Good morning, my name is Gary and we’re so glad you’re here with us as we go into the Word together. A huge shout out of gratitude to the worship team, production teams, our beautiful welcome team and every person that makes this hybrid Sunday worship services possible. And a big shout out to you if you’re joining us for the first time whether you here physically with us in church, joining us live online right now, or watching this sometime later in the week. We are so grateful you have made the time to join us to worship and receive the ministry of the Word together.
If you are joining us this morning live, one big benefit is that we can collectively come together to contribute to this sermon using menti.com. So if you have a second device or on your computer at home, you can open your browser and go over to menti.com and enter today’s code “2058 0207” and you will be able to contribute anonymously to this sermon.
In a time when we are all not yet able to meet in person and fellowship together, and with some of us joining us from all around the world, this has been such a valuable tool to be able to hear your voice and learn together as we come to the fourth week of Advent as we continue on our series “Let Your Life Speak” and look at today’s theme in the advent calendar of Peace. As we have heard over the past few weeks, this is the time each year where we have an opportunity to reflect what it means for us and for the world as we remember the birth of Jesus Christ into the world at Christmas.
The arrival of Christ Child was supposed to be the heralding of peace.
There’s a popular scene at the birth of Christ where we hear the angels herald in Luk 2:14 – Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favours.
This aligned with the prophecy of His birth delivered by the prophet Isaiah more than 500 years ago in Isa 9:6-7 where the prophet declared that He would be the Prince of Peace and the promise that it would usher in an age of endless increase in peace.
For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace
There will be no end.
The fulfilment of this prophecy came at a difficult time of conflict for the people of Israel. Above everything, they were looking for peace and they were waiting for a promised saviour from the Roman occupation that would defeat the Romans and usher in this age of increasing endless peace.
Did Israel get what the wanted? Certainly not in the way they understood it. No, history tells us that the Romans in the end destroyed one of their most sacred of spaces in the siege of Jerusalem. The one thing that connected the Jewish people with one another and with God – the Second Temple – was destroyed in AD 66.
How about those who followed Jesus? They were followers of this supposed Messiah. Did they experience peace? No. They were considered threats to the Empire and the religious leaders and were hunted down. In fact the term “Christian” was originally an insult directed at the followers of Jesus for years after the resurrection. This term “little Christs” or “mini Messiahs” was used to demean the cult of followers of Jesus.
One thing the Roman Empire and the religious order both agreed with was they were dangerous – they did not bear their allegiance to either Rome or to Moses, and they were persecuted daily for it and many ended up being martyred. They certainly didn’t live in peace either.
Maybe the promise was for a different age? Maybe if they didn’t experience it at that time, maybe we are experiencing this today? What do you think? Are we experiencing the promise of “peace on earth” in this age that was prophesised? What does peace on earth mean to you?
In some sense, we are experiencing peace on earth right? There are certainly fewer wars and the number of people dying from wars are at an all time low. There is greater religious freedom. With a few exceptions, Christians today are not being hunted down by the government and other religious orders like they used to be.
So does this mean are we experiencing the fulfilment of “peace on earth”? Let’s see what you have to say.
So what does this mean for us? Is the prophecy not reliable? Or is the age of peace just not here yet, and this promise is to be fulfilled at some future time? Or does this promise of peace on earth mean something else?
To understand this promise better, we need to step back and understand what this Biblical idea of peace is. Some of you may have heard me speak about this before, so rather than hearing from me, I will play for us this short video by the Bible Project to help those who already know this to get reacquainted, and for those who are new to this to be introduced to the concept of peace in that is being written about.
[BIBLE PROJECT ADVENT VIDEO ON PEACE – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLYORLZOaZE]
The word “peace” is common in most languages. People can talk about peace treaties or times of peace.
It means the absence of war. In the Bible the word peace can refer to the absence of conflict, but it also points to the presence of something better in its place.
In the Old Testament the Hebrew word for peace is “shalom”. In the New Testament the Greek word is “eirene”. The most basic meaning of shalom is “complete” or “whole”.
The word can refer to a stone that has a perfect, whole shape with no cracks. It can also refer to a completed stone wall that has no gaps and no missing bricks.
