Loosening Knots (Isaiah 40:1-11; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8)
Last week, on the First Sunday of Advent, when we lit the candle of hope I suggested to you that the hope of which the Gospel of Jesus speaks is not wishfulness, but is a strong trust, that God would both send Jesus the Messiah to our hearts and minds in a new way, and that God would, ultimately, come to dwell with us to bring justice, fairness, peace, joy, and love, not just as fluffy, “spiritual things,” but things involving right actions of neighbourly concern for the least, the last, and the left behind.
Our task this morning is to follow those thoughts of Jesus and God with how all that works into the idea of God’s coming in peace. Today we lit the second candle on the Advent Wreath, that we called “The Peace Candle.” In this regard, since the word “peace” only occurs in 2 Peter 3:14, we are not going to limit our thinking to the word, but will think about the idea of peace in our readings.
I remember a session at one of the sessions at a Society of Biblical Literature meeting that had to do with religion and wisdom in other cultures than that which produced the Bible, namely the Babylonians. One of the papers that caught my attention was titled “Loosening Knots and Solving Riddles.” One of the prime functions of religion and wisdom in the ancient Babylonian world had to do with solving riddles, which ranged from actual riddles, such as we might talk about today all the way up to the riddle of the meaning of life. It seems that the Babylonians knew that these puzzles of life can, if you will, tie us in knots, and the role of religion and wisdom was to untie or at least loosen these life-knots. While none of us are ancient Babylonians, nor would want to think in the categories they did, I began to think of God’s shalom as clarified by this idea of loosening knots. Our culture, indeed, seems so tightly wound, so knotted up, that we have forgotten how to relax those knots. Is relaxing those knots not one way of thinking of shalom?
It’s difficult not to begin our readings with John the Baptist (or, more accurately, John the Baptizer, since the word Baptist can be confusing) as he bursts upon our consciousness. John wore a camel’s hair garment (like Elijah) and crunched away on locusts drizzled with honey. He did everything he could to look like Elijah, one of the most outstanding and outspoken Old Testament prophets.
John was not the fulfillment of God’s promise, he was not the Messiah. Rather, like Elijah, John had it as his task to get people’s attention turned toward God and the newness and promise that God was about to bring. That he did. He bellowed out his sermons about sin and repentance, made enemies at every turn, but, like many odd preachers, attracted converts, too. Mark’s Gospel only summarizes what he said in brief: “Prepare the Way of the Lord,” he preached. “Make God’s paths straight.” Luke also says that, but inserted a paragraph in which John spelled out what preparing and making straight paths entailed. It was not about “right belief” (whatever that is) but right action. He said: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise.” To the tax collectors and the others who had power he said: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To the mercenary soldiers who were used to being able to throw their weight around in commerce with common folk, he said: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations and be satisfied with your wages.”
One supposes that, in the 20 or so years between Mark and Luke enough people asked what “preparing and making God’s paths straight” meant? Preparation didn’t (or maybe didn’t only) have to do with piety, purity, and preaching, but with acting in a neighbourly way. Preparation also didn’t have to do with parties and present-buying, as it seems to with us, but with breaking the patterns that keep our souls and spirits, and those of the ones with whom we live, from wholeness. It means loosening the knots. As we listen to the Baptizer bellowing, “Prepare!” we should hear him inviting us to allow the Spirit of God to visit us with more openness, and generosity. As Walter Brueggemann, says, “(to) carry us to do obedient things we haven’t done yet, kingdom things we did not think we had in us, neighbour(ly) things from which we cringe” (W. Brueggemann, Celebrating Abundance, Westminster Knox, 2017: 4)
When John used those words about preparing and making straight paths (and all four Gospels remember that he did), he was citing our Old Testament Lesson for today from Isaiah 40. As hard as John was, he was actually calling people to prepare and make straight a road upon which God could come to people, and, in the passage from Isaiah 40 he is citing here, this God was no God of bombast and yelling, of death and destruction. This God was not like John in this. No, the poet who gave us Isaiah chapter 40 was speaking in terms of “comfort,” and “tenderness” and the “heart” and feeding lambs and ewes. It was about loosening the tightness of our knots. These kinds of things, the poet writes, are the things of God’s heart. They are also at the heart of the God Jesus proclaimed: the God who loved by giving, and giving, and giving again. But, there is a difficult question to ask here: If love, mercy, comfort, tenderness and a shepherd’s concern is at the heart of God, why have these things made such a small impact, not only on the world and on people in it from that day to this, but also on the Church? As I think of public life today, and even as I’ve lived through it in the past, and read of it in former times, wouldn’t we really rather call people names: “rabid fundamentalist,” “raving liberal,” “right-wing bigot,” etc.? In our so-called post-modern openness, wouldn’t we really rather censor those who disagree with us, shout them down, silence them? Lock them up. Tell them they’re the wrong kind? We seem to live in a time where truth is decided by whose got the slickest media campaign, and who can shout the loudest, and who’s got the most raw power. In this world, how can we prepare the way of the Lord who wants to prepare us to feed sheep and people, and to serve others rather than ourselves? How can we make straight the paths of one who is comfort and gentleness and peace? Do not the actions of the world and, many times, the church, really say we’d rather prepare for a God of power, purity, politics, and pushiness rather than a God of hope, peace, joy, and love?
