FRANCIS ASBURY UNITED METHODIST CHURCH
Baton Rouge, LA
Second Sunday of Advent, December 10, 2017
Reverend David Melville
“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests.’” [Luke 2:13-14] From St. Luke’s gospel to modern Christmas cards, we read about such peace. But we can still be surprised by peace because it so often is elusive and because the word peace – like so many laudable goals – has become cheapened and neutered by overuse, by multiple interpretations, and by politics.
To keep it simple this morning, I want to only reflect upon the peace offered to each individual shepherd by the angels on the night before Jesus was born. I want to reflect upon our inner spiritual peace rather than public or political peace. Of course in God’s world, if more individuals knew spiritual peace, perhaps we would experience more public and political peace. I think that’s part of what the hymn writer was trying to say when he wrote, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” We can’t control others’ inner peace; we can control our own. I can’t – you can’t — not even the President of the United States … the most powerful man in the world — can wave a wand and produce peace in the world. But I can at least let peace begin with me.
If you are not at peace today with yourself, I’ve got a surprise for you … the peace of Christ. Be surprised by peace. Be open to it, look for it, listen to the angels. They may be talking to you as well as to the shepherds. “Peace on earth, goodwill to man” are more precious than mere words for a Christmas card … at worst, to be ripped open and thrown away without further thought, and at best, to be read as referring to peace in the Middle East. No, let’s give peace a chance in our lives and in our homes in good old Baton Rouge. Then, who knows? Maybe one-day such peace will spread to the Middle East.
How does Melanie know when I’m not at peace? A fever blister, right about here. How do I prevent fever blisters and know the peace of Christ? What is your equivalent of a fever blister?
For true peace, first and foremost, I must trust God. And the way I trust God today is to remember when I’ve trusted God in the past. If God provided peace in the past, why am I so surprised by peace when it – rather than a fever blister – pops up today? God is definitely more predictable than I am. The reason that miracles, hope, inner power, and peace – the kind of surprises we’ve been talking about this Advent – the reason they surprise us is that we stop looking for them; we stop expecting them; we stop trusting God for them. And we stop doing our part. We stop surprising God. We have a big, big part to play in our relationship with God, and some of us are just play-acting. Our relationship with God is a two-way street, but some of us are just sitting back saying to God, “Show me something, Mister!” I believe God is saying the same thing to us: “Show me something, Mister!”
The birth of the baby Jesus was a surprise to everyone because the citizens of Palestine had stopped reading and believing scripture, and had stopped listening to the prophets. So often God provides what we need routinely … it’s no surprise. But because we have stopped looking and expecting and trusting, it hits us out of nowhere. How much fuller our lives would be if we are looking all along! How much fuller our lives would be if we are looking up at the star sitting over Bethlehem rather than looking down on others, looking down on ourselves and looking down on life! Do you see what I see? Trust God!
I suggest a second path to peace is reconciliation. For every minute we are not reconciled – at one — with ourselves or another – and therefore unreconciled with God – we have forfeited a minute of peace. The minutes add up to hours, and days, and before you know it, years.
To reconcile with yourself, forgive yourself, think of yourself as created in God’s image, which you are. Why would you want to mess with that? I love the fuller name of the Roman Catholic sacrament which most of us simply call “Confession.” It is also the sacrament of reconciliation. When we confess our separation from God, when we are forgiven by the same God, we are reconciled … we are right with God. The Eagles sang about a “peaceful easy feeling?” Well reconciliation with ourselves, with others and with God … that is the ultimate peaceful, easy feeling.
You would think that a prisoner –sometimes sentenced to life, sometimes sitting on death row – would have a hard time finding the peace we are talking about this morning. But I know prisoners who are freer than you and me. Why do they deserve peace more than me, a good church-going, law-abiding, red, white and blue American? After a single or multiple offenses to humanity and to God, how can they reconcile with themselves; how can they look in the grimy prison latrine mirror and see the face of God? Because they listened to the angels in the hills above Bethlehem. Some prisoners I’ve met listen, and some don’t … just like some churchgoers listen, some do not. What prisoners at peace hear is not dependent upon their being released from prison (they will never be released), or by their being able to undo the horrible, senseless, selfish things they have done. No, their peace is dependent solely upon getting right with God. And I won’t know peace until I get right with God.
If such a condemned man can be reconciled with himself, his victim and God, and know real peace, why can’t we at our well-paid job, our well-appointed home, our humongous mall, and in front of three hundred channels on our surround sound television set know peace? Maybe because we are unreconciled and not at peace with ourselves, others, and God, which violates the greatest commandment God gave us. Love God and love others as ourselves. By breaking that commandment, we’re lucky if a fever blister is all we suffer.
Let me close this morning by suggesting that the birth of our Christian church by brave martyrs for the faith could only have come about by enough believers hearing and listening to the Bethlehem angels sweetly proclaim a different kind of peace than humankind had been seeking ever since the first act of senseless violence: the killing of Abel by Cain.
Two thousand years after Abel and Cain, humankind was still no stranger to violence. Even though the new Christians believed that their leader won by defeating death, they were still treated violently and repressively. So what sustained a small following through violence, repression, and death? I suggest it could only have been the peace we celebrate today on the second Sunday of Advent: not necessarily the absence of conflict, but the peace of Christ.
The modern day church as a whole, and United Methodists specifically, will only survive if it has the same kind of peace evidently possessed by members of the early church. The peace that passes all understanding sustained them through strife from without, and strife from within.
The United Methodist church is not totally at peace today. We may be slowly slipping toward legal division over the issue of one’s sexual orientation. Other mainline denominations such as Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Lutherans have already been divided. We may not yet be legally divided, but we have de facto division in the church with violations of the Book of Discipline being overlooked and ignored. Laity on both sides of the issue are hurt and confused.
On the back of your bulletin, this morning is the most recent up-date and summary of discussions and negotiations by a thirty-member committee charged with presenting options for a special General Conference in 2019 which will address our sexuality divide. I offer it to you because as United Methodists you deserve to have the current process, deliberations, and decisions fully transparent. I pledge to keep you informed, and I invite your comments, ideas, and involvement to any degree you desire.
I also present the information today because this particular news summary includes a surprise solution that has come out of prayer and patience that may yield good fruit. It is a solution that may promote peace within our denomination and may allow us to spend more time offering Wesleyan grace to the world rather than fussing and fighting.
Stay tuned, because the peace of Christ is always full of surprises … and Blistex!
Let There Be Peace on Earth, #431