“Peace on the Earth” Colchester Federated Church, December 8, 2019, Second Sunday of Advent (Matthew 3:1-12)

On this Second Sunday of Advent (when we focus on the theme of peace), we find ourselves hearing from John the Baptist in the wilderness calling people to repent and name calling—”you brood of vipers,” and threatening hellfire and damnation and cutting down trees that don’t bear fruit worthy of repentance.  You know, typical peaceful stuff.

John the Baptist is a fascinating Biblical figure.  Reza Aslan, the author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth  has a theory (based on the Gospel according to Luke) that John came from a priestly family and would have been expected to join the priestly line.  Instead, John became this apocalyptic preacher who rejects his family obligations and duties to the Temple for an ascetic life in the wilderness.  Aslan ponders, “Perhaps this was the source of John’s immense popularity among the masses: he had stripped himself of his priestly privileges so as to offer the Jews a new source of salvation, one that had nothing to do with the Temple and the detestable priesthood: baptism.”[1]

Baptisms and water rituals were actually common throughout the ancient Near East.  This isn’t something that originated with Christianity (though we certainly put our own Christian lens on ritual cleansing with water and have our own theological meanings behind why we do it and how we do it.)  Often these rituals in the ancient Near East were believed to purify the body or change the state of a person or object from unclean to clean, from profane to holy.  Yet John says in the Gospel according to Matthew, “I baptize you with water for repentance.”[2]  Repentance and purification are not exactly the same thing.  This whole baptism/repentance idea could have been a later addition when Christianity was forming or John might have really shaken things up in his day by calling on people to be baptized in the Jordan River for the purpose of repentance specifically.

In the Bible there are two Hebrew and two Greek words we translate into English as “repent.”  The two Hebrew words mean to regret or to turn back.  The literal meaning of one of the Hebrew words, nacham (naw-kham) may have been to sigh, an audible expression of regret.[3]  In Greek, the two words mean to think again or to change one’s intentions.  One of the Greek words metanoeo (met-an-o-eh’-o) comes from meta—again and noeo—to think.  Repenting is thinking again about what one has said or done that caused harm.[4]  Repenting is about changing one’s intentions; it’s about regretting something and turning back to God or one another to make amends.  In short, it’s a rich theological concept that we can’t help but consider this morning given that John the Baptist’s first words in our story are “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”[5]

John the Baptist commanded folks to repent when he was going about his work out in the wilderness.  He was commanding people to regret, to turn back, to think again, and to change one’s intentions.  UCC Minister Kathryn Matthews Huey explains John’s message like this, “Someone is coming, he says, and what you do, matters.  Get rid of everything that’s blocking the way of the One who is to come. Get rid of greed and selfishness, of hostility and resentment, of doubt and despair.  Reshape your lives and the life of your people so that the poor and those pushed to the margins are brought back into the life of the community. Strive for peace by working for justice.  What you do, matters.”[6]  So in this holy season of Advent we can focus on getting rid of greed and selfishness; to not be attached to stuff so much.  That’s a rather counter-cultural idea to have when we are inundated with cultural messages that more stuff is always better and will inevitably make us happier.  Instead, Christians can focus on getting rid of whatever blocks the path from us to God and from God to us.  And that can bring a sense of peace that is lasting and anchors us when life’s storms inevitably come.

As much as this morning’s scripture with John’s fiery preaching seems judgmental, it’s also empowering.  Because we have the chance to repent and what we do in this life matters.  And on this Second Sunday of Advent, when we are contemplating peace and repentance, we can also turn to the famous Christmas Carol “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” to help us on our way.[7]  The story behind this carol is that in 1849 Dr. Edmund Sears was a Unitarian Minister in Wayland, Massachusetts who was struggling to write his sermon for Christmas Eve.  Lord knows that many a minister has been there!  Though he wasn’t just struggling with telling the age-old story anew or making sense of the theology for his congregation, relating the ancient story to our everyday lives.  Back then, the Civil War was on the horizon, debates about slavery were raging, poverty was rampant in his own community—and Dr. Sears felt like his spirit was just broken.

He was having trouble finding a way to lift up his own congregation for such a holy and momentous day like Christmas Eve when his own heart felt burdened and heavy by what was happening all around him.  So he turned to the Gospel according to Luke and read those famous words:

“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.  Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”[8]

Dr. Sears considered these biblical verses and jotted down a five-verse poem he called “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” and then found another Christmas poem he had written a decade before.  So he decided to use his old Christmas poem, write a short sermon, and then end the Christmas Eve service with his new poem.  And that is how he solved his dilemma of having something to say to his congregation on that Christmas Eve night in 1849.

Today the carol is considered joyful.  But that Unitarian congregation in Wayland, Massachusetts probably heard it on Christmas Eve as more of a charge or challenge.  Dr. Sears wanted people to look to heaven to then understand how God needs them to serve humanity in God’s name now.  It was about our actions in the present in addition to the songs of angels long ago.  That was particularly clear in the second verse of the poem (which we hear echoed in the Christmas Carol as we sing it today): “Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world hath suffered long; beneath the angel-strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong; and man, at war with man, hears not the love song which they bring; o hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing!’

Dr. Sears was telling his congregation that this world Jesus was born into is sorely in need of help.  And we must hear the cries of those in need and respond.  We also must quiet the noise of strife with one another to hear the angels sing, to hear God calling us to reshape our own lives, to turn and return to God.  To repent and begin anew.

Remember that Dr. Sears had the evil nature of slavery and his own community’s poverty on his heart when he reflected on Luke and wrote the poem.  Remember that people were staring in the face of the Civil War itself, realizing that the country was on the brink of dividing and literally taking up arms against one another.  Whenever we sing “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”, if we keep this story in mind—it makes the Christmas Carol that much more powerful.  It makes the plea for peace—“when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling, and the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing” that much more meaningful.

From that night that it was originally shared with his congregation, Dr. Sears put his poem in the Christian Register on December 29, 1849.  He must have known that he had written something profound that should be shared with a wider audience (and he was a magazine and newspaper editor in addition to being a minister, so he had some professional contacts that came in handy here.)  Richard Storrs Willis (a native Bostonian and graduate of Yale) realized that this poem would be perfect for a tune he had composed years before called simply “Carol.”  The poem and the tune came eventually together to be what we sing as “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.”

This beloved Christmas Carol didn’t become famous until after World War I when American troops sang it throughout France during the Christmas season.  And then after World War II because entertainers like Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore performed it during U.S.O shows for soldiers away from home.  “Peace on the earth” became once again a haunting line and a deep yearning that remains in our own lifetime.  Written right before the Civil War, sung by soldiers during World War I, and during U.S.O. shows in World War II—“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” causes us to pause and contemplate the world that Jesus came to save for new life, the world that Jesus came to save for peace.  “When peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling, and the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.”  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, 83.
[2] Matthew 3:11, NRSV.
[3] James Rowe Adams, “Repent and Repentance,” in From Literal to Literary: The Essential Reference Book for Biblical Metaphors, 243.
[4] Adams, “Repent and Repentance” in From Literal to Literary, 244.
[5] Matthew 3:2.
[6] Kathryn Matthews Huey, UCC Sermon Seeds, Second Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2013.
[7] Ace Collins, Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, 96-101.
[8] Luke 2:8-9.