Experiencing Peace

This a slightly revised version of the sermon I preached yesterday. We’re going through an Advent series based on the four themes of the Advent wreath and candles: hope, peace, joy, and love.

“There is no peace on earth,” I said, “For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.”

These words from the Christmas hymn, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” certainly sound as though they could have been written in the last few years. If nothing else, I think, they manage to describe the state of our world pretty accurately. But the words to this familiar hymn were actually written 158 years ago, on December 25, 1863 by renowned American poet Henry Wordsworth Longfellow, in the middle of the US civil war.

Longfellow had many reasons not to feel at peace: his wife had died tragically, he had lost a daughter in infancy, his son had been badly injured in the civil war, and, of course, there was the civil war itself. His was a country divided. 

While time and culture and history separate us in our lives today from Henry Wordsworth Longfellow, his experiences are not entirely far removed from our own. He knew grief and loss. He understood despair. He was acquainted with political and social unrest and conflict. He knew what it was like to look at his life and to look at the world and feel anything but peace.

Where do you need peace? In what way do you long for peace? Is it when you look around at the world or when you look inside your own heart? How can we experience peace? Where does peace come from? And what does it mean that Jesus is the Prince of Peace?

When in Isaiah 9 the prophet describes how the people walking in darkness will see a great light, that light is described as a coming child. That child is said to be the Prince of Peace and we’re told that of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.

Usually we can’t wait for a particular government to end! But how many times over the last couple of years—and over the course of your life!—have you had the thought: “Oh, if only God were completely in charge of everything in the world! If only his will were already being done in every possible way!”

If hope means trusting that one day God will make all things right, and that he can even start to make things right—in me and in the world—now, then peace is what it is we’re hoping God will make happen. Isn’t it? Peace between people. Peace in families. Peace amongst the nations of the world. Peace with ourselves. Peace between ourselves and our God.

The biblical idea of peace is about much more than the absence of conflict. It’s about the flourishing of relationships in every direction and on every level. The Hebrew word is shalom. Being at peace or experiencing shalom with one another means not only that we don’t seek to do one another harm but that we actively seek the good of one another. We seek to bless rather than curse. We seek to give rather than take. We seek to love rather than give into hate.

Unfortunately, we’re not always very good at this. If human beings could achieve peace without God, I think we would have done so already. Not only is it profoundly difficult for those who want it, it’s also profoundly difficult because not everyone actually desires peace. Our world groans under the weight of greed, animosity, hatred, and fear. All this is evidence that we need the Prince of Peace. We may want and need peace within, but we can’t conjure it up or bring it about ourselves. We need God to have peace.

No wonder Jesus says in John 16:33, I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world! But Jesus doesn’t conquer the world by ridding it of all unrest and conflict. A least not yet. He does so by extending to us his peace. According to Jesus, we can even know his peace in the midst of suffering.

Because peace in this life is always partial, incomplete. On this side of eternity we can get glimpses, a taste here and there, and sometimes by God’s grace a deeper experience, of the fullness of peace that is coming. But we should never expect to accomplish peace in our lifetimes—and this isn’t pessimism, this is biblical realism and honesty. This means facing who we are, individually and as a world, and it means acknowledging that we cannot truly hope for peace apart from God’s direct intervention at the end of history. In other words, being disciples of Jesus is to be people who patiently wait for God’s promises to come true. And waiting isn’t a lack of action but a different kind of action.

We wait for God’s ultimate peace when we pray thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. We wait for God’s ultimate peace when we seek to reconcile with a family member, co-worker, fellow church-goer, neighbor, or friend. We wait for God’s ultimate peace when we stop putting our hopes for peace in our bank account, in our present level of comfort and security, and in our circumstances. We wait for God’s ultimate peace when we instead of letting all the bad news out there steal our peace, we remind ourselves that nothing that happens in the world can separate us from God’s love and his will for us.

We don’t always do this well. Anxiety gets the better of us. Doubts and questions fill our hearts. We hold onto resentment. Our difficult circumstances and suffering seem to overshadow the promises of God. But here’s the thing: if we’re waiting for something or someone out there in the world to give us peace, we will never stop waiting. And we will never, ever have peace.

