peace of God
The Second Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 55, Psalm 25, Romans 15:4-13, St. Luke 21:25-33
Peace for the Asking
Delwyn was a short, skinny convict in his 30s, pale as paste, who hailed from South Dakota but had run afoul of the law in Texas. I met him in a prison I visited on a weekly basis for many years.
Each time I entered, Delwyn would greet me with a smile and each time I asked him how he was he would beam even brighter and say, “I am blessed!” He was one of those folks in whom the Holy Spirit appears to have taken up residence and then turned on all the lights and left every one of them burning.
And I encountered Delwyn many times. Long after he had completed the 18-month pre-release program Prison Fellowship operates in this particular prison, there he sat. Completing the program places no obligation whatsoever on the parole board to grant a man’s release.
Year after year, some prisoners receive a set-off, as it’s called, and after they have done everything required of them they remain on the unit for an eternity. Delwyn was one of these. I don’t know the number of years he languished in that prison but I do recall somebody telling me, “Delwyn’s got the record.”
He had served more time since entering the program than any other inmate before him. He may still hold that record.
My role as a volunteer at that time was to teach a journalism class and to oversee the prison’s monthly newsletter. When I taught my guys how to conduct an interview, I wanted to add practical experience to the instruction. I told them to bring a volunteer to class, an inmate who would sit for a mock interview.
One week, I walked in and there sat Delwyn, smiling. I asked how he was and he said, “I am blessed!” I assigned one of our class members to do the interview.
Now, asking a prisoner about his crime can be a delicate business and I coached my guys to probe gently and, if they met resistance, to move on. A mock interview wasn’t worth creating bad blood. These guys live in confining quarters.
The interviewer went to work and Delwyn did not balk in the least. In fact, his story gushed out like water from a fire hydrant. Still a teenager, he lived with a female relative and her two sons. The woman told Delwyn and her younger son that the older son, a grown man, was demon-possessed. She said there was only one way to eliminate the demon.
One night, she led Delwyn and her younger son to the man’s room and while he slept they fell upon him with hammers and murdered him.
As Delwyn spilled out the story, he might have been describing a day’s work in the prison laundry. Not a sniffle. He said he had confessed and repented and made peace with God; he could do no more.
I found myself wondering often afterward if it were truly possible to put away an act so heinous and find peace. Can it be? How can it be?
The answer comes thundering down upon us today from the eighth century before Christ in the voice of the prophet Isaiah: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord. How much higher are His thoughts and His ways than ours? “As the heavens are higher than the earth.”
Man’s shriveled understanding does not bind God. God knows a mercy beyond our imaginings, a grace above our dreams. With God, all things are possible . . . and Delwyn’s salvation is one of those things.
In this season of Advent, we celebrate the arrival in the world of the Prince of Peace. Peace pours off of Him in a torrent and falls like a spring shower on those He has made in His image. We bathe in His peace. It washes away the grime of our sin and leaves us blushing like babes in the pink of new life.
Those many centuries before the Prince of Peace came into His world, our Father told of this advent by the word of His prophet Isaiah. Isaiah publishes the gospel of peace in his time and place to disobedient Israel, which is under threat from a foreign power, urging trust in God for protection.
But his words reverberate through the corridors of time, down to the tribe of Judah in captivity in Babylon two centuries later and to those who return from exile. And, finally, to us as well, universalizing a message addressed first to those threatened with bondage to a human enemy and last to those under the yoke of sin.
Isaiah’s gospel unfolds the coming of Immanuel, God With Us (7:14) – not a disembodied principle or an unknowable being that hovers out there somewhere but a loving God who becomes one of us that He might know our temptations and trials as we know them.
The prophet declares Him the Prince of Peace and the author of an everlasting peace (9:6-7) He will establish at the end of history. This is shalom, the full measure of everything God has promised His people by His covenants. This shalom is the great blessing the priests of God in ancient Israel poured out on His people.
Is it not still so today? “The peace of God which passeth all understanding . . .” It is the peace God provides that establishes us and preserves us in the knowledge and love of God. How do we attain it?
“Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
Can it be? God’s richest blessings on offer at no cost? Is God running a soup kitchen? Indeed He is not. The price of peace is staggering . . . but because God has declared it so His prophet can pronounce our bill paid. Immanuel of chapter 7 is the Prince of Peace of chapter 9 who is the Suffering Servant of chapters 52 and 53. He pays the price in blood.
