Our worship themes during the 4-week season of Advent are HOPE, PEACE, JOY, and LOVE. This message reminds us that peace is an important “by-product” of God coming into our world. What is available to all people is God’s perfect peace — peace between persons and God, peace between neighbors, and even peace between nations, if we will avail ourselves of it.
|Sermon #1: Because of Bethlehem, Hope Is Here
Sermon #3: Because of Bethlehem, Joy Is Within Us
Sermon #4: Because of Bethlehem, Love Is Born
Christmas Eve: Because of Bethlehem: God Is a Friend
Scripture (hover over for the text to appear): Psalm 85
I was in 6th grade, and our class was working on some kind of art project. Each of us was working on our own project, but we were organized into group for 4-5, which meant that we were sharing materials to make our projects.
One of the boys at my group of desks was Matt. Now, Matt wasn’t what I would call a bully, but he was kind of mean. He was one of those kids who talked back to teachers, and was snarky to other students. He and I had been on the same summer rec baseball team for a number of years, and so I was all too acquainted with his attitude. Through the years it was sometimes directed at me, and most of the time I just ignored him.
But on this particular day while we were doing our art projects, I reached my fill of his brash arrogance. At one point I politely ask Matt if he would kindly pass the scissors which were laying on the desk in front of him. He aggressively responded, “Get it yourself!” And so I walk around the table to where he was, but I wasn’t going there to get the scissors; I had another purpose in mind. I had had enough of his brazen attitude, and I snapped. With all the strength I could muster in my little 6th grade arm, I punched him square in the face as hard as I could.
To be honest, that was not me. I mean, it was me who punched him, but doing something like that was really, really out of character for me. You could say that Matt got the better of me. In that moment, I forgot who I was. As God is my witness, even at the age of 11 I knew who I was. During those school years when I was preyed upon by school bullies, I would often say to myself, “Remember, Jesus said, ‘Turn the other cheek.’ Someday, Drew, when you’re standing before God at the pearly gates, God will reward you for not fighting back. And when those kids who’re pushing you around are standing before God at the pearly gates, they’re going have some explaining to do!” That’s the honest to God truth; I would remind myself that my refusal to fight back had a reward coming, and their bullying would be met with holy retribution. That’s who I was at that time in my life, and for an instant, I forgot that.
Ever been there yourself? Where you said or did something you normally wouldn’t do, and very quickly realized your transgression, and regretted? In those moments, it’s easy to blame your behavior on all sorts things. You could blame the state of mind you were in that the moment—a state of mind clearly brought on by the actions of others, right? It’s not my fault I got so angry; they were the one’s driving like maniacs and tailing me so closely. Or, to continue this line of thought, you could blame the stress of driving in holiday traffic on a Friday at rush hour. When it comes to us doing things we regret, we could lay blame at 101 different factors, but the truth is, there’s really no one to blame but ourselves. The broken, hurting deep part of your self that breaks through the surface from time to time.
In his book, Because of Bethlehem, which this sermon series is loosely based on, Max Lucado says that “under the right circumstances you will do the wrong thing. You won’t want to. You’ll try not to, but you will. Why? You have a sin nature.”
The great and faithful Apostle Paul – the man whom God called to start and build up the church of Jesus Christ; who knew that countless new Christians and people hostile to Christ were watching his every move, to either emulate or criticize – this man had the same problem. He recorded his own struggle in Romans 7. He put it this way in verse 15: “I don’t know what I’m doing, because I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do the thing that I hate.” A few verses later he gets to the reason for this. He says, “If I do the very thing that I don’t want to do, then I’m not the one doing it anymore. Instead, it is sin that lives in me that is doing it” (verse 20).
It’s the sin that lives in me that’s doing it. Not me, but the sin in me. It’s my sin nature at work.
Well, if we’re not careful, that can start to become an excuse, a rationalization of our bad behavior, which isn’t right. Our challenge is to find the balance between two spiritual truths, or realities.
The first truth is that we do have a sin nature. And as much as we may try to keep it in check, from time to time this nature will trip us up and get the best of us.
This is in tension with second truth, which is that those in whom Jesus Christ lives and dwells are no longer slaves to sin. If Christ lives in you, you are no longer beholden to your sin nature. To put it another way, your sin nature no longer has dominion over what you say and do. Jesus Christ destroyed the power of sin when he went to the cross. And so wherever he lives, sin can no longer reign supreme. If he lives in you, the good news, and the second truth, is that that you’re a “slave” to righteousness.
Where this comes into play in real life is when we come face-to-face with a personal choice about how I’m going to respond to the temptations all around me on a daily basis. In those situations you know what you’re supposed to do, because it’s what Jesus would do and the Holy Spirit is telling your spirit to do. And yet, there’s another part of you, your sin nature, that’s trying it’s best to get you to turn your back on Jesus. And you’re left with a choice. You know what you’re supposed to do, but a part of you is crying out to do otherwise. If in those moments of agonizing temptation you can remind yourself of the truth, the reality, that you have the power within you (the Holy Spirit) to choose the right way. The Holy Spirit within you is your power to say no to sin and yes to righteousness.
When we give in and say yes to the sin, it grieves our own spirit. And we experience discord within ourselves; there’s a palpable conflict within us. Or, if you will, a lack of peace. It may be significant, or it may be just a little bothersome. Regardless, though, knowingly turning away from God creates peacelessness within. And no one here enjoys that state of being. No one’s every enjoyed it. We may get used to it, but we don’t enjoy it.
The author of Psalm 85 knew what it was like to be in that state of peacelessness. He opens by acknowledging that his ancestors had chosen the wrong, which resulted in their being exiled for a generation or two…
A true lack of peace. In verse 3, he reminds God that by this point in time he’s relented of his anger towards his people. And so he asks God to revive them. Listen again to verse 6-8:
Won’t you bring us back to life again so that your people can rejoice in you? Show us your faithful love, LORD! Give us your salvation! Let me hear what the LORD God says, because he speaks peace to his people and to his faithful ones. Don’t let them return to foolish ways.
Please don’t miss the significance of what he’s asking of God. In essence he’s asking, Let me hear your voice; make what you’re telling me abundantly clear, because what you speak is peace to me…and to us…and to all your people. Friends, with a word, God speaks peace into his people. Even in this moment, the Holy Spirit is speaking a word of peace into your life. And my life. And the life of this congregation. And believe it or not, he’s speaking a word of peace into the life of our nation, and even the world. We just have to open the ears of our spirit to hear him.
And it’s not like he’s far away. That word of peace actually lives within us! It’s already here! [pointing to heart] What names did Isaiah give the coming Messiah? He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father….Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). Jesus Christ is the Prince of Peace, and he lives within you and me, and speaks his word of peace into our lives.
To bring this full circle, picture this: you’re making your way through your day and you find yourself facing a situation where you’re torn between doing what you know you’re supposed to do (because the Holy Spirit is in conversation with your own spirit at that moment), and what your sin nature is telling you to do. In that moment, remind yourself of this FACT/TRUTH: Because Christ lives in me, I am no longer controlled by my sin nature. And what you “hear” (that little voice of God) is actually “speaking peace” into you in that moment. Because choosing to listen and heed the Holy Spirit will result in that inner peace that only he can give us. And friends, it’s a real peace. A genuine peace that comes only from being in relationship with Christ.
Remember what he told his disciples on the night he announced his death. Knowing their anxiety and worry, he spoke this word of truth into their lives:
Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. And the peace I give the world can’t touch (John 14.27).
Friends, because Bethlehem, peace is real, peace is here with us, and more so, peace is within us.
Thanks be to God.
[at this time the congregation sang the Christmas song, Dona Nobis Pacem, which is translated, “grant us peace.”]