Dr. Benjamin Wall is a professor at Greensboro College, an Anglican priest, and a new friend of mine.
As we sat one morning over coffee downtown, I learned that he is also our Westerwood neighbor, living only a block or so from our church. He loves what he sees and hears about First Baptist. He’s kept a close eye on the new community garden, loves seeing the parking lot full, and appreciates what he hears about us at the college and in the wider community.
Still, when I learned he was in such close proximity, I asked what has become a standard, tongue-in-cheek question I pose to our Westerwood neighbors: “So, how do you like the bells?”
Occasionally we get some unsolicited feedback about our church bells – too loud or too long, one or two people have remarked. So I just ask this question outright, so no one feels the need to leave a message or write a note.
Dr. Wall was surprised to hear that anyone could be annoyed. “We love the bells!” he said enthusiastically. In fact, he went on to tell me that each morning, their youngest child – a toddler – wakes up and walks to the edge of his crib where he looks out the window pointing to the First Baptist steeple a couple blocks away and says: “Bong, Bong, Bong.”
But not everyone appreciates the noise. Too loud. Too long. Too disruptive. The truth is, many of us prefer it to be still, quiet and undisturbed, especially where we live. We don’t want to be awakened or startled by the noise, regardless of its tone.
There’s enough noise everywhere we turn right now. We have just passed through the season of Thanksgiving – that annual tradition with such timeless holiday staples as a bountiful table, expressions of thanks, turkeys, football, parades, and of course, the loud uncle. If you’re thinking right now that your family doesn’t have a loud uncle, well, it might just be that you’re him.
But the volume has turned up around just about every table right now – loud uncles and aunts and loved ones of all kinds, who even if we tune out or ignore in person, now have their own Facebook pages to project ideas. And it’s all kinds of messages – conservative, liberal, capitalist, communist, atheist, true believer – it’s not the idea so much as the notion we get from some that they alone possess the truth.
We have plenty of voices ringing in our ears, and we now peal right into the amplified volume of the holiday season with its light, and spectacle, and amplification.
We have enough noise.
So this Advent it’s natural for us to say, “Can you turn that down?” For part of what we seek is quiet. Serenity. Tranquility. So that amidst all the noise around us we can hear from God.
This is how the award-winning author, Dennis Covington, alludes to Advent. Originally from Alabama, Covington’s work is full of the stories and idiosyncracies of life in the South. In one of his books he recalls that on long summer evenings when he and his buddies had been out fishing or playing ball, each boy’s mother would call them home in a different way. Many mothers would lean out the back door and yell for her child. “Frankie! Danny! Stanley! Come home!” Some mothers had big cowbells outside the back door, and they would ring the cowbell to call a child home.
But Dennis’ father was always the one to call him home. And Mr. Covington didn’t just stand on the porch and yell for Dennis. He wandered down to the lake and softly called “Dennis.” And father and son would walk home together.
Dennis lovingly said, “He always came to the place I was before he called my name.” (1)
Advent is that time when God comes to where we are, amidst so many shouts and so much noise, God comes near to us and whispers our name. It’s as soft as a baby crying in a manger. It is as still as a night sky against which we had only before seen stars. It is as is subtle as an interruption of our sheep herding or whatever our daily labor. It’s as nondescript as the back side of a Bethlehem barn. It’s as quiet as the rustling of livestock. So it makes sense that we seek a setting where we can sleep in heavenly peace.
But on this Sunday of Peace, we also hear the voices that tell us that the Peace of Advent is so much more than tranquility, serenity, quiet. More than a Silent Night, where all of us can sleep, the Peace of Advent – the peace that we long for in the coming of Christ – awakens us from our slumber, disrupts us when we try to relax, and makes noise right where we live.
Peace is not actually that quiet.
Just as prophets aren’t that quiet.
Isaiah is sometimes considered the prophet of Advent. He is writing to people who had known the noise – the violence – of invasion, struggle, politial crisis, long-suffering and exile. They had seen their city burn, and with it had heard the sounds of so much loss and destruction.
And, you can hear the frustration in the prophet’s voice crying out to God, “God, how we wish you would break open the heavens and come down…how we wish the mountains would tremble…how we wish you would make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to tremble.”
“Show us something God…” he’s saying. “Do something. Rend the heavens; break open the mountains; do something; make some noise.”
