December 9, 2018

To Guide Our Feet into the Way of Peace

Passage: Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 1:68-79, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6
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And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
Everyone (everyone, that is, except the manifestly unbalanced) craves peace. We long for peace among nations, peace within our own nation, peace within our family, and, of course, peace within ourselves. In our psychology-driven age it’s the lattermost, peace within ourselves, that’s the pre-eminent felt need. People feel internally off-balance or that things just don’t line up within ourselves or a sense that we can’t seem to hold on to any consistent idea of who we are. Psychological therapies are thus aimed at helping people become internally integrated. And pharmaceutical companies have profited immensely from our preoccupation with inner peace.

1. The One whose coming we celebrate in this season is called the Prince of Peace. At the birth of the one we know as John the Baptist, his father Zechariah, filled with the Holy Spirit, prophesied in that wonderful psalm that his son would go before the Lord to prepare his way; the Lord who would guide our feet into the way of peace. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” (John 14:27)

But it was this same Jesus who also said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34) A moment’s reflection reminds us there’s a peace we ought not to have. There’s a peace born not of inner contentment but rather of inertia. Several years ago an Anglican bishop penned a greeting to all the parish clergy in the diocese wishing them peace. One clergyman wrote back, “My parish doesn’t need peace; it needs an earthquake.” There is another kind of peace Jesus didn’t come to bring; that peace which is the bliss of ignorance, the bliss of indifference, the bliss of the deafened ear and the hardened heart in the face of suffering and deprivation, abuse and injustice.

Take note here that the peace Jesus spoke about is a peace that Jesus gives. We are touching on this gospel theme throughout Advent that the word’s Saviour has to be given to it; we can’t generate our own salvation neither can we generate the peace he gives. “My peace I give you,” said Jesus; it is his to give and only he can give it. He gives this peace to us by giving us himself—the Apostle Paul noted of Jesus, “for he is our peace.” (Ephesians 2:14)

So what is this peace that Jesus gives? By the tender mercy of God, what is the nature of the way of peace God longs to guide our feet into?

2. The first aspect of this peace God longs to give us is “peace with God.” The apostle Paul writes to his fellow-Christians in Rome, “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” To be justified by faith is to be rightly related to God in a relationship of trust, love and obedience. To be rightly related to God is to have and enjoy peace with God. Plainly, not to be rightly related to God is to have enmity with God.

Are we aware of this enmity with God? Not necessarily. Many might think—“look, I don’t have anything against God so why would God have anything against me? I didn’t realize that there was a breach in relationship that needed mending.” We read today of the ministry of John the Baptist in preparing the way for the Lord; of his ministry to make things ready for this one who would “guide our feet into the way of peace.” John, we are told proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.

To repent means to change your mind, to turn and go in a different direction. Something is blocking us from receiving God’s guidance into this way of peace; something that the Bible calls sin that needs to be forgiven. Here is the way the prophet Isaiah diagnoses the situation; “The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths. Their roads they have made crooked; no one who walks in them knows peace.”

The gospel declares to us that we humans were made to live for God supremely, but instead we live for love, work, achievement, or morality to give us meaning and worth. Thus every person, religious or not, is worshiping something—idols, pseudo-saviors—to get their worth. But these things enslave us with guilt (if we fail to attain them) or anger (if someone blocks them from us) or fear (if they are threatened) or drivenness (since we must have them). Guilt, anger, and fear are like fire that destroys us.

We were created for a love relationship with God. It is important to understand that the opposite of love isn’t anger or hatred. Think of how we feel when someone we love is ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. Do we respond with a benign tolerance or aloof indifference? Far from it. Anger at or hatred of that which destroys isn’t the opposite of love. Indifference is the opposite of love. God’s wrath against sin is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer of sin which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being.

Indifference towards God is actually contempt for God. It isn’t an aloof neutrality supposing we are above the fray of religious difference. It is a religious posture that God is of no account for us; we can take him or leave him. And God resists our indifference and disdain; God opposes our disobedience.

Even as God rightly resists the indifference of ungodly people and even as God reacts as he must, it distresses him to do so. He longs only to have the stand-off give way to intimacy, the frigidity to warmth, the defiance to obedience, the disdain to trust. For this reason his broken heart was incarnated in the broken body of his Son at Calvary; for this reason his Spirit has never ceased pleading. Sometimes in the earthquake, wind and fire like that of his incursion at Sinai, at other times in the “still small voice” that Elijah heard, God has pleaded and prodded, whispered and shouted, shocked and soothed: anything to effect the surrender of those who think they have nothing against him but whose indifference in fact is enmity.

