Scripture: Luke 1:68-79
I saw the notice this week, as you perhaps did, as well, that the last Japanese company still offering pager service will stop doing so this coming year. Pagers, as some will remember, were a kind of personal radio device that, in the days before cell phones, enabled people to get messages, either with a short text or orally. And it reminded me of a story that Mary tells about her days as a nurse in a hospital intensive care unit. One day, in the middle of a group of hospital staff, the pager of one of the doctors suddenly burst into full voice. “Either you come home now,” said the physician’s wife loudly, “or you don’t come home at all!” Which of course made everybody come to a dead stop and have not the slightest idea what to say. Maybe it’s best that pagers have died!
The harsh truth, though, is that, even as pagers experience their death knell, the stuff of that woman’s message continues to be a part of the lives we lead. People still argue and fight. Friction and animosity and marital discord are part of our everyday landscape. International tension seems never far from the surface. As it almost always does, peace, the theme of this second Sunday of Advent, seems elusive.
That doesn’t stop us from craving that peace, though, does it. And it doesn’t stop God from putting peace at the forefront of all that God desires and offers. The gospel of Luke uses the word “peace” thirteen times, more than any other gospel. And the entire Bible speaks of peace some 366 times, once for every day of even a leap year. Peace matters.
And to our eternal dismay, peace seems sometimes to be honored, as Hamlet puts it, more in the breach than in the observance. We could go on and on about the violations of peace that we see every day. And we might have to pause and think a bit to recall instances in which discord and division have been healed, in which peace has prevailed.
Peace, though, is at the heart of what God provides. Along with hope, joy, and love, it’s one of the four themes of the Advent season. As we await Christ’s coming, we look forward to, we pine for, peace. The Greek word for peace is “eirene,” from which we get the name “Irene,” as well as the seldom-used English word “irenic,” meaning peaceful. I once wrote a note to a Federated leader and commended her for her irenic presence. Without my noticing it, spellcheck had, in its infinite wisdom, corrected my “irenic” to say instead “ironic,” which, needless to say, absolutely mystified the woman to whom I was writing. Why did I think she was so ironic, she wondered!
We value an irenic presence, though, don’t we. People who deepen the sense of peace in our midst are a gift. And part of what’s striking is that “peace” has a variety of meanings for us, doesn’t it. We call the absence of war “peace.” And, at the same time, in a very different way, we notice people who are possessed of a palpable sense of calm, of centeredness—we call that peace, as well. Peace is both an interpersonal thing, and an intrapersonal thing. If the U.S. and China are getting along, we call it peace. And if someone gives off a sense of being a calm center in the storm, that too is peace.
In the story Luke tells about Jesus, the pregnancies of Elizabeth and Mary overlap. Elizabeth gives birth to John the Baptist shortly before Mary gives birth to Jesus. And when John is born, his father Zechariah holds him and essentially sings him a song, a song that he can’t possibly understand at that age, but a song that gives thanks to God for John and Jesus, and a song that sings of what God is doing in the world. And at the very end of that song, Zechariah sings, “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” (Luke 1:78-79).
And we’re reminded in those words of what we’re so often reminded of in the Bible—that peace is both a gift from outside us, and it is something we give flesh to. God makes peace possible. God shows the direction and points the way. One way to put it is that God builds the road of peace. At the same time, though, we’re the ones who walk along that road. There would be no peace if we ourselves didn’t actually make the journey. As Zechariah sings, there is a way of peace—that’s the gift—and at the same time, we’re the one whose feet need to walk along that way.
Think about driving from here to Columbus. If there were no road, it would be next-to-impossible to get there. We’d have to make our way through forests and up and over mountains and across rivers. It would take us days, and it would take everything we had. So what a blessing it is to have such a remarkably easy road to travel. God is the road-maker, the one who provides us with the Interstate-71 of peace.
At the same time, though, we’re the ones who have to get in the car and start the engine and use the accelerator and turn the wheel. We’re the ones who make the journey. God provides the way; we take the way. God builds the road; we make the trip. Both are essential.
Peace. Sometimes peace is about reconciling opposing factions and nations. Will Republicans and Democrats, China and the U.S., Russia and the U.S., find a way to work together? Former President George H. W. Bush played a part in bringing peace among nations. As a career diplomat, he built relationships and was able to parlay those into significant policy accomplishments. He has been widely praised for his deft handling of the collapse of the Soviet Union. As an editorial in yesterday’s Plain Dealer put it, Bush “understood why multilateral diplomacy and managing conflicts in concert with allies mattered for our long-term security” (Dec. 8, 2018, p. A14). Peace mattered to him.
