All I Want for Christmas Is Peace

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people.  He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us – to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham:  to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:68-79, NIV)

This beautiful psalm and prophecy came from the old priest Zechariah. It is a praise to God for the Christ about to be born; and, a prediction of Zechariah’s own son, newly born, as one who will prepare the way for Jesus.  This benediction speaks of better days to come, pointing forward to peace (shalom) spiritually, politically, and relationally.

Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were old and well past the childbearing years.  In fact, Zechariah is portrayed earlier in Luke’s Gospel as something of a stereotypical grump.  After being taken up to the temple in a golf cart because he could walk so well anymore, Zechariah was confronted by an angel and nearly lost his dentures out of fear.  The angel Gabriel told him that his wife would bear a son who will prepare the way of Messiah.  Zechariah then gave a sort of “Hmpff!  That’s not likely, Sonny.  Look at me and my wife.  Are you sure you have the right couple, and the orders in heaven didn’t get screwed up?”

Gabriel was not very keen on being doubted, and it earned Zechariah losing his voice until John the Baptist was born.  It was after Zechariah had nine months to think about that encounter, and experience watching a child grow in his wife’s womb that, after John’s birth, Zechariah was a changed man.  He went from just one of many old priests in Israel, to being inspired by the Spirit and singing the praises of God.  We can almost imagine him acting like Fred Astaire, picking up his cane and dancing with joy.

Nativity of John the Baptist, an Eastern Orthodox icon, 15th century

Our lives are not so different than Zechariah in this respect:  We are a complex concoction of both fear and joy that could combust at any time in either direction.  We sway back and forth from fear and anxiety to joy and gratitude.  Certain words can swing us to one extreme or the other: finances, pandemic, politics, religion, the future.  They can create in us either immediate tension or smiling happiness; tomorrow they might do just the opposite.  Zechariah went from anxious to elated, fearful to joyful.

We live in a toxic world filled with polarizing opposites and entrenched stereotypes of others.  We vacillate between love and hate, pursed lips of anger and dispositions of peace.  So, how do we rise above the heated rhetoric that exists in our world?  How are we going to deal with all the disharmony and vitriol? By possessing the peace given to us in the prophecy and promise of Jesus.  Our feet need to be guided in the path of peace.

Jesus came to give peace.  All the words of Zechariah’s inspiration point toward the harmonious peace of salvation, rescue, and forgiveness.  The time was finally coming when there would be peace in its fullest sense – wholeness and thriving in life which was unprecedented and unthinkable before Jesus. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. captured the biblical sense of the word “peace” well when he said, “True peace is not merely the absence of some negative force, tension or war – it is the presence of some positive force, justice, good will, brotherhood.”

We are to live the Christian life and have a ministry in the church and the world without fear.  Instead, we are to focus on what we are called to be and to do.  Jesus rescues and delivers so that we will have forgiveness of sins which enables us to serve the Lord in holiness and righteousness, without fear.

Few good things in life just materialize out of thin air. Whether it is losing weight, getting in shape, building trust and relationships, or reaching out to make a difference, a lot of blood, sweat, and tears go into just about everything of importance.

Peace rarely just happens.  Peace was bought at a price – the blood of Jesus.  And it must be pursued.  Practices of peace must be engrafted into our lives if we are going to experience it on the daily practical level.  Yes, obtaining peace is difficult.  Yet, we instinctively know it is worth it.

Spiritual health comes through cultivating the peace of God in our lives. It requires avoiding chronic negativity and embracing the positive. It depends upon reconciliation and making things right with others. It necessitates pursuing Jesus with heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Rather than focusing solely on problem solving, we need to reframe our situations to a fresh vision of peace, wholeness, integrity, spiritual growth, and relational health.

Zechariah, by means of the Holy Spirit, gave us a vision of a future full of peace, joy, and thriving.  The name “Zechariah” means in Hebrew “God remembered.”  God has not forgotten his promises.  The time has come to take hold of the vision God had from the very beginning to walk with humanity in continual fellowship and happiness in the garden, a place of abundant growth, beauty, and health.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 264 million people of all ages suffer from depression today, globally. Depression is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide and is a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease. And, of course, depression can lead to suicide.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that in this calendar year of 2020, figures have been as high as 40% of American adults suffering from either mental health issues, substance abuse, or both. The CDC has also taken notice of the rising figures of suicide in this country, which has been growing steadily for the past thirty years. This year alone, nearly 50,000 people will die by suicide in the United States. Perhaps it goes without saying that large numbers of people lack peace in their lives.