Shalom refers to something that is complex with lots of pieces that is in a state of completeness. Wholeness.
It is like Job who says his tents are in a state of shalom because he counted his flock and no animals are missing. This is why shalom can refer to a person’s well-being, like when David visited his brothers on the battlefield he asked about their shalom.
The core idea is that life is complex, full of moving parts and relationships and situations. When any of these is out of alignment or missing, your shalom breaks down. Life is no longer whole. It needs to be restored.
In fact, that is the basic meaning of shalom when you use it as a verb. To bring shalom literally means “to make complete” or “restore”. So Solomon brings shalom to the unfinished temple when he completes it. Or, if your animal accidentally damages your neighbor’s field, you shalom them by giving them a complete repayment for their loss. You take what is missing and you restore it to wholeness.
The same goes for human relationships. In the book of Proverbs, to reconcile and heal a broken relationship is to bring shalom. When rival kingdoms make shalom in the Bible, it doesn’t just mean they stop fighting, it also means they start working together for each other’s benefit.
This state of shalom is what Israel’s kings were supposed to cultivate and it rarely happened. So the prophet Isaiah looked forward to a future king, a “Prince of Shalom”. His reign would bring shalom with no end; a time when God would make a covenant of shalom with his people, make right all wrongs and heal all that has been broken.
This is why Jesus’ birth in the New Testament was announced as the arrival of “eirene”. Remember, that is the Greek word for peace. Jesus came to offer his peace to others. Like when he said to his followers, “My peace I give to you all.”
The apostles claimed that Jesus made peace between messed up humans and God when he died and rose from the dead. The idea is that he restored to wholeness the broken relationship between humans and their Creator. This is why the apostle Paul can say Jesus himself is our “eirene”. He was the whole, complete human that I am made to be, but have failed to be. Now he gives me His life as a gift. This means that Jesus’ followers are now called to create peace.
Paul instructed local churches to keep their unity through the bond of pains, which requires humility and patience and bearing with others in love. Becoming people of peace means participating in the life of Jesus who reconciled all things in heaven and earth, restoring peace through his death and resurrection.
So peace takes a lot of work because it is not just the absence of conflict. True peace requires taking what is broken and restoring it to wholeness, whether it is in our lives, our relationships or in our world.
That is the rich biblical concept of peace.
I love the final thought from the video – “Peace takes a lot of work because it is not just the absence of conflict. True peace requires taking what is broken, whether it is our relationship with ourselves, with God, with others, or with creation, and restoring it to wholeness.”
Another way to understand this idea of shalom or eirene is this vision by theologian Cornelius Plantinga –
“The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom… Shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Saviour opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom He delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.” (Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin)
Peace is the way things ought to be. Peace is universal flourishing – not just for ourselves, but for others and all of creation.
Let’s take a moment to look today at where you are aware that there isn’t flourishing yet? Where things are not yet what they ought to be?
Thank you for your contribution. Let’s have a look at what you have shared.
You can see that the areas we share are very varied – some of these areas are about our relationship with ourselves or with God, some of it is about our relationship with others, or with the planet in the case of climate change and Covid.
We received a story as part of the Let Your Life Speak submission from a person who wants to be known as “R”. This is “R”‘s story of becoming aware of the areas in their life where there is not yet peace.
“R” writes: “I think my life is about struggle on finding love right now, on the bottom left (of the tile) are the trees i have planted the past decade – dating, married, fatherhood which I didn’t get to enjoy even though I spent lots of time, energy, and money to grow them… In the centre is the desire deep down for love and belonging and overlaying it is a big question mark. Christ will always be in the centre, but is Christ enough? And why I do not feel enough? The right (side of the tile) represents 2 directions I am struggling with – gay relationship represented with the rainbow color with FCC as the bridge, but will I able to find relationship that lasts? Will I find belonging in this community? Is gay relationship for me? Or (do I go) back to the traditional family again, but deny my sexuality again? Am I not repeating the same mistakes?
Does “R”‘s story resonate with some of the places in your life that you aren’t experiencing peace?
I am grateful that we have the opportunity to bring awareness to the areas of our life where there is not yet shalom, not yet eirene. Because this is the first step to waging peace. Peace doesn’t happen if we aren’t aware of the areas where there is not yet peace.
