Advent II, Candle of Peace

Denver International Airport (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
Denver International Airport (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

[Traveler enters with suitcase] Oh no! Look at those lines at security! Why is it every time I’m running late at the airport the security lines are out the door?? TSA must have been designed to prove Murphy was an optimist!!
Do you suppose these security people can move any slower? I’ll never make it to my gate on time.

Just look at all those people! All those families with kids! They’ll take forever to get through the line. And that couple over there with the deer in the headlights look. They don’t have a clue how to manage this system. You have to take off your jacket, your belt, your shoes, and get everything out of your pockets. Even a quarter may set off the metal detector! Put away my cell phone, no, can’t do that yet my boarding pass is on my phone. And if you’ve got an artificial joint you get a free pat down.

Stupid terrorists. We didn’t have to do all this stuff before 9/11. It wouldn’t be so bad to wait if it made me feel safe and secure, but it doesn’t. We’re vulnerable anywhere. Look at what happened just this week at Ohio State!

[Sits on suit case]

OK Steve, calm down. Breathe. I know it’s not all about me. All those other passengers—they’re all trying to get somewhere just like I am. They aren’t here just to aggravate me. And the TSA folks are doing their very difficult job the best they can. I’m sure they aren’t getting paid enough to put up with grumpy travelers like me. And I’ll even bet a little respect and being nice to them gets me through faster than complaining!

It helps if I don’t just see the crowd but see other people like me. Look at that poor mother traveling with two little kids. She’s probably trying to get home for Christmas or maybe to see a sick relative or bury a loved one. And those soldiers are likely being deployed to somewhere dangerous far away from their families for the holidays.

Sure, waiting a few minutes is inconvenient, but we’re all in the same boat. I’m old enough I remember a time when it wasn’t like this. We could walk leisurely to the gate and other people could go with you to say goodbye. How long do you suppose we will have to wait till the world is peaceful enough that we can do that again, till we just learn to get along as friends and neighbors? I wonder how long. [Exits]

Lighting the Advent Candle:

As usual, the second Sunday of Advent comes as we enter the final month of our calendar year, but 2016 has been far from ordinary. The long, long campaign season is finally over, but the political and social strife continues unabated. We are promised security and peace from all sides, but we are still waiting for those promises to be fulfilled. And so we wait for God’s light to break into the darkness just as it did so long ago in another time torn by strife and oppression. Today we light a second candle, the candle of peace, to witness to the world that the light is still growing in all of us who dare to wait and hope and believe. Together our lights can make a difference, and in due time our waiting will be rewarded with the peace that passes all understanding.

O God, waiting is so hard. We read the words of Scripture from centuries ago that promise peace, and we start celebrating Christmas earlier every year desperately hoping that this is finally the year. We long for true peace but often settle for false security that doesn’t satisfy the yearning in our hearts. We take our shoes off at airports and go through metal detectors; security cameras record our activities all over town, and we install security systems at home. Our military is the mightiest ever known in the world. And yet people carry guns and pepper spray, and we lock down our schools on a regular basis. Even police officers are not safe from senseless acts of violence. Enlighten us O God to the ways of the Prince of Peace. Teach us again that we will not find true peace until our hearts find rest in you. Remind us that your eternal peace does not come with “swords loud clashing or roll of stirring drums, but with deeds of love and mercy.” Remind us again in the small glimmer of these candles that the light still shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it. We wait and pray in the name of the Prince of Peace, Amen.

“Prince of Peace,” Isaiah 9:6-7, John 14:25-27

The “Prince of Peace” is a phrase that only appears once in Scripture, in Isaiah 9:7, a passage we often hear at Christmas time. Isaiah tells us that God’s Messiah is named “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Those words are very well known because of their inclusion in George Frederic Handel’s famous oratorio “Messiah.” It is tempting to sing those few bars of the Hallelujah Chorus, but I will refrain since I remember some advice I received many years ago when preaching my final sermon at another church. Most of us are familiar with the phrase “Swan Song” that is used to describe a farewell performance. But what my friend told me on that occasion was where the phrase “swan song” comes from. It comes from the fact that swans sing before they die, and my former friend suggested to me that it is better if some people die before they sing. In my case that is good advice.