And so, peace for all! But no. In chapter 48 we read, “’There is no peace,’” says the Lord, “’for the wicked’” (v. 22).
Are not all wicked, damned by their sin? Oh, yes, if not for what God has done. In chapters 54 and 55 the prophet celebrates the saving work of the Servant. We see first the effects of that work, the healing of estrangement and despair.
Servanthood is much on the prophet’s mind, for it is both the way of salvation and the fruit of it. The heritage of God’s people is righteousness. “And their righteousness is from Me,” says the Lord. Now comes the exhortation to receive this righteousness from God that will bring with it restoration and peace.
How can it be? Despite their sins, the people of God can look heavenward now and see not the contorted face of the wrathful God who punished their disobedience with deportation and exile but the serene countenance of a loving Father who will welcome them into the very city of God.
This is a radical idea but it is not beyond the grasp of mortal men. Larry King got it – at least at the head level. The former CNN host is not a Christian but he considered prominent pastors good programming. He was fond of posing two questions to them.
First, is Jesus the one and only way to God? This was his test to determine whether the pastor would look through the camera into the eyes of a post-Christian culture and insist on the gospel truth that we can find salvation in Christ alone.
Question No. 2: Is it possible for a pedophile to find God’s forgiveness and go to heaven? A rapist . . . serial killer . . . war criminal?
Here was a test of the pastor’s trust in God’s grace. The world wants justice. You gonna buy into that jailhouse religion? Does this God of yours who will send a gentle soul of the Buddhist persuasion to hell let a mass murderer off the hook?
So Larry King may not be a Christian but he gets it. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . . but any who turn to this God called Jesus Christ can be redeemed no matter how heinous their crimes against God and man.
Even a Delwyn can attain God’s peace. The Servant has purchased their peace. Those who accept this free gift can enter into the inestimable privilege of servanthood.
“Incline your ear, and come to Me. Hear, and your soul shall live.” Come to God in obedience. Your obligation and your reward are the same, faithful service to your Master. Claim the Servant’s sacrifice as your own and become His fellow heir. Carry that sacrifice to the Father and present it to Him as payment for your sins.
“And I will make an everlasting covenant with you – the sure mercies of David.”
That covenant God made with David contained irrevocable promises of eternal mercy and peace that would be fulfilled through a Messiah who would come from the line of David. This Davidic King, we now see, is the suffering Servant. Is the eternal kingdom to be ruled by a Servant?
David the king was a witness to the power and glory of God. But now we see that he did not build a nation for himself but a platform to declare the glory of God as King of all nations. David’s royal heir will take His place upon that throne and rule over every nation. But He will not conquer with spear and bow as His illustrious father did.
He will overcome the nations with His incomprehensible, sacrificial love. Those “sure mercies of David” will spill out upon God’s people and overflow onto all nations. The Prince of Peace is David’s Son, the Servant who conquers to pardon and whose pardon imposes peace upon His creation.
Go to Him! Go to Him! His pardon is yours for the asking. Ask and ye shall receive.
“Seek the Lord while He may be found . . . Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts. Let him return to the Lord . . . and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.”
Who may gain this pardon? He who humbles himself and makes petition for the pardon that proffers peace. Is Delwyn forever beyond the pale of God’s peace? Was King David, adulterer and murderer, too depraved to enter into it? Who are you, o man, to decide? Are God’s thoughts your thoughts? Are your ways God’s ways?
“My word . . . shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please.” God’s infallible word reveals His purpose and His plan, but it does more. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (St. John 1:1).
God’s Word puts on flesh and dwells among men. God’s Word acts in history, bending history to His will. God’s Word puts God’s plan in motion and achieves His purpose, and that purpose is pardon.
With pardon comes peace, the great blessing. Peace upon the entire creation, peace that knows no end. This is the peace He has left with us, not peace as man gives – no parole board, willing or not, can dispense it — but as only the Prince of Peace can give (St. John 14:27).
“For you shall go out with joy, and be led out with peace; the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing before you, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands . . . And it shall be to the Lord for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
Giving glory to God is our very purpose in creation. When we live according to our purpose we align ourselves with our Creator and we reflect His glory as the moon gathers light from the sun and distributes it on the planet.
The great banquet God spreads before us, saying, “Let your soul delight itself in abundance,” is the peace that comes from the pardon that is ours because our Lord has paid the price in full. His great heart yearns to pardon abundantly all who will forsake their wicked ways and return to Him.