The awareness in the places in our lives where there is not yet peace is so key that when Jews greet each another, they say “sha’al shalom” to one another. Which literally means “Is there peace? Or is there still something between us?”
Peace doesn’t happen also if we stop just with awareness. The second step towards waging peace is to align ourselves with who God is. And for that we need to go to the Bible.
The birth of Christ and the events leading up to it is one small but significant story in the Bible.
The Bible is the story of God with humanity.
The Bible is not a rule book, it’s not an encyclopedia, it was not a manifesto dictated from heaven.
If we take a step back to see the entire story the Bible beginning with the creation story in Genesis, we see the creation of the way things ought to be.
Genesis tells the story of about how God created the world and everything in it.
It also tells us about the original relationship that the first humans had with God, with themselves, with each other, and the relationship with the Earth. It showed us the way things ought to be.
So the Fall is when we see shalom breaking down – it’s not about eating of an apple. But the falling away of the way things ought to be. The loss of that peace. We see the breakdown of that right relationship we had with God, with others, with ourselves and with the planet.
From Adam caring for Eden together with Eve in complete intimacy with God to Adam blaming God for Eve, hiding away from God in their shame, to the breakdown of relationships between Cain and Abel that resulted in Cain turning his face away from God and murdering his own brother Abel.
We see the progression from there — Cain goes on to follow an independent and destructive path. If you want to find the roots of political power, you will find it here when Cain establishes the first city and named it “New Beginnings”, Enoch, after his own first born son.
He goes on to build up an Empire and within 5 generations, Lamech was wielding immense power, turning and taking women as property, and going to war to compete for territory and power regardless of the cost.
If you think about it, perhaps every separate nation state on the planet exists through the bloodshed of brothers, and the killing of sisters, and children.
But it does not change the fact that every human being is made in the image of God.
And the rest of the story of the Bible is the account of God’s desire of relating with humankind towards the restoration of this state of shalom towards this eventual vision of this shown to us at the end of the Bible in Revelation –
See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more.
We have Genesis, we have revelation, and in the middle of these two bookends, we have the coming of the person of Jesus, God’s own-self – the prince of “peace”.
Not just for peace to end of conflict between nations.
But towards shalom or eirene – the way things ought to be in all our relationships, including with God, with ourselves, with one another and with the world we live in.
But is that just the Christian perspective? After all, the disagreement between religions has been the source of antagonism and conflict through history.
We have seen how through history Muslims, Jews, Christians, Catholics have used the name of God and religion to go to war, to conquer, to destroy communities.
We have gotten so used to hearing news that when different faiths engage together, almost by categorical imperative it ends up being antagonistic to one another.
The call to peace – the way things ought to be – requires us to go beyond our divisions and disputes.
The call to peace – the way things ought to be – requires us to go beyond ethnic, political and religious boundaries.
I want to say something that perhaps may be a bit controversial.
God is not a Christian. God is not a Muslim either. God is not a Buddhist, atheist, animist, or any other category that we humans have manufactured in order to confiscate God and God’s blessings over to our side.
Why do we do this? Why do we find ways to define ourselves in opposition to others? Why do we build empires based on these divisions, refining our superiority and brutality, and act as if our Empires are supported by God.
Being religious often presumes separation, being apart.
Often times when we hear that someone has become a Christian, we think of someone who has started on the outside and then prayed a prayer or made a sacrifice or offering that move that person from the outside to inside.
However, as the creator and redeemer and sustainer of ALL things and every single human being, Jesus challenges every single religious category.
If we take Jesus seriously, then we are not dealing with outsiders and insiders. The body of Christ is not just the members of this church, or the members of all of the churches, it includes everyone in the world.
God is not about separation and treating people of different denominations, faiths and thinking as outsiders until they pray a special prayer to get in.
God relates to all of us as beloved insiders, who are broken and who are seeing through a glass darkly at the mystery of God.
God continues to finds ways for us to discover the God of love and the path of peace as the way, truth and life.
Here’s something interesting I discovered and another way to look at it. In John’s vision in Revelation 12, he says that at the end of this age, the “Satan” or the “accuser” is struck down and defeated.
