Wednesday, December 27, 2017

December 24, 2017 What the World Needs Now Is...Love



A couple of weeks ago I walked onto an elevator at a hospital in Louisville.  This hospital has about the slowest elevators in the entire city and I was on the 9th floor.  The elevator filled quickly with people going down to the first floor, a trip that would not be quick.  Two of the riders on the elevator were a man and woman, who were together; she a patient at the hospital, wearing her gown and attached to an IV tree, and he was holding on to her, helping to support her.  When the door closed he started talking to the rest of us, saying, I hope you all are having a very blessed day.  We all muttered a muted response.  You know how it is on elevators.  It’s as though there is an unwritten rule that everyone either is to look straight at the door or at the floor and not say anything, so there was a feeling of awkwardness as the man continued talking to us.  I don’t have any idea what her condition was, at least not in terms of the seriousness, but she did not look as though she felt well at all.  And perhaps that’s why the man was saying the things that he said.  He continued to speak, and as he spoke he got a little more emotional and direct.  He said I want you to know that I love each and every one of you.  To be honest, when a stranger in a hospital looks at me and says I love you, I get a little bit uncomfortable, but maybe it’s just me.

Now, let me ask you a question – how many of you have had a complete stranger in an elevator tell you they loved you?  In all my years of interesting experiences, that was a first for me.  And I’m fairly certain it was for everyone else on that elevator as well, because it was as though no one knew what to say in response.  I had a lot of questions running through my mind, such as can you love a complete stranger?  What motivated him to say those words to an elevator full of strangers?  And, most puzzling to me, why was it so hard for me to respond?

It is probably obvious to anyone who knows me very much at all that I am someone who holds their emotions close to my chest.  I am a person who is not demonstrative of my feelings, and many of you joke with me about my aversion to hugs.  I stand up here week after week, month after month, and year after year speaking about the need to love one another, so why was it, when someone told a group of people that he loved us, that none of us – including me – seemed to know what to do?

This morning we conclude our Advent series of messages titled What the World Needs Now, with a message on Love.  Of all the needs in our world, is there any that is as great as love?  If there is, it’s hard for me to imagine what it would be.

I am combining several passages for this morning’s Scripture texts.  The first two are not Christmas passages, per se, and the third one is a generally overlooked Christmas passage.  Each passage is about love, and technically speaking, any passage about love is a Christmas passage, because love is the heart of Christmas.  These passages are some of the most recognized and beautiful words ever penned about love.  They are also, we should admit, some of the most difficult.  I have not included the entirely of I Corinthians 13, but am using the heart of the passage, where Paul very powerfully writes of the definition of love.

I Corinthians 13:4-8 –
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.

John 3:16-17
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

John 1:1-5; 14 –
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

It is difficult to express how much those words have sustained me over the years, as I know they have sustained you, and millions of others as well.

1.  I Corinthians 13:4-8.

I have read I Corinthians 13 at a lot of weddings over the course of my ministry.  It is a beautiful passage, isn’t it?  They are some of the most beautiful, poetic words imaginable.  But they also scare the daylights out of me.  Sometimes, at weddings, I half-expect at least one of the couple to stop me when I’m reading the passage to say, wait a minute – come again?  Are you kidding me?  I’m not sure this is what I was signing up for!

I know that my feeble efforts at love fall so very short of what Paul writes, but I try as much as my sometimes faint heart will allow me to live up to that challenge.  But still, I’ve not always lived up to love.  Sometimes, to be honest, I’ve not even tried very hard.  But I’m probably not the only one. Sometimes it’s hard to love people.  Sometimes it’s hard to love me.  Sometimes it’s hard to love a stranger on an elevator, but love is what the world so needs, and so does each of us.

Paul says that love never fails.  I believe that.  I have witnessed a lot of heartbreak because of people failing love.  I don’t think there is a person here who hasn’t felt the heartbreak of someone failing love.  And one of the great tragedies that occurs when people fail love is the scars that are created – scars that cause people to pull back from one another and create a failure to trust and create an atmosphere of hurt and bitterness.