All He asks is that we ask. And that is all He asks of any of us and all of us.
These days, Delwyn lives in a town not far from Fort Worth and drives a delivery truck. I had not thought of him for some time until on Thanksgiving Day a couple of years ago I happened upon a letter he posted on Facebook:
Dear Family, Today, I’m spending the day with Mother and my brother’s wife and son; Carrie & Caleb. What a blessing! And I’m thankful for who I belong to; To Jesus; to my family; to my friends. You may know the Lord has left me one dozen chickens to care for, and how one of the hens got her leg broken when I was tossing logs off the wood pile, last year.
So, `MaryLu` was in the basement (hospital) for a couple months. I prayed for her, and anointed her leg with oil. The wound stayed clean, and healed amazingly. Anyway, it’s been cold this week; and the chickens cuddle up together, in the hen house, each night. Before dusk, is feeding time and the other day one of the hens came running up to me! All the others were busy eating (I mean, getting after it!), and here comes MaryLu. Bending over, I said; “Well now MaryLu all the food’s over there, Girl”.
She came right up, reaching to climb in my lap. So I picked her up and brought her inside, feeding her at the place her food and water was kept last year. Twenty minutes later, I came back downstairs and she was looking around for a place to fly up and roost for the night. Picking her up, I sat her in the little bed of hay & towel. Guess what she did; She layed right down and began pecking the hay up close to her. Before I went to bed, I went down to talk to her and pet her a minute. And ya know what? None of the other hens got treated like that, but I would have picked any of them up if they had come to me. You ever wonder why The Lord our God treats some people so up close and personal? Why does He take some in His very hand, and gently place them into His favorite place for them; into the very dwelling place He stays? And so many others just stay on the ground fending for themselves? Tell me if you know. And tell me if ya love me too, like I do you. Take care now, and have a very Happy Thanksgiving! Yours Truly, Delwyn.
So wrote Delwyn the murderer. So wrote Delwyn, a man who did forsake his wicked ways and run to God and ask for His eternal pardon. So wrote Delwyn, a man at peace. Amen.
The Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany
Habakkuk 1:12-2:4, 9-14, Psalm 15, Colossians 3:12-17, St. Matthew 13:24-30
Audio: Living in the New Creation
Living in the New Creation
One day in 2010, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts announced from the bench the death of Marty Ginsburg, husband of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Observers saw Justice Antonin Scalia wiping tears from his eyes.
And why not? He went way back with the Ginsburgs. He and Ruth had been contemporaries as law professors and had served together on the federal appeals court for the District of Columbia. He was a Catholic and she a Jew but they were both outer-borough New Yorkers and they both loved opera.
They not only attended the opera together but went souvenir-shopping when they traveled. On a trip to India, they shared an elephant. The plentiful Antonin Scalia sat in front. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that lean, jut-jawed champion of women’s rights, sat in back. The question was inevitable.
“It had to do,” she said, deadpan, “with distribution of weight.”
And they and their families and a circle of friends had a tradition of sharing New Year’s Eve. One regular guest, a high-ranking lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, said – referring to Scalia’s reputation as a hunter – “Scalia kills it and Marty cooks it.”
So, right there on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, Scalia wiped away tears at the public announcement of Marty Ginsburg’s death. And it mattered not a trifle that regarding the cases that came before the court he and Ruth disagreed – and disagreed vehemently – about just about everything.
He was a Constitutional originalist, committed to the principle that the Founding Fathers’ intent should be primary when judges interpret the law. She was and is as liberal as any jurist who has sat on the high court, ever ready to revise the Constitution to accommodate changes in society and culture.
In a case that resulted in Virginia Military Institute’s opening its doors to young women, regarded by some as the capstone of Ruth Ginsburg’s lifelong battle for gender equality, Scalia growled in dissent, “This is not the interpretation of a Constitution but the creation of one.”
But he made sure to complete his dissent in time to deliver it to her while she was still writing the majority opinion. “He absolutely ruined my weekend,” she said, “but my opinion is ever so much better because of his stinging dissent.”
She said, “As annoyed as you might be about his zinging dissent, he’s so utterly charming, so amusing, so sometimes outrageous, you can’t help but say, ‘I’m glad that he’s my friend or he’s my colleague.’”
