Scripture readings: Malachi 3:1-4 and Luke 1:68-79
Advent Week 2 – lighting the Candle of Peace
“May the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and the love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord: And the Blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always.”
These are the closing words of an old communion service from England that is sometimes still used today. It talks about of ‘the peace of God’ keeping us: keeping our minds and keeping our hearts in God and in Jesus.
As I sit down to write this sermon, breaking news on TV is the shooting in San Bernardino. We can’t help but think: How can this be happening again? Especially at this time of year, when all the songs and wishes are about peace and good will?
And yet, today, we light the candle of peace: a candle that is a light in the darkness. It seems a rather small light compared to the size of the darkness, but our God specializes in making greatness out of small things. Remember David and Goliath. Remember Jesus in the manger.
The word ‘peace’ is found in the Bible over 350 times, more often than the word ‘love’ in some of the translations (to my surprise)… which tells us peace is an important part of God’s message to the world. But there’s a catch: often in scripture the word ‘peace’ is combined with the word ‘offering’ – that is, ‘peace offering’ – which implies we humans are the ones who are in the position of needing to make peace with God as opposed to God making peace for us.
I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t pray for peace; we should. But today’s scripture readings pick up on the idea that God’s peace and the world’s concept of peace are two radically different things, and that our peace has its foundation in our relationship with God.
Take a look at the reading from Malachi. Malachi, speaking of the coming Messiah, says “the messenger of the covenant… in whom we delight” is coming. BUT “who can endure… when he appears?” (Malachi 3:2)
(When I hear these words I can’t help but hear in my mind the music of Handel’s Messiah: “but who may abide the day of his coming… and who shall stand when he appeareth?” I can’t recommend enough listening to Messiah during Advent.)
Handel – and Malachi – continue saying: “For he is like a refiner’s fire.” (Malachi 3:3) Some of us here might remember what it’s like to watch the refining process in the steel mills. It’s an intense process by which impurities are burned out of the metal. It gets so hot the floor of the blast furnace is a dangerous place to be.
I imagine if iron ore could talk it probably would not be particularly happy about going through all that, even though the end result is worth it. The process of being refined does not sound very peaceful.
So the Messiah is described as a ‘refiner’s fire’ and yet at the same time Jesus says to those who love him:
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)
Is this a contradiction?
No. Jesus contrasts the perfect peace of heaven with the peace the world gives. The world’s peace may be less costly, but for the most part it’s an illusion. It’s shallow, and it’s temporary at best. Our hearts no sooner heal from one tragedy when another one happens, and then another, and eventually we start to become jaded, even numb. Too often the world’s peace comes only when people are too tired or too beaten to fight any more.
Let me give you an example…
Over the Thanksgiving holidays my husband and I traveled to Philly to visit my family. While we were there, on Black Friday, we stopped in to see my brother at work. My kid brother is an auctioneer, so we all went down to the auction house and did a little bidding, and I came home with this little treasure:
This is an illustration from a cover of a magazine called Puck dated April 16, 1889. It shows two women, the one on the left representing Imperial Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II, and the one on the right representing the United States, and the caption underneath says United In Grief.
The reason this caught my eye was because I thought, with the recent tragedy in Paris, it kind of captures our national mood right now. If the lady on the left was Lady France rather than Lady Germany, it would be a perfect way to express how our two nations are united in grief.
Of course when we got home I had to find out what this illustration was all about. I mean, the United States wasn’t involved in any wars in the year 1889. The Civil War was a generation in the past, the Spanish-American War was over, and WWI was almost two decades in the future. The year 1889 would be considered by most historians as a time of peace and relative prosperity for the United States. So what’s up with this?
Turns out in 1889 the United States and Germany had gotten into a little squabble over the island nation of Samoa in the South Seas. Both countries sent three ships each to the islands, with one British ship accompanying to help keep the peace, and they had a bit of a standoff in the harbor.
While this was going on, a cyclone was spotted in the distance. The people of Samoa told the ships “get out of the harbor” – knowing from experience the ships would be safer on the open seas. The British, being natives of an island nation themselves, got out of the harbor. The Americans and the Germans, however, looked at each other across the water and said ‘you first’. ‘No, you first.’ ‘After you.’ ‘No, after you.’
And the cyclone came.
All six ships were lost: three sunk (two American, one German) and the other three grounded. There were some survivors, but in the end 135 men lost their lives.
Grief at this loss united the two countries in a way that no peace negotiations could. And so we see in the illustration, at the foot of the pedestal, the swords of both nations fallen to the ground.
The peace the world has to offer comes at a high price.
And it doesn’t last long. A few years later, these same islands were occupied by New Zealand… but that’s a another story for another day.
The peace of the world is defined basically as an absence of conflict. But God defines peace in positive terms, in terms of well-being, and God’s peace is first and foremost personal. The peace of God begins, not in the halls of power, but when God touches human hearts.
Scripture tells us that God’s peace rests firmly on a foundation of salvation, and mercy, and holiness, and righteousness. Luke tells us in our reading for today:
“God has raised up a horn of salvation… salvation from our enemies… to show mercy to our fathers (and mothers), and to remember his holy covenant… that we… might serve Him without fear in holiness and righteousness…”
The problem with the world’s way of doing things is the world wants peace without holiness – peace without righteousness – and that’s an impossibility. You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker that says “No Justice, No Peace” – which is another way of putting it. Without justice there cannot be peace. In the old testament God says to a corrupt nation of Israel to stop with the religious feasts and assemblies and burnt offerings: “Away with the noise of your songs! […] But let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24)
The problem is imperfect people are not capable of perfect justice.
There’s another bumper sticker that says ‘No Jesus, No Peace’ – spelled two different ways (‘Know Jesus, Know Peace’). That’s a step in the right direction, but it still doesn’t get us to where we need to be because it’s not enough just to know. God calls us to a change of loyalties, a change of citizenship. As Americans we are citizens of a democracy, but as Christians we are citizens of a kingdom, and a kingdom is not a democracy. We didn’t vote God into office. We don’t get to negotiate the terms of the ‘covenant’ that Luke talks about. God sets the terms. And these are God’s terms: We are to place our trust in Jesus, who is coming to earth to give God’s people:
“…the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of our sins, because of the tender mercy of our God… to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:77, 79)
Notice there is a direct connection in this passage between ‘the shadow of death’ and ‘the way of peace’. Because ultimately it is the shadow of death, the fear of death, that causes conflict in our world. Whether it’s greed, which is a fear of having too little, which causes poverty in other parts of the world – or whether it’s making war, killing others to prevent them killing us – or whether it’s the voices we hear so often these days saying ‘let the refugees stay where they are, don’t bring them here’ – it’s the shadow of the fear of death that causes these things.
God sends Jesus, the light of the world, to shine in our darkness and to destroy the shadow of death. Psalm 23 says, “yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” So often that psalm is read at funerals, but these words are meant for the living!
Jesus said to his friend Martha:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)
The writer of Hebrews says Jesus came to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:15) As citizens of God’s kingdom, our lives are in God’s hands, and therefore we can live free from the shadow of the fear of death.
And that changes everything.
The apostle Paul writes:
“When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Corinthians 15:54-57)
THIS is why we celebrate the coming of Jesus into our world. This is why, even in this dark time of national grief, we can light a candle of peace. We can say with the prophet Isaiah, “How lovely on the mountains Are the feet of them that bring good news, who announce peace… and say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (Isaiah 52:7)
This Advent season, think about these things. Talk to God about these things. And whenever you can, share this comfort and this hope with others whose hearts are afraid. AMEN.
Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 12/6/15