Monday, January 22, 2007

“The Way of Peace”

Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79[1]

Peace is on everybody’s mind these days—we want peace in the Middle East mainly so our sons and daughters can come home safely! As we approach the holiday season, it’s impossible not to think of this season as a time of “peace on earth, goodwill to men.” Charlie Brown and Hallmark make sure of that. But it’s precisely at this point that the “Hallmark calendar” contradicts the Christian calendar. The Hallmark calendar tells us to start celebrating Christmas before Halloween. On the other hand, the Christian calendar reminds us that Advent is a time of preparation. It tells us that we can have no peace without doing the work that makes peace possible.

We really do live in a “fast food nation.” Everything it seems is determined by how long it takes to drive up to McDonald’s and get a meal. The same is true with the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ. We seem to think it can be achieved by hanging some greenery and some lights and singing some familiar songs and sending out some e-cards! But as our nation is learning, peace doesn’t just materialize out of thin air! It takes work.

John the Baptist’s mission was to prepare a people for the Lord to come and bring peace to them. His “preparation” for them was to call them to repentance. Not just feeling sad or sorry for the fact that they may have said something they would later regret, but rather real, heartfelt, life-changing repentance. The kind of change that is like purifying precious metals.

I think repentance is like trying to change a bad habit. Perhaps none of you has ever had any bad habits to change, but I have. And I can tell you that it rarely happens overnight. In some cases, it takes months and years of concerted effort to change our behaviors. Those other less than perfect people out there among you who have had bad habits to change know what I’m talking about!

Throughout history, those who considered themselves “God’s people” have looked to God to make things right, to establish his peace and justice, and to bless them with salvation. But time and time again, God’s answer has been “the way of peace they do not know” (Is. 59:8).

The “way of peace” is not an easy path. It is a hard road that takes humility, the will to change, and the strength to persevere. For there to be peace in any relationship, both parties have to humble themselves enough to acknowledge their contribution to the conflict. Peace starts by our being willing to look at ourselves—to take a good hard long look at our sins: self-centeredness, self-indulgence, the need to control others, the aggression toward others that really amounts to a kind of violence. But the “way of peace” Goes further than just recognizing our sins; it also takes us to the point of being willing to do something about them. We have to choose, in so far as it is humanly possible, to change and to return to the way of peace. And then, in order to preserve peace, we have to put forth the effort—sometimes time and time again—to maintain peace. The “way of peace” is not an easy road!

According to Zechariah, that was precisely the role John the Baptist would fulfill—he would guide people back to the way of peace. I wonder of that is a message anyone in our culture has any interest in hearing at this festive time of year. In 1999 Pope John Paul II toured this country. In a message he gave in St. Louis, he lamented that ours is a “culture of death.” That may be a little hard for us to swallow. But think for a moment about our “throw away” culture—we throw everything away: energy, water, animals, children, the old, the sick, the mentally ill. If you doubt that we live in a culture of death, take a look at the games our children play and at the films we watch for entertainment. We play death on video games, we watch death for entertainment.

John Paul II did not just issue a lament. He challenged the American people to turn from the culture of death back to the way of peace. He said:

“If you want peace, work for justice. If you want justice, defend life. It you want life, embrace the truth–the truth revealed by God.”[2]

He called us to repent!

As we look toward Christmas, I want to remind us that Advent is a time of preparation. It is a time of self-examination. It is a time to resolve to change. It is a time to return to the “way of peace.”

The way of peace is:

a way of giving, not hoarding

a way of losing your life, not saving it

a way of speaking for those with no voice

a way of resisting the oppressors

a way of renouncing violence

a way of standing against abuse in all its forms, including our abuse of creation and the goods it provides us. What that amounts to is making good on our promise to follow the one we call Christ.[3]

May God grant us the courage to turn from the way of death and return to the way of peace as we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Prince of peace.

[1] A sermon preached 12/10/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] John Paul II, Homily at Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, January 27, 1999.

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 287-88.

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