The word for “accuser” is the word katigoros where we get the English word categorize. To put something or someone in a group is to categorize them.
We do this all the time, and that helps us make sense and organize our thoughts. Categorization may be helpful in navigating through the complexity of this world that we live in, but categories are powerfully divisive and destructive of relationships.
When these categorizations carry implicit judgement of value and worth, we are joining the adversary of our humanity, of evil, the accuser, the Satan.
Categories that were meant to help us to establish healthy boundaries often turn into walls between those who are outside and the we who are inside.
All throughout scripture, we see the continual battle against an entitled sense of moral and cultural religious superiority. Today, we still have a tendency to try to cramp everything into neat tidy boxes.
We need to recognize that every human being and the systems of the world is broken, but we continue to hold on to it out of fear.
I know I have.
I made a decision to be a Christian a little over 20 years ago. Back then when I was asked if I was a Christian, I would proudly declare that I was a pentecostal evangelical Christian.
Today if I am asked, I would say instead I try to be a follower of Christ, and that I often fail.
So if religion is not the answer, what does Advent have to show us about aligning with who God is?
In William Paul Young’s book entitled “Lies we Believe About God”, he shares that there’s a common appeal in the New Testament, in Hebrew scripture, the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, the Analects of Confucius, to what many of us would recognize as the “Golden Rule”.
This rule is present throughout all scriptures.
Jesus stated it this way, “in everything you do, treat people in the way you want them to treat you”. (Matt 7:12)
William then asks a simple but profound question, “do you think the golden rule applies to God?”
Does God treat others the way God wants to be treated?
Because if God communicated this same truth through so many messengers, then it must first apply to God right?
We often think that God hands out commandments like they are arbitrary tests for humanity, rather than an expression of God’s character and nature.
We may not say it that way, but we certainly act like it.
We make up our creeds, rituals, sacrificial offerings of prayer, of worship, of deeds in order to pass these tests to get into God’s favour.
But one of the beautiful things that Jesus’ coming to us at Advent reveals is that God’s nature is love.
And that nature is ours too because we are created in the image of God.
Any call to love is to call us to incarnate the deepest truth of our being – love.
The golden rule is immensely significant because it is the way God is: God treats us the way God wants to be treated.
We don’t need to earn this love, or love God first. We love because we were first loved. (1 Jn 4:19).
So the second thing that we need to understand at Advent is how we align ourselves to the nature of God, the character of God and how God relates to us.
The greater the revelation of this love, the greater alignment we will have to wage peace.
We don’t read the bible or worship or pray or participate in the holy communion to earn God’s love. We do it to have a revelation of God’s love for us.
In the “The Mystery of Christ… and Why we Don’t Get It”, Robert Farrar Capon writes:
“Christianity is not a religion. Christianity is the proclamation of the end of religion, not of a new religion, or even the best of all possible religions. And therefore if the cross is the sign of anything, it’s the sign that God has gone out of the religion business and solved all the world’s problems without requiring a single human being to do a single religious thing.”
So the second step to waging peace is alignment with Who God Is.
Now that we have awareness and alignment, what’s next to waging peace? I think the next step is action. What action will you take with this awareness and this alignment?
In William Paul Young’s book, he writes that one central and inherent aspect of God’s agape love, or unconditional, other centered love is dynamic dance of mutual submission.
It is how peace – the way things ought to be – is lived out and experienced and it originates in the very being of God.
Submission today is associated with the expression of power and control and we are terrified of it and resist it.
But redeemed back to the way things ought to be, submission can be a beautiful expression of the mutuality of relationship in the way things ought to be.
God is relational, and therefore submits, because God’s nature is other centered and self-giving love.
One of beautiful aspects of the idea of the trinity in the Christian faith where we see that submission has always been within the very being of God.
There’s a divine dance of mutuality in which no person in the trinity is diminished or dominated. It is true submission in which the other is known, understood, and embraced.
The very idea that God is submissive is a very difficult idea for us today because of the images that we have grown up with, the stories we hear of the way deities are presented and from the way we see those in power act.
It is difficult for us to imagine how God acts when we are drag God down to level of human beings.