Is that because we think of peace as a state of doing nothing but being un-warlike, or non-violent and, so, weaker than aggression? If we are determined to think of peace only as a lack of conflict, then we miss the point of what the Bible means when it talks of God in terms of comfort, and of gentleness, and of peace. And the knots will remain tight. If we assume that peace is something like a Christmas movie on the Hallmark Channel – with fluffy puppies, and bunnies, and kitties, where everything, even conflict getting resolved in about 75 minutes (even though it takes 2 hours to play it out), then we are probably not going to be able to stand up in the world. But the biblical word shalom means wholeness. Wholeness can happen in the midst of the most appalling circumstances. And making wholeness takes the work of many hands. Making wholeness takes courage. Bringing wholeness means steadfastly refusing to demonize others and make them into enemies with names and caricatures. Bringing wholeness means being steadfastly committed to work for the care and keeping of others. Again, true peace doesn’t depend for its efficacy on outward conditions of conflict, but seeks to bring as much of God’s comfort and gentleness to the situation as is possible. The community of faith has always been intended to be an alternative community in the world, one that operates on different thinking and different vision. That’s what it means to prepare the way of the Lord and to make God’s pathways straight: They are the pathways of peace, of wholeness. Are we called to help loosen knots? Well, then we need to have our own knots loosened first, do we not? We need shalom.
A further example of what I’ve been talking about is found in that odd little 2nd Epistle of Peter. This is one of the least studied and most disputed books in the New Testament. There are many difficult points in the book and I don’t want to talk about any of them. What is indisputable in chapter 3, is the wonderful patience of God. This chapter encourages those who would both prepare the way of the Lord and be prepared to receive the Lord’s presence in Jesus to copy God’s patience for people to come around. If you read the 2nd Peter passage you find that God could simply judge the world, but hasn’t, and God’s people shouldn’t either.
What this encourages in us on this Second Sunday of Advent (Peace Sunday) is that we not become as frenetic, knotted up, as we’ve sometimes been encouraged to be about whether people do things our way. How often Christians have felt constrained to say to people, “Here’s what you need to do to ‘get saved’”! And if people don’t “repent” right away (using our favourite set of words), and come around, and start coming to church, Sunday School and Bible study, we go to work on them, and eventually, if they still don’t come around, we purge them from the church roll, and that’s that, and we’re pure, and they’re out. 2 Peter says that, one day the world will end (and let’s not get hung up on this particular language, which was popular when this letter was written). The reason the writer chose to explain why the world hadn’t ended already in those early days was that God is incredibly patient for people to come around, so to speak. The text says that, with God, a thousand years is as a day, and a day as a thousand years. It also says:
…We wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. (2 Peter 3:13b-15a)
In other words, understand that our job is to model our God who is gentle and brings, comfort, peace, and patience. Loosen up those knots. We are called to work side by side with others, showing them God’s love day by day, and not being impatient to make them just like us, “to win them” or to foreshorten what we consider their refusal to take up our way of thinking about God and the world. The call is to love and serve with patience, the very patience of God, which can, itself, bring wholeness to people. Those who would be wise and who would cooperate with God and Jesus are invited to loosen up and help to loosen the knots in which the whole world is tied.
Let us make this second Sunday of Advent a time to rededicate ourselves, not to a God who lurks around the corner to punish us and make us suffer, but who waits to relax knots, and is, to the very core, the God of comfort, the God of tenderness and gentleness, the God who feeds lambs and ewes, the God who is patient, even with us. And let us be thankful.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.