Somewhere an embarrassed or exasperated family was probably covering their ears or rolling their eyes at obnoxious Uncle Isaiah. But his message persists, and in this passage he envisions that when Messiah comes, it will be just as disruptive as this: wolf shall live with the lamb, leopards lying down with kids, calf, lion and fatling together, and from a dead, lifeless stump will sprout out a shoot from which such a vision will branch. Where we have only known death, Isaiah envisions new life. Where we have only known the way things will always be, the prophet imagines God in the form of this child striking the earth, reorienting relationships, bringing righteousness to the wicked and justice to those who have known so much suffering.
It’s a vision further amplified in the words of John the Baptist – the cousin of Jesus, the precursor to the Prince of Peace – who holds his megaphone and stands in the middle of our quiet Advent scenes once more this year with his message of “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” It is a dangerous, countercultural, disruptive message, especially when a Roman imperial governor sits within earshot.
And let’s not forget, it was voiced in a dangerous place. This was a voice crying in the wilderness. Where the Israelites had wandered and wondered aloud if God was with them. Where Hagar and Ishmael nearly died after Abraham sent them away. A desert place. No rolling hills or scenic backdrops. The wilderness was home to lonely, and frustrated people. People that had learned to survive on rainwater and locusts. People that had left the cities and centers to gather on the edge, and dare to dream of change.
Matthew reminds us that Jesus’s first appearance as an adult is out there to this man. It’s Jesus’ first public act and his best chance to declare publicly his priorities and agenda. And of all people, he comes out to John. Of all waters, he comes to the Jordan River. And of all places, he goes out to the wilderness. Because Advent is for people who live there.
And if John wasn’t so persistent in his call and if Isaiah wasn’t so insistent in his shouting, we might be tempted to settle for quiet instead of Peace this Advent. Rather than the radical, life-altering, redemptive Peace of Advent, we might accept tranquility or serenity alone.
Another prophet of another age once warned of such a temptation. Dr. King was writing in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, deep in a Birmingham jail cell, when he shared that he believed the greatest obstacle to the struggle for civil rights for African Americans in his time were not the people armed with water hoses, not the police dogs, and not the people draped in white sheets. The greatest obstacle was the passive people, the middle of the road people, the quiet people, who in King’s words preferred a “negative peace,” which he defined as the absence of conflict, rather than the presence of justice.
In every age, there are prophets in our ear, reminding us that the Peace we long for is not inevitable. We have to work for it. We have to make some noise for it.
You can’t have Peace without justice. And we will not fully welcome the Prince of Peace into our lives unless we’ve also heard from his cousin, the Baptizer in the wilderness, or his great uncle, the prophet who envisions wolves and lambs lying down together.
Because Peace – Heavenly Peace – always includes a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven. And if we are ever to sleep in such peace, we must first be awake and watchful. If we are to ever know the silence of true peace, we must first work for it, shout for it, be a clear voice and witness for it. To arrive in that place of Peace, we follow the way of this Christ child, who did what the Welsh poet and minister, R.S. Thomas, once described: He looked at us, holding out our thin arms, waiting for a vanished April to return. And Jesus could have stayed amidst the peace and tranquility known at the side of God, but he looked at us just as broken and torn as we could be, and the son said, “Let me go there.” Let me go to that place. Send me there – right into the middle of that pain. Let me go to that suffering. (3)
It was in such a place that the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow found himself in 1863, right in the midst of the American Civil War. He hated the war. His son had returned home with severe wounds. He had lost his wife to a bizarre accident. Some six months later, Longfellow wrote, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.”
In the midst of this pain, on Christmas Day 1863, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem called “Christmas Bells,”
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men!
Today we know these words from the carol that was inspired by Longfellow’s poem: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” As the verses continue, Longfellow continues to wrestle with the reality of suffering in his life, and he pens what may be the saddest words I’ve seen in a Christmas verse or carol, reflecting the misery of a man who struggled to hope:
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, goodwill to all!”
But the carol does not end there. The bells kept ringing. And in that persistence that morning they reminded Longfellow of something deeper even than his own suffering:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, goodwill to all!”
For there are those who keep proclaiming that a kingdom can come on earth. And there are those who keep pealing bells that ring out for Peace – and not the peace that lets us sleep, but a peace in which we awaken to a new day. It’s the peace of one who left the quiet, serenity and order at the right hand of God, to come instead to us.
So let us in this season and on this day proclaim that peace. The peace of Christ. Let us proclaim it so it rings out loudly from our lives and from our church.
Or said another way: bong, bong, bong.
- In Salvation on Sand Mountain
- In King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
- From Thomas’ poem “The Coming”