Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 5, 2010

2010.12.05 A Life Giving Christmas: “Peace . . . Strength to Hold On” – Matthew 3: 1 – 12

Central United Methodist Church

A Life Giving Christmas:

“Peace . . . Strength to Hold On”

Matthew 3: 1 – 12

Pastor David L. Haley
The 2nd Sunday of Advent

December 5th, 2010

“While Jesus was living in the Galilean hills, John, called “the Baptizer,” was preaching in the desert country of Judea. His message was simple and austere, like his desert surroundings: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.”

John and his message were authorized by Isaiah’s prophecy: 


Thunder in the desert! 

Prepare for God’s arrival! 

Make the road smooth and straight!

“I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. The real action comes next: The main character in this drama — compared to him I’m a mere stagehand — will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house — make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”

 (Matthew 3: 1 – 3, 11 – 12, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson)

       Does it strike you as ironic, that at Christmas, one of the times of the year when we talk most about peace, we experience so little of it?  Peace on earth, heavenly peace, prince of Peace we hear, not only in church, but even as we walk through stores or the supermarket.  And yet, peace is so rarely to be found.  Not in our lives, not in our homes, not in our cities, not among nations.

        Just a few years ago this was most glaringly obvious when, just as we were preparing to journey to the town of Bethlehem that exists in our imagination, the real Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Nativity were under siege, in one of the gunfights that break out there from time to time. 

Did you know that in the Church of the Holy Nativity, maintained by three different Christians denominations, feuding monks don’t just cast the first stone — they stockpile rocks in anticipation of future fights? Several holy men landed in the hospital three Christmases ago after a fight broke out over the dusting of church chandeliers. The occasional brawls at the 1,700-year-old basilica, believed to mark the birthplace of Jesus Christ, reflect the difficulty of housing three Christian denominations under a single roof, and the difficulty of peace.

So, sometimes at Christmas, it’s easy to become cynical, when we encounter so little of this peace we talk about. Whether it’s the frenzy that the holidays brings to our schedules, holiday domestic violence, the gun violence in Chicago that kills both children and police officers, or the ongoing war in Afghanistan, now America’s longest war, it makes us realize how far we have to go. We may even find ourselves chuckling with Woody Allen when he says, of the stirring words of the prophet Isaiah, which we read earlier, “yes, the lion and the calf may lie down together, but the calf won’t get much sleep.” 

        Yet, in the absence of peace, whether in our lives or in the world, doesn’t that just make us long for it all the more? 

So today in our Advent series, A Life-Giving Christmas, what we want for Christmas is peace: the kind of peace that gives us the strength to hold on. The question is, what can we do to experience it?

      I think most of us understand that when we talk about peace, we do so on two levels. There is peace on a global scale, the resolution of conflicts between nations and peoples. That God desires peace on this global scale is one of the clearest and most persistent themes in the Bible. God means for people to live in peace, not only with one another but with the whole creation.  God will not rest, will never cease working for peace in the world.  So much so, that God’s own son is called the Prince of Peace. Jesus couldn’t have made it clearer that God expects people to be peacemakers:  “Blessed are the peacemakers, “ he said in his Sermon on the Mount, “for they will be called children of God.” 

      Though some Christians choose to be pacifists, and make convincing arguments for being so, I’ve never been able to be a complete pacifist. Christians disagree on this, but I believe sometimes peace is enforced by force, armed peacekeepers.  I’ve even gone on calls as a paramedic where I was glad to see police officers present with weapons.  Sometimes, I believe, it works that way on a global scale.

      I also greatly admire those who study peacemaking as a skill, and practice it as a profession, those skilled in conflict resolution or mediation. If you’ve ever intervened in a heated argument or a fight, whether in a home, on a street, or in a church, you quickly learn respect for those who do it well, especially those able to keep their own cool in the process.

      I even respect the members of the Patriot Guard, those Harley Riders who attend the funerals of fallen service members, to shield families from the bigoted epithets of members of Westboro Baptist Church, who attend service members funerals to claim their deaths are God’s punishments for America’s tolerance to gays. Frankly, even though I ride a Harley, I’ve never done it because I’m not so sure I wouldn’t be the one chasing those church members down the street with a flagpole. (Yes, I admit I’ve got a ways to go. . . )

      Which brings us to the second level of peace, peace within ourselves, the only measure of peace that we can sometimes do something about. To paraphrase Gandhi, “We must be the peace which we wish to see in the world.”  How are we doing?

      That God should work in us so, to bring this about, is exactly what John the Baptist is talking about in today’s Gospel:

      “I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. The real action comes next: The main character in this drama — compared to him I’m a mere stagehand — will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house — make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.” (Matthew 3:11-12)

      Aren’t the terms Peterson uses to describe God’s work within us, clear and descriptive?  “Igniting the kingdom life, a fire within, cleaning house, a clean sweep of our lives, put everything in its proper place; put everything false out with the trash to be burned.”  How big’s the trash pile at your place going to be?

