_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ November 27, 2011
Scripture Reading: Luke 2:1-14
In this Advent series we have been dealing with the overall theme of contrasts – the idea being that the story of the Advent is a story of many contrasts. Perhaps the greatest contrast in the entire story is found in this message of peace sung by a choir of angels and the state of the planet it was sung to. That contrast still exists today, and in fact, in far greater measure than it did then.
The theme of this final message of Advent for this year is this: ‘A Hard Peace’.
There was a story in The New York Times about a doctor from the Central African Republic who left his country to study medicine in France. After several decades as a physician and researcher, the article said "he decided to leave the peace and security of his life in France in order to bring much-needed medical care to the people of his homeland." In this case, peace was a physical location and an economic position that guaranteed happiness and security. Is that what the angels meant when they spoke of "peace on earth"?
In another story an evacuee from New Orleans sat in the office of a pastor and said, with a heavy sigh, that more than anything else he wanted some peace. For this person, peace involved the end of the emotional upheaval that tens of thousands of displaced persons from that city still feel to this day. Peace would be a sense of once again feeling settled in some permanent home and knowing that their lives will eventually be restored to some order and normalcy. The peace desired by the man from New Orleans was not that much different from what the man from France had given up in returning home to Africa. One man was in search of peace and the other man had given it up, but was either man experiencing what the angels intended in the skies over Bethlehem?
In yet another story a person who had come out of a 20-year addiction to heroin was attempting to explain why his addiction lasted so long and why his attraction to that drug was so powerful; he said, "Heroin gave me a little bit of peace for a short period of time." That person is not alone; our nation and the world are crowded with people whose only way to soothe their spirits and calm their troubled minds is an over-reliance on drugs or alcohol.
In the movie, The Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Cicely Tyson was talking about the words "Peace, be still" that Jesus spoke to the winds and waves on the Sea of Galilee. She reached into her purse and took out her hand gun and remarked that if you want to have some "peace be still" you better get yourself a "piece of steel." There are a great many people who seem to feel more at peace when they are carrying a gun. Is that what the angels had in mind on the night that Christ was born?
All of these references concern the same word: peace. Is peace found by moving to a location that affords a quality of life that insulates a person from risk and danger as with the African physician? Is peace a state of mind, a deep assurance that life is slowly being restored to order as with the evacuee from New Orleans? Is peace the buzz, the high, the altered state of mind that comes to addicts and alcoholics once they have greatly indulged in their drug of choice? Is peace the reassurance of a pistol in your purse or a gun in the glove box of your car? Is peace a political arrangement established by people who represent different nations in a series of events we commonly refer to as "a peace process"? Are any of these comments or conditions an accurate reflection of what the angels had in mind when they serenaded the city of Bethlehem with the promise of peace on earth on that night so long ago?
What do you and I mean when we employ the word peace? First, peace comes only from God, and nothing of this world can offer the peace promised by the angels. Second, peace cannot be fully experienced by a single person or by a certain group of persons if, at the same time, it is being denied or withheld from others. Peace is as much between us as it is within us. Third, the peace I want to see in the world must first be made alive in my own life. I cannot wait for peace to break out somewhere else; peace must begin with me!
Let me enlarge on each of these three points. First,the peace promised by God cannot be acquired through any of the countless consumer items of our materialistic society. Peace cannot be purchased, it cannot be charged with a credit card, it cannot be worn, it cannot be eaten, it cannot be driven and it cannot be hung in a closet or stored on a shelf or stashed in a safe deposit box. If the peace of God does not dwell in your heart, it cannot be found anywhere else. Too many people in our society are searching for peace in the shopping mall. They think if they can just make one more purchase and acquire one more possession, they will reach a state of contentment.
Again, peace does not come out of your closet, your wallet, your refrigerator or your garage. If peace does not come out of your heart, it will not come into your life at all.
Over against this false notion that peace can be gained through materialism let me put forward a simple but very profound reality: True peace is the core conviction that everything we have been told about God is true and certain. We have peace in times of crisis because we know our God is a God of salvation or deliverance. We have peace in the presence of death because we know Jesus Christ has fully conquered death on our behalf. We have peace in times of temptation because we know God who will "keep and protect us."
We have peace in the presence of war because God has said there will be a time when armies will "beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks and study war no more."
What this means is that peace comes as I rely less and less on the things of this world and more and more on the promises of God. That is why Isaiah 26:3 declares, "You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on you." Peace has something to do with the discipline of the mind.
Peace is not limited or reserved for those times in life when everything is in perfect order. Peace is not the absence of tension or hardship; peace is a state of calm within you in the midst of the storms. Peace is not a guarantor that every day will be easy and smooth. Peace is the fruit of that internal witness of the Spirit that God is with us no matter what.
