Thursday, 24 December 2009

Christmas Eve Morning

Luke 1:67-79 - Zechariah's Song

In the late 1960’s, the anthem for the peace movement was John Lennon’s song, Give Peace a Chance. In our Gospel reading this morning, the peace anthem is Zechariah’s Song, telling us that peace is a realistic hope with the coming of the Lord, who will ‘guide our feet into the path of peace’.

The Song of Zechariah is a song of praise and prophecy, flowing out of sheer joy. Nine months prior to this, Zechariah had lost his voice for doubting the angel’s news about his wife Elisabeth bearing a child, never mind a son who would be given the task of preparing the way for the Lord. Zechariah’s tongue was released after he wrote down the instruction, in accordance with the angel’s command, that his son’s name would be ‘John’, and then he burst forth with this Spirit-filled song!

But as we approach the year 2010, at a time when the world is faced with intense global issues, and many of us struggle with desperate personal concerns, is it realistic to believe we’re on the path headed towards ‘peace’? For unless you’ve been hiding in a cave in a mountainous region somewhere, you will all know about the war we’re fighting with an enemy called ‘terror’, which is anything but peaceful. And we probably all know people; perhaps even ourselves, who are struggling right now with major personal problems - illness, bereavement or family conflict.

The bible tells us that our God is a God of peace, and that Jesus is the ‘Prince of Peace’. Yet for some reason, ‘peace’ seems to be in short supply. Yes, we can grasp from Zechariah’s Song that God 'made good' on his promises to David and to Abraham, and remembered his covenant with Israel, with the coming of the Lord. But if our daily experience doesn’t quite seem to match up with Zechariah’s claim about the peace that the Lord’s coming will bring, what shall we make of it? Where is this ‘path of peace’? Or is it all just lip service?

We say ‘peace be with you’ during our worship services. We wish each other 'peace' in our Christmas cards. ‘Peace on earth’ was announced by angels to the shepherds watching over their flocks by night. Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’. But the ‘peace which passes all understanding’ certainly does pass all understanding when we’re often confronted with the complications and conflicts of life.

Peace in the Church can also be strained and hard to come by, in spite of St. Paul’s advice to ‘make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’, and to ‘let the peace of Christ rule in [our] hearts, since as members of one body [we] were called to peace’. Ideally, the church is the redeemed, unified community of Christ, literally living and sharing the gospel, which is a gospel of peace. But every church knows that the reality can sometimes be quite different.

How, then, can we find this ‘path of peace’? First, we need to know that peace isn’t just an absence of conflict. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus said that he didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword. The gospel is a radical message! But we know Jesus doesn’t advocate violence - he’s simply being honest about the truth: his teachings will cause opposition and ideological conflicts between families and between nations.

The gospel should challenge us to the core of our very being. And to experience the peace of Christ, most of us will need to let go of some things that we cling to – especially that inner critic, who makes it hard for us to accept God’s forgiveness for things in our past; and also that inner judge, who can make it hard for us to forgive other people’s wrongs against us. On the path of peace, we also need to let go if we cling to a legalistic view of faith, in which there are some who are ‘in’ and some who are most definitely ‘out’; in which we think we all must take the ‘correct’ doctrinal position; and in which we think we have to work hard at being ‘good enough’ to deserve God’s grace and favour.

The path of peace lies way beyond cultural opinions, doctrinal understandings and human judgment. God’s peace is only found in the person and work of Christ, and not in our debates or arguments about him! God’s peace can be found by doing what Paul asks in Romans 15:7 - ‘Accept one another… just as Christ has accepted you.

We won’t experience the peace of Christ if we expect that our faith will give us a life completely free from conflict. It would be easy to fulfil the Great Commission to make disciples if a profession of faith gave an instant and permanent result of peaceful life conditions! But faith isn’t like that. God isn’t pulling puppet strings. But the Spirit will guide our life into the path of peace… into the peace of Christ, when we have faith and trust in him.

We can gain a lovely sense of calm on a crisp winter’s day watching a robin hopping ‘round in the garden. We can have the occasional wonderful moment of tranquillity, and I pray that we will all enjoy at least some of these moments over Christmas. But we only arrive on the true path of peace through our relationship with Christ, and our relationship with the Father through Christ. Embracing this pathway means embracing that relationship.

That relationship brings the peace of knowing that God loves us as we are… and the peace of knowing God as Emmanuel – that God is with us, no matter what the circumstances. He knows about the messy complications of being human, and he’s with us as we walk the bumpy road of life. He even knows the tension between what we experience now
and what we (as Christians) believe is to come.

And His peace has the power to change us, including how we interact with one another. When we come to believe in Jesus, we are a new creation – but another change also happens: we become a community creation. Because the ‘path of peace’ isn’t intended to be a solitary experience; it’s a communal experience – with God and with each other. As we are guided into the path of peace, we are to share the struggles – share the journey. And this Christmas, may we truly know that God is with us, all the way. Amen.

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