After cousin Eddie parks his RV in front of the Griswold home, a squirrel attacks grandma, cousin Eddie’s Rottweiler destroys the dining room, Aunt Edna’s cat bites into a string of lights, the Christmas tree burns up along with Uncle Lewis’ toupee, the Christmas bonus turns out to be a Jelly of The Month Club, and both sets of in-laws pack their bags to leave on Christmas Eve, Clark stops the family exodus saying “Where do you think you’re going? Nobody is walking out on this fun old-fashioned family Christmas! No, No! We are all in this together. This is a full-blown four alarm Holiday Emergency….” Ellen challenges “Clark, It’s over! … I think it is better if everyone goes home, before things get worse.” “Worse” Clark snaps back, “How can it get any worse? Take a look around, Ellen, we are at the threshold of Hell!”
I think we all long for peace this Christmas. We hope for peace deep within our souls, peace around our tables, peace with those estranged from the table and peace across our world. What things or pleasures would we ever exchange for deep abiding peace?
When the Bible speaks of peace, peace means more than the absence of tension or war. The Hebrew Bible’s word for peace is Shalom. Shalom comes from God as blessing- as a manifestation of God’s presence, grace and favor. Shalom brings a blessed harmony within our hearts, heads, hands, relationships, and communities.
Some think of peace as passive, weak and resigning. God’s peace is never passive or weak. Peace looks combatants in the eyes, peace speaks truth, peace breaks up fights, peace strengthens the soul, peace engages solutions and peace binds up the wounded. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). How strong is a true peacemaker? To be a peacemaker (to forge peace), then one must work in the middle of conflict, stress and turmoil. Bringing peace requires a lot of discipline, energy and effort. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the few German pastors who publicly denounced Hitler and in due season even participated in a plot against Hitler; he wrote, “There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment.”
What is this peace? First, there is an Inner Peace or the assuring presence of God within us. We love to talk about God bringing us inner peace, but there is an outer obligation of peace that God demands. That Lifestyle of Peace or Peace-giving way is an obligation for all who follow Jesus. The Prince of Peace commands, “be at peace with one another” (Mark 9:50) and “so when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-25). Peace is more than mushy sentiment. Peace surpasses any warm feeling inside us. Peace is a lifestyle. Peacemaking is a lifestyle. Inner peace must move us towards making peace in and around our tables, across or neighborhoods, and all over the world.
Days before his house was firebombed by white terrorists, Martin Luther King, Jr. felt paralyzing fear and deep unease after a midnight phone call threatened his family and stole his sleep. Dr. King went to the kitchen to make coffee. Almost depleted he wrote of his prayer. “I am at the end of my powers, I have nothing left. I can’t face it alone. At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I Had never before experienced God. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying ‘stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth, and God will be at your side forevermore.’ Almost at once my fears passed from me. … The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me an inner calm. God is able to give us interior resources to face the storms and problems of life. …When our days become dreary with the low hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a great benign Power in the universe whose name is God, and God is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows! This is our hope for becoming better men and women. This is our mandate for seeking to make a better world.” (The Strength to Love) Do you long for that sort of transforming peace?
I see some of you, faithful Christ-followers walking hard roads, and moving along with inner peace, with a trust that comes from God. Shalom- comes as the Divine Presence flows into our daily lives. That inner calm- that deep holy resolve to follow God- that peace that surpasses understanding is not passive, weak or resigning. Inner Peace, must not remain inside us, peace must flow from our hearts into our world. The Peace of God mandates we work to make a better world. “For the kingdom of God is peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” Romans 14:17
Luke speaks of peace more than the other Gospel writers. Luke shares a theme of peace three times within his Christmas Story because Jesus brings peace. On Christmas Eve, choirs of angels sing: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom God’s favor rests” (Luke 2:14). The angels do not promise that the Peace of God will fall evenly like a blanket of snow, equally covering all the land. Notice that peace comes to those in a relationship with God. Peace comes to those who set their hearts at rest in God. No, deep inner peace arises when our hearts, our minds, our mouths, and our hands align with God’s plan. Peace comes when we allow God to rule our hearts. Inner peace comes when we pray “thy kingdom come- thy will be done” committing to, among other virtues, peacemaking. God never forces peace on any who want to stay entrenched inside inner tensions or external fights. God gives us free will to live restless, unforgiving lives but invites us to live in the Kingdom of Christ’s peace.
I fear in our Bible verse meme, Scripture sound-bite, easy answer, fast-acting faith filled world we have sloganized our theology to the point of boiling away faith’s faith-nourishing nutrients. We grab easily digestible verses but resist a deeper challenging faith. We quote Philippians 4:6 often, boiling Paul’s message down to an easily swallowed, “Do not be anxious about anything, pray about everything and God will download peace that surpasses understanding.” So in the middle of conflict or stress, we pray and we do not receive our order of quick peaceful relief blasted down from God and we feel God has failed to remember our order. But actually, we have so reduced, compressed, compromised, and proof-texted the Scripture so as to rob ourselves of the peace, by skipping some steps. I once had a friend, who ordered a miracle weight loss machine off TV. The first step in losing 30 pounds in 30 days was eating a balanced low-calorie diet. If we long for the peace that can carry us through difficult days when people call us names, tell us where to go, or firebomb our houses we need more than spiritual fast food. We must read more carefully God’s Promises and Instructions. Listen carefully to the context and qualifiers of the promise – because certain terms and conditions apply!
