[Christmas Eve sermon at Jerome United Methodist Church, 2011]
Among the many pieces of “wisdom” floating about in cyber space this gem about being at peace came into my inbox recently:
“If you can start the day without caffeine,
If you can always be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains,
If you can resist complaining and boring people with your troubles,
If you can eat the same food every day and be grateful for it,
If you can understand when your loved ones are too busy to give you any time,
If you take criticism and blame without resentment,
If you can sleep without the aid of drugs,
Then you probably are the family dog!”
I flunked 5 of those 7, by the way, especially in the hectic days of December. Does anybody else feel like you’ve been running non-stop since Thanksgiving? I was reminded again during this busy Advent season of a book I read many years ago by Malcom Boyd. I’m sorry to say I don’t remember much about the content of the book, but the title has remained with me for decades as a great motto for living. The title is Are You Running with Me, Jesus? We all know we are more likely to exercise if we have an accountability partner, and who could be a better companion to run life’s extraordinary journey with than the one we call Emmanuel, which means “God with us.”
If we are asked what we really, really want for Christmas, deep down, most of us would go beyond the stuff under the tree and ask for real peace – peace of mind, peace with God. Peace is a goal of all major religions. In just 24 verses of Scripture tonight from Micah, Isaiah and Luke peace is mentioned five times. My concordance says there are 392 references to peace in the Judeo-Christian Bible.
If peace is so central to our faith, why is it so illusive? Do you remember the great Wendy’s Hamburger commercials a few years ago that asked “Where’s the Beef?” My question this Christmas is “Where’s the Peace?” The Scriptures from Micah and Isaiah promising us the Prince of Peace were written over 2500 years ago. Even for the U.S. Postal Service, 2500 years is pretty slow service. It makes me wonder if the problem is not on the sending end, but on the receiving end? Maybe God’s peace does not come packaged the way we think it should look and we miss it.
Where’s the peace? Peace is what we say we most want in our lives – and yet our actions are often inconsistent with our words. We all profess to know that money can’t buy happiness – but we don’t act like we believe it. In the midst of the worst economic recession in nearly a century, guess how much Americans spent Thanksgiving weekend. $52 billion. How much peace will those purchases really bring, especially when the credit card bills come home to roost early in 2012?
We have most of our troops officially out of Iraq one day, and we’re talking about intervening in North Korea the next. Violence masquerades as entertainment on video and movie screens. Where’s the Peace?
When baby Jesus grows up he preaches a sermon that says, “Blessed are the Meek.” Wait a minute, Jesus – maybe we don’t want peace if have to be wimps to get it. Maybe what we really want is just law and order to preserve things the way we want them to be? We keep looking for a superhero who will solve all of our problems, and who do we get? A puny helpless baby born in a barn. Isaiah promised, “A Little child shall lead them?” And we say, huh? Kids have no power, no influence. Where’s the peace?
One of characteristics of those who find peace is a willingness to be surprised – to think outside the box – to embrace serendipity and ambiguity and admit we don’t know – to laugh at ourselves instead of others. The modern innkeeper in our skit tonight saw human potential in a homeless man where her hotel doorman could only see a problem
Could it be that God’s peace is different from ours? In John 14 where Jesus is saying farewell to his disciples before the crucifixion he says, “My peace I give you – not as the world gives do I give to you.”
We don’t’ get it, and that’s why God persists. That’s why we need Christmas every year and worship and prayer on a regular basis. Luke tells us that the Messiah will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” And even better, God gives us all kinds of road signs to help us stay on that path. The Scriptures are very clear about the characteristics of peace – forgiveness, mercy, love, faith, hope, humility. Those are the real gifts of Christmas, and they are never the wrong color or size. You don’t ever have to return them to the store. And best of all you can regift them all as often as you like. In fact it is highly recommended to share the gifts of forgiveness, mercy, love, faith, hope, humility as often as you possibly can.
Peace is not an easy journey, and that’s why we need Jesus to run with us. The powers of evil never rest and are very creative. Beware of the prosperity gospel that tries to turn disciples into consumers. The abundant life Jesus promises is not one of ease and comfort and wealth. It is a life of abundant faith and peace no matter what our life situation may be. We want to believe what Fred Craddock calls the “almost Bible” statement that says, when the Messiah comes there will be no more suffering. That’s almost right, but what the Scriptures really say quite different, “Where there is suffering, there the Messiah will come.”
That’s what the Christmas story shows us if we don’t miss the irony of where the baby Jesus is born. He is a helpless, poor, homeless kid revealed to shepherds in a country living under the oppressive rule of a despot like king Herod who kills babies for fun. The beloved Christmas story is so familiar we forget how radical it is. It’s so hard to fathom that the Magi, the so called wise ones, went to the wrong town, to King Herod’s palace, the absolute wrong place in search of the Messiah. Like us, they were looking for peace in all the wrong places. Where’s the peace?
[At this point I walk over to the Nativity Scene] Our nativity scene looks so peaceful and serene, but anyone who’s ever been in a barn full of animals know it can be a very noisy, smelly place – but even there surrounded by the most basic reality of life what does the infant Messiah do? He “sleeps in heavenly peace.”
[I pick up the doll from the manger and carry him out toward the congregation]
Have you ever held a sleeping infant in your arms? There is no more peaceful, wonderful feeling in the world. A sleeping infant is so trusting, so helpless and innocent, even when they have been screaming and driving you up the wall for hours. The minute he or she falls asleep in your arms the baby becomes a warm, cuddly bundle of pure peace and joy
[The members of the congregation were all given a small piece of a baby blanket with baby powder on it as they came into the service]
I invite you to take the piece of baby blanket you were given tonight and feel its softness. Hold it to your cheek and smell it. Close your eyes and feel the joy of knowing that the Prince of Peace still comes into our broken lives and hectic world – and where “meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.” And we too can sleep in heavenly peace.
[Kiss baby and put him back in manger]