We may fail love, but love itself never fails.  Love calls us ever higher.  Love calls us to live with grace rather than judgment, love calls us to forgiveness rather than bitterness, it calls us to move beyond hatred, it calls us to go places we would not ordinarily go, it calls us to people we would normally shun, and it asks of us what we sometimes feel we cannot do; but love will still ask of us all those things and more.

2.  John 3:16-17.
     
Who hasn’t been moved innumerable times at the words of John 3:16-17?  Those verses are probably the first words of Scripture most of us learned.  I don’t know when I first memorized them; perhaps long ago in Vacation Bible School or Sunday School, but I can scarcely remember a time when I didn’t have them committed to memory.  If only they could be as committed to our hearts as well!

We don’t always quote verse 17, but they should always be tied together, because Jesus rejects judgment in favor of love. There are a couple of reasons why I am not interested in judging people or preaching condemning sermons.  One is because I used to be much more condemning of people.  Under pressure of the crowd mentality I sometimes joined in the chorus of condemnation or ridicule of individuals or groups.  I wish I had stood up for people instead of joining in with the crowd, but there were times when I gave into the mentality of the crowd.

Another reason why I am not interested in condemning people is because I do not want to lend my voice to the creation of an atmosphere that leads to the oppression, ridicule, or rejection of other people.  I don’t want to add my voice to the harsh chorus of condemnation that is far too prevalent in many corners of the religious community.  Too many people want to judge and condemn others while ignoring the parts of their own lives that would be worthy of condemnation by their own standard.

And third, it communicates the idea that we must somehow earn or deserve God’s love, which is not at all true.  We do not have to do anything to earn God’s love or to deserve God’s love.  The very fact that we exist is all the reason God needs to love us, and anyone who communicates, in any way, that we must earn or deserve God’s love is teaching a falsehood!

3.  John 1:1-5; 14.
     
The words of John’s gospel, in what might be the most overlooked of Christmas passages, where he tells us that the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  I am always hesitant to say anything about Greek in a message because it sounds pretentious.  Every seminarian, after only one Greek class, suddenly fancies himself an expert in Greek, and I am very far from an expert.  What I did learn in Greek class many years ago, however, is that verse 14 could be translated the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.  I love that way of translating the verse!  Imagine, the God and creator of this vast, unending universe became one of us, lived among us, walked the dusty roads, drank water to quench his thirst, ate the fruits of his own earth to still his hunger, and, in the greatest act of mercy and grace, gave his life for us!

At this time of year I enjoy the beauty of the church, with all the lights and decorations.  Sometimes, at the conclusion of a service, when everyone is gone, I like to sit for a few quiet moments here in the sanctuary, with the lights setting a mood for reflection and meditation.  Tonight, after the Christmas Eve service, I will take a few minutes and sit and enjoy the peace and quiet of the moment before going home.  It is a wonderful moment, after the beauty of that service, to enjoy those moments, soaking up the surroundings and thinking of the love of God.

It is the love of God that is the foundation of Christmas, and the foundation of all things.  The lights that illuminate the trees and decorations in our church bear testimony to Jesus as the Light of the World, the Light that, according to John, came into this world and pitched his tent among us, to live with us, and to redeem us.

On this Christmas Eve, allow Jesus, the Light of the world, to keep you now and forever in his love!



Tuesday, December 19, 2017

December 17, 2017 What the World Needs Now Is...Joy



Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing.
—by Isaac Watts

One of the most popular Christmas hymns is Joy to the World, which is kind of ironic, as it was not written to be a Christmas song, and you probably sing it wrong.  The words of the first line, you will notice, are the Lord is come, not the Lord has come, which is how many people sing the song.  The words, written by Isaac Watts, actually celebrate not so much the coming of Christ into the world in Bethlehem, but the second coming of Christ, hence the word is rather than has.  Also, the song comes not from the Christmas story as told in Matthew and Luke, but from Psalm 98. 
(Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things;
his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations.
He has remembered his love and his faithfulness to Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music;
make music to the Lord with the harp, with the harp and the sound of singing,
with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—shout for joy before the Lord, the King.
Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy;
let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth.  He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity)