He said, “If you can’t disagree ardently with your colleagues about some issues of law and yet personally still be friends, get another job, for Pete’s sake.”
They were, in her words just after Scalia died last year, “best buddies.” And friendship is important and we should celebrate it but there’s something else in their relationship we can learn from. Their mutual warmth and respect made the Supreme Court better.
Spirited debate, done civilly, sharpens the arguments on both sides. And the public nature of their friendship despite their differences at law said out loud for all to hear that the institution they served could function just fine despite polarized views among its members.
A nine-member court is, after all, a community, something like a church.
“Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering;” St. Paul instructs the members of the church at Colossae, “bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.
“But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful.”
We must of course consider what the “therefore” is there for. The apostle has been explaining to his charges in Colossae that the church is a “new creation.” Because it is without precedent, it must incubate relations among its members such as the world has never known. It must adopt an original rule of life to inform and govern those relations.
We find Paul using terms applied to Israel in days gone by – “God’s chosen ones,” “holy” and “beloved” – because the church is the “new Israel.” In this new creation, the standard under the new covenant that regulates it is mutual love.
He’s not sketching some Utopian dream; he’s not describing a scene from heaven he saw in a vision. He’s telling them – and us – to treat one another with kindness, meekness, patience and forgiveness.
The word for “kindness” is interesting. It’s used for wine that has aged long enough to lose its harshness and take on a mellow quality. It’s also the word Jesus uses when He says, “My yoke is easy” (Matthew 11:30).
And, yes, this is the Jesus who has modeled for us these same qualities the apostle is urging upon us. This Jesus, who is the perfect representation of God, in whose image we are made. This Jesus, in whom we are forgiven and who calls us to forgive one another.
In the church that is the new creation the world should see the new man, created in the image of God and re-created, or born again, through His grace. The world will know us by how we love one another.
When we do, we demolish the walls that have forever kept men apart. In the verse that precedes our lesson for today Paul has said that in this new creation, “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free . . .”
Well now. Everyone has forgotten all those old grudges, buried all the hatchets, hugged his old enemies. Not a lot of wiggle room there. Kumbaya, Lord, kumbaya.
Maybe he’s kidding. He’s probably putting us on. We’re not angels, are we?
Except for one thing. Here’s the next phrase: “but Christ is all and in all.” Christ has brought about a spiritual revolution. If Christ is in you, you are not as you were before. You have put off the “old man” and put on the “new man” who is a member of that “new creation” which is Christ’s church.
When Christ becomes everything to everyone, “love, which is the bond of perfection” pulls everyone together as the peace of God rules in your hearts. You have become one body, in which every member maintains a vital interest in the welfare of every other member.
Paul’s overarching concern is unity in the church. Certain recent “visitors” have called its theology and practices into question, and the result has been dissension. The way to overcome it, to achieve peace individually and corporately, is through love, which is possible when every member relies not on his own understanding but on the Christ who dwells within him.
C. Lucas put it this way: “the treasure of Christ’s spirit resides in the very ordinary clay of the local congregation of his people in Colossae, as elsewhere.” No, Paul isn’t putting us on.
He adds: “And be thankful.”
If I tried to examine every quality of this new man in Christ I might make you late for the Super Bowl, and I’m far too savvy a preacher to run that risk. I’ll settle for three – forgiveness, humility and gratitude – because I’m fascinated by how they bleed into one another in the Bible.
To attain forgiveness we must first acknowledge our need for forgiveness. He who makes no such acknowledgement is an unrepentant sinner, wise in his own understanding and proud in the imagination of his heart. He thinks himself righteous.
He may claim an innate perfection. I remember an old country song. The chorus goes:
Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble
When you’re perfect in every way.
I can’t wait
To look in the mirror.
Cause I get better looking each day.
To know me is to love me.
I must be a hell of a man.
Oh Lord It’s hard to be humble,
But I’m doing the best that I can.
More likely, he who sees no need for forgiveness assumes his many assets far outweigh his few liabilities and considers himself justified in the balance. He has not considered well Paul’s words addressed to the Romans: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).
So, begging forgiveness requires humility, an understanding of our own frailty and utter dependence on the God who made us to cleanse us and make us fit to come into His holy presence. No sin may enter there.
Any who will not forgive do not know God’s forgiveness. All who understand what they have been forgiven will freely forgive those who have wronged them.
When we summon the humility to beg forgiveness, we receive it, for God promises it to all who ask. And when we receive it, we are profoundly grateful.