“Rejoice in the Lord always… Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Beloved, fill your minds with thoughts that are true, noble, right, pure, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy. And keep on doing the things you know to do! Put your faith into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:4-9)
Paul does not simply say “pray and get peace.” Paul says “pray and put your faith into action and the God of Peace will be with you!” The peace that surpasses understanding is a not a tranquility pill, happy app, or inserted life defragmentation disk. Peace comes as we align our words, deeds, thoughts, desires, and goals with the Prince of Peace. God never slips us a soul numbing peace cocktail so that we can continue to live with untrue ideas, ignoble deeds, wrong decisions, impure motives, embarrassing aspirations, poor performance, and lamentable action. Inner peace demands our commitment to sharing life with The God of All Peace! Inner Peace flows from our hearts into our living, making us peacemakers. Inner peace quickly evaporates without a peace-giving lifestyle to sustain it. Beloved, Inner Peace remains as we strive for love, speak truth, honor others, do the right thing, keep pure, seek excellence and offer praise. The rabbinic scholars believed that peace was not a mushy sentiment but a lifestyle and obligation. Peace is a way of living- not an isolated spiritual quality. Inner Peace is integrated into and inseparable from our outer peacemaking and life with The God of All Peace.
The Rabbis thought of peace as an ethical obligation. Peace overcomes strife, quarrelling, and tension. Shalom prevents war. The pursuit of peace is a holy obligation God gives everyone. Peace and justice must always be our goal in every relationship. This is hard for us, because we live in a pop-off culture, where we think it is our right to say and do whatever we feel and if people don’t like it, too bad!. Our pop-off culture does not value making peace! Our pop-off Culture does not care about other people’s feelings. That is not a Christian worldview. If you do not care how others feel, then please do not say you follow Jesus Christ, who loved the world, wept over sinners, died for the wicked and ungrateful, and who commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. If you want lasting inner peace then commit be a peacemaking living a life in keeping with the Prince of Peace.
We see God’s peace in Luke’s final birth narrative as Mary and Joseph carry eight day old Jesus to the Temple to bless and name him. The elderly priest Simeon, who was “righteous and devout, looking forward to God’s healing work within the nation” scoops up baby Jesus into his arms and with absolute praise sings to God, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace … for my eyes have seen your salvation.” Peace comes when our relationship with God and our hopes for others align. Peace arises when God’s goodwill, mercy, grace, love, and justice rule our hearts. Simeon is at peace in part because he longs for the right things. He longs for healing for others- he longs for the messiah to come and begin a kingdom of joy and peace in the Holy Spirit. He can depart this life in peace- because he, like God, loves this world and longs for its redemption. Peace flows from a heart at peace with God and longing for others to know peace.
Peace is like a Holy seed growing peace within us, giving peace to others, and making peace in our world. The peace in our hearts must flow into our mouths. Jesus said, “The mouth speaks what the heart if full of” (Luke 6:45). Peace must flow into our hands. Jesus said, “(The faithful and good) are the ones who, when they hear the Word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.” (Luke 8:15) Hearts at peace with the God of All Peace are striving to be at peace with themselves, at peace with neighbors, and at peace with the future. A heart in rhythm with God beats with hopeful dreams and peace-giving plans.
Inner peace creates outer peace. Peace finds the courage and strength to speak up or take a stand. The Prince of peace- fully at peace with God, his own soul, his neighbors, and even enemies- had no trouble speaking the truth. Jesus said the hardest things with the deepest love. Jesus’ peace-giving words shook people up- causing them to reconsider their actions. “Go call your husband”, “You have made this place of prayer for all people into a den of robbers” or “You only lack one thing, go and sell your possessions and come and follow me” all sting, but offer peace. The apostle Paul describes Jesus’ cross as the means of peace with God. “For in Jesus Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Christ God was pleased to reconcile everything to God by making peace through Jesus’ cross. And you were once estranged but now God has reconciled with you through Jesus.” (Colossians 1:20)
We hear Luke’s theme of peace early in Luke’s Gospel as Zechariah’s tongue breaks free after nine months of Holy silence. Zechariah sings a song of peace: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79). Zechariah sings of Christmas light dawning upon us, who sit in darkness, who are passively resting among the shadows of death. When Holy light streams into our hearts bringing peace, we must arise- getting up and getting moving along the path of peace. The Prince of Peace brings peace not just to hearts but into our daily living!
John, like the other Gospels, ends speaking of peace, “When it was evening on that (Easter Sun)day, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). Peace is not simply our sitting resting at the feet of Jesus- Peace is a calling- a holy obligation- peace is a mandate to make a better world- Peace sends us forth into the world to make peace and make disciples in the image of our Prince of Peace. Our inner peace requires our deep commitment to the God of all Peace- who brings peace and calls us to become peacemakers.
Will we follow the Prince of Peace finding inner calm and loving more deeply or strive after the temporary pleasure of things living in restless expectation of more? “Let the peace of Christ rule your hearts” knowing “live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you!” (Colossians 3:15 & 2 Corinthians 13:11) May the Prince of Peace bring you lasting peace this Christmas, not just in your heart, but in your words, in your actions, in your homes, in your schools, in your neighborhoods, and within our world. Amen.