Watts was one of three collaborators on the song, although none of the three worked together.  The second collaborator was George Frederic Handel (1685-1759), who wrote the Messiah. Lowell Mason, the third collaborator, pieced together portions of Handel’s Messiah to make up the tune.  It’s fascinating, I think, that one of the most-loved Christmas songs was pieced together separately by three different people and not even intended as a Christmas song.  I don’t know for sure, but I believe, that the song became a part of Christmas because of the joy that is such an obvious part of the song, and joy is foundational to Christmas.

As we continue our series of three Advent messages, based on the theme What the World Needs Now, this morning we come to joy.  Our text comes from a portion of Matthew’s account of the Christmas story.

Matthew 2:1-12 –

1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem
and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.
When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.
“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.
He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.
10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.
11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

I think the world needs a lot of things these days, and something the world certainly needs now is joy, don’t you think?  It’s very easy to believe there is very little about which to be joyful in our world today.  In fact, Christmas itself, which celebrates joy, is often a time when joy is lacking from the lives of many.  For those who are unable to keep up with the frenzy of gift-buying, it is not joyful.  For those whose economic situation means they must watch other children showered with mounds of gifts while their own children are the recipients of a meager collection of gifts, it is not a joyful time.  And though we speak often of the truth that the true meaning of Christmas is much deeper than presents, tell that to a parent unable to provide much to their children at Christmas.  For those who see an empty seat at the table at Christmas dinner, joy is as absent as the friend or loved one who is not in the seat they have enjoyed year after year.  For those who have loved ones who are deployed, in the hospital, incarcerated, or in a nursing home, Christmas is a time when joy is lacking.  And, for many other reasons, there are scores of people who find it difficult to summon joy at Christmas.

As we speak about joy this morning, I want us to consider joy in several contexts, the first of which is –

1.  The path to joy is often long and difficult.

There is not much that we know about the magi who came to visit Jesus.  In fact, much of what we think we know about the magi is not accurate.  We sing of them as we three kings, but they were not kings, and we don’t even know how many they were.  The assumption is made that there were three because they offered three gifts to Jesus, but there is nothing that tells us how many of them traveled to Bethlehem.  We don’t know where they were from, although there is much speculation since we do know they came from the east (verse 1), which probably points to what would be modern day Iraq or Iran.  And, contrary to most manger scenes, they arrived in Bethlehem after the shepherds were gone.
So what do we know?  First, it must have been a long and difficult journey.  We are accustomed to much more comfortable travel these days than just a few decades ago.  It was many years before I was able to travel in a car that was comfortable.  I had a string of rather junky, uncomfortable cars that I drove.  In June of 1984 I had the opportunity to buy my first decent car.  I had graduated from seminary the previous month, Tanya and I had married only a few weeks before, and the church I was serving in Anderson County had must made my position with them full-time.  In the middle of that month we were in Vacation Bible School, and every afternoon, when VBS was finished (at that time is was from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.) a friend and I would travel to Lexington to look at cars.  At the end of the week, as we traveled back to Lawrenceburg, my friend commented on how hot it was in my car.  It was a typically hot and humid week, and it was indeed very hot in my car.  We were crossing the Kentucky River, on the Tyrone Bridge, when he said, Dave, it is so hot in this car, and if I didn’t know better I would swear that heat must be on.  I told him, it is on!  The heater never turns off!  In the winter that was great, but in the summer, it was rather uncomfortable to drive a car with the heater pouring out heat.  In my younger years I traveled many hundreds of miles in old cars, with no air conditioning, with AM radio (that didn’t always work), and had many breakdowns in the middle of nowhere.  Now, I very much appreciate traveling in the comfort of air-conditioning, satellite radio, and smooth-riding, dependable vehicles.  I do not take that blessing lightly.