Our political leaders can’t give us peace. Our family can’t give us peace. Our health can’t give us peace. Our money and our possessions can’t give us peace. Vaccines can’t give us peace. Nothing apart from the power of God in Jesus Christ can give us peace. So when preparing his disciples for his departure, Jesus tells them: Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Don’t let your heart be troubled or fearful. Of course, we hear this and probably think: “Easy for you to say, Jesus!” But as Jesus says, the world cannot give you peace. He wants to give us his peace.

Both in Romans 15:33 and 16:20 Paul refers to God as the God of peace. What does that mean, do you think?

Darrell W. Johnson, in his book Experiencing the Trinity, says this: “At the center of the universe is peace. Not because the Triune God is unaware of the chaos in the world. Not because the Trinity is out of touch with the pain of the world. It is because the Trinity is never threatened by it all. The Trinity never panics. The Triune God is never immobilized by fear. Never worried that someone or something is going to thwart his purposes. And Peace himself now draws near to us to draw us near to himself within the circle of his peace.”

I suppose the question for all of us is this: How do we receive the peace of God? What does it mean to enter the presence of the God of peace?

So often we think about living as Christians as about what we do. What we can do. What we should do. And let’s be honest: there is a little bit of control freak in each of us. But I’m going to suggest that trusting God means paying more attention to what you can’t do.

For example, you can’t control your circumstances. Things are going to happen that you don’t want and didn’t expect. Can you still experience the peace of God?

You can’t control other people. People are going to do things and make choices you don’t like or don’t agree with. Can you still experience the peace of God?

You can’t control what happens out there in the world. The world is a big place. Bad and scary things are going to happen all the time. Now it’s COVID, but it could just as easily be something else. Can you still experience the peace of God?

And let’s take it even one step further. You can’t control God. God is sovereign and acts according to his will and purposes. So he answers prayers, yes, but he doesn’t respond to manipulation. He won’t always answer prayers the way we want. And if he doesn’t, it’s because he loves us and not because he doesn’t. Can you still experience the peace of God?

The truth is this: one of the ways to experience the peace of God is by learning to let go. To let go of thinking you have to or can control things. To let go of thinking it’s up to you.

I want to quote again from the book Experiencing the Trinity, except I’m going to paraphrase it. The Triune God is never unaware of the chaos in your life. The God of peace is never out of touch with the pain you experience. The Prince of Peace never panics. The Triune God is never immobilized by fear. God is never worried.

Just think about those things for a minute. God never panics. God is never overwhelmed by fear. God doesn’t worry. God is never anxious. Our God is a God of peace. Jesus is the Prince of Peace.

So wherever you tend to worry, however you tend to get anxious, whatever causes you to panic, God knows it all. And it doesn’t surprise him. It doesn’t overwhelm him. He’s never at a loss about how to handle it or what to do. This means you don’t need to explain it to him or provide him with information. He understands.

What causes you to worry? When does fear tend to overwhelm you? What makes you panic? Because Christ wants to meet you right there. He wants you to know his peace, to receive his peace, right there, in the place of your deepest fears. And I know, sometimes it’s hard to believe that we can experience his peace. Sometimes we might feel guilty because of what we feel as a lack of faith. And sometimes we either find it hard to let go or we don’t even want to let go.

I want you to hear these familiar words from Philippians 4:6—7: Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

The peace Paul speaks about here is not a kind of peace that makes sense because of circumstances, because of what’s going on in the world or in our lives.

I want you to do something that might sound strange. I want you to close your eyes. Then I want you to do something that may seem even stranger. I want you to lift up your hands. Remember, only God sees you. Think of what steals the peace Jesus wants to give you. Offer it up to the God of peace by lifting your hands. As you do, ask God to give you his peace. Ask him for help in surrendering your worries. Ask him for the grace to let go. Ask him to accept what is outside of your control and acknowledge that nothing is out of his. Ask him to reveal himself to you as the God of peace. Ask Jesus, the Prince of Peace, to meet you right in the middle of where you lack peace.

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