When we started talking about turning Christmas upside down, I remembered this hymn written by the late Shirley Erena Murray. Shirley lived in New Zealand. So much of the artwork, poetry, and music of Christmas are based on the experiences of people living in the northern hemisphere. Shirley’s hymn invites us to see Christmas in a whole new perspective. What might it mean to welcome the baby Jesus in swimsuits and sandals?
Today’s text from Luke–which the Gospel writer lifted from Isaiah–presents another upside down picture of reality, a vision of former valleys being raised and former hills brought low. The prophet’s vision, though, goes a step further. In today’s passage, we get a vision of how to turn the world right side up again. How do we do that? We do it by creating peace. How do we create peace? By doing a little road construction.
“Prepare the way of our God,” the prophet says. “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain.”
Before the advent of bulldozers and road graders, traveling was difficult. And very slow. Uphill, downhill, dodging rocks, avoiding robbers. Because of the rough terrain in what we now call the Middle East, when kings or emperors traveled, an advance team went before them to build passable roads. They cleared rocks. They dismantled mountains and used the debris to fill in valleys. They created a smooth path, which greatly eased the king’s travel… which in turn, made it possible for all people to see their sovereign’s glory.
The road-building image is, of course, a metaphor. The prophet uses it to invite people to imagine how they might ease the way for God’s coming.
This second Sunday of Advent, we too are invited to clear a path, to ease the way for God’s coming. How do we do it? The title of a book by Deepak Chopra says it well: “Peace is the Way.” Peace isn’t so much a destination; it’s something we create as we go—one slow step at a time. When we create the way with peace, God’s glory will be revealed.
I don’t know about you, but I find the prospect of peacemaking overwhelming. It feels like one more HUMONGOUS item to add to an already daunting To-Do list, especially during Advent: Get milk, write sermon, buy Christmas gifts, make peace. I’m pretty sure I know which item is going to fall off that list. And when I start thinking of places like Afghanistan, Syria, and Ethiopia? Then I get downright depressed. How do we make peace in a world so set on destroying itself with conflict?
But this “peace is the way” idea…that feels more doable. We create peace by doing what we can–in the context of others doing what they can–to prepare the way for our Sovereign’s coming. If I’m helping clear the path for God’s arrival, I’m only going to be able to carry one rock at a time. If I try to carry more, I’ll likely injure something….then I won’t be able to do anything at all. I’ll be finished as a road-builder; I’ll be through with peace-making.
But if I do only what I have the strength and the skill to do…and join my work with others who are doing only what they have the strength and skill to do, then the road will be built, peace will be created, and I’ll have a whole network of friends, a community with whom to continue easing the way for our Sovereign’s arrival.
A community with whom to create a path for our Sovereign’s arrival? Yes! Advent isn’t about coming to the Christmas Eve service to see if Pastor Kim remembered to add the Baby Jesus to the creche this year. No. God-with-us isn’t something we sit helplessly by, just hoping it will happen. God-with-us is something for which we actively prepare the way. By doing what we have the strength and skill to do, by joining our efforts with the efforts of others, we make it possible for God-with-us to be revealed. In this way we create peace.
Okay. So that’s all good: We do only what we can do, add our offerings to the offerings of others, and somehow, our combined efforts reveal God-with-us. That’s a good plan for how to make peace. But what is this peace we’re making? Why is peace the way to reveal God?
The Hebrew word for peace is shalom. The root meaning of shalom is whole. So, when something is at peace, it is whole, complete. When we are at peace, we are whole, we are complete, we have everything we need—food, water, shelter, healthcare, freedom, love.
So, whatever we do to contribute to the wholeness of others—including ourselves–is the way we make peace. Peace is the way. Wholeness is the way. We create a path for God when we contribute to the wholeness of all created things, including ourselves.
Today, as we contemplate creating a way of peace, I invite us not to add things to our already overburdened schedules, but to reflect on the ways we already are creating peace, the ways in which we already are contributing to the wholeness of others. How are you using what you have to create peace?
As you reflect, I want to share with you the story of a little boy in South Africa who used what he had to create peace. His name was Nkosi Johnson. What Nkosi had to use for peace- making was AIDS.
Last Wednesday was World AIDS Day, the day we remember the millions of people who have died from or who are living with AIDS. Thanks to 30+ years of research and treatment of AIDS, a diagnosis of AIDS is no longer a death sentence. Thanks be to God!
Nkosi Johnson was born HIV+ in 1989. Knowing she would not be able to care for him, indeed that she would soon die, Nkosi’s mother Daphne allowed him to be fostered, then adopted by an AIDS activist named Gail Johnson.
When Gail went to enroll Nkosi in school, she disclosed his HIV status. When parents and teachers learned that an HIV+ child would be attending the school, they took a vote. Nkosi was barred from enrolling. His presence would be too disruptive, they said. Remember those days?
Nkosi and Gail directed their disappointment and anger into working to create a law that made it illegal to deny schooling to children because of their HIV status. The law passed. Nkosi started school.
A tiny slip of a child, with large eyes and a larger heart, Nkosi began speaking to large crowds about HIV and AIDS. Because of government suppression of the information, most South Africans didn’t know how HIV was passed. They didn’t know that simply hugging an infected person, or talking with them was completely safe. Nkosi taught people that people with AIDS were just like everyone else.
At the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa in 2000, Nkosi said this: “When I grow up, I want to lecture to more and more people about AIDS… I want people to understand about AIDS- -to be careful and respect AIDS– you can’t get AIDS if you touch, hug, kiss, or hold hands with someone who is infected. Care for us and accept us– we are all human beings. We are normal. We have hands. We have feet. We can walk, we can talk, we have needs just like everyone else- don’t be afraid of us- we are all the same!”
Nkosi died June 1, 2001, when he was 12 years old. Shortly before he died, he had one last conversation with his friend, ABC reporter Jim Wooten. Jim had been interviewing Nkosi for a couple of years. As they talked, Jim could tell Nkosi was growing weak. He began saying his goodbyes. Nkosi stopped him and said: “But you didn’t ask about how I feel about dying!” Jim had been reticent to broach the subject with him.
When Jim asked Nkosi about dying, the boy said this: “I don’t want to die, but I’m not afraid of dying.” Then he urged Jim: “Please tell people this: ‘Do all you can with what you have, in the time you have, in the place you are. Everyone can make a difference.’”
Nkosi definitely did all he could with what he had in the short time he lived. Despite often being sick and having little energy, he did what he could to create peace and to contribute to the wholeness of others. On those days when the disease overwhelmed him, he created peace by contributing to his own wholeness, by resting and letting others care for him.
There are many things to love about Nkosi’s story—the simplicity of his message, his love for others, the significant contribution he made in his short life to fighting AIDS.
But in Nkosi’s story, one thing stands out. He didn’t use only his strengths to create peace; he also used the thing that made him most vulnerable, the thing that took his life at such a tender age–AIDS. By the way he lived his life, Nkosi taught us that we don’t have to wait until we’re strong to begin working for peace. We don’t have to wait until we have it all together. We don’t have to use energy and resources we don’t have to work for peace.
All we have to do is to do all we can, with what we have, in the time we have, in the place we are. If we do that, peace will be created, the way will be cleared, God will be revealed, and the world will become just a little more whole.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2014 (2021)