Strangely, and though he was far from perfect, in an entirely different way, Bush also contributed to our unity with his personal manner and his uncommon ability to mangle the language. As historian Jon Meacham mentioned at Bush’s funeral on Wednesday, once, while Bush was campaigning and looking for votes in New Hampshire, he was shaking as many hands as he could, and he mistakenly took the hand of a department store mannequin. When he realized his mistake, he said, “Never know. Gotta ask.” At another point, looking ahead to the 1988 election, he said with great seriousness, “It’s no exaggeration to say that the undecideds could go one way or the other.” There’s something healing and peaceful about such humor.
The hostility and division that mar our common life can only be broken down by the willingness of the players to come to the table and either find some common ground or forgive each other for what are perceived to be the other’s shortcomings. Some people—and I confess I’m not exempt from this myself—want to be right at all costs. I remember arguing with Mary’s brothers this past summer about a well-known Maine road race, called the “Beach to Beacon” race. I told them it was an eight mile race. They said, No, it’s 10,000 meters. I was sure I was right, and checked, only to find out that they were, in fact, right. And I was ticked! It mattered to me to be right!
Thank God I was moved—probably by God!—to tell them later I was wrong, and to apologize. Maybe I remembered that old phrase, whispering in my ear, “Would you rather be right than kind?” What matters most to you here? Being right doesn’t really give you peace. Being kind does. It yields a kind of serenity.
Dawn Dole shared with a Federated group this week what is called the “Cherokee Rule of Opposites.” And it goes like this: “The Rule of Opposites teaches us that everything exists in a circle, where there is no beginning and no end. Truth lies somewhere within this circle, its exact location depending on where in the circle one stands. Instead of opposites lying at the end of a straight-line continuum, they lie on opposite sides of the Circle. This creates a blending of the opposites, for where one ends, the other begins” (personal correspondence).
God provides the way—the circle. What falls to us is to see each other in that context, to recognize that none of us has a market on truth, and to look at each other, not with the goal of being right, but with the commitment to being kind. Rightness still matters. Truth matters. Moral direction matters. Not every opinion is equally in touch with the ways of God. But at the same time, real peace can come only with the clothing of kindness.
And this peace between peoples—between family members and co-workers and nations—this peace is intimately related to that other kind of peace, the peace we feel inside us. When we feel inner peace, that means there are no parts of us that are warring with other parts of us. It means we’re comfortable in our own skin. It means, most centrally, that we know God’s arms wrapped about us, that we have a deep sense of God’s care for us, that we know that we are the delight that God created us to be. Inner peace is about knowing we’re accepted as we are.
In both meanings of peace, we are all about conveying to ourselves and others that God is smiling at all of us with a bottomless affection. On Christmas Eve here at Federated, we’ll be offering a measure of peace to those who are served by HOLA. HOLA, as you’ve heard and perhaps seen, is a grassroots organization in Painesville that empowers the community it serves through education, outreach, leadership development and more. The work of serving the Latino/Latina population here in Ohio is great work. It’s crucial work. It’s the work of welcoming and empowering and providing a home. It is Federated’s privilege, with our Christmas Eve offering, to support HOLA as it seeks to provide a fitting space for that teaching and serving ministry. This is the work of making peace—outer peace, interpersonal peace.
On Christmas Eve, we will also each receive the inner peace that passes all understanding as we light candles of joy and love and receive the light of God into our lives. External peace as we offer our gifts to HOLA. Internal peace as we bask in the radiance of God’s love for us. These two sorts of peace mesh, they are totally intertwined, as Emmanuel, the presence of God-with-us—with us all. God-with-us makes peace within and peace without.
So wouldn’t it be great if we could sense that love for ourselves, and offer it extravagantly, profligately, to everyone we come across. Wouldn’t it be great if we could walk passionately the way of peace that God has given us to walk. Real peace, deep peace, would mean internalizing the richness of a poem by the fourteenth-century Persian poet Hafez and, in truth, making this poem our very mission as the people of God. The poem is called “With That Moon Language”:
Everyone you see, you say to them,
Of course you do not do this out loud;
Someone would call the cops.
Still though, think about this,
This great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one
Who lives with a full moon in each eye
That is always saying
With that sweet moon
What every other eye in this world
Is dying to
Hear (quoted in Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart, p. 17)
You want to make peace? That great moon language is telling you you are loved beyond belief. So be at peace inside. There is nothing you can do or say or accomplish to make it happen. That love is yours right now, right this very minute. Accept it. And let that moon language be the language with which you approach every other person. “Love me,” they’re saying. You and I can do it. That’s the peace that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7), and it comes by the grace of God, in Christ’s name. Emmanuel: God’s peace with us.