Sometimes it feels easier not to say anything. In a moment of great tension, at the office or over dinner or even in a church committee meeting, we may just…hush. After all, Christians are supposed to be nice, right? When words will stir things up, we seek peace by being silent.
But it’s frustrating. We take the silence to bed with us, we mull it over driving in our cars, we wish we’d said that smart thing we thought of later. We’re glad we didn’t provoke or prolong a dispute, but…
It’s frustrating. We may decide all our words are getting us nowhere, which was about where Senator George Mitchell found himself in the fall of 1997. He flew home from Northern Ireland, where he had been in the midst of peace talks, because his wife was due to give birth to a baby. Once he got to New York, he wasn’t sure he should go back. Bringing a baby into a family can change things.
It certainly changed things for Zechariah. He was the father of John the Baptist, the husband of Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth. Now Zechariah was a priest, and his wife was a descendant of Moses’ brother, Aaron, and the gospel tells us they led blameless lives. They were honorably connected and faithful in the practice of their religion, but there is a sad note in their story. They had been married for many years but unable to have children.
One day, on his turn serving in the Temple, Zechariah is visited by an angel, an angel familiar to those of us who know the Christmas story, but completely strange and terrifying to him. You can probably imagine the first words of this shocking and awe-inspiring creature, can’t you?
BE NOT AFRAID!!!
The angel promises Elizabeth will bear a son, and instructs Zechariah to name him John. Zechariah, probably wondering what has gone wrong with his old head, questions the angel. After all, he and Elizabeth are getting on in years. And because he doubts the angel, he loses his powers of speech for the duration.
It’s a great story, so far, and it just gets better. After an interlude about Mary’s visit, Elizabeth, pregnant at an advanced age and living with a man who can no longer speak, finally gives birth. Everyone wants to know the baby’s name, and she abides by the angel’s commands and tells them it is John.
They immediately turn to her husband, WHO CANNOT SPEAK, and ask him!!! He writes the words on a tablet: “His name is John.” Finally, he believes the angel fully. And his tongue is loosened, as they say in the old-fashioned language of the King James Version, and he speaks, and it puts the fear of the Lord into everyone.
Zechariah blesses God and assures those around him that God will save Israel, raising up a mighty savior from the house of David. And he speaks to his newborn son, naming him as a prophet who will prepare the way for that Messiah, the one who will “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,” and “guide our feet into the way of peace.”
This baby boy would grow up to prepare the world for the Savior. Zechariah named his son’s calling, but he could also surely see that this vision for a Messiah did not resonate with his friends. No one wanted peace with the oppressors. What people wanted was victory.
We’re still struggling with finding our footing on the way of peace. Getting to peace is hard work. When Senator Mitchell considered the possibilities, there was a moment when staying home seemed like a better idea. Why keep talking about peace when no one seemed to really want it?
What was the point of all the hard work?
We read in Malachi: But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.
We can guess, pretty easily, what the refiner’s fire might be like. Terrific heat melts away impurities in metal. But fuller’s soap, how many of us know what that means?
“A fuller was someone who cleaned and thickened freshly-woven…cloth, to make it FULL. Fuller’s earth was a variety of clay that was used to scour and cleanse the cloth, and Fuller’s soap was an alkali made from plant ashes also used to clean and full new cloth.” “The process involved cleaning, bleaching, wetting and beating the fibers to a consistent and desirable condition.”[i]
Hear that: it involved beating the fibers. It wasn’t a gentle soak in a tepid-water bath such as the ones I use when I block a pair of hand-knit socks. They didn’t gently squeeze the fabric without twisting or stretching it. They didn’t baby the cloth. A fuller put some arm into it.
For Zechariah, the time of silence purified like the refiner’s fire and “fulled” him into strength. When his voice came back, instead of questioning God, he spoke a prophetic word. But it would have been an unwanted message. Everyone around him wanted the same thing – for the Romans to be gone – and that meant war, didn’t it?
Who CAN endure the day of his coming? God’s messenger warns us that things will change, but maybe not the way we want them changed.
Senator Mitchell learned that there were 61 children born in Northern Ireland on the same day his son was born in New York. He imagined a day when he and Andrew could meet those children.
He went back to the peace talks.
The arrival of Jesus among us changes things. He refines the metal. He FULLS the cloth. We still hope God will make things the way we want them to be, while we sit quietly by. We still hope God will change those other people. But God’s messenger, John, prepares the way and gives warning: we are the metal; we are the cloth. The Savior comes to change US.
And that will mess up our careful, polite silences, our hope that disagreement will just go away if we “keep” the peace. Are we prepared for the day of God’s coming? Can we endure it?
The peace talks in Northern Ireland concluded with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Senator Mitchell and Andrew made a visit there together earlier this year and met with some of the families whose children were also born on October 16, 1997.
The Senator says:
“What struck me at the beginning was how warm they were to outsiders but quarrelsome among themselves. I remember saying to people if you treated people the way you treated outsiders you would get on very well. While there remain differences, disagreement, perhaps some degree of lingering hostility, it will take a long time, generations probably, before there is full reconciliation.”[ii]
“What struck me at the beginning was how warm they were to outsiders but quarrelsome among themselves.”Deep conflict does not always occur between people of opposite persuasions. Sometimes the deepest divisions come between people who are mostly close together, who maybe even want the same things, but don’t see the way there the same way.
Talking about disagreements – not arguing, but really talking – is profound work. Really opening up to discuss a difference of opinion stretches us to trust where we may be fearful. Actually listening to another’s point of view can change us where we may not want to be changed. Hard conversations can make us fuller people, deeper and more loving, able to understand each other better and see the places where we really want the same good thing.
Peace requires the best of our “fulled” humanity. No more humming brightly and hoping conflict will disappear. Real peace will come only when we engage with each other. Real peace will only come when we make room for God to work on us. Pull a chair up to the table and talk peace. Pull a chair up to the table and let Peace talk.