Beginning nearly ten years ago, a new kind of study has come from a task force put together by professionals across a wide spectrum of disciplines known as the World Happiness Report.  Every country in the world is ranked according to criteria such as the gross domestic product, social support, healthy lifestyles, freedom to make choices, lack of corruption, and both negative and positive outlooks on life. 

The United States has yet to make the top ten list on happiness.  Even with our vast resources, we are, collectively speaking, a very unhappy people.  I believe the most interesting finding from the World Happiness Report was their conclusion as to what makes one country happier than another.  The Report consistently concludes that citizens of the happiest nations on earth continually find a steady stream of peace and joy in three sources: their families, their rituals/traditions, and their religion.

It will be hard to find joy in our lives through our Christianity if we are not experiencing the peace of Jesus Christ. Christian liturgical rituals and observances of seasons like Advent help remind us we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

There are seven practical ways we can implement the peace we have in Jesus Christ today:

  1. Slow down, pause, breathe, and pray.

Do not worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7, NLT)

2. Exchange fear for the presence of God.

For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, “Do not fear, I will help you.” (Isaiah 41:13, NRSV)

3. Listen to music, sing, or make music yourself.

Encourage each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your hearts to the Lord. (Ephesians 5:19, ERV)

4. Have a “go to” word, phrase, or Scripture verse. One of my tried and true verses:

The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing. (Psalm 23:1, CEB)

5. Unplug for a time and close your eyes. Closing your eyes reduces visual distractions and allowing for better focus. Several studies have shown that closing the eyes is the simplest way to change your state of mind. 

We live by what we believe, not by what we can see. (2 Corinthians 5:7, NCV)

6. Use some aromatherapy and activate your sense of smell. When you slow down to smell something, you tend to breathe more deeply which slows your heart rate and lowers your blood pressure. And this allows us to give off a peaceful scent.

Through us, God brings knowledge of Christ. Everywhere we go, people breathe in the exquisite fragrance. Because of Christ, we give off a sweet scent rising to God, which is recognized by those on the way of salvation—an aroma redolent with life. (2 Corinthians 2:14-15, MSG)

7. Say “no” and set healthy boundaries.

Jesus went into a village. A woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary. Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to him talk. But Martha was upset about all the work she had to do. So, she asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work all by myself? Tell her to help me.” The Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha! You worry and fuss about a lot of things. There is only one thing you need. Mary has made the right choice, and that one thing will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42, GW)

May the peace of Christ guide you into the path of peace and be with you, now and forever.

Malachi 3:16-4:6 – Turning Hearts

Then those revering the Lord,
    each and every one, spoke among themselves.
        The Lord paid attention and listened to them.
Then a scroll of remembrance was written before the Lord
        about those revering the Lord,
            the ones meditating on his name.
On the day that I am preparing,
says the Lord of heavenly forces,
        they will be my special possession.
        I will spare them just as parents spare a child who serves them.
You will again distinguish between the righteous and the wicked,
        between those serving God and those not serving him.

Look, the day is coming,
        burning like an oven.
All the arrogant ones and all those doing evil will become straw.
    The coming day will burn them,
says the Lord of heavenly forces,
        leaving them neither root nor branch.
But the sun of righteousness will rise on those revering my name;
        healing will be in its wings
            so that you will go forth and jump about like calves in the stall.
You will crush the wicked;
        they will be like dust beneath the soles of your feet
            on the day that I am preparing,
says the Lord of heavenly forces.
Remember the Instruction from Moses, my servant,
        to whom I gave Instruction and rules for all Israel at Horeb.
Look, I am sending Elijah the prophet to you,
        before the great and terrifying day of the Lord arrives.
Turn the hearts of the parents to the children
    and the hearts of the children to their parents.
            Otherwise, I will come and strike the land with a curse. (CEB)

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, twenty-five million children in America — one out of every three — live in biological father-absent homes. The National Fatherhood Initiative reports that nine in ten American parents agree this is a “crisis.”  Consequently, there is a “father factor” in many social issues today. Children with involved fathers do better across every measure of child well-being than their peers in father-absent homes.

From a biblical perspective, the relationship between fathers and children is hugely important not only for the well-being of family and society, but for God’s people.  Fathers in ancient Israel were the primary instructors of God’s covenant to their children.  This responsibility was critical to ensuring success in Israel and obeying their God. 

The fact of the matter in the prophet Malachi’s day was this: The fathers blew it.  The last verse of the Old Testament ends on a note of coming judgment. However, that is not the end of the story because the prophet Elijah will come to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and vice versa.

John the Baptist, Jesus said, was the Elijah to come:

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. Whoever has ears, let them hear. (Matthew 11:12-15, NIV)

In the Christian tradition, Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to the people. Therefore, fathers who follow Jesus have a sacred responsibility to gently guide their kids to Christ. It is important for Christian dads to take up the mantle of teaching children the ways of God especially as expressed by Jesus.  

God is on a mission of restoration, and a good place to begin is with restoring relationships between fathers and children. In fact, it behooves all fathers to step back and slow down enough to consider what the nature of their family relationships are really like – taking action to instruct kids in both word and deed.

The word catechism derives from the Greek language and means “instruction.” Ever since the start of the Protestant Reformation, learning about God has often taken the form of catechetical teaching. Catechisms vary in length with a pedagogical question and answer format. Typically included are explanations on the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Question and answer 104 of the Reformed Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, says this:

Q. What is God’s will for you in the fifth commandment?

A. That I honor, love, and be loyal to my father and mother and all those in authority over me; that I submit myself with proper obedience to all their good teaching and discipline; and also that I be patient with their failings – for through them God chooses to rule us.

Here is a simple observation: Children cannot obey what they have not been taught. Underpinning all submission and obedience of both divine and human authority is the basic assumption that parents will instruct their children in the way of sound theology, biblical ethics, and religious piety.

What is more, we are all spiritual fathers and mothers to a host of children in our sphere of influence. This is a foundational way of relating to one another, and so, deliberate intention and effort needs to be placed here. Otherwise, there is religious decline with neither social nor familial cohesion.

So, let us love one another through careful training, effective teaching, and gracious tutoring so that righteousness will shine like a cloudless dawn and rise to warm the world with the love of God.

Gracious God, thank you for the gift of children.  Teach me your ways of grace so that I might pass them on to children in the merciful name of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Matthew 14:1-12 – Speaking Truth to Power

16th century Russian Orthodox icon of John the Baptist

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet.

On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus. (NIV)

John’s murder is a story about our world – a world of power, sex, and intrigue. Times may change, but people across the ages do not change. Humanity is fundamentally the same in every century. And the world is still the world, no matter the historical time. 

The contrast between Herod and John supply us with two types of people who exist throughout every age of humankind, offering us the choice of which way we will go with our lives. The story illustrates for us the reality of living in a fallen world as a devout person.

The Herod in today’s Gospel lesson was a son of Herod the Great, the one who killed all the male babies when Jesus was born in order to try and get rid of any rival king (Matthew 2:1-18). King Herod is displayed in the narrative as a tragic and pathetic figure who is ruled by his own lusts. He seems too proud and wimpy to admit he made a rash promise and killed a man just to save face with his guests at a party.

Talk about a Jerry Springer worthy family drama, here it is: The Herod family was rich, proud, and downright violent. They tended to marry within their own clan to hold their power and possessions for themselves. Herodias married her uncle Herod Philip; Salome was their daughter. Later, Salome married Philip the tetrarch, half-brother to Herod Philip. Through marriage, Salome became both aunt and sister-in-law to her mother. Then the Herod in our story married Herodias, who had been married to Herod’s half-brother, Herod Philip. Having fallen in love with Herod Antipas, Herodias divorced Herod Philip to marry Herod Antipas. Sheesh, nothing like complicated family drama.

St. John the Baptist Rebuking Herod by Italian artist Giovanni Fattori (1825-1908)

Into this violation of Old Testament marriage laws (the Herod’s were Jewish) came John who made no bones about the fact this was not right (Leviticus 18:16, 20:21). Herodias nursed a grudge against John for speaking out against her and Herod’s choices. Hell, hath no fury like a woman’s scorn, and when Herodias found an opportunity to get rid of John, she coached her daughter into asking for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Herod, too insecure to take back his ridiculous promise and look like a fool, consented to the execution of John.