Second, peace is not only my inward conviction that God will sustain me in the midst of life's crises but peace must also be a shared state of well-being enjoyed by all people.I cannot live in peace in a vacuum. This is what I call the horizontal reality of peace. First we must be at peace with God and then as a consequence of that peace with God we must live in peace with those around us. My household cannot attempt to be at peace while those who live across the street or around the corner or on the other side of the world still find their world in chaos and torment. In other words, peace cannot simply be within us; peace must also exist between us. If you and I are out of fellowship with one another, then I cannot be at peace no matter what I possess or what I know. If my actions bring hurt or harm or humiliation to another human being, then I cannot be at peace because I have caused the distress of someone else.
There can be no peace as a nation if we seek to hurt, harm and humiliate other nations. We cannot increase our sense of peace by waging war on others.
Is there anybody in your life with who you ought to be in fellowship but instead you are not on speaking terms? Are you trying to have peace in your life while there is trouble in your relationships with family, friends and co-workers? I say again, there can be no lasting peace within without there being peace between us.
That is what Christ came to make possible: relationalreconciliation first with God and then with others. Christ came to give us the power to make peace among ourselves. That begins with forgiveness. We can choose to forgive and allow second chances to those who have failed us. Our lives will be so much richer and our burdens so much lighter when we choose to extend peace in our relationships. Make no mistake about this – peace within us must inevitably manifest in peace between us.
To sum up this second point; the promise of the angels of Bethlehem was for "peace on earth." That does not mean prosperity for us and grinding poverty everywhere else in the world. Peace can never be fully enjoyed by some when it is being denied or withheld or made unavailable or unaffordable for so many others. Whatever the angels were announcing that night in Bethlehem, they wanted allof the people on the earth to fully share in its benefits.
Third, if peace is ever going to occur on the earth, we cannot wait for somebody else to make the first move;peace must begin with us. We must initiate the action and tell someone, "I am sorry, I forgive you." It was Gandhi who said, "We must be the change we hope to see in others."
And yet when we speak of making the first move we must remember that we are not making the first move at all; God did that, two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. He did not wait for us to get ourselves together before He entered into human affairs. Paul says, "While we were still sinning" Christ died for the ungodly (Rom. 5:8). That verse can be translated in a verbal form so that the word "sinning" is emphasized as an ongoing act. Or it can be translated in a noun form so that "while we were yet sinners Christ died for the ungodly." Either way, God was not waiting for us to make the first move. He initiated the peace treaty and waited for us to respond. And now in that same spirit we have the ability to initiate peace toward one another.
This is core to our theology of the gospel of Christ: God goes first and then invites us to respond to what He has already done.
Have you ever heard this message on an answering service (and I will use my own name to illustrate): "Hello, this is Pastor Dale Lloyd. Now, you say something." In other words, I made the first move, and the next move is up to you.
That may be a homely illustration but that is what God did for us in the Incarnation; God showed up in the person of His Son as if to say, "Hello, this is God. Now you say something.”I have made the first move. Now you move in response to what I have already done. That is how peace is made.
Reach out over some wall of division and challenge somebody to reach back in forgiveness and love. Do not stand by and wait for someone else to make the first move. You do something. You give something. You change something. Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me!
The angels sang that night of peace. Christ arrived and paid the awful price of establishing that peace of which they sang. At the heart of all real peace is relational reconciliation beginning with our relationship with God and extending out to all our relationships.
In choosing this theme – ‘A Hard Peace’ – my intention was to help us all to understand that this peace the angels announced over Bethlehem was so much more than a warm fuzzy feeling or a culture of artificial niceness. It was not cheap. It came at the price of the blood and life of the very Prince of Peace.
What this means for men and women of that peace – men and women who carry forth that peace into their relationships – is that it is still a costly business. Relational reconciliation is not cheap. It comes at the cost of dying to everything in me that is driven by self-centredness; that core stubbornness that insist upon the need to be right, the need to be in control and the need to be number one.
Notice the first part of verse 14: ‘And on earth peace among men…’ The peace announced for the earth is peace among men – relational reconciliation. And the literal rendering of the last part of the verse is: of good pleasure or of good will.This tells me exactly where this peace is found on this planet today. It is found only in that person whose will is totally set upon bringing goodness and pleasure into the lives of all they are in relationship with. This begins in our marriages. That person is at peace because he or she is free of that competitive spirit that drives self-centredness.
It is a hard peace, but for those who mature in it, there comes this growing realization of freedom to live in that relational unity Christ prayed for in John seventeen. And living there we are not aware of loss or diminishment but of perfect personal fulfilment.