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The Promise of Peace

December 5, 2010
Sermon: The Promise of Peace
Text: Luke 2:8-14

 

The key passage of Scripture for the sermon today is Verse 14 of Luke Chapter 2:  “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”  I also will also make reference to Isaiah Chapters 9 and 11.

Some of you have heard the story about the advent wreath we had when our children were young.  Our wreath, one that we got in Winston Salem, North Carolina, was displayed on a table in our foyer.  The centerpiece was a nativity set made out of cornhusk figures.  We should have known better than to have combined candles with cornhusks.  Yes, we should have known better, but they were so pretty and quaint together.

As we went through the Sundays of Advent, we would light a consecutive candle.  Finally, the Sunday before Christmas Day, we were to light the peace candle and read the passage from Isaiah 9:2, 6:  “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those who dwelt in the land of deep darkness the light has shined… For unto us a child is born, and the government will be upon his shoulders.  And his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace.”

After we sang a Christmas carol and lit the candle, I asked Clare and the children to bow their heads and pray.  As I was praying, Clare saw a great light.  One of the cornhusk shepherds, leaning too close to the peace candle, was ignited.  The fire quickly spread to the Wise Men and even to Mary and Joseph.  I picked up this flaming wreath in my hands, ran to the bathroom, threw it in the bathtub, and turned on the shower.  The water extinguished our beautiful advent wreath.  Holy Smoke! All I could think was Holy Smoke!

Many people thought that we ought to refurbish the wreath.  Actually, I made an all-new wreath and adorned it with a new Moravian star.  We added some new Advent figures, figures again made from cornhusks.  We actually kept some of those original figures that are singed around the edges.  They remind us that all of us will be a little worse for the wear toward the end of the Christmas season.  We will all be a little exhausted, a little burned out.  We did not re-place the candles in that wreath, however.

That experience is just one reminder that the first Christmas was probably very much like the Christmases we have now.  Mary and Joseph were, after all, in Bethlehem because the government had ordered everyone to be taxed and counted like so many cattle.  With great inconvenience, they traveled all the way to Bethlehem to suffer this humiliation.  In the first century, Jews lived under the head of Rome.  Every day was a day of hardship.  The truth is that it was into exactly this kind of world that Jesus was born.

Out on a hillside, the shepherds heard the message, “Peace on earth, to all people with whom God is pleased.”  Every year I ask myself, Is peace really a possibility? Is it possible to find peace on earth? Christmas cards bring us this promise of peace.  A painting entitled “The Peaceable Kingdom” contains animals that are ordinarily enemies now at peace with each other.  A little child pictured in the painting is leading this animal kingdom into a peaceful kind of harmony.  We think, Isn’t that sweet!  Isn’t that beautiful! In a world with adults like us, is this kind of peace a real possibility?  A song in the musical South Pacific reminds us that children have to be taught to hate and to fear.  They have to be carefully taught.  We do a pretty good job of teaching people to hate and to fear.  By the time children become adults, most are not really concerned with peace.

I have longed for peace.  Let me share with you just a little of my own life experience.

I was born in August of 1944.  I was born into a world of great conflict.  Before my first birthday, the United States of America had dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  When I think back to my own heritage, I can see that all of my ancestors knew the experience of war.  Now to be quite honest with you, I am actually very proud of this heritage.  I actually celebrate it. Two of my ancestors, William Neely and John Neely, both fought in the American Revolution.  William was quite an accomplished soldier.  In fact, he was granted six hundred acres of land on the Cumberland River, land just one bend in the river over from what is now Opryland.  John, the younger brother, on the other hand, was taken prisoner and held by the British in Charleston until near the end of the war.

During the American Civil War, Zachary Taylor Hutson, my great-grandfather, fought with Robert E. Lee in the Wilderness Campaign.  Another great-grandfather, Moses Sanders Haynsworth, turned his entire plantation into an enterprise to make boots and saddles for the Confederate army.  George Jay Washington McCall, another ancestor, lost everything in his support for the Confederacy.  A relative on the Neely side, considered the “black sheep” in the family, actually fought for the Union army.  The war was very much a part of my family experience in those days.

After the Spanish-American War, my grandfather was stationed at Guantanamo for four years.  Somehow we skipped WWI with close family involvement.  WWII saw Uncle David, Uncle Robert, Uncle Barry, Uncle Buzz, and Uncle Bill all going into service.  Every night my grandparents read the Bible and prayed for these sons and sons-in-law who were fighting in that great conflict.  During the Korean conflict, my Uncle Chess served as an officer for the American army.

Many friends served during the Vietnam War.  I have been to the wall in Washington and found the names of three of my classmates who died in that war.  Several years ago, I led a funeral service for Tommy Lindsey, the son of Wade Lindsey of Wade’s Restaurant.  Tommy, who served in Vietnam, suffered a long and difficult death caused by Agent Orange.  Other friends fought in Desert Storm.

Each week Clare and I get the Sunday New York Times because we want to read the book section.  If you look at the international section, you will frequently see articles about the turbulence in Korea, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Sudan, and the Congo.  Is peace possible in the world today?  When we read these words about the world in which Jesus Christ was born, we read the message of “Peace on earth, good will to people with whom God is pleased.”  Is peace a real possibility?

In the ancient world, from Homer right through Greece and Rome, a popular saying, always written in Latin, was, “If you want peace, then prepare for war.”  That seems to be political common sense.  Mao Tse-tung’s sentiment, “All power begins at the end of a gun barrel,” has been echoed throughout history.  Humans are capable of a degree of cruelty, torture, and indifference that makes aggression in the animal kingdom pale by comparison.  B.F. Skinner, a skeptic, said, “Religion hasn’t very much to show for itself as an instrument of peace.  Most of the conflicts in the world are of religious origin.”

