“This Year, Give the Gift of Peace”
Preached by Dr. Robert F. Browning
Calvary Baptist Church
This morning our attention is drawn to the birth of John the Baptist, the prophet who prepared the way for Jesus by calling the Israelites back to God. Much like Jesus, his birth was filled with mystery and hope.
You recall his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, were past the normal child bearing years when the angel, Gabriel, told Zechariah they were going to have a baby. The element of surprise was as evident here as it was in Jesus’ birth narrative when the angel visited Mary with a similar message.
Our specific text contains the blessing that Zechariah gave his son, John, eight days after his birth when he was dedicated, circumcised and named. Perhaps you have heard these sacred words referred to as The Benedictus, the first word in the Latin translation of this passage. It appears to be based upon a Jewish Psalm, for the language echoes phrases from the Old Testament. It also answers the question posed by Zechariah and Elizabeth’s neighbors, “What will this child become?”
Zechariah responds to that question by saying, “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High. You will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:76-79)
It is the end of this blessing that captures my attention today, “to guide our feet in the way of peace.” Many scholars believe this is a reference to Jesus, the one for whom John prepared the way.
It is the first of fourteen references to peace in Luke’s gospel, which is not surprising since the birth narratives serve as an overture for this entire gospel. Every major theme in Luke is introduced through the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth, especially personal and corporate peace. Continually, Luke connects peace with Jesus.
At his birth, the heavenly host sang, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14)
On Palm Sunday, Jesus looked over the Holy City and said with tears in his eyes, “If you, even you, had known on this day what would bring you peace, but now it is hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:42)
When Jesus appeared to the frightened disciples after his resurrection, his first words were, “Peace be with you.” (Luke 24:36)
Why was peace so important to Luke? Luke lived in a world filled with tension, turmoil, violence and war, and I am confident he longed for a day when people would build bridges of good will, understanding, reconciliation and hope instead of walls of suspicion and hate. His heart yearned for “peace on earth, good will toward men.”
Sound familiar? We, too, live in a world filled with strife. Destabilizing conflicts and long-simmering animosities plague many countries, including ours. Every minute, two people are violently killed somewhere in our world. Like Luke, our hearts also yearn for “peace on earth, good will toward men.”
I believe Luke longed for peace because he knew God did. God did not create us to fuss, fight, hurt or kill each other. Each time this occurs, it breaks God’s heart, like it would any parent whose children don’t get along. Luke sensed God’s anguish and gave voice to it through Jesus’ life and ministry.
There is another reason Luke wrote so much about peace. He knew the difference peace could make in the lives of his readers and the world around them.
While violence leaves death and destruction, Luke knew peace does just the opposite, ushering in a new and better life. Peace makes it possible for everything good to grow and to flourish. It is a soil rich in minerals and nutrients needed to sustain life at its best. This is what Luke wanted for each of his readers and the world in general.
Where would you most like to have peace in your life this morning? Is it your restless heart, your home or the place where you work or go to school? Is it among family members or friends, with neighbors or in a dangerous region of the world where frightened friends or family members live?
What can you do to promote peace and be a peacemaker? How can you “guide people into the way of peace” as Zechariah predicted Jesus would do?
The first thing you must do is have peace in your own heart. The Bible speaks of peace on two levels, individual and corporate, but the starting point is personal.
This means we must understand what biblical peace is for us as individuals. It is not the absence of anything but the presence of someone.
Peace is not the absence of turmoil, conflict, temptation, stress or tears. It is the presence of a loving God who will always be by our side comforting, guiding, empowering and sustaining us through life’s many challenges and disappointments. Peace always accompanies humility, confession, repentance and a desire to please and to serve God at all times.
Restless hearts become calm and we are overcome with a sense of tranquility when we realize we are never alone. The Prince of Peace and the Good Shepherd will be with us as we walk through lonely valleys or climb imposing mountains. At no time will God forget us or abandon us.
To be a peacemaker, you must first have peace in your own heart. This peace, shalom as our Jewish friends call it, is available to all who put their faith and trust in God.
Then, you must adopt the lifestyle of a peacemaker as Jesus did. Everything you say and do must be for the purpose of making a bad situation better and relationships healthier.
I need to tell you, though, peacemaking is hard work. Replacing tension, turmoil and conflict with peace will not happen automatically, instantaneously or easily. It will require the best of you and the most from you…everyday.
Let me break this down for you.
First of all, peacemaking never happens automatically. No one stumbles into peace. Someone has to cast a vision of a better way to live and begin paving the road others can walk down. In other words, someone has to take the initiative.
Why can’t that person be you? With God’s help, anyone can be a peacemaker. This is not a role reserved for only a select group; the invitation is open to everyone. Let it be known you believe there is a better way to relate to others, and you are unwilling to settle for anything less.
Secondly, peacemaking does not happen instantly. It is a process, usually a long one filled with detours and disappointments. There will be many ups and downs, and at times you may take two steps forward and three back.
Don’t give up. Don’t lose heart. Don’t grow weary in well doing.
