"What One Thought Can Create"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 23, 2007
Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25
emphasis is Peace. All of us find peace among the most elusive
qualities in our lives. There is no way to sustain it day after day
on the level we would prefer.
Most personal e-mails I have received recently describe how the senders are being shredded by the demands of their schedules. Anyone watching the 6:00 p.m. local news observes the grid locked highways as people are returning to their homes from work each evening. We turn on our radios and listen to both sides of the annual debate concerning saying Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays to people who find hearing the former greeting offensive.
It appears that we never run out of the controversies happening somewhere in our midst. We appear to thrive on alternative points of view. Everyone from editorial writers to talk show hosts appear to thrive on all the ways we Americans are divided.
If we paused to analyze our experiences, we would find that there is seldom a day when our environment is not demanding something from us. As we examine our lesson today, the story recounting Mary's pregnancy is packed with the most incredible stress-producing element imaginable, particularly in the Jewish culture during that time.
The drama of our lesson unfolds with Mary and Joseph having become engaged. Shortly after their plans were formed, Mary learned that she was pregnant. For Joseph there could be no peace until this issue was resolved under Hebrew Law.
In Matthew's Gospel, one of God's angels came to Joseph in a dream and instructed him to name the baby “Jesus,” and told him to proceed with the marriage. Regardless of our beliefs and the theology surrounding this event, there could be no peace for Joseph or Mary.
When we study Jesus' ministry, peace was equally as elusive for him as it is for us. The pages of the Gospels are filled with episodes that disturbed the Master. During an early phase of Jesus' ministry, he was not happy with his Mother. A bride's family had run out of wine during a wedding feast and Mary wanted Jesus to do something about it. He said, “You must not tell me what to do.”
During his traveling ministry Jesus was not happy with the fraudulent business practices taking place on the Temple grounds. He was unhappy with his disciples' inability to grasp his message. He was unhappy with their collective struggle within the group over the self-importance of each. He was stressed with the demands that people were making on him. Once he got in a boat to escape from them only to find that they followed him around the lake. Their neediness evoked his compassion. He experienced no peace in the garden prior to his arrest. One account described Jesus as perspiring drops of blood while he prayed.
Life is difficult, particularly when others do not share our point of view, when our work environment seemingly makes extreme demands on us, or when we feel as though we have very little control over our lives. When every day presents us with the same menu of challenges and we do nothing about it, our immune systems can be compromised, our blood pressure can soar and our values may begin to decay. We cringe whenever some preacher tells us that we can walk the talk and experience peace by having more faith and trust in God.
A number of years ago, one of my former congregations had a series of Lenten services on Wednesday nights. I had arrived early to prepare the nursery for our children when I heard the loud voice of a man using the pay phone that hung on the wall just outside the church kitchen. The volume of the man's voice carried everywhere. Without any effort, I could hear everything that he was saying. He was extremely agitated with something his son had done and even told him to “shut up and listen.” He seasoned his demanding tones with numerous expletives.
I could not resist my desire to see who this was so I peeked around the corner. To my surprise, I had never seen him before. A half hour later, he was introduced as our speaker for the evening. He spoke very eloquently and quite sincerely about the love of Christ.
For years I thought of him as a hypocrite, until I found myself any number of times in a frenzied state causing me to compartmentalize my feelings before moving into another setting where a different state of mine was required.
For example, I once had to conduct a funeral of a youth in our church, do a private baptism several hours later and then conduct a wedding in the evening of the same day. Another occasion happened a year ago when I learned that my dad had died. I had to tell my Mother, take her to see my father's remains and continue with several scheduled appointments without missing a beat in what was expected of me.
I had never walked in our speaker's shoes, nor did I know the history that he had with his son. In more recent years, I have come to appreciate someone who, while being in pain himself, could still point with his words to what Jesus said was possible for us. We need to be sensitive to one another when we display our fragile moments. Peace is an elusive quality.
At the risk of sounding as though I am delivering a How To message this morning, I am going to ask the question: Where and how do we find peace? The Gospel of John has Jesus say, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give you peace as the world does. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” Of course, these words came during a resurrection appearance. His understanding was now coming from the other side of life's curtain where his knowledge was far greater then it was when he was in his solid form.
We learn from earlier Scriptures, however, that Jesus withdrew to the hills to be alone. He removed himself from the source of his stress. He sought solitude. Would this do it for us? It might represent a start, but getting away from the perceived source of our frustration, anxiety or pain is only a partial solution at best.
People, who have left their jobs because of the way they have been treated, probably have left several jobs during their careers. There are no peace producing jobs, school systems, church families and environments that will offer us an island of tranquility. They simply are not out there.
If we screamed out to God, No matter what I do or where I go, I cannot find a moment's peace. Please, please dear God, grant me this one request B allow me to experience the abundance of your love and peace.” What do we suppose God might say to us? Let us speculate for a moment how God might answer.
God could respond, “I cannot do as you ask.” We would ask, “Why not? You are God! You created everything there is. Surely you can grant me this one request.” God would answer, “I cannot, and it is not because I do not love you. I do love you. I have placed the potential for peace inside of you. The reason you cannot experience peace is because you continue to look for it in all the places that cannot give it.” What are we to do? Is there one thought that can lead us to peace?
