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Sunday, December 20, 2015

I Know the Peace of God (Isaiah 9.6-7; Philippians 4.6-7)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; December 20, 2015
Text:Isaiah 9:6-7; Philippians 4:6-7

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell."  

:: Some Music Used ::
Hymn of Praise: You are Holy (Prince of Peace) (Imboden, Rhodon)
The Word in Music: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (arr. Dave Williamson)
Song of Response: Silent Night (arr. Robert Austell; alt. tune)
Offering of Music: It Came Upon the Midnight Clear (Annie Ball, horn; Walker Austell, piano)
Hymn of Sending: Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light (ERMUNTRE DICH)

:: Testimony ::  Cynthia Roberts shared about Peace (audio link) 

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf)::
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.

Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, that ‘season’ in the life of the church in which we anticipate and prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ at Christmas. Each week we’ve focused on a different theme and today that theme is PEACE.

We need peace desperately today. I don’t have to tell you that – wars and threats and terror and shootings all fill our news feeds and our minds… even seeping into our souls! A recent New York Daily News cover declared, “God isn’t fixing this!” What response does a person of faith have to that declaration? More personally, what about when we are asking and praying that question ourselves, “God, why aren’t you fixing this?” What do the scriptures have to say to us? What does it mean to know the peace of God?

What Peace? (various scriptures)

In a word, peace is not about ‘fixing’ anything. That’s simply not what the biblical concept of peace means. Our English word, peace, has far less substance and application and so we mis-hear and mis-read some of the scriptures that mention peace.

It would be easy to hear the Isaiah passage, speaking of a government and a “Prince of Peace” and a kingdom and long for God to set right all the evil and war and injustice of this world. As Isaiah’s ancient audience heard it, and even as the people of Jesus’ day heard those words, that’s exactly what they would have imagined: God intervening to throw off the injustice of Assyrian, Babylonian, or Roman rule. God’s Messiah would bring God’s peace to the earth.

And this only seemed validated when the heavenly host appeared to the shepherds and declared, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased.” (Luke 2:14) We also heard those lines sung in the music by the choir. They ARE biblical, but do we have the right understanding of what they mean?

In his public ministry, Jesus had a different understanding of God’s Kingdom, His own role, and what peace meant. He did not speak of making peace with the Romans. Neither did he speak of making war with them (which many longed for him to do!). He did speak of God’s Kingdom – a spiritual, but present Kingdom. As a sign of God’s rule he healed the sick. But what did he say when he did that? So often he also told them their sins were forgiven, and then he told them to “go in peace.” (cf. Luke 7:48-50; 8:48) Why? Because he declared them reconciled with God. That’s how he used the word ‘peace’ – it was the old Hebrew concept of shalom – wholeness, rightness, blessing, and peace with God.

I would go so far as to say that Jesus came to bring peace with God, not peace on earth. In fact, Jesus seems to indicate that those who are at peace with God may find themselves increasingly at odds with the world around them. That’s the only sense I can make of him saying something like “Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division. (Luke 12:51) He is describing the tension between God and the things of this world to which so many often give allegiance. But he ALSO prays that God will leave His people in the world to influence and witness to it. (John 17)

He weeps over Jerusalem, saying, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:42) Surely he does not mean that Jerusalem could have avoided exile, captivity, and Roman occupation by being more clever, more powerful, or somehow more in the resources of this world. Rather, scripture is clear that it was breaking peace with God that led to exile. And Jesus is lamenting that in his own day so many of his people seemed blind to the Good News of God’s Kingdom that he brought. His tears echo the Psalm which says, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: May they prosper (shalom) who love you.” (Psalm 122:6) Peace is tied to knowledge and love of God, expressed in obedience to God’s Word and Spirit.