So where do we stand?  The biblical concept of peace comes to us through the Old Testament Hebrew word ShalomShalom pertains more to personal peace than with peace between countries.  Physically, it signals health.  Emotionally, it means to be at one with yourself.  Spiritually, it means to be rounded, complete, balanced.  Morally, it means to live as a person of integrity.  The Greeks’ word for that was galene.  It is the same word they use for “calm sea.”  A person who has a sense of integrity has a calm conscience.  Economically, it means that you repay all of your debts.  Interpersonally, it means that you keep your promises, live up to your vows, remain faithful and responsible.  Socially, it is a consequence of people who try to get along with each other.  The Apostle Paul uses the word harmonia to describe what the church should look like when people live in harmony with each other.

Plato said that if we are intentional about becoming wise, when we are in our mature years and have our passions under the reign of our mind and our morals, a deep peace settles over us.  The Greek word for peace is eirene, which comes into our language as the woman’s name Irene.  Marcus Aurelius contended that the spirit of peace enables us to deal with a world that is falling apart.  This peace is not just a matter of having no conflict.  It comes from the inside.  It comes as a parallel to justice and truth.  It fills a person’s soul and emanates from the inside out.  Peace is our responsibility.  If peace on earth is going to be a reality, we must accept responsibly.  Listen again to the message of the angels in the King James Version:  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

If we read other translations carefully, we see that peace is contingent upon us.  Peace is our responsibility.  We must be pleasing to God:

American Standard Version: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased.”
New American Standard Bible: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.
New International Version: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.
Living Bible: “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
The Message: “Glory to God in the heavenly heights, Peace to all men and women on earth who please him.”

Julian Bond said, “We can make progress toward peace if we take responsibility for making peace ourselves.  We cannot leave it to our leaders and certainly not to Congress.”

Paul, who writes about this personal responsibility in Romans 12:9-21, is very clear about what must be done to make peace:

Love must be sincere.  Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.  Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.  Honor one another above yourselves…Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer…Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse…Live in harmony with one another.  Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.  Do not be conceited.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil.  Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  Do not take revenge, my friends…On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.”…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Dr.  Karl Menninger said that if we want a peaceful world, we must forget about “vengeance, all revenge, and all retaliation even if it is called patriotism or valor.  Peace is not possible in a world of vengeance.”  Peace is possible only when we are filled with compassion and with a sense of justice and goodwill toward other people.

We sing, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”  The prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi is a spiritual model for this:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy;

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

 

The Gospels recognize that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the prophecies about peace in the Old Testament.  When he is born, the angels sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among all people with whom God is pleased.”  The angels are not speaking about just Romans or just Jews.  They are speaking about all people.

At the heart of the message of Jesus in the Gospels is the gospel of peace.  Jesus sends out his disciples, telling them to say to every house they enter, “Peace be upon this house.”  He heals a woman with a wound that would not stop bleeding.  He says to her, “Go in peace.”  To a woman seeking forgiveness, he says, “Go in peace.”  Just before his arrest, he tells his disciples, “My peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).  He told us in John 16:33, “In this world, you will have tribulation.  But be of good cheer!  I have overcome the world.” Is this peace a real possibility?

2010 has been a difficult year for many Americans.  The last several Advent seasons have been marred by economic hardships.  We have seen the constant threat of terror just this week in Portland, Oregon, at a Christmas tree lighting.  We have seen two wars that have brought much sorrow to many American families.  We have seen an oil spill in the Gulf that brought pollution and devastation to a region that is still trying to recover from Hurricane Katrina.  We have seen articles in Sunday’s New York Times.

America has been through similar times before.  Perhaps no time was more troubling than the Civil War.  During that great conflict, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was one of American’s famous poets.  In 1843 Longfellow, already a widower, had married a woman named Frances “Fanny” Appleton.  They settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and had six children.  Their life together was happy until the Civil War abruptly destroyed their serenity.

In the summer of 1861, Fanny Longfellow was melting sealing wax on an envelope when the long folds of her dress caught on fire.  Her dress ablaze, she ran into Henry’s study.  Desperately trying to smother the flames with a small rug and his own body, Henry was badly burned on his face, arms, and hands.  Fanny suffered injuries that were much worse and died the next morning.  Longfellow was distraught that Christmas.  He wrote in his journal, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.”

By December 1863, two years later, Henry received word that his oldest son, Charles, a lieutenant in the army of the Potomac, had been severely wounded.  Charles was not expected to live, but he did.  That uncertain time was difficult.  Longfellow greeted Christmas with a heavy heart.  Hearing the bells ringing on Christmas Day, he wrote a poem, which became one of our best known Christmas carols.  The poem begins, “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 toward men.”  The third verse depicts Longfellow’s despair:  “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 in the fourth verse, Longfellow saw reason for hope.  He wrote, “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, With peace on earth, good will to men.”

I look at our advent wreath, see those charred figures, hear Longfellow’s carol, and get Christmas cards that say “peace.” I realize that peace is my responsibility.  If there is ever going to be peace, it is going to be because I find it right here in my heart.  Only the Lord Jesus can bring that kind of peace.  He is the Prince of Peace.

Have you acknowledged Jesus as the Lord of your life?  When he resides in our hearts, he gives to us that shalom that we cannot have any other way.  If we have that peace in our heart, we have the opportunity to be agents of peace to all of those around us.  We will not get peace politically.  It only comes when one person passes it on to others.  Ask Jesus into your heart so that you, too, may have that peace.

Kirk H. Neely
© December 2010
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