Sunday, December 4, 2022

Sermon: “When Words Aren’t Enough: A Biblical Song of Peace”, Luke 2:25-32 (December 4, 2022)


As Idahoans, we all appreciate the beauty and grandeur of nature. Even someone like me, who doesn’t generally leave the house except under extreme duress, can’t help but being moved by a drive through the mountains or a beautiful sunset or the first snow in the foothills. But have you ever tried to take a picture of it? No matter what angle you take it from, no matter what the lighting is like, no matter how you compose the image, the photo never winds up doing justice to your experience of the view. There’s somehow something fundamentally different about KNOWING what something looks like and EXPERIENCING it for yourself. Otherwise, people would have stopped traveling to see the Grand Canyon or the Great Pyramids after the invention of photography. Even when we try to supplement a photo by describing the view’s personal effect on us, we usually wind up resignedly admitting, “I guess you just had to be there.” No matter how detailed a picture your words paint, it can never match the lived experience.

Everywhere you look this time of year, people are passing around messages of peace like pictures of their vacation. Because the angels famously announced Jesus’ birth by proclaiming peace in Luke 2:14 – “Glory to God in Heaven, and peace on earth” – this idea gets sprinkled liberally on Christmas cards and decorations throughout December. We work hard throughout the month to manufacture warm and fuzzy feelings that we then label as “peace”. But if we’re honest, how many of us actually experience this time of year as especially “peaceful”? How often do we encounter peace as something deeper than an intellectual exercise or a theoretical good?

The truth is that, while most of us know ABOUT peace, few of us KNOW real peace within our hearts – peace that completely changes our perspective on everything, that somehow completes us; peace that cannot be shaken. We count our blessings and are grateful that we’re not living in a war-torn nation, but we don’t feel that bone-deep sense of calm and well-being assuring us that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” We’ve seen the photos, so to speak, but we’ve never been there for ourselves.

I’m convinced that Simeon was in the same boat as most of us are. According to scripture, he was a righteous and devout man with whom the Holy Spirit dwelt. He KNEW that God’s promise would be fulfilled, and Israel WOULD be restored. He fully believed in God’s peace. He’d heard God’s Word his whole life and knew it to be true without a shadow of a doubt. But that was all it was – knowledge that happened to be based in faith.

It wasn’t until he HELD GOD’S VERY WORD IN HIS OWN ARMS that God’s peace truly washed over and around and through him, that peace became a personal experience instead of just intellectual certainty. It was the act of actually encountering Jesus – seeing God’s salvation in human form, recognizing that it was given for all people, and realizing the immediacy and reality of it all – that finally allowed him to experience the divine peace that he had known about all his life.

Nothing was quantitatively different for him after the moment he spent with Jesus in his arms: he still had to face the challenges and concerns of everyday life, he was still living under Roman oppression, he was still waiting for God’s salvation to actually change anything out in the world. And yet, HE was different. He had experienced TRUE peace. And it impacted him so profoundly that he reacted in one of the most human ways possible: he sang. The peace he felt in Christ’s presence overflowed and poured out from his heart for everyone to hear. And it was beautiful.

Of course, hearing his song, it’s understandable that we, too, would want to experience the same peace that Simeon found. But in our enthusiasm, we forget what it was that actually led to Simeon’s experience. All too often, we begin our own search for peace by trying to subtract things from our life. We say that December is too busy, too commercialized, too stressful. All we have to do to find peace, we advise one another, is to cut down our commitments, avoid the mall, and downsize our gift-giving. And these things DO help, to an extent. But trying to “Marie Kando” peace into your life is like looking at a photograph. Getting rid of things can only ever offer a facsimile, a copy of the peace that our hearts truly yearn for. It’s a very NICE replica – lovely, really – but not the same as the real thing.

One of my favorite definitions of peace comes from an unknown source. It says, “[Peace] does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and be calm in your heart.” Peace is not the absence of war, of conflict, of problems; it’s the presence of something else. Simeon recognized this. His experience of peace didn’t come from the eradication of the things that troubled him. It didn’t come from a removal of uncertainty or of conflict. It came from a new presence in his life that hadn’t been there before: God incarnate, Christ the Lord.

This is why “Peace” is such a prominent theme during Advent and Christmas, why the angels proclaimed it in their song to the shepherds. Because the ONE ADDITION to the world that can guarantee peace is the very thing that was given to the world over 2000 years ago: the embodied love of God, which we experience most fully through Jesus Christ. When we encounter Jesus for ourselves – his vulnerability, his quiet strength, his divinity, and most of all, his love, that’s when we take the first step towards building a real relationship with God and experiencing that true peace.

But it’s just the first step. Christ wasn’t born just so that those who recognize him can enjoy a personal sense of inner peace; he came to bring “peace on EARTH”, to “prepare salvation for ALL people”. If all we do is tell others about the peace we’ve found in Christ, then we’re being selfish: we’re willing to share the photos, but we’re keeping the experience to ourselves. Simeon teaches us how we should react to the experience of God’s peace – we should celebrate it, and then allow it to flow out from our hearts and into the world, in song, in action, and in all that we are. We need to invite our human siblings to join us in our experience of peace, so that they can experience it for themselves.

Both frustratingly and appropriately, it’s difficult to explain what this is like with words alone. Fortunately, there’s a song by John Mayer, called “3x5”, that unintentionally models the way that we should share God’s peace with others. The song is written as a letter that John sends to a loved one, telling them what he’s been up to. Early on, he comments that the person was probably disappointed that there were no photographs included with the letter, but he explains, “I didn’t have a camera by my side this time,/hoping I would see the world through both my eyes.” He does try to describe some of what he saw, but ultimately realizes that it’s simply not good enough. The refrain is the part that really gets me; he sings: “You should have seen that sunrise/with your own eyes./It brought me back to life./You’ll be with me next time/I go outside – /no more 3x5s.”

I’m sure John didn’t know he was preaching the good news when he wrote this song, but I’ll be darned if that isn’t exactly how we need to act when we encounter God’s peace for ourselves. We have to overcome our inclination to simplify and compartmentalize, to “try and fit [God’s peace] inside a picture frame”. God’s peace is too big, too wonderful, too important for us to limit it like that. If we want people to appreciate and embrace it, we HAVE to help them to experience it themselves.

Because ultimately, God’s peace can’t fit into any boundaries we may try to place around it. It’s meant to encompass the entire world, all of humanity. It’s so much more than a personal belief in your own salvation; it’s the overwhelming sense of wellbeing that only a direct encounter with God’s love can offer. It starts relatively small in your own heart, but once it takes root, it grows and spreads and transforms into something for the whole world to experience, regardless of their beliefs. The world experiences God’s peace every time the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, the bereaved are comforted, and the oppressed are given justice, because those are the times that Christ is most present with us.

You personally, of course, can’t accomplish all of that by yourself. But you CAN share YOUR experience with at least one other person, and you can show them how to share theirs with others. This is what God’s peace looks like in practice: getting out of the theoretical, out of the personal, out of the picture frame, and spilling out into the world in a way that permeates deep into the soul of every single human being. During Advent, we joyfully anticipate God’s salvation entering the world. This SHOULD give you an inner sense of peace, but it isn’t the sort of thing that can be contained within one person, within the limits of words, within a secondhand account. You have the chance to share your experience of God’s peace with others. So don’t just tell them about it, show them. No more 3x5s – it’s time for the world to experience the real thing. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment