My sermon from this morning...
Maybe you’ve noticed that we live in a pretty loud, fast-paced, and sometimes violent world. And it isn’t just in business, or in schools, or in any particular profession. Everyone seems to be running in high gear almost constantly.
I have heard moms remark that their favorite room in the house is the bathroom because it’s the only place they can find some … peace.
I almost came to violence with my computer a few weeks ago. I got so annoyed I was ready to throw it out a window and start again. I even took a ride to Best Buy to see what I could see.
A very nice young woman spent 20 or 30 minutes with me, talking through my issues and my needs, and we worked out what I would need for a new computer and how much it would cost. And when I said, OK, let’s do it, she dutifully went off to gather the component parts of my order.
She came back after a couple of minutes, indicating she was having difficulty finding one of the programs I needed. And I said, “That’s OK – it’s a sign that I am not supposed to do this today.”
How did I know? Well, as soon as I pulled the proverbial trigger on the deal, I started to feel sick to my stomach, and the niggling doubts it had taken so long to talk myself around came rushing back as soon as I had a moment to myself to think about it.
It was by no means her fault, and when I explained to her what had been happening to me internally, she completely understood and we parted ways amicably.
I could talk myself around to the fact that a new computer was not an unreasonable purchase – after all, how could I be a music teacher without any sound on my computer? But I knew it wasn’t the right thing to do, and that God’s still small voice was arguing against it.
I knew because I just didn’t have peace about it.
Today’s Advent Candle is often called the “Candle of Peace.” Luke tells the story of the angels’ announcement, and they say they are bringing “good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people” and “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to all people on whom God’s favor rests.”
Peace on earth good will to men, the song says.
Today’s reading was about the angel’s announcement to Mary that she would conceive and bear a son – a very special son, who would be given the throne to reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom would never end. She reacted to this news with what appears to be perfect peace!
I hear echoes of Isaiah in the announcement, and so might you. One echo in particular stands out.
Isaiah 9:6-7: For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. And the government shall be upon his shoulders, and his name shall be called wonderful counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”
The word for peace is one of the Hebrew words most often known by non-Hebrew speakers – shalom. It is used 237 times in the Old Testament, and is still used as a greeting by those who speak Hebrew. The corresponding Greek word is used extensively throughout the New Testament.
Where shall we start when we are talking about what peace is? When most people think of the word peace, it seems to me they would define it as the absence of conflict. Let’s start there.
If we are talking about the absence of conflict, then, certainly, one meaning of peace is the absence of conflict between nations – an absence of war.
I find myself praying recently for an end to war. I don’t think it was God’s intent for us to be taking up arms against one another in his world. He made the world and called it good, and before the entry of sin onto the scene there was no bloodshed at all, and I can’t imagine that God intended us to be shedding one another’s blood. I think war is one of the by-products of our desire to determine right and wrong for ourselves - of that choice the first people made to disobey God’s command in order to play out that desire.
At any rate, however they start, wars are largely out of our direct control, and we can pray, but it isn’t like we’re going to be the ones that get to sit down with the parties and talk about it. That’s for governments and their representatives to work out.
Another meaning might be absence of conflict between people. Romans 12:18 says, “If it’s possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Now, here we get to something for which we all bear responsibility and can actually do something to help. As far as it depends on us, we are to live at peace with everyone.
You mean all those people trying to get the last hot toy off the shelf at Wal-Mart?
You mean the guy who cut into the line in front of you at the Starbucks order window?
You mean the woman who almost wiped me out at the toll booth the other morning doing her makeup while driving? I am NOT supposed to overtake her so I can pull up next to her and give her a look which is at once intimidating and disgusted?
You mean the boss who might not make decisions I would agree with? I am supposed to live at peace with him?
Live at peace with everyone as far as it depends on you.
This concept could also apply to groups of people. People will sometimes separate into camps, and conflict can happen among several people at once. This kind of fire is frequently fed by unwise speech, something James addresses in his letter.
There is also, however, the concept of conflict within ourselves, like my internal conflict at Best Buy.
The thing is, simply defining the word as “the absence of conflict” doesn’t fully capture the biblical concept of the word peace.
“Shalom” is certainly the absence of conflict, but it isn’t simply meant in the sense of countries, or groups, or people fighting, or internal conflict over a purchasing decision.
It means peace in all areas. Peace within one’s heart, wholeness, peace with God.
