Monday, October 8, 2012

Peace on Earth? Chapter 1


Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, it is well with my soul.”[1]

An announcement of peace that didn’t seem to work out that way.
When the angels came to announce the birth of Jesus, they called it an announcement of “peace on earth.”[2]  Yet what ensued was an attempt on the baby’s life, hundreds of children being slaughtered, and Jesus’ family having to go into the witness protection program in a country that was famous for having enslaved his ancestors.

During his ministry, Jesus was dogged by religious leaders and finally falsely accused (though not very convincingly) and put to death.  Peace on earth?  What were the angels talking about?  Jesus left us with a bit of a riddle on the matter of peace didn’t he? 

The puzzle
First he called on us to be a peace-loving, peace-making people.  And when he appointed us as peace-makers there was no indication that what he had in mind was the 1873 Colt .45 revolver called the Peacemaker.  In a sense, that old firearm could be called a “peacemaker” in the hands of a lawman, but Jesus wanted us to make peace without us becoming the instrument of the civil law.  He put us at a bit of a disadvantage in relation to the marshals of the old west. 

He started his sermon on the mount with a blessing for those who will go out of their way to make peace.  “…for they shall be called sons of God.”[3]  Then only five chapters later, he said he did not come to bring peace[4].  In that more direct reference, Jesus spoke of us taking up a cross and losing our lives for his sake – an image of martyrs.  Not a very peaceful reference.

People at Peace in a Troubled World
We are called to be a people of peace, but Jesus didn’t come to bring peace.  How does that work?  I am reminded of a story I heard long ago.  Imagine a very peaceful scene.  You are on the beach, the sun is shining, there is a gentle breeze, and a small bird is singing away from the swaying branches of a nearby tree.  Peaceful, no? 

Now imagine the same beach with a hurricane offshore.  The waves are crashing onto the beach, the sky is dark, and the trees are creaking and jerking violently. And from somewhere the little bird is still there, singing his heart out.  The bird has peace inside; he does not derive it from whatever is going on around him.  I don’t know whether birds really sing during a storm, but it’s an illustrative story.  Like the bird is how we are called on to live.  Jesus doesn’t promise us a peaceful world[5], but he calls on us to be at peace in that world.  Paul described how to pull it off in his letter to the Philippians when he said, "for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.  I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need."[6]

I was recently in a study with several preachers, most of us older guys, having been at it for awhile.  The discussion was about Jesus’ notion of peace and about how we are to approach the world with gentleness.[7]  Please understand that preachers are frequently beleaguered by opposition from within their congregations.  They are often unsure how best to respond, uncertain when to stand their ground and when to compromise to “keep the peace.” 

Sometimes when they are with other preachers is the only time they can truly open up and describe what they see happening to them.  In that context, our little preachers’ discussion became a very emotional time.  There were tears as some of us examined our personal responses to Jesus’ calling to be peacemakers in an un-peaceful world.   It is a hard charge the Lord has given us.

What is peace?
Can you define something just by saying what it is not?  That is how we often try to define peace.  Is it the absence of conflict?  Is it the absence of trouble or fear?  Those are certainly a part of it, but it has to be more than that, because Jesus made it clear that he did not come to bring that kind of peace.  He promises us trouble in this world[8] and then says we should have courage because he has overcome the world.  A big part of the definition of peace has to be our courage.  He asks us to be a courageous people in the face of opposition and hard times. 

A courageous people will see trouble in a different light.  We will see difficulty as just a part of the road we need to travel to get to where we are going.  If we are headed to heaven we will encounter opposition.  If we are going on a mission for God’s kingdom, we will run into natural obstacles as well as those placed there by people who don’t want to see us succeed.

A few years ago I was in Haiti and was asked to speak somewhere that I had never been.  Checherone is at the top of a steep mountain.  About half way up there is a little village, but as you near the top of the mountain there is little evidence that anyone lives there.  Finally the trail comes to an end and as you look up to the right, there is a large green building.  It is where the church meets, a group of about 400.  Because of the difficulty in getting there, they have few visitors.