Too much is at stake for you to throw the towel in at any time for any reason. Peacemaking requires perseverance. Jesus understands and will help you to keep on keeping on when you feel like giving up.
In September, 1978, President Jimmy Carter invited Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to Camp David to broker a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. For thirteen days, they talked, argued, agreed and disagreed over policy and details, although the public was unaware of what was going on because Carter ordered a news blackout. The stakes were too high, and the deliberations were too delicate for anything but the kind of privacy which would lead to frank and honest communication.
There was a lot of tension in the air, and on several occasions the talks broke down, with one or both leaders announcing he was leaving. Each time this happened, President Carter persuaded them to come back to the table and try again.
On the thirteenth day, Begin sent word to President Carter he was leaving without an agreement and began packing his bags. President Carter went to his cabin, hoping to persuade him not to give up on the negotiations. He took with him eight pictures of the three leaders. A picture was to go to each of Begin’s grandchildren.
On each picture, Carter had written the grandchild’s name and a personal note. When President Carter gave the pictures to Begin, he said, “I was hoping I could write on each picture that this was taken when your grandfather and I brought peace to your land.”
Upon hearing this, Begin began to cry. He quit packing his bags and that day, Begin and Sadat agreed upon the terms for peace, which have held up now for forty one years.
Who needs you to unpack your bags and go back to the table?
Thirdly, peacemaking does not come easily. This is because you must model the behavior you wish to see in others.
As a peacemaker, there are things you will refuse to do because they could undermine the peace process. At the same time, there are things you certainly will do because they promote peace, difficult though they may be.
Under no circumstances will you hold a grudge, seek revenge or retaliate for harm done to you. Instead, you will rise above this type of destructive behavior and follow Jesus’ advice to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
By God’s grace, you must respond to another person’s worst behavior with your best, as Jesus did, especially on the cross. You must absolutely refuse to get into a war of words or become violent. Always take the high road and be the mature, responsible, loving adult in the room.
I know this is not easy because it is not our natural tendency. It is, however, the only way we will change the toxic tone and devilish discourse around us which leads to misunderstandings, alienation, estrangement, hatred and violence. There is no substitute.
This was what Luke meant when he wrote that we are to serve God “without fear but in holiness and righteousness all our days.” Jesus modeled this, and so must we.
Hatred breeds hatred; violence breeds violence. It must stop somewhere. Why not with you…today?
Elevate your attitude. Clean up your language. Control your temper.
Learn some new words, like patience, perseverance, tolerance, humility, kindness, gratitude, generosity, hospitality, confession, repentance and forgiveness.
Quit living in denial and blaming others for all that is wrong. Take responsibility for what you are saying or doing to undermine healthy relationships.
Seize every opportunity to cast a new vision for your relationships, one that is based upon mutual love and trust, kindness and respect, listening and understanding, forgiving and healing. Look at your mate, your children, your siblings, your co-workers, your neighbors and say, “I don’t want to fuss and fight any more. I would like for us to change the way we talk to one another and deal with our differences. Who will help me begin this process?”
Then, offer new ideas for solving problems and resolving conflict. This means you may need to talk to a counselor or go on-line to learn new ways of dealing with old issues. Do it this week. What is more important?
For sure, it means you will need to ask for God’s help. Turning a toxic relationship into a healthy one is hard work, often unappreciated and even ridiculed, as Jesus discovered. However, it is worth it; it is a game-changer, as Jesus revealed.
A peacemaker can be used by God to repair a marriage, change the atmosphere in a home, turn a toxic relationship into a healthy one, salvage a friendship, end long running conflicts and even prevent wars.
A peacemaker can dry God’s tears and ease God’s troubled heart over the behavior of his children. No wonder Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)
One other thing must exist, though, for toxic relationships to improve and peace to replace conflict. Everyone must learn the value of listening and get really good at it.
Let me share with you one of the most intriguing things about the first chapter of Luke. The men are strangely quiet.
Zechariah’s voice was taken away when he questioned the angel Gabriel’s announcement that he and Elizabeth were going to have a baby.
Zechariah does not speak again until after his son is born, and Joseph never speaks.
The words of Elizabeth and Mary are the ones heard, recorded and remembered. As you know from your study of ancient cultures, this was highly unusual. For the most part, women were seen and not heard.
Why did Luke do this? Why did he take the men out of the story for almost a year? Was he trying to tell us Advent is a time for listening to the voices that get drowned out at other times? Was this his way of encouraging us to listen to those who are normally ignored or discounted?
I believe so.
What did Mary and Elizabeth have to say that was so important that Luke quieted all other voices so we could hear them? They spoke of the kind of world they wanted for their children, a new social order based on justice, compassion, kindness, humility, hospitality, mercy, forgiveness, gratitude, generosity, service, tolerance, inclusiveness and peace.
Evidently, Luke considered their voices and visions important. He believed they were describing the heart, nature, hopes and dreams of God.
I wonder whose voices you are not hearing and visions you are not seeing? Whose hopes and dreams have you tuned out?
Maybe it is time for you to be quiet.