the age-old script, like self-appointed prophets, explaining why God hates and it is okay with God for us to hate Jews and Muslims and even hate other Christians who do not believe the same way that we do.
My most powerful childhood image is not of the first human walking on the moon or the assassination of J.F.K., though both images are forever seared in my memory. My most powerful childhood image is watching Martin Luther King, Jr. and his friends sit in silent, non-violent protest, while Bull Connor and his boys blasted them to the ground with water hoses and then beat them silly with Billy clubs.
As a young child, my visceral response to the violence I saw in Birmingham and Selma and Montgomery came right out of the age-old script. I thought, “Martin, stand up and fight like a man.” What I did not realize at a much younger age is that Martin was doing just that. He stood tall and fought violence with the powerful weapon of non-violence. Martin chose to live by a different script, a new script, one fundamentally out of alignment with the age-old human script of violence on top of more violence.
In the new script, Jesus tells all who would seek to follow him to “put your sword back into its place; for all who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52) and “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Matt. 5:9). In the new script, Jesus hangs from a cross and is raised to new life to prove violence to be a deadly imposter for truth.
Whenever I replay the Civil Rights’ scenes from my childhood, I hear can Pete Seeger singing, “Gonna lay down my sword and shield, Down by the riverside. I ain’t gonna study war no more, ain’t gonna study war no more, ain’t gonna study war no more.” The sad irony is that for many people the lyrics of Seeger’s song, his plea for peace through non-violence, are heard as fighting words, as unpatriotic sentiments, as cowardly lyrics, rather than as the song of the One who cries from the cross, “Father, forgive them [this violence], for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
The new script, being crafted in the life of Zechariah, in the preaching of John, and in the womb of Mary, asks us to pay attention to history and context. According to Luke, old Zechariah becomes a daddy and his son John begins his ministry at the Jordan and Mary is pregnant “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.” At that particular oppressive violent point in time, “the word of God came to John in the wilderness,” and John pointed to the One who would live and teach us a new script.
Why in the world does the word of God come to a nobody like John? Why doesn’t it come to Caesar or Herod, Annas or Caiaphas? They were far more powerful, far better educated, and far more socially adept than John? I bet no one ever saw a locust hanging out of Herod’s mouth! And, why does the word of God arrive not in the epicenter of power in Jerusalem but in the quiet obscurity of the wilderness? How can reasonable people be expected to let go of the age-old script of violence and listen to John’s hint of a new script, calling for repentance not retaliation, forgiveness not more fighting?
Well, according to Luke, when “the word of God” comes to John at the Jordan, he does not announce “John’s new script,” but “God’s new script.” It is God’s new script that John delivers to all listening ears. In God’s new script, we refuse to condone hate-filled, prejudicial language as the cost of doing business in this tough world of ours. In God’s new script, we practice the hard art of forgiveness, not just massaging individual hurt feelings, but working for public, systemic changes which have caused and continue to cause damage and pain. In God’s new script, we do not excuse racial and ethnic slurs as virtuous or commend greed with a wink and a nod. In God’s new script we do not simply shake our heads and offer our “thoughts and prayers” whenever more students are gunned down in school.
Maybe one reason Advent is more an awkward than a festive season is because it is so out of alignment with the age-old, familiar, violent script of humans of every shape and color and country. Maybe those who align their lives with God’s new script taught and lived by Jesus are simply fools, dangerously naïve, inevitable victims of violence who will hang on a cross or across a Memphis balcony. Maybe, though, those who align their lives with God’s new script are the foot soldiers of God’s promised shalom, of a world reborn, foot soldiers of peace who boldly and confidently wage God’s peace.
Shanna is such a foot soldier of God’s peace. At age nine, she knew God’s new script of peace far better than most of those who are sixty-nine. Pastor Heidi Neumark tells of going to pick up Shanna for Sunday School one week. Shanna “was crying and had blood on her dress. ‘It’s my Uncle Joe!’ she said. I knew her family was going through changes because of Uncle Joe and his drug addiction. Shanna had particular reason to feel bitter toward her uncle. For years, she had dreamed of owning a bicycle, and that Christmas a donation from another church made her dream come true. Shanna rode her shiny, new, blue bike everywhere, bragged on it, polished it, and treasured it.
“Within a month, her uncle had sold the bike to buy drugs – ample reason to embitter a nine-year-old. Now, on this morning, there was one reason more. Uncle Joe had come home wearing a T-shirt that read: ‘Say No to Drugs’. Shanna commented, ‘Why don’t you read your own shirt?’ He hit her, causing a nosebleed. The white collar and yellow lace of her Sunday dress were a mess . . .
“When it came time in the service for individual prayer petitions, Shanna’s voice sounded bright and clear as a trumpet: ‘I pray for my uncle Joe. He needs your help, Lord. Please, Jesus, help my uncle’.” Heidi ends this story by sharing, “What a privilege to drink from the same chalice as Shanna” (Breathing Space, p. 37).
As she prayed to God to forgive her violent Uncle Joe, Shanna was way out of alignment with the age-old script that you and I know by heart. She was living into God’s new script given us by Jesus as he invites us to learn new lines and to try on whole new lives.
So, on this Advent Sunday of peace, as we break bread and share the cup, may our lives grow increasingly out of alignment with the age-old script of resentment and violence, retaliation and vengefulness. May God write a new script on our hearts of hope and peace, joy and love. May God’s new script guide our words, our steps, our lives not just in this Advent season, not just at Christmas, but for the rest of our days.
While we are in this season of waiting, you and I have some important new lines to learn. Let’s get on with it.