Peace, Impossibility, and the space we hold

Luke 1:(5-25), 57-80

A few weeks ago I accidentally went on a silent retreat.  The retreat part was on purpose. The silent part was the surprise.  If I had known it would be silent, I would not have gone. And I wasn’t really ready for it.

I mean, if I had known it would be silent, (and had not canceled) I would have prepared. I would have finished up the emails I had to send and the phone calls I had to return, and the last minute reminders to my husband and kids back home. I would have told my sister, who I talk to every single day, that she shouldn’t expect to hear from me from three days, instead of getting a text the third day that said, “Are you still alive?” 
I would have done all sorts of things to feel ready. But I didn’t know. 
Instead I drove onto the property in the middle of nowhere Kentucky and my phone suddenly stopped working. T-mobile. No phone. No internet. No talking allowed except in designated “visiting” rooms and the benches on the far side of the lawn, past the parking lot.
Welcome. Settle in.  It’s going to be a quiet ride.

The monks that live in this monastery are silent all the time, except when they pray. Nearly every day of their adult lives.  Not accomplishing anything that the outside world would deem terribly valuable or clearly marketable, they devote their lives to silence and prayer, out there in the hills of Kentucky.
And now here I was, with them.
Putting down all my productivity, and getting down to silent business.
Mine was just three days.
And it turned out I even got to speak at dinner with my friends- in the “talking dining room” for an hour each night.

Zechariah’s was nine months.
And there was no talking dining room with friends for him.
If he had known, would he have bowed out?
If he had known, how might he have prepared?

But by the grace of God, Zechariah didn’t know.
He went into the holy of holies to do his priestly duty, to light the incense and get out, but instead, when he brought the prayer and longing of all the people to God, “Oh Lord! Hear these prayers!” An angel showed up and said, “Hey Zechariah! God has heard your prayer!” And then announced – and of all things he was praying, this was most certainly did not make the list – that his elderly wife was going to have a baby. 
God, you’re about 65 years too late on that prayer…maybe you didn’t hear me right?  I was praying for the salvation of Israel. I was praying that all our brokenness would be healed. I was praying that you would restore us to right relationship with you and each other. I wasn’t praying for myself, I was praying for my people. Your people.
But it turned out, that his own long dead prayer, the one put to rest when it became impossible to fulfill - the prayer to be a father, to have a child - this prayer was resurrected in God’s answer to the longing of the people, and the angel said,
 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord… He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

But then the little ego tussle with the angel and Zechariah came out of that place with his mouth zipped shut, no chance to explain what had happened, what was going to happen.  Just a sea of faces, waiting, ready for a blessing he was unable to deliver. Instead he brought them his befuddled silence, and, I imagine, was escorted out amidst confusion and disarray.

His last words to his wife when he left the house – what were they? They would be his last words he spoke to her for ¾ of a year.  Hope they were good ones. What errands were left hanging? What commerce came to an abrupt halt when he was sidelined by silence? Sorry, I can’t bring the lawnmower in for a tune up or run those checks to the bank. Someone else is going to have to deal with the cable guy.  Someone else is going to have to do the priest things for a while too.

God has a thing about impossibility. It’s God’s jam. Barren wombs, inappropriate people and dead dreams are God’s medium.  Hopelessness, pointlessness, things just not making sense – God loves that stuff.  Death? For God, that’s often just the beginning.

How can this be, since we are both old and my wife is barren? 
How can this be, since I am a virgin?
How can this be, since things are so broken?
How can this be, when it all looks hopeless?
How can this be? This cannot be.  It is not possible. 

This is the week in Advent where we hold up the thing that sometimes doesn’t feel possible, the thing that - though we wildly differ in strategy to seek after it - if we are honest, most of us most wish for, all of us, deep inside, PEACE. 
Peace is not just an end to conflict. Not a blank space where violence used to be – but something more powerful, more tangible, more real even than division, hatred, strife.
Peace is things as they were meant to be.
Fullness, wholeness, connected to God and others, the whole earth and all its inhabitants living out their authentic purpose alongside all else doing the same. A sense of well-being, and safety, and harmony, and enough, for all creation.
Peace is the substance, the stuff, of the Kingdom of God, which is to say, it’s the sound, and taste, and feel, of belonging to God and belong to each other, uncompromisingly and completely.
“Blessed are the peace-makers”, the grown up Jesus later said, “for they will be called children of God." (Mt. 5:9) In other words, Blessed are those who contribute to wholeness and fullness in others and the world; they are living in the real reality.

These days it’s easy to feel afraid, it takes almost nothing to get there. When we’re afraid, we put ourselves right alongside all of these people in these ancient stories, who found themselves in circumstances they didn’t choose or understand, and who, in the midst of whatever that looked like for them, all heard, every last one of them, the repeated refrain, Do not be afraid! Mary, Zechariah, Joseph, Shepherds, Magi –each of you, all of you, Do not be afraid!

Lift your eyes from what you see right here in front of you, from the things that seem to threaten security and safety, that bring distress and sorrow, that harm and destroy and whisper that this is the whole story, the end, the final word.  Lift your eyes to a farther horizon, and see beyond, future and past colliding, right now, God is breaking in. 
And we know that because God is ALWAYS breaking in, right now, in the midst of whatever impossibility we are facing, or anticipating, or fearing. There is no life, no moment, no violence or horror, no despair or disappointment, no stuckness or impossibility that God is not breaking into, not right alongside, not underneath and within.  
That’s what Jesus is, what Jesus does. 
Emmanuel is God-with-us.