Peace with God.
It can’t just be defined by its “negative” – the absence of conflict. It’s also a positive – an addition – of wholeness, completeness, and well-being.
It’s a huge word, a central concept of what it means to be in a relationship with God.
It is one of the oldest blessings – in Numbers 6, we find the blessing, “May the Lord lift His countenance on you and give you peace.”
It refers to the kind of well-being and wholeness that brings calm in the midst of a storm. We are told that God keep in perfect peace those whose hearts are stayed on Him. Does this mean a life without any kind of drama or conflict? Of course not!
It means we are supposed to keep our eyes and hearts set on God.
I remember when I was learning how to drive. I remember trying so hard to keep the car between the yellow line in the middle of the road and the white line on the right. And, if you know me, you know I wanted the car to be exactly centered, and travel in an exactly straight line.
Nobody ever actually does that. It was harder than it looked. I was looking at that road, and trying to measure the distance between the lines right in front of the car.
Of course, things got way easier when I took my eyes off the few feet right in front of the car, and kept them further along the horizon. Suddenly, I could drive a straight line!
If we trust God’s sovereignty, if we keep our hearts on Him, we will find it easier to navigate. And the peace that passes understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, as Philippians tells us.
Perfect Picture of Peace
Long ago a man sought the perfect picture of peace. Not finding one that satisfied, he announced a contest to produce this masterpiece. The challenge stirred the imagination of artists everywhere, and paintings arrived from far and wide.
Finally the great day of revelation arrived. The judges uncovered one peaceful scene after another, while the viewers clapped and cheered. The tensions grew. Only two pictures remained veiled.
As a judge pulled the cover from one, a hush fell over the crowd. A mirror-smooth lake reflected lacy, green birches under the soft blush of the evening sky. Along the grassy shore, a flock of sheep grazed undisturbed. Surely this was the winner.
The man with the vision (for the contest) uncovered the second painting himself, and the crowd gasped in surprise. Could this be peace?
A tumultuous waterfall cascaded down a rocky precipice; the crowd could almost feel its cold, penetrating spray. Stormy-gray clouds threatened to explode with lightning, wind and rain. In the midst of the thundering noises and bitter chill, a spindly tree clung to the rocks at the edge of the falls. One of its branches reached out in front of the torrential waters as if foolishly seeking to experience its full power.
A little bird had built a nest in the elbow of that branch. Content and undisturbed in her stormy surroundings, she rested on her eggs. With her eyes closed and her wings ready to cover her little ones, she manifested peace that transcends all earthly turmoil.
A Wardrobe from the King, Berit Kjos, pp. 45-46
We are looking to the horizon, waiting with eager anticipation for the return of Jesus. This season of advent reminds us to refocus our attention each year. When Jesus was walking on the water, and bid Peter to come to him, and Peter got out of the boat, he was just fine as long as his eyes – and his trust – were on Jesus. It was when he lost that perspective that he started to sink.
Peace comes from releasing the worry and trusting Jesus with everything – our lives, each day, knowing the end from the beginning. When we stop fighting God for control, we have peace in the midst of anything. Because, really, we have no control anyhow.
We will never gain that kind of peace – the peace that transcends understanding - if we are running as fast as we can from one thing to the next, keeping ourselves busy so we don’t have to hear God’s voice. As I look around me, and notice people going at warp speed, guzzling coffee to stave off the inevitable crash, I wonder if it’s the fear of stopping that makes us keep running. We worry that if we actually stop to listen to what God has to say to our hearts, to deal with those things that are the most deeply entrenched in us, we won’t like it. We think God might not have anything nice to say.
Well, if that’s you – and even if it’s not – I want to remind you of what God says. I’ll even use the words to a song, written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow –
I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along th’ unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
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, good will to men.”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor does He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”
Our God does not slumber or sleep, and He so loved the world that He gave His Son, because God desires that nobody should perish, but that all should gain eternal life.
Jesus is Himself our peace, who has broken down every wall.
And for all that we are instructed to be holy as He is holy, even more often we are told we are loved, and that we are to love one another.
To be at peace is to know the love of God in Christ, to experience that completeness, that shalom, that God wants to give us. Because the walls between ourselves and God have been broken down by the love of Christ.
I hope this season finds you knowing in your own life the words of the unbroken song - Peace on earth, good will to men.