What God seeks in all of this, of course, is faith. Not faith in the popular sense of “belief”; faith, rather, in the Hebrew sense of “faith-fulness”, faith’s fulness: faith’s full reliance upon his mercy, faith’s full welcome accorded his truth, faith’s full appropriation of his pardon, faith’s full love now quickened by his ceaseless love for us. It all adds up to being rightly related to him. He who is the Prince of Peace effects our peace with God.

In Luke’s gospel the story is related of a Pharisee inviting Jesus to come and eat with him; Jesus, of course, went to the Pharisee’s house. (Luke 7:36-50) During the meal a woman of that city—who was a sinner, we ae told—came and stood at Jesus’ feet. With her tears she bathed his feet and wiped them with her hair, kissing his feet anointing them with some ointment she brought. It was at this meal that Jesus asked his host about two debtors, one owing fifty and the other 500 denarii, whose creditor forgave both debts—which will love him more?, Jesus asked. Jesus later remarked that “the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.

Jesus then turned to the woman and said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Jesus also added, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Notice the themes that Luke draws together in telling this story of this woman. The theme of repentance as she turns to Jesus; of forgiveness of sin as Jesus welcomes her in fellowship with himself, of peace that is now hers through faith. Luke is fleshing out the meaning of Zachariah’s psalm that he placed as the beginning of his gospel. Themes in the preaching of John the Baptist that are taken up in the ministry of Jesus.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

3. Peace with God according to the gospel, issues in the peace of God. The Apostle Paul—who, by the way experienced lots of turmoil in life because of proclaiming the gospel—spoke to his fellow-Christians at Philippi of how “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” When Jesus said, “my peace I give you,” there is an implication that we will experience this peace. To be sure, it includes his effecting peace with God at the cross but also has in view the experience of God’s peace in life.

Our excessively materialistic culture has not gone unnoticed by researchers. Journalist and author Francine Russo offers a roundup of the primary research in the May 2018 issue of Scientific American in an article titled “Why We Become So attached To Our Belongings.” The subtitle expressed succinctly the theme; “Low emotional security can intensify our relationships to our belongings.”

Russo writes: “People can and do let us down, but not things. “That worn sweatshirt is not human. It does not show us compassion. Neither does a teddy bear or a coffee mug. But, scientists point out, these objects are utterly reliable, always present and under our control. We can count on them.” According to Professor Ian Norris, “Other people are an extension of our self-concept. When those relationships are unstable or unfulfilling, people may lack the connection they need and attach meaning to products that fill the void.”

There’s been an enormous amount of research on the widespread problem with hoarding. One of the main factors is: “The presence of disorders such as depression and anxiety, which make people emotionally vulnerable. Hoarding sufferers use their belongings to safeguard their identity, to ‘soothe their fears’ and to build ‘fortresses’ to make them feel more secure.”

No I am not claiming that the peace of God will mean that things are unimportant; but the eternal relationship with God does bring a peace that ought to lessen our grip on things, or more importantly, the grip of things on us. The constancy of Jesus’ presence is the stabilizing influence in our lives. Further, the peace of God may not instantly cure us of hoarding but it does promote our clinging to him which should issue in a lighter grip on stuff.

Permit me a parable. I know couples and the truth of their relationship is that “home” is home because of the presence of their spouse. Yes, they may enjoy the physical aspects of the house they build and put their personal touches on, but what makes the house their home is the person who resides with them there. The peace of God in our lives is somewhat like that—home is where the One we love and we know loves us resides. Wherever we are, with Jesus that place is home. His peace permeates all the places because he is there and then in the fullness of time he takes us to that place of peace in all its fullness where our faith will finally be sight.

4. One more note on the dimensions of peace we have been probing. Those who know and enjoy peace with God and who are beneficiaries of the peace of God are commissioned to work for peace on earth. When Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers” we note his implication that peace has to be made. We hear echoes of this when the Apostle Paul wrote, “let us pursue what makes for peace,” (Romans 14:19) and the author of Hebrews counsels, “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone.” (Hebrews 12:14)

I note here that at the heart of peace with God is God’s forgiveness of our sin. You will recall another of Jesus’ parables that involved two debtors. One debtor is forgiven an impossible debt by the king—the debt was so massive that he could not possibly have repaid it in his lifetime. That debtor who was forgiven his debt in turn refused to forgive the tiny debt another owed him. Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” The believer who knows the impossible debt forgiven them by God is empowered and freed to forgive those lesser debts.

I believe that much peace can be made in life as we forgive one another those minor offenses that so often preoccupy us and we too readily use to justify our own vindictiveness. Secure in our peace with God, we are the beneficiaries of the peace of God. Possessed of the peace of God, we are freed from our self-preoccupations to work for peace.

Listen again to what the psalm of Zachariah anticipates at Christmas. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’