THE WORLD NEEDS A STABLE INFLUENCE OF…PEACE!
December 9, 2018…2nd Sunday of Advent
1 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
My all-time favorite Christmas cartoon special is Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I have watched it faithfully each Yuletide season since I was old enough to pack a snowball!
Someone has suggested a little test to tell if you are a Grinch. It goes like this:
• If you reused the Christmas cards you received last year, sending them out as your own, you just might be a Grinch.
• If you stole a light bulb from your neighbors display to replenish your own, you might be a Grinch.
• If you have ever dressed a cat or dog or some other pet as a
reindeer or elf, you are getting close to Grinchiness.
• If you buy a really cheap gift but put it in a Tiffany box, you are probably a Grinch.
• If you turn on your lawn sprinklers every time you see carolers about to come to your house, you are most likely a Grinch.
JOHN’S TIMELESS MESSAGE…
Always on this second Sunday of Advent, right smack-dab in the middle of our Christmas preparations, we run into an abrasive, caustic, irate fellow who makes Dr. Seuss’ character look like a genuinely nice guy. Yes, John the Baptist would not have made any Christmas party guest lists.
John wore a ratty suit tailored out of funky camel hair. His diet consisted of wild honey and locusts (although I understand eating locusts was not that uncommon in his day–supposedly they taste a lot like shrimp). Needless to say, he was a tad on the eccentric side.
For 400 years there had been no prophet in Israel. Then John came thundering a simple but shrill message of repentance. “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near!”
What does it mean to repent? Many of you have GPS systems. They are great tools. They talk to you. You miss an exit–they politely say “Please turn around at the next exit.” If you reach that next exit, and you don’t commence to changing direction, the voice gets a lot less courteous–“Turn around NOW!”
To repent is to heed God’s voice–it involves a radical re-orientation of your life–a change of your heart and mind–a radical change in direction, turning away from that which is not of God and turning toward that which is of God.
It begins when we first say “Yes” to God’s offer of freely-given grace in Jesus Christ. This is the major turning point in our lives, the point at which we make peace with our eternal destination in Christ. Perhaps there are some of us here this morning who are still wrestling with this most decisive of decisions-God is nudging you in your heart to finally open the door and receive this salvation.
And yet, it doesn’t end there. As a Christian, we experience God’s call to repentance at many junctures in our journey. There are those seasons when we know little or no inner peace–we are troubled, unsettled, ill at ease. Something is just not right in our walk with God.
And John’s words are like a bucket of eye-opening, ice-cold water in the face–“Repent!” “Turn away….and turn toward!” If we would discover peace–an inner tranquility with God and ourselves–we must heed this harsh word from the Baptist!
FINDING A STABLE INFLUENCE OF PEACE…
- Yes, finding a stable influence of peace involves making a U-turn from SIN TO SANCTITY.
The famed psychologist Karl Menninger composed a book back in 1973 with the provocative title, “Whatever Became of Sin?” Indeed, sin is a word that no longer exists in our All the Pleasure with None of the Guilt vocabularies.
And yet, Menninger was right. Much of what keeps our life in turmoil today results from our being out of synch with God. We allow sinful attitudes and actions to become a barrier to God’s presence in our lives.
The Apostle Paul recognized this struggle. We read in Romans 7:
19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am!
Some years ago I served on a community family resource council with a bunch of wonderful, caring individuals who were always seeking unique ways to better the lives of kids. But also serving on that council was a very embittered woman who saw it as her duty to criticize and block every potential idea and program.
She always seemed angry and depressed, very nervous, never smiling…and she was especially hostile to me once she discovered I was a pastor. She was very adamant about keeping God out of things.
A year later I discovered why. She had been arrested and convicted of embezzling thousands of dollars over a 3-year-period from the public agency where she worked.
The Apostle Paul makes the rhetorical plea: Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to sin and death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Yes, only God can put us on that road to sanctity, to right living with a clear conscience, to a state of inner peace. We must confess our sin and turn from it if we are to know harmony with God and with ourselves.
- Finding peace also involves making a U-turn from SELF-ABSORPTION TO SERVANTHOOD.
We live in a very me-centered culture, where everyone gets a trophy, where everyone is a star, where everyone craves their 15 seconds of fame, where everyone longs to be Kanye or Brittney.
My wife is going to get us killed or at least arrested. She does not tolerate rude people very well, and it seems that at every concert or movie we have been to in the last year there has been some self-centered jerk sitting next to us talking on a cellphone or obliviously and drunkenly singing to the top of their lungs or otherwise calling attention to themselves in an unseemly fashion. And she doesn’t mind letting them know it! It does get a bit tense at times!
There are many among us who live empty, aching, irritating lives because we are worshiping the unholy trinity of Me, Myself and I. We need a radical turn from My Way to God’s Way…and God’s way is the way of servanthood–of selflessly putting the needs of others before your own and loving them sacrificially.
One of my favorite Christmas stories is O’Henry’s immortal tale The Gift of The Magi. You are all familiar with it. It’s about Jim and Della, a desperately poor young couple living in New York around the turn of the century. They can barely afford their one-room apartment due to their bad economic situation.
Neither had money sufficient to buy a Christmas gift for the other so they each secretly went out and sold something of worth. Jim hocked his prized pocket watch, given to him by his grandfather, to buy Della an ornate set of combs made of tortoise-shells and jewels for her lovely, knee-length brown hair. In the meanwhile, she has her long, beautiful hair cut off and sold that she might purchase a chain for his pocket watch.
When Jim and Della finally exchange their Christmas presents, each is a bit disappointed to discover the gift they chose for the other has been rendered useless. Yet, each is overwhelmed by the selfless, sacrificial love shown by the other in making the gift possible.
We live into peace when we make that U-turn from self-absorption to servanthood, responding to God’s constant calling to love others sacrificially. It is then that our lives take on a most definite meaning and purpose.
- Finally, finding a stable influence of peace involves making a U-turn from SORROW TO SURRENDER.
There are those among us this morning whose lives lack peace due to the unrelenting grief of a deep loss. Believe you me, I’ve been there. And yes, I know what it is like to wish you could rip the December page off the calendar and forget about Christmas. The hurt is so very raw and real.
It is very true we pastors develop a certain callousness in order to maintain a perspective as we go about our work, but in the case of Juanita my heart absolutely ached. She and her husband George had been two of my dearest friends and church members at Chestnut Hill UMC, as well as being two of the most Christian individuals I had ever had the privilege of knowing.
George had taken a tremendous risk early on in their marriage. They were young, with four small kids. He was a highly-paid, highly-stressed, rising executive with Babcock & Wilcox when he felt God leading in a different direction. He decided to venture forth and start his own business—a Lawn Doctor franchise of all things! He and Juanita both felt encumbered by the materialistic lifestyle they had been leading, so they stepped out on faith into a much different world.
Well, things worked out for them. The business took off, and they were able to cultivate a comfortable yet inextravagant lifestyle. Juanita would soon contract a rare form of melanoma cancer, and she began treatments that would continue the rest of her life. But none of this seemed to faze them.
They were two of the most upbeat, joyful caring persons you’d ever want to meet. George was a deeply spiritual and dynamic leader in the church, the centerpiece voice in the choir, and just full of himself all the time, always living life on the edge. Juanita was much more reserved, and yet equally vital in her devotion to details as the church’s treasurer. She was just a dear and sweet person, and George was the love of her life.
In late spring of ’93, everything in Juanita’s life came crashing down. George was diagnosed with a massive malignancy in his colon. He died shortly after surgery. It not only floored her, but our entire church and me as well. A huge hole was left in the heart of Chestnut Hill UMC. We spent many hours shedding tears in the aftermath.
Then–I’ll never forget—the month of December came. On my evening walks I would pass by Juanita’s empty home. The surrounding houses were illuminated with lovely Christmas lights and decorations, but Juanita’s home remained despairingly bare and bleak and dark. I could not blame her one bit for not celebrating the holidays. The memories of George were much too raw to deal with.
But then, as I passed by her home on one particular evening just a couple of days prior to Christmas, I saw a candle in the window. Just a candle—no more than that—but still a candle—a candle that was shining brightly against the growing darkness of that cold December evening.
I knocked on Juanita’s door. She greeted me warmly and graciously. And she told me about how earlier that day she had accepted a volunteer position at Lynchburg General Hospital, doing accounting work and staffing the information desk. She said they were always short of help at that time of year.
I asked her how she managed to end up serving at the hospital. She told me about the long road of grief she had been through, and yet, she had felt Christ’s strength and support throughout it all. The friends he had put in her life had stood by her day-by-day. She knew she wasn’t alone, that her Lord was with her.
Juanita said she finally came to the conclusion that it was time to surrender her sorrow to the Lord. She knew George was with the Lord, and she would one day see him again. And she knew it was time she quit running from God–that without a doubt he was leading her to go in some different directions in her life, to get back to living and giving to others again. And she said that day of volunteer work at the hospital had been the best day of her life since the time before George had died.
Juanita—this dear woman who walked very humbly with Christ, through good times and very tragic times–had surrendered her sorrow to the Lord. She had experienced that peace that passes understanding, that peace that comes from the very heart of God.
Juanita lit a candle in the window, and prepared to celebrate the birth of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
May the immortal words of the hymnwriter Charles Wesley be our prayer this day:
I rest beneath the Almighty’s shade,
My griefs expire, my troubles cease;
Thou, Lord, on whom my soul is stayed,
Wilt keep me still in perfect peace.
Thanks be to God. Amen.