In contrast to all this tragic theater is John the Baptist. John was a messenger of God and a preacher of repentance. As one who was preparing the way for Jesus, his message was simple and to the point: Repent, for the kingdom of God is near. John got into trouble and lost his life because he spoke truth to power by meddling in the life of King Herod and his family. The Herod’s were the political establishment of the day, and John did not temper his words when dealing with them.

There is a refreshing integrity about John. He was always the same no matter where he was, and no matter who the people were around him. In contrast to Herod, John was bold, courageous, confident, unafraid, and secure enough in his relationship with God to engage in ministry without thought to the consequences.  He was unconcerned for what others might think of him if he proclaimed truth in the public square, and it did end up costing him his life.

The story of John the Baptist’s death speaks about the hostility of this world. And it prefigured and foreshadowed the death of Jesus. Like John, Jesus was executed by the civil authorities. Herod, like Pilate after him, hesitated to execute and was swayed by the crowd. Herodias, like the chief priests toward Jesus, finally got her way through scheming and manipulation. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it, just like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus did for Jesus.

These stories, on the surface of things, appear to be only gloom and doom. Yet, there is a message of hope and joy. The absurd is working out itself in deliverance from sin, death, and hell. Through death, Jesus conquered death. We now have no fear of death; its sting has been taken away. Without fear of death, we have no reason to fear life with its troubles and tribulations.

The fork in the road is between the way of John or Herod. It is a values-based decision. If worth is derived from what we do, what we have, and/or other’s opinion of us, we will likely identify more with Herod and his choices. If there is a preoccupation with hoarding power and control, this is the path of Herod. 

Conversely, if the ultimate value is in knowing Christ crucified and the power of his resurrection, then we identify with John as our spiritual ancestor. If security and worth is derived from being in Christ, then there is boldness to speak truth to power and give grace to the powerless.

Herod saw no further than his immediate needs and safety; he failed to discern his own heart. Because of his spiritual blindness, Herod did not look away from himself and look to God. Faith in Jesus comes when persons look away from themselves and look to Christ who holds the power to free all from spiritual bondage.

Let us look to the example of John the Baptist who consistently sought to do the will of God as best as he understood it. Together with all God’s people past and present, we declare that God is with us, the kingdom of God is near, and the love of Christ brings faith and hope.

Almighty God, through your providence John the Baptist was wonderfully born and was sent to prepare the way of your Son, our Savior by the preaching of repentance. Lead us to repent according to his preaching and, after his example, constantly to speak the truth, boldly to rebuke vice, and patiently to suffer for truth’s sake; through Jesus Christ your Son, our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Luke 3:1-18

            John the Baptist wasn’t exactly a social conformist.  He lived, acted, and said things that were anything but mainstream thinking.  But John wasn’t out to win friends and please people.  His message was sharp and straightforward:  “You bunch of snakes!  Who warned you to run from the coming judgment?  Do something to show that you really have given up your sins….  An ax is ready to cut the trees down at their roots.  Any tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into a fire.”  John was the first-century version of the guy with a placard on the street corner yelling for everyone to repent.  He probably would have been relegated to the category of loony tunes had he not had an actual and substantial following of people who believed his message of repentance.
 
            The reason the masses did not dismiss John as some creepy clown is that he offered them something better than just being stuck in old destructive patterns of dumb decisions, unhealthy relationships, and bad habits.  John points us away from himself and squarely on Jesus.  Christ is the one who can and will unstick us from our downward spirals of complacency, mediocrity, and sinful behavior.
 
            To repent and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ allows us to bear good fruit.  Being with the Lord, rooted and established in him, allows us to spring from the ground like a fresh new shoot growing into something beautiful.  Dwelling in the presence of Jesus brings healthy patterns of life. 
 
            Jesus came once, and will come again.  We need to get ready for that day.  There are roads that need straightening; fires that need to be lit in order to burn away brush; dead trees need to be cut down; and, there are people who need to repent because the kingdom of God is near. 
 

 

            Lord Jesus, you are the rightful King of all creation.  I confess those sinful things I have done, and the good things I have left undone.  Your mercy is from everlasting to everlasting.  Help me to so hear your Word that new life and hope springs within me and produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control.  Amen.