"Our Elusive Peace”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – December 21, 2014

Centenary United Methodist Church

Romans 12:9-18; Luke 1:26-38

    I think we could all have some fun this morning if I went around the sanctuary with the microphone and asked each of you to tell us about a time in your life when you lost your peace.  Your responses would probably reflect what everyone else feels: "Are you kidding me?  Which one?  Where do I start?" 

    Once I did this in a small group and a man gave an example that really sent my imagination swirling. His answer was, "Every morning I lose what little peace I had while I slept as soon I get out of bed.  Do you have any idea what it is like to have four teenage daughters and one bathroom for them to share?"

    We all have our favorite stories.  We also have our favorite expressions for describing them.  We are likely to say, "That was the straw that broke the camel's back." "What's next?  Things always happen in threes."  "When it rains, it pours." 

    This morning we have lighted the fourth candle on the Advent Wreath and the theme is Peace.  As the title of my message suggests, holding on to our peace is a very difficult task.  We give it up so easily.  Why is that if we treasure it so much? 

    Late one afternoon, a husband was waiting for his wife to get home from work in Washington D.C.'s rush hour.  The phone ran and his wife was calling to tell him that her battery was dead.  Fortunately, she was driving a little, light-weight Volkswagen Beetle.  He said, "Honey, its rush hour and you can jump start the car yourself."  He patiently instructed her to release the emergency brake, put the gearshift in neutral, and gently push the car out of the parking area while turning the steering wheel.  Then push the car down the incline of the parking lot and jump in, push in the clutch while moving the gearshift into third gear and pop the clutch.  The engine will automatically start and you'll be fine."

    She responded by saying, "I'm in a dress.  I am wearing heels and I am not doing that.  When can I expect you?"  The husband responded, "Go into the building and get a man to help with this.  You are clear across town and it is rush hour.  Someone will get your car started for you."  There was a pause and she said, "I am not doing that either. Please drive over here and start this car!" 

    So, I drove across town in rush hour to rescue Lois.  My peace went out the window.  I got there ten years later and showed her how easy it was to jump start her car.  When I finished my demonstration, Lois looked at me with a look that communicated volumes.  She did not need to speak.  Yes, I was the guilty party in this episode.  She got into my car and drove home.  

    Our Scripture lesson this morning describes the dilemma that Mary faced.  Once she learned that her pregnancy was part of God's purpose for her life, she accepted the fact and said, "I am the Lord's servant.  May it happen to me as you have said."  Upon hearing Mary's words, the angelic messenger left her. (Luke 1:38)  The pivotal point here is that she knew that God's purpose had been set into motion by her pregnancy.  Our issue is that we are seldom aware ahead of time that some episode in our life has a purposeful divine energy behind it. 

    After a lot of drama, Joseph accepts her story.  Following this, Mary traveled to visit her cousin Elizabeth for three months. In Mary's ninth month, she learned that the pair would have to make the ten-day journey to Bethlehem.  Caesar had decreed that everyone must register for Roman tax purposes.  Mary knew no midwives in Bethlehem.  She became very anxious about having her baby so far away from her home and family.

    In our Bible Study with Adam Hamilton's books and videos as resources, he described Mary's state-of-mind concerning the trip to Bethlehem.  Here are his words:

Mary broke down in tears and shouted, 'God, how could you!?  You came and asked me to bear this child, and I agreed.  I told you that I was your handmaiden.  I took on the shame that went with a hurried marriage.  I endured the looks and whispers as I walked among the people in my home town. And, now, I won't be able to have my baby in Nazareth?  You had to take that away from me too?  Why is this happening?  What did I do that was wrong? I do not deserve this!  You could have easily had Caesar put off his decision until I delivered this baby. You are God! How could you allow this happen?'   

    Obviously, the drama going on all around us pulls at us, confuses us, causes us to feel alone and there are times when we see no light at the end of the tunnel.  You can ask, "When we light the Advent Candle of Peace, what are we talking about?  How can we ever be at peace when a hundred and thirty children were killed recently by the Taliban in Pakistan.  How can we think of peace when 350 health-care workers, including 11 physicians, and 6,500 West Africans have succumb to the Ebola virus. The world is going crazy and we are lighting a Candle of Peace?"

