A sermon by Margaret Hall
A little girl was having a battle of wills with her mother. Finally the mum had had enough. She said, “Go and sit in the corner, right now! Don’t get up till I say so!” The little girl went to the corner and sat down. But she called out, ” I’m sitting down on the outside, but I’m standing up on the inside!”
That sort of tension isn’t unfamiliar to us. We know what we want, and it’s often quite different from the way things are. We also know what God wants – that we should love him and love our neighbor – but other desires war within us. So we mutter away to ourselves, or toss and turn at night, feeling generally out-of-sorts.
Beyond our own inner turmoil are the conflicts we see all around us, with families and ethnic groups and nations seemingly unable to live at peace with each other. The prophet Isaiah wrote that God will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are stayed on him. That sounds great, but can it really be true?
Here’s what the prophet Isaiah said to God about inner peace: “You will keep in perfect peace all whose thoughts are fixed on you, because they trust in you.”
Trusting in God doesn’t make much sense to people who feel he’s unknowable because we can’t see or hear him. To see him, and know whether he’s worth trusting, would be possible only if he himself made himself visible. And there we have the central pillar of the Christian faith – that God has made himself visible in the person of Jesus. To quote the apostle Paul, ‘All God’s fullness was pleased to dwell in Christ’. So when Jesus’ friends were confused and anxious, he said to them: “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me.”
What are we to trust him for? First and foremost, for the forgiveness he alone can give. One day he said to a paralyzed man, “Your sins are forgiven.” The religious leaders who’d come to check him out were horrified. “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy?” they said. “Only God can forgive sin!” Jesus said to them, “So that you’ll know I do have authority on earth to forgive sins …. He turned to the paralyzed man and said, “I tell you, get up, take up your mat and go home.” Immediately he stood up, took what he’d been lying on, and went home praising God.
Quite a lot of the Bible is taken up with explaining what Jesus’ authority to forgive is based on. Way back in the time of Moses a system of sacrifices was set up, to impress upon people the awful cost of their failure to love each other and honour God. A long line of prophets called people to turn away from the self-focus that damages relationships, and come back to God. At the end of that long line was John the Baptizer – the prophet who pointed out Jesus as the Lamb of God – the sacrifice God provided to take away the sin of the world.
The night before Jesus died he broke bread and drank wine with his disciples. Whenever they did the same, he said, they were to remember his broken body and his shed blood. As he offered them the cup of wine he said, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus can forgive because he died to bear the inevitable consequences of our wrongdoing. We receive forgiveness by putting our faith in him.
As Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome: “Since we’ve been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” In his letter to the church in Colossae, Paul explained it like this:
God in all his fullness was pleased to dwell in Christ and through him to reconcile all things to himself, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross…. Once you were alienated from God ….. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death, in order to present you …. without blemish and free from accusation.
When we believe that Jesus died on our behalf, he brings us peace with God, through forgiveness.
Don Richardson was a missionary to the Sawi tribe in Indonesia. Try as he would, he couldn’t find a way to make the people understand the purpose of Christ’s death on the cross. Sawi villages were constantly fighting among themselves, and because revenge was highly honoured, there seemed no hope of peace. The tribe, however, had a custom that if one village gave a baby boy to another village, there’d be peace between the two villages as long as the child lived. The baby was called a ‘peace child’. Don Richardson seized on that to illustrate how Christ’s giving of himself brings peace between us and God. Because he lives now and forever, the peace he brings is forever.
Christ’s death on our behalf shows us what our lives are worth, which itself brings inner peace. When Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a prisoner in Russia, on hard labour and slowly starving, he reached the point where he felt like giving up. One day he sat down on a bench knowing that when he was spotted by a guard he’d be ordered back to work, and that when he failed to respond the guard would bludgeon him to death. As he sat waiting, head down, an old man came to sit beside him. His face expressionless, he drew on the sand at Solzhenitsyn’s feet the sign of the cross. Solzhenitsyn stared down at it, then slowly stood up, picked up his shovel and went back to work. He didn’t know then that his writings would one day reach the world, but he’d been reminded what his life was worth.
Just as Jesus’ death brings peace through forgiveness, so does prayer in his name – that is, speaking to God through him. The apostle Paul issued a call to pray that never fails to challenge, and comfort:
Don’t be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which is greater than we can ever understand, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Fears and anxieties keep up their attack on our hearts and minds, but God’s own peace barricades us from the harm they do. We see God’s love in his Son Jesus, so we have confidence to tell him what we long for, and receive the peace Jesus promised when he said: “I’m leaving you my peace. I’m giving you my peace. I don’t give to you as the world gives.”
The peace the world offers depends on our circumstances. Sometimes we have good reason to be anxious, but the Spirit Jesus gave keeps working in us to produce the fruit of his peace. That peace is more than mere absence of conflict. It’s an inexplicable sense of security and well-being – an assurance that, in the words of the fourteenth century Christian Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”.
When he was still a young boy, the American preacher Mark Roberts knew the peace Jesus brings through prayer. Mark’s father worked as an analyst in the aerospace business in California. After Americans landed on the moon, zeal for exploring space waned. His dad lost his job, and before long his family’s financial situation was very bleak. His world seemed to be crumbling before his eyes. He was terrified they’d lose their home and be forced to move away from friends and family. One night, lying awake in the grip of fear, he cried out to God for help. “Please take care of us,” he pleaded. “Help Dad get a job. Don’t make us move. Help us!” In that moment he sensed God’s comforting presence as he hadn’t known it before. He didn’t receive any assurance about his family’s situation, but unexpectedly he felt at peace. He knew beyond any doubt that, whatever lay ahead for his family, God would take care of them.
My own sense of that same inexplicable peace was affirmed at a time when a prayer I was praying wasn’t answered as I wanted it to be. I was en route from Africa to Australia with four young children in tow, in response to a telegram saying that if I wanted to see my dad before he died I should come at once. On the way we prayed – that he wouldn’t die (he was only sixty-eight), that he wouldn’t suffer intolerable pain, and that he’d be at peace, trusting in the effects of Jesus’ death. The contradiction in those prayers didn’t strike me until later – that in order not to suffer intolerable pain, he might need to die. In fact, he did die. But he didn’t suffer for long, and he died trusting in Jesus. And I was given a sense of peace that surprised me – an unshakable conviction that whatever happened it would be OK.
The short life of Frances Havergal, who wrote many inspiring hymns, was full of trouble. Her mother died when she was eleven, and her father remarried shortly after. She was deeply hurt when her stepmother came between her and her father. As a young adult, she became chronically ill and lived with constant pain. Yet she continued to write, and from her pen we have these words:
Like a river glorious is God’s perfect peace,
Over all victorious in its bright increase.
Perfect, yet it floweth fuller ev’ry day;
Perfect, yet it groweth deeper all the way.
Stayed upon Jehovah, hearts are fully blessed –
Finding, as he promised, perfect peace and rest.
Many of the best-loved hymns of the last three centuries were written by Charles Wesley. Early in his seventy-ninth year his health began to fail. As he became weaker, Wesley knew he would soon die. This is how his doctor described his attitude in the face of death: He had no transports of joy, but solid hope and unshaken confidence in Christ, which kept his mind in perfect peace.
So Jesus brings peace — peace with God through the forgiveness he alone can offer, and inner peace, through prayer in his name.
But Jesus also calls us to be peacemakers — in our families and communities and beyond. We’re to pursue the peace on earth which God’s messenger announced to the shepherds the night Jesus was born, by sharing the good news of the peace Jesus brings, and by striving for the justice and equality this world’s peace depends on. We’re to do God’s will on earth as it’s done in heaven, with the humility and gentleness of Christ himself, willing to deny ourselves for the good of others as he did. And where his will is done, we get a glimpse of the lasting peace that lies ahead, when God’s restored universe will be free and whole, under the loving rule of its Restorer – Jesus, the Prince of Peace. And to him be the glory. Amen.