May the Peace of the Lord
be always with you
Third Sunday of Advent
Advent IIIC: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9 (Isaiah 12:2-6); Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
December 17, 2006
Pastor Mary Blessing,
Vicar, St. Philip’s, Scotts Valley CA
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just…keep on doing the things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9)
As we approach the wonder and joy of Christmas Eve, I am getting more and more aware that we live in a world hungry for peace. Some think the way to peace is to force others to do what THEY want; others believe peace comes when we stop engaging in the fight. Still others believe peace is simply a state of mind—that the world will never actually be free of conflict—and so we must seek a way of being that allows the mind to transcend the chaos of the world around them, an internal presence of peace, which allows them to feel at peace, conflict or no conflict.
When St. Paul wrote the encouraging words to the people of Phillippi (which we heard in our second reading today), he encourages them to seek “whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing whatever is commendable” to do so is the find “any excellence” and “anything worthy of praise”…and to do so, you will find “the God of peace.” Paul does NOT say, to do so, and then you will find “the peace of God.” The way Paul writes is to indicate that pursuing that which honorable, just, pure, and pleasing; that which excellent and worthy of praise, will bring you a new state of being, a state of being which will allow the “God of peace” to enter your life. Whatever name you may give this “God of peace”, it has its roots in that which is honorable and just.
Christians, such as Paul, and you, and me, are people who have recognized this “God of peace” fully realized in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, born of Mary, in a place called Nazareth, over 2000 years ago. We call him “Prince of Peace.”
The Hebrew prophet Zephaniah, whose final oracle was heard in our first reading today, describes a moment in human history in which the God of peace will bring justice to the oppressed people of Israel. 600 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, Zephaniah predicts a time known as “the coming of the Lord”. The coming of the Lord is the day when peace comes to Israel. For Zephaniah, “Israel” was not so much a physical place in geography, but “Israel” was a nation, a group of people, who came together in unity, focused on the profound commitment to live in a covenant relationship with God and each other--a covenant relationship that is founded on the belief that there is ONE GOD, and that ONE GOD is the source of all that is honorable and just. This ONE GOD is the Creator of all. This ONE GOD is the “God of peace”.
As we approach Christmas, and sing of our desire to receive the “Prince of Peace”, our hope for the world, I am challenged to not feel sad. Sad that our world is fraught with war and territorial battles between various groups who claim to have the rights over how God will be made manifest through their particular interpretation of who that God is: Sunni against Shiite (both of whom claim Islam as their religion), Jew against Arab, Christian against Moslem, and on it goes.
The irony seems to be that each of these groups believes they have the true understanding of how to be in relationship with the “God of peace”. Each holds out the possibility of individual peace, but we have yet to observe a justice which brings all nations into peace.
In the weeks following the Sept. 11, 2001, attack upon the United States, there were many efforts that Islamic religious leaders used to try to help Christians better understand Islam. I attended a discussion hosted by the AAUW in my town, in which Moslem women came to tell us their religion. I already knew that the word “Islam” means “Peace”. That night I learned that when a Moslem meets someone on the street, it is their custom to greet one another with “Allah Islam”—meaning “God of Peace” be with you; and the response is “Allah Islam”, God of Peace be with you. It is the intent of Islamic people to live in the presence of the God of Peace. Here in our Christian context, we greet one another with “the peace of the Lord be with you”—and “also with you.” What if we were to greet one another on the street with “God of Peace be with you.” And also with you.
The prophet Zephaniah imagines a time when there will be no more enemies; when God will gather all who want to be in a deep relationship of love with him and each other . The joy all nations will feel is a future in which all humanity is in relationship with the God who will “renew you in his love”; or as the Hebrew more accurately states, the God who “will be silent in his love”—a love so deep, we know it in the silence of our being. All who live in this deep, silent love, know they are connected to God and each other through that kind of peace which passes all human understanding, that dwells within you, regardless of what is happening around you—whether you are in prison, are falsely accused of wrong doing.
Anglican Bishop, Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop of South Africa, captured this vision of what it means to be living in peace. Tutu writes of African understanding of humanity, which is difficult to put into English. They call it “ubutu, botho” – it means the essence of being human; it speaks of the humanness, gentleness, hospitality, putting yourself out on behalf of others, being vulnerable—it means recognizing that my humanity is bound up in your humanity—we can only be human together—in African they say “a person is a person through other persons”. [from The Words of Desmond Tutu, quoted from New Interpreter’s Bible, v. VII]
Do you remember the story of the WWI “Christmas Truce”, December 24, 1914? It was a crispy clear, moonlit night, when in the silence the British began to see Germans decorating their trenches with candles, then the quiet singing of “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night), and before they knew what was happening the British began singing Christmas Carols—and for that one night a spontaneous truce arose from warring groups. Men crawled out of the trenches to greet one another, to exchange chocolate for cigarettes, to remember the night Jesus, the Prince of Peace, was born—and they greeted one another in the name of this “God of Peace.”
Many of us are at war in our relationships close to home, not just observing a war far away, through the eyes of tv reporters. We are broken in our ability to be in the presence of the God of Peace, as we are broken in our relationships with one another. As we move closer and closer to the night in which we remember the birth of the “Prince of Peace,” can we put aside our territorial struggles of trying to get our own way, and put the God of Peace first?
As Paul asked the Christians of Philippi, can we keep doing the things that are honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, and anything that is of excellence and worthy of praise, and, by faithfulness in these, discover that the God of peace is with us, always? This Christmas, let us really mean it when we proclaim: May the peace of the Lord be always with you!