So imagine what it was like to travel a great distance two millennia ago, setting off on a journey, with no knowledge of your final destination, with no knowledge of the time it will take, with no knowledge of whether or not you have enough supplies to see you through to the destination, with no knowledge of the dangers and difficulties of what you might encounter along the way, with miles riding on the back of an animal and many miles walking across unfriendly and difficult terrain, and yet you set off on that journey.  On our farm we had a few horses, and I had a pony, and though riding an animal was better than walking, I can tell you that after a certain number of miles it gets very uncomfortable riding on the back of an animal.

Why would the magi undertake such a journey?  Because at the end of it was joy.  I believe they knew that at the end of the journey they would find the one born king of the Jews, but they did not know what the journey would contain.  The end of the journey, however, made it all worthwhile, because it was an end that brought joy.  But still, they had to weigh their options – a difficult, perilous journey that they might not survive, but with joy at the end, or remaining home, where they were safe and comfortable.

Joy is a very, very precious commodity.  It is not one that always comes easy.  Many times, our own journey to joy is difficult.  It might be very different in details from the journey of the magi, but it is still a difficult journey and one that is fraught with many struggles.  Scripture promises us joy, but it does not always promise us a smooth, easy journey to that joy.  It does, however, promise that joy is there, waiting for us, which means we have to remember the next part of joy –

2.  The journey to joy might not be on the obvious path.

I always like to read between the lines of Scripture, because there is much that is left out of the stories.  I am fascinated by the economy of language the Biblical writers so often used.  Take, for instance, the phrase Magi from the east came to Jerusalem (verse 1).  Wouldn’t you like to know more about the details not only of the journey but the details leading up to the journey?  I sure would.  Imagine the first time they saw the star and the discussions it must have brought about.  Could this star be that of the prophecies of which we have heard?  Could this be the star that points the way for us to find the one born King of the Jews?  Should we go?  When should we go?  What should we take?  What might we encounter along the way?  What will people think about our excursion into the west with no idea of where it will ultimately lead?  What will our friends think?  What will our employers think?  Do we have enough vacation time for such a journey?  What will our families think?  What should we take?  How much should we take?  What might happen along the way? 

Imagine the discussions that must have started when the star appeared!  The sign of the star was obvious to them, obviously, but was it to others?  Imagine what people must have thought, or asked as they made their preparations.  What are you doing?  Where are you going?  You following what?  Are you crazy?  You can’t leave your families!  You can’t leave your professions!  You can’t load up a bunch of supplies and set off to who knows where!  You’re supposed to be wise men – show a little bit of wisdom and stop this folly and nonsense!

I’m going to assume that what the magi did was not obvious to everyone.  I think there were more than a few people who thought they were anything but wise as they set off on their journey to follow a star.  Just as many people could not – or would not – recognize the wisdom in what the magi were doing, the path to joy today is not always seen.  The path to joy is not always obvious, because Jesus tells us that it is found in what seems to be opposite of what most people would assume.  Jesus said, for instance, the last will be first, and the first will be last (Matthew 20:16).  He also said that whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant (Matthew 20:26).  In the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) he defines happiness in unexpected ways as well.  In that passage Jesus says those who are happy – or joyful – are the ones who are meek, the ones who are poor in spirit, the ones who mourn, the ones who show mercy, the ones who make peace, and the ones who are persecuted.  That is not the prescription for joy that is generally held up, is it?  The path to joy that is most often held out in front of us is that of exalting one’s self, getting what one can, and accumulating as much as one can.

Perhaps that is why there are many who cannot seem to find joy in their lives; because they are taking the obvious path, when the path to joy is not found on the obvious path.

3.  Joy is found in the right destination.

I wonder how often the magi relived their trip after they returned to their homes.  I wonder how often they spoke of the difficulties they encountered, I wonder how often they spoke of the doubts them may have had along the way, and I wonder how often they said but wasn’t it worth it all?  Wasn’t every difficulty worth it because of what we found?  Wasn’t every doubt overcome when we arrived to find Jesus?  Wasn’t it worth it to encounter the danger of Herod?  Wasn’t every bumpy step on those camels worth it?  Wasn’t every step through the sandy desert worth it?  Yes!  It was indeed worth it!