All week I have been thinking about what I might say about the theme of Peace. On Wednesday, I was dashing from one activity to another. Seeing Kay Patterson at the Ann Arundel Medical Center was my next stop. I was thinking about my message as I approached the off ramp at Parole.
The traffic was abnormally backed up. As I got closer to Jennifer Street, I saw that the light governing the traffic flow was not working. The outage was probably caused by the powerful wind gusts we have experienced recently. Drivers had to take turns at Christmas time, at one of the busiest intersections right at the corner of Annapolis Mall, a mall where a parking space almost cost us the surrender our first born.
One thought saved me -- I was being tested. I started smiling because I caught myself before I surrendered to all the thoughts that would have judged all the me first drivers who were not taking turns, people who had forgotten what courtesy looks like. I did not question if the traffic light malfunction had been reported nor where the crews were that are suppose to fix these things.
One thought saved my immune system and my spirit from a host of responses that would not have helped turn on that traffic signal or helped me get to the hospital any sooner. This saving moment took place on Wednesday but I realized that my week was not over.
By Thursday, I had lost my date book. In 41 years, I have never lost it. This meant that I would have to spend time trying to recall my meetings in January as well as securing cell phone numbers for about 40 people. I was distracted beyond belief. As I was going through my schedule on Thursday, I was also mentally walking through every place I had been the day before. The loss of my date book was like being in the middle of the Atlantic on a ship when the hydraulics failed that govern the functioning of the rudder.
Independent of each other, two of my friends who know my spiritual orientation asked, “Have you talked to your angels? Have you asked them to help you find it?” I had not. On my way home from work, I did just that. I swallowed my pride and asked my spirit guides to help me find it. When I got home, I told Lois that I had looked everywhere in the house, my office and my book was nowhere to be found. She found it in less than a minute. It was my fear-based perception that had prevented me from finding it. I failed the test.
Lamenting and grieving the loss of the book would have only further clouded my reasoning. By letting go of my need for the book and asking others to help me find it, I regained my peace. I had forgotten that my rudder was not my book; it was God.
Radiating an inner peace was a constant goal even for Jesus. I suspect Jesus had to continue to remind himself what he prayed in the garden B “Not my will but thine be done.” We can also see from the Gospel lesson this morning that as long as Joseph believed that his life was unfolding according to a divine purpose, even a purpose he may not have understood at the time, nothing in his external world would defeat him.
Joseph was prepared to trust “Not my will but thine be done” as he married his bride, traveled to Bethlehem near her due date, received word that the Inn was full, delivered a baby in a feeding stall, received many people from shepherds to Persian Astrologers and then fled into Egypt to protect their infant son. The Scriptures tell us that Mary pondered all of these matters in her heart.
Most of us do not know how God may be using us to influence others. Our peace can be preserved by one thought -- God is in charge and we are the students here, students who are always being tested. When we think we are so informed about our faith B that is the moment when our tests come fast and furious. Having this one thought can prevent our loss of peace. It prevents us from personalizing the behavior and attitudes of others. This thought can prevent the stress caused by being in too big a hurry.
If we treasure our inner peace, we must keep reminding ourselves that there is no mountain we cannot climb when God is on the other end of our rope. God is in charge and our main responsibility is to “Row, row, row our boats gently down the stream. Merrily, Merrily, Merrily -- life is but a dream.” Remember -- the next time something distracts you or tries to take away your peace, remind yourself, “This is just a test.” Instead of choosing frustration as a response, go to your inner island of tranquility knowing that you have just overcome your world exactly as Jesus taught.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
How grateful we are, O God, that you created us with the ability to experience and express peace. We confess that so often we surrender to our passions resulting in irritability and frustration. We often sacrifice our peace on the altar of our unhappiness. Help us to understand that our inner world is controlled by our thoughts and desires. Guide us to follow the Master. When he was overwhelmed, he withdrew to the solitude he found in the hills. Inspire us to enter our inner temples of stillness where our spirits may be nourished with thoughts of peace. We cannot give to others what we do not have. Inspire us to approach each moment that calls for stress to become an opportunity for us to radiate our peace. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Loving God, we come this morning to celebrate on this fourth Sunday of Advent the marvelous gift you gave to humanity in Bethlehem. While humanity remained locked within the cares of everyday experiences, you gave us a reflection of yourself when absolutely no one was looking.
As your seed continues to sprout and evolve within our minds, so does our understanding. When Jesus was born, few people were aware that true wealth cannot be found in gold and silver, nor in possessions that thieves can break in and steal. Few people understood that true power was not located in their authority or responsibilities. Few people knew that the Law was useless in perfecting a spirit that could still troubled waters. Few people understood that we grow by giving away our gifts of kindness, forgiveness and friendship. When Jesus came and taught his listeners about such things, centuries later we were left with a window through which to view who you created all of us to be. We thank you for that window. Thank you for allowing us to know that you love us even when we are so distracted, we cannot experience it.
We know that there are people for whom this season is a challenge. Bless those who are working through the transition of loved ones. Bless with peace those who remain anxious about loved ones locked in difficult circumstances that remain beyond their control. Bless those who have misplaced their faith and cannot believe anymore. Touch their lives during this season with love that expects nothing in return. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .