Today is the second Sunday of Advent, the season when we look forward to God coming into the world: long ago, as a baby, among a dispossessed people in an occupied land and on a day no one knows, in triumph and glory, to usher in the kingdom of God.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent, when we light a candle for peace.

There is a room in Building 87 of the Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington, where there is next to no sound.

A chainsaw makes noise at about 109 decibels (dB). Regular, prolonged, unprotected exposure for more than about a minute-and-a-half a day can cause permanent hearing loss.

A regular conversation is about 60 dB. A whisper is about 30 dB. A person breathing is about 10 dB. And once a sound is 0 dB, you can’t hear it. But it’s still there.

The sound in a vacuum—where there is no air and no sound of even molecules bumping into each other—is negative 24 dB. And the sound in this room in Redmond is negative 20 decibels. 

It is an anechoic chamber. Almost all of the normal background noises of the world are gone. 

And it is loud.

You can hear every breath you take. You can hear yourself swallow. You can hear your stomach gurgle… and the blood flow through your veins… and your joints rub against each other as you move.

Some people find it relaxing and meditative for a little while; one person stayed in that room for an hour for charity. A lot of people want out after a few seconds.

It turns out there is a lot of sound in the world that we don’t even hear. If I paid close attention as I wrote this sermon I could hear… the traffic on the street, the ticking of a clock, the soft snores of a dachshund, the clicking of my keyboard.

The world is so full of sound that we have never known silence. And silence is… uncomfortable.

On September 16, 2018, an off-duty police officer named Amber Guyger walked into Botham Jean’s apartment… and shot him… and killed him.

The exact details are less than perfectly clear, but in the version that is most charitable to Guyger, she thought that she was walking into her own apartment a floor below Jean’s. And her reaction to seeing a Black man sitting in a chair was to fear for her life… and draw her gun… and kill him.

Guyger was arrested and charged with manslaughter. And after protests, she was charged with murder. And she was convicted.

After the conviction, some strange things happened. Jean’s brother forgave and hugged Guyger in the courtroom. And Jean’s dad said that he forgave Guyger. And the judge hugged Guyger and gave her a Bible.

And that’s a nice feel-good story about forgiveness. And I’m not going to deny anyone the right to forgive or the grace to be forgiven. But…

For a long time, people who look like me have expected people who look like Botham Jean and his family to forgive uswhen we hurt them. For a long time, people who have had power have expected the powerless to practice love when we have been loveless. For a long time, people who have defined what civility is have expected those who we push out to be civil when we have been uncivil.

And despite cries to the contrary, the world is full of civility. This week, Botham Jean’s brother received an award for his civility. The world might even be so full of civility that we have never known peace. And peace is… uncomfortable.

Today’s reading is from the book of the prophet Isaiah. We’ve met Isaiah before. You remember the two sides of a prophecy.

“Things will get bad,” said Isaiah, “Things will get terrible. Things will hit rock bottom. Things will get to the lowest of the lows… and then the world will be transformed.”

And now we are here. Now we are hearing about what is coming into the world; hearing about how it will be transformed; hearing about how we will be transformed.

There is a voice crying out: “Prepare a way through the wilderness for the Lord. Make a highway through the desert for our God.”

And that could sound nice. That could sound like a holy infrastructure project.

Prepare a way. Make a highway. Let it meander through forests and down into valleys. Let it climb hills and wind around mountains. Let it follow streams and cross rivers. Prepare a way. Make a highway.

Let the world be exactly like it is now… but better.

That could sound nice. But that is not what is coming. Listen to the words: Every valley shall be lifted up. Every mountain shall be made level. The rough places shall be a plan. God shall remake the world.

Peace is not the presence of civility or the absence of open conflict. That is an imitation peace. That is an obnoxious peace of stagnant complacency and deadening passivity.

And the kingdom that is coming is nothing less than the transformation of the whole world.

Long after Isaiah prophesied, Mary heard the good news that God had laid glory aside and was coming into the world. And she sang a song of praise: “God has done great things… He has scattered the proud. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones. He has lifted up the lowly.”

And after Mary sang, John the Baptizer cried out in the wilderness: “Prepare a way through the wilderness for the Lord. Make a highway through the desert for our God… whoever has two coats share with someone who has none, and those who have food do likewise.”

Fill the valleys. Lower the mountains. Make the crooked ways straight and the rough ways smooth.

Peace is not the presence of civility or the absence of open conflict. That is an imitation peace. That is an obnoxious peace of stagnant complacency and deadening passivity. Peace—real peace—is the reality of justice and the coming of righteousness and the presence of charity.

And the kingdom of God is nothing less than the transformation of the whole world.

It can be tempting to live as though 30 dB is quiet. And that’s okay. I don’t need to hear my stomach gurgle… or the blood flow through my veins… or my joints rub against each other as I move. I don’t need an anechoic chamber. 

Real silence—where I could hear all of the sounds that are drowned out by the banality of everyday echoes—would be too much.

But it can also be tempting to live as though civility is peace. And that’s not okay. Because I am not called to wait for God to come and make the world exactly like it is now, but better. Isaiah is calling me—John the Baptizer is calling me—to prepare a way through the wilderness for my Lord and make a highway for my God.

And real peace demands that I see the injustices of the world. Real peace demands that I hear the stories of the marginalized. Real peace demands that I know where the way through life is crooked so that I can work to make it straight. Real peace demands that I know where the path through life is rough so that I can work to make it smooth.

I need to see. And if I’m going to see, I need a light.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent, the season when we look forward to God coming into the world: long ago, as a baby, among a dispossessed people in an occupied land and on a day no one knows, in triumph and glory, to usher in the kingdom of God.

But it isn’t just a season of waiting. It is a season of doing. Because while the kingdom is coming, the kingdom is also already here. And we in this church—in this little consulate of the kingdom of God—are called to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth, a candle in the darkness and a beacon in the night.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent, when we light a candle for peace.

And it isn’t just a candle to recognize peace. And it isn’t just a candle to remember peace. And it isn’t just a candle to turn our minds to peace.

It is a light to work by… to make a way through the wilderness for our Lord and for everyone… to make a highway through the desert for our God and for everyone.

To transform the whole world.

Right now, there is a movement in churches and nonprofits arguing that charity is toxic, that helping hurts, and that the entire nonprofit sector needs to be reformed to truly lift people out of poverty. These charity skeptics are telling Christians that traditional charity deepens dependency, fosters a sense of entitlement, and erodes the work ethic of people who receive it. Charity skepticism is increasingly popular; and it is almost certainly wrong.

Now available from Wipf and Stock’s Cascade Books imprint, Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church) weaves together research and scholarship on topics as diverse as biblical scholarship, Christian history, economics, and behavioral psychology to tell a different story. In this story, charity is the heart of Christianity and one of the most effective ways that we can help people who are living in poverty. Charity—giving to people experiencing poverty without any expectation of return or reformation—can save the world and help make God’s vision for the church a reality.

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