When we say we are a congregation that practices Sabbath, we are saying we worship a God who deals in impossibility, and who is always, already breaking in.  And by stopping and taking ourselves out of the drivers’ seat, or the worry seat, off the device and away from the screen and out of the noise and away from the argument, on purpose and regularly, we look up to a further horizon, we’re drawn back for the bigger picture, we notice our fear instead of being swallowed by it. We feel the aching longing for wholeness, the hunger for the end of division, for peace, and that yearning puts us back in tune with the utter beauty of the peace we were made for and the One from whom it comes.

Sometimes we choose it, and that’s wonderful.
But sometimes we get there by accident or by default, or by design that is not our own.

On my accidentally silent retreat, when I had I rattled around my own brain until finally my inner voice calmed down, when I had spent hours tromping through the woods with stick in hand under shifting clouds and held by soft wind, with scurrying squirrels and singing birds around me, and more than one deer stopping and staring before bounding gracefully away, and a flock of wild turkeys yelling at me that I had gotten too close, when I had slept enough and read a little, and thought a lot, and prayed some, and watched some more, and settled a bit, and just barely begun to make friends with silence, I glimpsed that peace.

That place of openness, where God can meet you. 
This place where you get out of the way, your job and your ego, your duties and your worries, your roles and your responsibilities, gone.  Like silent Zechariah, you’re helpless. It’s impossible to contribute a thing, direct a thing, coordinate or oversee or explain or meddle. You are simply to take it all in. To absorb the wonder and never ever to forget that it came from God.

During his nine months of compulsory silence, as he watched is old wife’s belly swell, every day, Zechariah woke up and when he was unable, yet again today, to speak a word, it came back to him God is here. And God is coming, and I get to be part of it.   

And in the involuntary hush that drew him into this new and extraordinary role as watchful accomplice, wonder absorber, mystery sharer, Zechariah returned to the deepest part of him, his home in God, soaking in that place where trust is born and hope grows and peace is practiced.

Our theme this Advent is Still… as in, Be still and know that I am God.
Still, God is God. There’s still more to the story.
And as in the stillness in the dark before the first light of dawn.

Most of us hardly ever choose stillness, let alone to be thrust into a position of waiting or silence, vulnerability, or trust.  We can never be prepared and ready to go looking for it. We will always find something else that needs to be done first.  We will always find something productive, important, urgent, and we’ll avoid the deep stillness.  But when it happens, it is a gift. Because it draws us back to the real reality. 
Don’t be afraid. God is here. God is coming. And you are going to be part of it.

Zechariah should be the patron saint of surprise vulnerability. Or of prayers answered not how you meant.  Of watching God breaking in right in front of you and bearing witness to it all. 

And when that little baby arrived, that impossible baby, and he held that impossible little baby in his old and wrinkled hands, his silence ended and his mouth was opened and he said, His name is John – which means his name is “God is gracious.  God is merciful, God gives us more than we could ever even know to long for”- that is his name. 

And then he sang.
Look at this child! he sang, sang out, to his neighbors and friends, Look at how God’s promise to our ancestors is coming to fruition! we are part of it! I am holding it. Oh yes, it is coming! There is no doubt that God’s salvation of us all is coming!  And for a moment, not a person in the room could doubt it either.

And then he turned and looked into the brand new blurry eyes of this utterly impossible child in his first minutes on this earth and continued his song,
 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people
 by the forgiveness of their sins.

This song, Zechariah’s words, are the words the monks who are otherwise silent sing every morning at six am. Thousands of years later, Zechariah’s words begin for them the light of day, every day.
His song ends,
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
 to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

The monks spend their whole lives in silence, except for one day a year, and except for the 5 times a day they pray through chant and song and spoken word and psalms.  And on the one hand, one could say that this is a complete waste of life.  These perfectly able-bodied men locked away here, away from society, day after day, praying and working and being quiet alongside each other. 
Until they die.

But a Franciscan mother superior once told me, “We in the monastic life hold onto things on behalf of the rest of culture that the rest of culture has forgotten…” And these monks, these men, hold silence for the rest of us. They hold trust and turning to God on behalf of the world that has lost its mind, and will lose it again tomorrow.
They know something we forget – about God and peace and the future and our lives.  

And for Zechariah, his little nine month monastic stint allowed him to hold onto reality in a different way, on behalf of the world.
This thing that is about to happen – God entering in, sending out a prophet to prepare the way, the world turned upside down – it requires reverence, and someone, even one person, who can hold, for the rest of us, the magnitude of what is transpiring. It requires even one person who will watch it and bear it and hold it up to God, who will, in silence and stillness, trust that God is here, that God is doing something right here.

When we stop, when we step out of the chaos and noise, we take up the ministry of Zechariah, the carrying it all alongside others ministry, the quiet yourself and get out of the way ministry. The listen well and don’t interrupt with your own opinions or interpretation ministry. We hold space for others, for God, and we learn to trust that God is here, and God is coming, and we get to be part of it.


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Today we baptize Laurel Anne, coming alongside her, holding space for her, for God. And we will tell her that a mystery holds her that, for a while, wont make any sense to her, but it holds her nonetheless. We will do this strange thing that seems not to produce a darn thing, not to contribute to society in any way - we will do this powerful, impossible thing, where we give her over to death and new life, and mark her with the promise of the presence of God in all things, and we will say, Don’t be afraid! Little one, you will be a watchful accomplice, a wonder absorber, a mystery sharer, a peace-maker.  In Jesus Christ, God is here, and God is coming, and you, Laurel Anne, get to be part of it.
 That is holy work. It lifts our eyes to a farther horizon, and see beyond, and practice trusting in the real reality. And we will go from here held in God’s promise of wholeness, God’s peace, and holding onto it into a world that forgets, as we wait for God’s fullness to come.

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