But what Advent shows us is the incarnation of God becoming fully human. Coming to us as a baby, complete and utter submission to us – to show us the way to peace.
What is the cross, but God submitting not to God’s anger, rage and wrath but to OUR anger, rage and wrath.
We can think about it this way – how many times does God say to us, “let me do the deciding on this one because you make so many bad choices? I think it would be better for us all if I take over right?” God never says that. Even though we want God to make our decisions for us, God refuses.
Instead, God submits to the decision that we make, that Adam and Eve made, that every person in every story in the Bible made and God climbs into the story, and begins to craft something new and good and beautiful even from the worst of our blunders, even in our choices that hurt and harm.
Love doesn’t protect me from the consequence of my choices, nor does God’s presence in the midst of my stupidity justify any of it, but it also does not leave me without hope for peace through them.
While God is opposed of anything that is not of love’s kind, but God is always for us in the middle of our mess.
I think sin can simply be understood as any choice we make that moves us away from peace, from shalom, from the way things ought to be.
This also includes the choice not to do anything – even though you may be aware of the places in your life there is not yet peace – the way things ought to be.
The will of God for every person is to be anchored in the love of God and the dual commandments of loving God and neighbour and act towards the restoration of peace, towards the way things ought to be. That is the path to peace.
Jesus says: “Blessed are the peace-makers, for they shall be called the children of God.” (Matt 5:9)
To wage peace is to first receive peace and then make peace.
So is that it? If we have awareness where there isn’t peace, if we align ourselves to who God is and if we act in accordance what we are called to do, will we fulfil the promise of everlasting, increasing peace?
I think there’s one more step, and that’s accountability. The final “A” word. Awareness, alignment, action and finally accountability.
It’s fast coming up to the second anniversary of the Covid-19 pandemic and if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is about how our collective wellbeing is so interconnected and interdependent on one another. We may be losing fewer lives from wars, but here’s a chart of the lives that have been lost so far as a result of the pandemic. We have lost more lives to Covid-19 in less than 2 years than human conflict in the past 30 years.
Being a part of community is so critical at this time, especially in the face of a virus that is driving us to isolation from one another.
Community is where we listen to one another, encourage one another and support one another.
But critically, authentic community is also where we can hold one another to account that we are all heading towards the same direction, one of peace.
Community is where we can also be accountable to one another, to love one another by holding space, by listening generously, so that we create a place for authentic conversations, a space where we feel safe to uncover our masks to help one another flourish, with the knowledge of our interconnectedness that it is only when others flourish that we can truly flourish.
Accountability also calls us to engage with people on our margins who are not like us, don’t think like us, or may not even like us and calls us to build bridges, to be neighbours, to have courageous, loving conversations towards the restoration of peace.
One incredible initiative around this was shared with me by Sharon Frese who is a member of FCC based out of Kuala Lumpur. I had a wonderful opportunity to spend some time with her last week when I was in Malaysia. She shared with me a letter called “A Common Word Between Us & You” written to Christian leaders by 138 Muslim leaders in 2007. You can find the full letter at www.acommonword.com but I just want to read the opening sentences to you –
Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians. The basis for this peace and understanding already exists. It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbour. These principles are found over and over again in the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity. The Unity of God, the necessity of love for Him, and the necessity of love of the neighbour is thus the common ground between Islam and Christianity.
This is what awareness, alignment, action and accountability looks like, and it comes from our Muslim siblings. And why should we be surprised at all? After Islam literally means “to submit to peace-making”. And to be a Muslim is to be one whose life is characterized by peace-making.
What about us individually and in this community? How will it be for us this Advent as we wait on the arrival of the Christ child?
What does God want to do in your heart today? Where are you committing to wage peace? So that things can be the way it ought to be? So that the world around us can flourish, that we can experience the abundant life, and that all things can be restored to the way they ought to be?
[MENTI QUESTION & REVIEW]
As we close, I want to encourage you in the words that Jesus says to His followers, you and I today –
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let you heart be troubled and do not be afraid.”
May this advent be for us not just waiting for the arrival of the Christ child, but to wage peace – to expand our mind as we prepare for His coming, recognizing that peace only will come as we let go of fear and commit to awareness, alignment, action and accountability.