And there is that great scene I mentioned a few weeks ago. The old man, Simeon, has been waiting his whole life, praying to see God’s Messiah before he dies. And Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to the Temple to be circumcised and Simeon recognizes him as the “hope of Israel.” As he offers a prayer to God, he says, “Now let your servant depart in peace, according to your Word.” (Luke 2:29) Simeon isn’t at peace because his bills got paid or the Romans got off his back; he is at peace with God, known most perfectly now through His Son, the promised Messiah. Simeon is at peace with God.

More explicitly, Paul explains peace this way: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ....” (Romans 5:1) He goes on there to say that we have this peace though we live in the mist of trial and tribulation in this world.

So consistently we see that peace is cast in terms of our relationship and standing with God. In fact, going back now to the message from the heavenly host in Luke 2, we are pointed toward relationship. The old King James spoke of “good will toward men” – newer translations rightly identify that God’s peace is directed towards those who have experienced God’s “good will” or “favor” or “pleasure.” Those terms are related to the salvation term ‘propitiation’ by which Jesus’ death not only saved us, but brought us into right or favorable standing with God. In other words, peace is the experience of being saved through Christ for relationship with God. This was the Good News the angel announced and of which the heavenly host sang.

That peace does have present bearing on life in this world, but should not be confused with the present ending of wars, conflict, trial, or tribulation. In fact, for those who trust and follow Christ, it becomes part of our witness to God in the midst of life in this world.

So, let me return to our scripture texts for today. They speak of two expressions of peace – of Biblical shalom – which we can hope to experience as believers and followers of Christ.

Peace of God (Philippians 4:6-7)

The first is the peace OF God described in Philippians 4:6-7, which says:

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

So, do not fear; do not be afraid. But PRAY! And how can you pray except in the context of a relationship with God. Jesus Christ is our mediator, the one who presents us and our prayers as pure and holy offerings to God the Father. It is because of Christ that we have audience and favor with God, not only as God and King, but as Father.

Peace, itself, is more than we can really comprehend. That’s why the concept of shalom is helpful; it’s such a big term we have trouble fully defining it! But I love the imagery here. For all that we have said that peace is not a simple ‘fixit’ to our worldly situations, the imagery here is that peace “stands guard” over our hearts and minds. It is not a wimpy, abstract thing. Or said another way, to say that it is a spiritual reality doesn’t remove it from a powerful presence in our lives today. The peace of God is bigger than our fears and will stand guard over us.

But to underscore the main point – it does all this IN CHRIST JESUS. We know the peace of God because of God’s initiative through Jesus, the Messiah. And that brings us to the bottom-line: we only know true peace – the peace of God – when we are at peace WITH God.

Peace with God (Isaiah 9:6-7)

What is behind the great prophecy and promise of Isaiah 9 is God’s faithfulness to His covenant promises (and God’s own character). God will keep the covenant that we could not keep. God will be the King we could not be. God’s Messiah will be called the Prince of Peace because through Him God will MAKE and KEEP the peace we could not keep – peace with Himself.

When we’ve talked about the covenant before, we’ve noted the unusual nature of it. Back in Abraham’s day, the normal way a King would establish a covenant would be to draw up terms: “I’ll do this and you’ll do that” and both the King and the subject would walk between slain animals to signify a life-and-death vow to keep the terms of the covenant treaty. But God’s covenant was different: there was an “I’ll do this and you’ll do that” part. God would provide land, descendants, and blessing (even to the world!) and Abraham and his children would worship God alone. But God alone pledged the life-and-death vow, on His holy name, to keep both sides of the covenant. And when Abraham’s children – when WE – broke covenant; God kept it. And when we turned away, God pursued in holy love. Ultimately, God made peace to establish and keep – to guard – the relationship with all who would accept the peace.

This birth which we celebrate this Friday, is God’s humble, holy, persistent, faithful, and effective declaration that “I will not forsake you.” The birth of Christ truly was the coming of the Prince of Peace, who made a way where there was no way, to bring us peace with God.

That is the first and the foundational peace when we speak of peace. Out of that comes the peace of God, which serves as our testimony in this world to the goodness and the saving love of God.

Shalom – peace be with you. Amen.

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