My sense of joy is not always tied to an emotional feeling as much as it is tied to a sense that I am going in the right direction.  I am often tired.  I am often weary.  I am often discouraged.  I am often overwhelmed.  I am often left to doubt my decisions and leadership.  But joy is present – maybe not a joy that is an emotional state – but a joy that is the knowledge that my life is based on the right goal and the right destination, so the path is right, even though the path may be difficult, even though the path may not always be clear, and even though the path may have its share of stumbles and obstacles.
A group of us went to the Diersen Center on Tuesday night to lead worship.  For those of you who are not familiar with the Diersen Center, it is a halfway house for women. The women who are incarcerated there have been transferred from other place of incarceration to the Diersen Center, where they spend six months preparing to re-enter life.  While at the Diersen Center they remain incarcerated 24/7, as it is not the kind of halfway house where they can spend part of the day on work release or away from the facility for any reason.  Every Tuesday there is a worship service in the cafeteria, as it is officially a Disciples congregation that meets there (New Life in Christ Christian Church) and we lead worship there three or four times a year.  When that date was first offered to us I wasn’t sure about committing to it because of it being such a busy time of the year, but I realized it was a time of year when it was even more important that we go, because the residents there need encouragement more than ever at Christmas time, as they are separated from parents, siblings, spouses, and children.  We have a time to share joys and concerns and the difficulty of separation is very palpable at that time, but something else was obvious as well, and that was joy.  In spite of the difficulty of what they have experienced in life, in spite of the loss of their freedom, in spite of the separation from their families and loved ones, in spite of the reality that many were faced with the complete rebuilding of their lives, you could feel the sense of joy in their lives as they sang the songs of Christmas, you could feel the joy as they prayed, and you could feel the joy as we shared communion.  I think I sensed it more on Tuesday evening than any other time I have been at the Diersen Center.  Their path to joy has not been easy, but their goal is right and true, and that makes all the difference.

I hope you have joy in your life not only during this Christmas season, but every day of the year.  Remember, however, that true joy is not based on an emotion but is based upon heading for the right destination, and however difficult the path might be to that destination, if the destination is right, the joy will be present.




Monday, December 18, 2017

December 10, 2017 What the World Needs Now Is...Peace



Today we begin a series of three Advent messages titled What the World Needs Now.  Some of you, when you hear the phrase What the World Needs Now, will think of the Burt Bacharach and Hal David song (am I dating myself?).  I had been thinking for a couple of weeks about what theme to use for my messages during Advent, when one morning I had that song stuck in my head.  It popped into my head, that’s a good theme for Advent – what the world needs now.  I’m not using the song in any way; just the title, and I will have three messages built around that theme – peace, joy, and love.  These are all themes I have used before but, considering the state of our world, they are themes always worth repeating and they have, in many ways, been themes I have focused upon throughout the 37 years of my ministry.

We begin this morning with the theme of peace.  To be honest, Advent is a very stressful time when you are a minister.  I love Advent, but it is a time of many places to be, much to do, and not enough time to do it all, all of which is a recipe for losing any sense of peace.  But you don’t have to be a minister to be stressed out; I think we all are feeling a bit stressed these days.  Are you?
Our Scripture text for today comes from three passages that speak of peace –

Romans 12:9-21 –
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.
10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.
11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.
12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.
16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil.  Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.
18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
20 On the contrary:  “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.  In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Isaiah 2:4 –
He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples.  They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

Luke 2:13-14 –
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

I want to consider peace from three different perspectives this morning –

1.  Peace with humanity.

As I worked on this message the other evening I was listening to Christmas music, which always helps to bring to me a sense of peace, especially as I listened to one of my favorite Christmas song, All Is Well, by Michael W. Smith (the song will be part of the choir’s presentation today at CafĂ© Noel.  You can listen to the original here – https://youtu.be/yAyplzXmjVE).  Among the lyrics in the song are these lines – All is well, all is well, let there be peace on earth.  What a hopeful phrase that is!  Indeed, let there be peace on earth!  What I find fascinating about the phrase is the word let.  When I read that phrase, with the word let, I take it to mean that we need to stop resisting peace.  Let is a permission-giving word.  When we think about the state of the world, I believe it is clear that some of humanity has decided not to let peace take hold on the earth.  As violence continues to plague us, as terrorism targets with absolutely no discrimination and becomes a growing plague around the world, as nations wage war, as sabers rattle and threaten more war, I think it is safe to say that humanity has, in large measure, decided not to let peace reign on the earth.

Genesis 4:2-10, which is the story of Cain and Abel, set the template for humanity, (2 Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.  In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord.  And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.  Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”  Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.  Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”  “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  10 The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground) and that violence seems to be an incurable part of the human condition.  We seem to find it inevitable that we are at war with one another.  There is much in the news these days that would point to the possibility of even more violence in our world.  Is war with North Korea on the horizon?  North Korea says that nuclear war with the United States is inevitable.  Is it?  Will all the saber rattling lead to the inevitability of war?  Will the violence of terrorism deepen?  Will the Middle East explode into war? 

The world is armed to the teeth and pursues more arms, and as individuals we arm ourselves.  The church now has a security task force and has met with a security consultant to help us determine what we need to do, in terms of security.  It’s all madness, isn’t it?  I’m not denying the sad, tragic realities of our world and the fact that we have to take certain steps, but it’s still madness, isn’t it?  How hopeful do you feel about peace?

My first memories of war, and the struggle to attain peace, date to my youngest years.  Two of my uncles were wounded during World War II, one at Normandy and the other at the Battle of the Bulge.  One had difficulty with his leg the rest of his life because of his wound and I remember my curiosity about it led me to ask my mom what had happened.  She told me about the battle and went on to tell me about when families in her neighborhood received casualty notices, and how difficult those days were.  I remember as an older child, in the early years of the Vietnam War, when we made prayer books in Vacation Bible School.  Each one of us wrote a prayer that was copied so the prayer books contained a copy of each child’s prayer.  Though it was a long time ago I remember that every one of our prayers included the plea that God would bring an end to the war and bring home our friends and loved ones.

Paul echoes the words of Jesus in the Sermon On the Mount about loving our enemies.  They are very tough words to live, because the fragile peace of our world instills in us a great sense of fear, and when we are fearful we do not respond from the better portion of ourselves.  To read those words it is easy to think they are unrealistic, but really they are the only real hope we have for peace.

The famous words from Isaiah 2:4 – He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples.  They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore – are inscribed on a wall in a park across the road from the United Nations.  It is often reported that the words are on the foundation of the United Nations, but that is not correct.  I wonder sometimes, are the words across the road because it keeps them at a safe distance, where they can exist as a great motto but not close enough to require the very, very difficult work of working for, maintaining, and keeping peace?

2.  Peace with ourselves.

I’m going to go way, way out on a limb and make a statement this morning.  Waaay out on a limb.  I’m going to go out on that limb and say this – most everyone here would like to have a greater measure of peace in their life. 

Actually that’s hardly going out on a limb, is it?  That’s just a given in our world, especially at this time of year.  We are all stressed out, trying to keep up with what we have to do, trying to get to everywhere we need to be, and feeling as though Christmas is a train that is bearing down the tracks closer and closer to us as we run harder and harder to try and stay out in front of that train.  I told Tanya the other day that was how I felt, and maybe I should just sit down on the tracks and stop trying to outrun that train, except I don’t want to get run over.

At Christmas, every worry is magnified, every family struggle more intense, and every personal struggle is felt more sharply.  On top of all the other stressors, there is the sense of loss that rests heavy upon us this time of year.  On the 1st day of this month my family marked 27 years since we lost my father.  When my phone rings early in the morning – between 7:30 and 8:00 o’clock – I think of my dad, because that was the time he most often called.  During Advent I cannot hear O Holy Night without thinking of him, as that was a song he sang in church during Advent, in his booming, beautiful tenor voice.  This morning, we all feel the loss of Tom McAllister, don’t we?  Tom called, almost without fail, every Sunday morning about 8:15 to check on whether or not the bus had left the church to come and pick him up.  I used to remind him that the bus drivers always knew to pick him up and that he would not be forgotten.  I sure missed his call this morning.

Peace is certainly about peace between nations and peace between people, but peace is about ourselves as well, and the need we have for internal peace.  Do not let your hearts be troubled begins the 14th chapter of John, words that we all need to hear and take to heart.  In verse 27 of that chapter Jesus goes on to say 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.

3.  Peace with God.

The fear of the shepherds must have been very profound as they trembled before the angels.  Luke reminds us on that night here was suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:13-14).

Peace on earth.  Christmas is a great reminder of the peace we have with God.  I grow very weary of those who want to paint God with a brush of great anger and vengeance, when clearly the gospel reminds us in unequivocal terms that God is love.  God is love.  We do not have to cower before God, we do not have to fear that God is anxious to condemn us; no, God’s desire is not to bring condemnation but salvation.

In our Scripture texts for this morning there is a universal declaration of God’s love – Luke says the angels proclaimed on earth peace.  The angels didn’t say peace on this country but not that country.  The angels didn’t say peace on this group but not that group.  The angels didn’t say peace on the people who believe this way but not that way.  It is disheartening, isn’t it, how tribal we have become.  It’s always been that way, no doubt, but it seems to be growing ever more that way, and so many of those tribes want to claim God is with them but no one else.  God’s desire is for peace to rest upon all people and he declares peace exists between divine and human because of his entering into the world as the Christ child in the manger. 

(The following story is adapted from a story I first read on the internet, but I do not have the link to share, unfortunately.  While much of the original language of this story remains, it is a slightly edited version of the original).

In the far west of England, almost to Wales, the medieval spire of St. Alkmund’s parish church reaches high above the old city of Shrewsbury.  More than 600 years ago, a vicar of St. Alkmund’s named John Mirk wrote what became one of the most popular books in late medieval England as well as the most printed book in England before the Reformation.  It was Festial, a collection of ready-made-sermons to be preached throughout the year.  

One of the favorite sermons from that book was the Christmas sermon.  In that sermon Mirk tells the familiar and comforting story of angels singing for joy, Glory in excelsis Deo, shepherds watching their flocks by night, and a baby lying in a manager while the city of Bethlehem sleeps nearby.  The focus of Mirk’s sermon was Jesus as the Prince of Peace.  Jesus came, he wrote, to bring peace to the whole world: peace between God and man, between man and angels, and among people.

When John Mirk penned this sermon, however, his world was far from peaceful.  During Mirk’s lifetime (1348-1350), the Black Death wiped out approximately 1/3 to 1/2 of the medieval population.  Plague became endemic to England, striking every few years until the seventeenth-century.  Along with the plague came the many wars in late medieval England.  Peace certainly seemed to elude medieval Shrewsbury. Peace was disrupted by plague and famine, it was disrupted by war, and was disrupted by many of the other problems of the day.

Yet, in the midst of it all Mirk wrote a sermon of peace.  His words ring clear:  At midnight Christ was born, for then all things are at rest, thus showing that Christ is the Prince of Peace, and came to make peace between God and man, and between angels and man, and between man and man (end of story).

Peace is one of the great themes of Scripture, and one to which we must continually look in order to find ways to make that great promise come true, because it is a promise.  Peace is not just a hope, it is not just a command; it is a promise.  One day – yes, one day – peace will come.  Peace will reign in our world and in every human heart.  It might seem a rather foolish idea to hold to that belief, but I believe it with all of my heart.  I believe it because God has proclaimed it.  I believe it because we worship Jesus, the Prince of Peace.  I believe it because it is God’s will.  I believe it because the angels proclaimed to the shepherds.  I believe it because the prophets foretold it.  And I believe it because, frankly, I need to believe it.  I cannot give in to the pessimism that so easily threatens to overtake me when I look at our world.  And so, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, I will believe in peace, and will believe that peace will, some day, somehow, come to the earth.