We all want peace in our world and in our lives, and Isaiah’s words remind us that the Judeo-Christian scriptures have been promising a messiah bringing peace to the world for over 3600 years. Isaiah says “His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.” (9:7)

In spite of that wonderful promise, we don’t seem to be getting any closer to a peaceful world. We feel like little kids in the back seat asking incessantly, “are we there yet?” And we’ve been asking so long that we are often tempted to just give up on peace– and that would be the most tragic outcome of all.

God’s persistent vision of peace is a dream that will not die and Lent is a time for every follower of the Prince of Peace to recommit ourselves to following his example in how we live our lives. But we have to be realistic. Creating world peace is too big a job for any of us to take on, and we can easily get discouraged and give up. No matter how much we want to, we can’t solve the conflict between the Russians and the Ukranians. We witness more and more death and destruction in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan and on the streets of American cities every day. We desperately want peace, but what can we do to make a difference in a world that seems bent on destruction?

We know the ingredients that make for peace: Mercy, humility, compassion, empathy, and forgiveness. But knowing those words alone isn’t enough. So God gives us Jesus, the Prince of Peace, to show us and teach us what those words mean. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus directly challenges the old ways that have failed repeatedly to bring peace. He says “You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you…turn the other cheek.” He says “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5).

But Jesus doesn’t just talk a good game, he models for us how peacemakers live. He doesn’t just say to forgive your enemies; he does it, even while hanging on the cross in mortal agony. He doesn’t just preach humility and meekness; he refuses to call on God when he could have called down God’s might to spare him from the cross. He doesn’t ask God for reinforcements to defend himself from the arresting soldiers in the Garden of Gethsemane; he says, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). And when one of his disciples draws a sword and lops off an ear of a high priest’s slave, Jesus not only heals the slave, he explicitly tells the disciple to put away his sword because “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). Because Jesus was at peace he could live it, even under the fear of death itself. Nobody ever promised it would be easy. Nothing important ever is.

One important question for peacemakers is how to deal with anger. Anger is a natural human emotion, and because he was human Jesus got angry too. At least four times, the Gospels tell us he called the Scribes and Pharisees a “brood of vipers” (Matt. 3:7, 12:34, 23:33, Luke 3:7), and in his most angry moment overturned the tables and drove the money changers out of the temple because he said they had turned it into a den of thieves (Matt. 21, Mark 11, John 2).

Is that the most effective way to deal with conflict? Not really, and Jesus knew that, which is why that scene stands out, because it was so atypical of Jesus’ normal style and demeanor. Much more Christ-like is the advice in Ephesians 4:15 which says, “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ.” In order to do that we have to suspend our judgment and anger and meet people where they are, even if we really don’t like going there. To grow into Christ, we must learn to understand why people do stupid, hurtful stuff. Peacemakers remember that everyone is dealing with their own brokenness and burdens. Empathy and compassion are the foundations of living peacefully. Yes, I didn’t say this was easy, just necessary.

But we often fall into a 3 year-old mentality when we get into a conflict. Many times I remember as a child telling my mother when I was caught in a battle with my sisters, “They started it!” “She hit me first!” Only in later years did I learn to appreciate my mother’s wisdom. She would say, “I don’t care who started it; you can stop it.” Anyone can start a fight, but peacemakers are those who rise above their emotions and figuratively turn the other cheek. Otherwise the cycle of anger just repeats and often escalates.
Another common mistake we make in dealing with conflict is to ignore it and hope it will go away. As I know from decades of personal experience, it never does, it just gets worse. The scriptures are loaded with stories of people like Jonah, Elijah, Moses, even St. Paul who try to flee from God’s call because it seems easier than facing conflict and trouble. But peacemakers are like first responders who run toward trouble while others run away. Fleeing from conflict might seem easier in the short run, but it’s not. The Prince of Peace is our example. He doesn’t run from the cross waiting for him on Calvary or let his friends talk him out of doing what he must do. He sets his face toward Jerusalem and never looks back.

