Are you a “wrestler” or a “rester”? Are you the sort of person who is constantly wrestling with God, struggling to work out your faith with fear and trembling, reaching out your hand—like Thomas reaching into the wounds of Christ—for a direct experience of God, something that you can know for yourself? Or are you more the sort who rests on the promises of God in scripture, on the faith that you were taught by your parents, grandparents, pastors, and teachers, on the assurance of things hoped for?
John was a wrestler. He was born into a priestly family and was meant for the priesthood himself. According to centuries of tradition, he was meant to be a guardian of the faith, to carry out the ancient rites of temple offerings for forgiveness and thanksgiving, and to pass that tradition on to the next generation. But right from the start, there was something different about John: in the way he was conceived, in the way he was born, and in the way he lived. John was a miracle baby like Isaac and Samuel. He was a baby who came into this world despite all odds. When he was born to his aged mother and mute father, all their family expected them to name him after an ancestor, as a sign that he would carry on the priestly and family religious traditions. But his father defied their expectations and gave him the name John, as the angel Gabriel had instructed him. Right from the start Zechariah and Elizabeth recognized that John would be his own person and that he would find his own way in the faith and live it out uniquely.
When we first encounter John as an adult in Matthew’s Gospel, we see him living in the desert regions of Judea, preaching repentance and the nearness of the kingdom of heaven, dressing oddly, and eating locusts and wild honey, whatever he can scrounge from the land. I love the way Ben Long portrays him in his fresco in the Church of Saint Mary, which you have a copy of in your bulletin. Gaunt, wild-haired and wild-eyed, barely clothed, and no longer attached to temple life and the office of sacrifice on behalf of others, he draws people to a first-hand experience of baptism and confession. These are people who, like him, long for a first-hand experience of transformation. And he is not afraid to turn away people who, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, show up in a self-satisfied quest for mere affirmation.
Paul was a rester—not in the self-satisfied sense of the Pharisees and Sadducees who went out to see John, but in the sense of one who rests on the promises of scripture, the faith of his fathers, and the hope of these promises and this faith. Paul was born into as rich a tradition as John, as he describes himself in the books of Acts and Philippians: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today (Acts 22:3) . . . circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.”
When we first encounter Paul in Acts, we see him breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples, seeking authorization from the high priest to take disciples of Jesus as prisoners to Jerusalem. And then, after his transforming encounter with the risen Lord, he rests just as confidently in the new promises of the living Word, the faith of his encounter with Christ, and the hope of these promises and this faith. He becomes just as careful to preserve and pass on the tradition of Christ crucified and risen as he was to preserve and pass on the traditions of his elders. I love the way Rembrandt portrays him pen in hand, thoughtful, deliberate in his message to the churches to whom he hands down the Gospel.
These different men work in different ways—one wrestling with God and one resting on God’s promises—toward the same end: a world at peace with itself and with God. For John, it is a world that arrives at peace through the refining fire of the Holy Spirit. For Paul, it is a world that arrives at peace through the steadfast love of God and the encouragement of scripture. But for both John and Paul, that peace comes through Christ.
- Of whom Zechariah says: “The rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
- Of whom the angels sing “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
- Of whom Simeon declares “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”
- Who says “Go in peace,” “Live in peace,” “Let your peace settle on this house” to those whom he heals, whom he teaches, and whom he sends to heal and teach in his name.
- Who grieves over Jerusalem ““If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.”
- Whose last words to his disciples include the reassurance “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. . . . I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
- And who reappears to them with the words “Peace be with you.”
“For he himself is our peace,” Paul says.
On this second Sunday of Advent, in a world in which peace eludes us, we anticipate the one who took on flesh and blood for the sake of peace: peace with each other and peace with God. Some of us wait with the spirit of John, wrestling to work out our faith and hungering for a direct experience of God. Some of us wait with the spirit of Paul, resting in the promises of scripture and tradition. Whether we wrestle or rest, peace comes. And we are called
- to be with that peace as it lies in a manger bed
- to receive that peace with untroubled and unfearful hearts
- to know what brings peace and to open our eyes to it
- and to walk this earth in peace and live peacefully with everyone else who walks it
For the rising sun has come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. Amen.