    Most of us are familiar with the Star of David.  It has six points or it looks like two triangles on top of each other. One triangle has a point facing upward and the other triangle has one pointing downward.  This symbol had its origin in the Sanskrit Tradition of India where it first appeared.  The star illustrates the tension between the desire to develop our spiritual nature and attraction that comes from our material experiences.  There is a perpetual tug-of-war inside of each of us that causes our peace to get away from us. 

    However, suppose our material world is perfect once we understand what it was designed to do?  There can be no better testing arena for our spiritual growth than what the Star of David symbolizes. Our experiences come and go, but during the process of our living through each of them, we make many discoveries about ourselves and our relationship with God.

    Jesus said, "I want you to let the light that can come from your spirits to shine in front of everyone.  In this way, they will recognize with grateful hearts that God's presence is among them."  (Matthew 5:16)   People whose spirits succumb to the chaos of their personal experiences, can live bitter, frustrated and angry lives.  We were called to be a light in such dark times.

    The people that have learned how to hold on to the wheat of their calling and know how to blow the chaff away are those who know that life has been a wonderful growth process.  These are the people that reflect the wisdom of the couplet, "Two people looked through the prison bars.  One saw mud, the other saw stars."  The quality of our lives has a lot to do with our attitudes and this is where we find our peace.  We have the ability to choose peace as our attitude when what is happening in our lives could easily produce anger in the lives of others.

    One morning Dr. Clarence Forsberg, a faculty member of the University Hospital in Chicago, was in his office reading the Tribune.  The front page story featured the tremendous riots that were taking place in the city the day following Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination.  A series of photographs captured the confrontation between angry mobs and those trying to maintain order.  

    Readers could see the hatred on the faces of people who were throwing fire bombs. Individuals were smashing store front windows and looting.  In the midst of these dramatic pictures, Dr. Forsberg thought he saw something intriguing in one of the pictures.  He went to the Chicago Tribune and asked the staff to enlarge one of the pictures for him.   They did, and he used that picture for years as he taught hundreds of his medical students. 

    In the middle of the front page pictorial of those nightmarish events, he noticed someone dressed in a white coat with a medical bag kneeling beside an injured person lying in the street.  The enlarged photograph clearly revealed that this figure was one of Dr. Forsberg's students who was giving first aid to a victim of the riots.  He had entered the fray as a volunteer. 

    That young intern had no idea that someone would be taking a picture, a picture that would be used for years to instruct countless medical students that were about to assume their new identity as healers.  That one picture spoke volumes and gave the Hippocratic Oath form, depth, and substance.  This is what Jesus was asking us to be when everything appears to be going wrong all around us.

    When Dr. Forsberg spoke to that intern later that week he asked, "How did you maintain your calm in the midst of what was going on around you?"  The intern said, "My focus was on helping a man who had head trauma.  I do not remember anything that was happening around me."  That young intern had learned how to keep the main thing of his life the main thing.

    We do not need to know the meaning of anything that is happening to us.  We do not have the foggiest idea what God's creative plan is doing or how it is unfolding.  All that we know is our role in the midst of it. 

    If we think that Mary had a rough time during her trip to Bethlehem, think of her 33 years later when she recalled the words of the angel, "Don't be afraid, Mary; God has been gracious to you.  You will give birth to a son and he will be king of the descendants of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."  (Luke 1:30f)  The only problem was that Mary was standing at the foot of a cross with tears streaming down her face as her eldest son had only hours to live.  Try to imagine the questions tormenting her mind at that moment. 

    No one could have anticipated how a crucified carpenter would teach the people in the future what a love-filled life looks like even during the most extreme circumstances. 

    Mary would never have understood what had just happened with her son's death.  Her faith and hope had been anchored to a spectacular event happening in the material world during her lifetime.  She could not have realized that something spectacular did happen. 

    Mary had to trust that whatever was happening, it had God's creativity written all over it.  She could not see that creativity while in the midst of her pain and confusion.   A question for us this morning is this:   Can we have this same blind-trust in God when we experience events that tempt us to surrender our peace?