      At the same time, knowing that God wants to do this, we’ve got to work with God. For just as last week with hope, while God may have established peace in Christ, the challenge remains to experience for ourselves.

      For that reason it is essential to find in our lives a time for personal prayer and silence, to let God work in us. It’s kind of like swimming: you can read books about swimming, you can talk about swimming, you can even watch swimmers, but it’s not until you actually jump in the water that you experience swimming (or drowning, as the case may be.) So it is with prayer and meditation.  I will go so far as to say that if we do this, we will experience peace. If we don’t do it, we will absorb and embody the chaos and craziness and violence that the world throws at us.

      For starters, how about using that same prayer I gave the children:  “Lord Jesus Christ, fill my mind with your peace, and my heart with your love.”

      I’m not saying it’s easy, especially when you’re a parent and raising a family and working full time; even as your pastor, I struggle with it too.  What I am saying, is that if we want to find peace in our lives, it is essential. It was for Jesus, as he sought often to be alone and pray during the demands of his life; why should we think it would be any different for us?  In our lives, where can we find that time? In the morning? During our commute?  At lunchtime?  At night before we go to bed?

      As we begin to experience the peace of Christ in our lives, only then can we begin to extend it to others.  

      We do this in worship, when we pass the peace, just before communion. Often, we make it into a meet-and-greet experience. But it‘s more than that. When we say to each other, “The peace of Christ be with you,” we are extending to each other that peace which we believe Christ has given us. What more appropriate gesture could we make, before we gather together at God’s table, the remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection?

      If we really blessed, sometimes we will experience this peace in other ways, including in church. For example, every year during Advent, one of the very best choral groups in the country — Chanticleer — presents their annual Christmas concert in Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago’s sanctuary. (It’s Monday and Tuesday night, if you’d still like to attend).

      A few years ago, Pastor John Buchanan said this about it:

      “One evening last week, at the end of a stressful day — a day that began by reading the newspaper account of more violence in the Middle East and the loss of American Marines in Afghanistan, one of those days when whatever can go wrong does — I had been intending all day to get back to the Isaiah passage and that tender green shoot.  But I had to go to a Christmas concert. A group by the name of Chanticleer was singing here, in the sanctuary, ordinarily an absolute delight, but at that moment, simply another obligation to be fulfilled, another reason to keep me from what I needed to be doing.

             The lights went down in the sanctuary and they sang:

“Lo, how a rose e’er blooming, from tender stem hath sprung,

of Jesse’s lineage coming, by faithful prophets sung.

It came a floweret bright amid the cold of winter

when half spent was the night.”

      “And for a blessed moment,” said Buchanan, “the peace of God came — the reality and power and hope of God’s peace.” [Rev. John Buchanan, The Peace of God, sermon preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, December 9th, 2001]

      But don’t wait for peace as a distant dream, or only as something you experience in church, but practice it wherever you go, as often as you can, in every way that you can. Where you hear gossip, offer a good word. Where people experience brokenness, be peace. When bullies accuse or threaten, be peace. Where sickness and death prevail, be peace. If you have tumultuous relationships in your life, do what you can to bring about peace.

      Think of a situation where you desire peace, either in your life or in the world. Prayerfully ask God to guide you in doing something practical about it. It might be listening to someone with whom you disagree, it could be writing a letter to someone from whom you have become separated, or it might be writing a letter to a legislator about something that you feel is an injustice. What is a cause or an issue about which you are deeply concerned?  Where and in what concrete way could you reach out, to practice peace, even if in a small way?

      Are there areas or issues in our community that need peace, in which we as a congregation could serve to bring? Where destruction and violence exist, can we offer an alternative view? Are there dark places where we could bring the light of Christ? Can we, as a congregation, find ways to manifest in our community the real hope of Christmas – that in the peace Christ offers, there is peace and hope? 

        There is an ancient quote that says it best.  It is often attributed to the ancient Chinese Lao Tzu, but most likely it’s unknown.  Wisely, here is what it says:

If there is to be peace in the world,

there must be peace in the nations.

If there is to be peace in the nations,

there must be peace in the cities.

If there is to be peace in the cities,

there must be peace between neighbors.

If there is to be peace between neighbors,

there must be peace in the home.

If there is to be peace in the home,

there must be peace in the heart.

        Finally, let’s look at just one story. It’s unknown to many people, but during World War II, German prisoners were placed in prison camps in various places throughout our country. One of those places was near Algona, Iowa.  Here’s what happened.

[Video: “Peace]


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