Here’s the bad news about conflict. Change and conflict go together like a horse and carriage, and change, along with death and taxes, is one of the constants in life. The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, captured that truth centuries ago when he said, “You can’t step in same river twice.” It may look the same, but the water that is flowing by here in the Scioto River today will be well on its way to the Ohio River if you go back to the same place tomorrow. Everything in creation is in a constant state of flux – every being is either growing or dying – there is no static point of being. A tree is growing as long as it is alive – but as soon as it is cut down to become lumber for a home or furniture, it begins to decay. The same is true of God’s peace. We are either growing and moving toward a more peaceful way of life, or we are sliding backward into darkness. And we all choose every minute of every day which side we are on by the way we treat each other.

One reason peace is so illusive is that God’s ways are not our ways. We humans confuse power with peace. As someone has said, we keep looking for Rambo or some other super hero and God sends us Gandhi. The Prince of Peace doesn’t ride into Jerusalem like a conquering hero on a white stallion. If Jesus comes to town this Palm Sunday, he won’t arrive in a stretch limo but in a beat up VW bug. He is a suffering servant, obedient to what is required and right, even when it’s hard.

Jesus shows us that it takes great courage to be a peacemaker. It’s much easier to be a bully and get your own way, but those who choose that path will never be at peace. True peace can never come by the ways of force. History teaches us that oppressors always lose in the long run because coercion is not God’s way, and what is not in harmony with the will of God cannot long endure.

That’s why Jesus reminds his disciples in his swan song before his arrest that his peace is not the world’s peace. John 14:25-27 says, “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 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.”

Unlike the world’s peace, God’s peace is a deeper eternal peace that stays the course when every fiber of your being wants to flee or fight. God’s peace is not about personal safety or comfort, or success measured by the world’s standards. Real peace comes only from total trust and obedience to will of God.

One sermon I most remember preaching was on September 23, 2001 just 12 days after the 9/11 attacks. The text I resisted for days but felt compelled to preach on that day was from Matthew 5, a part of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” The title of the sermon was “How Can We Ever Do That?” And the answer is we can’t, but God can. That kind of love comes only from God’s peace, which passes all human understanding.

That kind of peace is not human peace, but the king’s peace, and it’s not King David we’re talking about but the real King. Isaiah refers to the Messiah as the prince of peace and not the king of peace. Why is that? Because God is the only true king and the son of the king is the prince. One key to Jesus’ inner peace is that he knows who he is; he is the prince of peace, not the king. He knows his place and doesn’t let power go to his head, but trusts in the only real power there is.

We can go back to the text from Isaiah to sum this up.
Isaiah says “His authority shall grow continually,and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”

The text clearly states that God’s wants there to be endless peace, but if you know the history of Israel, you know that David’s grandsons only two generations later destroyed the peace and David’s kingdom by reverting back to the world’s ways and not God’s. So how could Isaiah be as wrong as a weather forecaster? He’s not, and to understand why he isn’t wrong we have to look very carefully at the last verse of that passage. “Forevermore” is not a human concept. Only the eternal God can do forevermore, and that’s why the last line says not a human ruler, but “the zeal of the Lord of Hosts will do this.” And if we remember that Jesus is a descendent of King David we realize that in the long run it is very true that His Kingdom is forever.

In a few weeks we will again relive the passion of Jesus during Holy Week. As you hear those stories again this year, I urge you to pay attention to the contrast between the Roman Governor Pilate and Jesus. Pilate condemns Jesus to death and thinks he has finally solved the Jesus problem for the Romans and the Jewish authorities, right? But we know better. Pilate doesn’t win that battle in the long run, the Prince of Peace does.

That risen Lord has left us with the Great commission to go and make disciples. And as the Prince of Peace he has shown us that a major part of our job description is to be peacemakers, the ones who are called the children of God.

The prayer of St. Francis is one of the best descriptions of a peacemaker ever written.
“Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And 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.” AMEN.

Preached at Jerome UMC, March 30, 2014, as my final sermon before retiring.