A few years earlier the preacher who had founded the church had told them that if they were not a part of the big city church where he lived, they were not really the church.  He was trying to start a denomination and wanted them to be a part of it – to contribute to his group.  The young preacher who was working with them had parents and a grandfather who lived there and he was anxious for them to hear from me that their founder was wrong.  He had told them, but he was a young preacher trying to refute what the older, more “successful” man had told them.  So I agreed to go.  We were dropped off in the little village at the bottom of the mountain.  The big truck that left us there could not have negotiated the little donkey trail very well and was needed elsewhere that weekend.  The preacher knew a man with a vehicle (a “machine” in Creole) who would take us up.

We sat around and waited at least an hour and a half while the friend tried to get the vehicle started.  When he finally did, we all piled in: two preachers, one preacher’s wife and two daughters, the driver, and me - all in a small car with stuff to spend two nights and other stuff they were taking to the grandparents who lived there.  The car ran okay with sputters and jerks as long as we were on level ground.  But as soon as we got to the mountain it quit.  The rest of the day was spent with the driver’s head under the hood (and sometimes others of us).  The machine would go a couple of hundred yards then quit again.  The road was steep, narrow and very rough.  Most would not call it a road at all.  It was more of a mountain path.

Several times all the guys were in back pushing and once they tied the middle of a rope to the front bumper and the guys made a V of the rope with men on both sides trying to pull the machine up the mountain.  When we got close to the destination after dark, someone picked me up on a motor cycle which we got on and off of from time to time depending on the grade.  The other guys walked up the rest of the way. 

We finally got to the little church late in the evening, long after I was supposed to speak.  The next morning I told the church that we would have been there much sooner had we started out to walk and hadn’t had to push and pull the machine up the mountain.  Eventually the machine got to the meeting place.  It proved to be better for a downhill ride than it was at going up the grade.

The issue with the teaching the church was receiving from their former preacher continues.  My contribution as an "expert from the states" was minor, but may have served to relieve some of them of some of their anxiety.  The young preacher will continue to bring in others to support the scriptural view of the situation, and so far they have not given in and joined the older fellow's new denomination.

Satan will indeed put obstacles in your way when you set out to do what’s right.  The New Testament from Luke to Revelation is full of encouragement for us to be people who persevere.[9]  Likewise Jesus was constantly calling on his followers to have courage.[10]  He doesn’t want us giving up just because we have discovered that the task is bigger than we are.  “God is bigger than the boogie man.”

Courage will lead us to expect whatever happens.  If we are expecting an undefined difficulty, when it comes we will not be thrown by it.  We will take it in stride, step around it or climb over it and stay the course.  This world is not our home and we need not be too concerned about it. 

Peace in three dimensions
1.  We live in a violent and oppositional world, a place where to be a Christian is to invite ridicule and in some places even attacks on our lives.  And even where the animosity is not so blatant, our values are opposed by the very culture in which we live, work, and raise our children.

2.   Yet we are asked to be at peace in that world.[11]   Our peace is one that is beyond understanding in the context in which we live.[12]  It comes from our understanding that this world is not our home.[13]  Like Abraham and all the other heroes of Hebrews 11, we are looking for a better home.  Indeed we know we already are living out our eternal life.  Our savior has overcome the world.[14]  He got up and walked out of the grave on a Sunday morning proving once, for all time, that we have nothing in this world to be afraid of.

3.  But beyond being at peace in an un-peaceful world, we are called on to be peacemakers.  We are to bring peace where there is no peace.  I must assume that the nature of the peace we are to impart on the world around us is not so much a temporal peace (an absence of crime, violence, name calling and accusing) as it is a peace like the one we carry with us.  It is a peace that comes from our view of the world as a temporary residence – a place where we have a job to do, and a place from which we will depart to go home when our mission is done.

Check out the book here.

[1] Words: Horatio Spafford, 1873. Music: Philip Bliss, 1876.
[2] Luke 2:14
[3] Matthew 5:9
[4] Matthew 10:34-39
[5] John 14:27
[6] Philippians 4:11-12
[7] For example Galatians 5:22-23; Philippians 4:5-6
[8] John 16:32-33
[9] 2 Thessalonians 1:4; 2 Peter 1;6
[10] Matthew 9:2&22; John 16:33
[11] Romans 12:18
[12] Philippians 4:7
[13] Hebrews 11:8-10, 13-16, 32-40
[14] John 16:33

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