I have discovered that gratitude is the hallmark of a person in whom Christ’s Spirit resides. It’s impossible to miss for anyone who has a child who wandered for years and decades in darkness and at long last emerged in God’s glorious light.
Gratitude pours off of him in buckets. He can’t say “thank you” often enough – both to God and to those who stood by him through all the trials and provocations and helped him find his way into the light. Anyone who finds within him the humility to beg forgiveness will be overcome with gratitude when he receives it.
When this spirit prevails in the members of a church it will produce peace in the church, and peace must prevail for the church to function effectively as the body of Christ.
Does that mean we must always agree? In your dreams. But Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg show us that we can disagree, even vigorously, and be at peace, that we can make each other better and make our church better in the bargain. And not they alone.
At the beginning of his brilliant academic career, C. S. Lewis could be a bit of a bully. Some of his early students suffered under his scorn.
In his early 30s – more or less concurrent with his giving up his embrace of atheism – he wrote to a friend that he had recognized he was in danger of turning into “a hardened bigot shouting every one down till he had no friends left.” Lewis said, “You have no idea how much of my time I spend just hating people whom I disagree with.”
Many of you know of Lewis’ friendship with the other members of the literary discussion group known as the Inklings, among them fellow Christian authors J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. But this Christian conservative had other friends who were atheists and liberals and socialists.
He loved to debate and he would take on friend or foe, conservative or liberal, Christian or atheist. George Watson was first a student of Lewis at Oxford and later a colleague on the faculty at Cambridge.
Watson said, “Lewis was a Christian conservative from around the age of thirty, which is to say before I knew him; and since I am neither one nor the other, there was never any question of doctrinal influence. If I was not exactly a friend, still less was I a disciple. That in no way altered my sense of admiration and affection . . .
“We both thrived on dissent . . . (He was) the best teacher I ever had, and the best colleague, he did not ask or expect me to share his convictions.”
Watson said Lewis’ “twin passions . . . were people and arguments, but he did not often make the mistake of confusing them. Good people can believe in wicked things . . . like race war and class war. Lewis could be polite, even friendly, to such people. What aroused his trenchancy was evil opinion.”
He provided an example of Lewis’ aggressive attack on the argument of a communist scientist, all the while making it plain that it was communism and not its advocate he was lambasting.
Lewis fell back on a deep humility that acknowledged that he didn’t have all the answers and could always learn from others. At Oxford, he served as president of a discussion group known as the Socratic Club. In a debate with him there, the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe catalogued the deficiencies of Lewis’ book “Miracles.”
His response? He promptly sat down and rewrote it, demonstrating what his opponent called his “honesty and seriousness.” Truth always mattered most for him. He loved to debate not to parade his wit and learning but to bore down to the truth.
I pray that for us what seeps up from Lewis’ example is a sense of proportion. People of other faiths or no faith at all are made in the image of God. Those of other Christian denominations and traditions for the most part agree with us on the Trinity, incarnation and resurrection. That’s not nothin.’
Within the Anglican world we have important differences with liberal churches, so stark that we look back and ask ourselves how we could begin in the same place and spin off into such radically different orbits. Still, we’re all Anglicans.
Inside our own body we will disagree on various points. This church has split before. I pray that before it splits again all concerned take a deep breath and consider the grace and even charm in times of dispute that others have modeled for us. If C. S. Lewis could summon humility, you and I ought to be able to.
I don’t mean to make gracious disagreement sound easy. It often isn’t. Sometimes the mere presence of those of repugnant opinions can make the skin crawl. I believe abortion is murder. Making cocktail party chitchat with those who speak breezily of the “right” to choose an abortion has proved a burden for me.
So, I return to one sentence: “Good people can believe in wicked things.” Even if that is not so, we will not win them over if we refuse to speak with them. And if we can disagree respectfully with them, surely we can do so with one another.
A mentor for me in this regard was our late Bp. Grote. He didn’t shrink from conflict but neither did he seek it and he appeared never to take disagreement personally. I remember well Bp. Sutton’s eulogy at Bp. Grote’s funeral, his recollection that his friend seemed to be bathed in a perpetual peace.
To have peace, he said, is to have Christ who is our peace. Forgiveness, humility, gratitude . . . peace. Let the peace of God rule in your hearts. It’s the way of love. It’s the way of unity in the body. Amen.