Advent 4: Peace

Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
December 20, 2020
Psalm 46

A recording of the sermon made at Mayberry on Saturday, December 19

Thoughts at the beginning of worship

It’s the fourth Sunday of Advent. Christmas is almost here. Over the past three weeks, we have focused on hope, joy and love. I hope you have learned that these are not just emotions we feel, but actions that we take in response to a God who loves and comes to us. 

Yet, we live in a troubled world. This isn’t anything new. There’s always trouble. Today, our focus is on peace. A Christian view of peace is counter cultural. The world thinks of peace as an absence of war. But what if we could have peace even in the midst of war? That’s what I want us to ponder today. How do we live a peaceful life in the chaos that surrounds us day in and day out? 

After the reading of scripture: 

I may be an outlier, but I have enjoyed much of 2020. Many of you, I’m sure, can’t wait for the year to be done. I hear people talking about starting anew as if there’s something special about midnight on the 31st. There’s not. It’s just another tick of the clock.

However, there’s much about 2020 I’d like to forget. My list includes the pandemic and quarantine, fires in Australia and the American West, the massive numbers of hurricanes, a shortened baseball season, and the closing down of the economy. But still, personally, the year hasn’t been bad for me. After all, I’m in the mountains, My heart sings.

 2016 verses 2020

My bad year was 2016. It started earlier, on January 9th, with a slip on the foredeck of a sailboat. My left foot was pinned by some blocks. I fell backwards with the boat’s lifeline catching my leg just above my knee, so that it couldn’t bend. The strain on my pinned leg was great. Something had to give. My quad tendon snapped. It was the most painful thing I’ve experienced. My leg instantly became worthless. After surgery, my left leg remained in a brace. I couldn’t bend it for three months. Then I could bend it 30 degrees and slowly worked up from there. I spent much of that spring learning, once again, how to walk. 

And then, in late summer, because of a high PSA reading, I had a prostrate biopsy. Those are not pleasant, but that wasn’t the end of it. A week later, I woke at 3 AM, thinking I had the worst flu ever. I had gone to bed feeling fine. I took ibuprofen and tried to get more sleep. At 7, I sent emails to cancel my meetings for the day. When the drugs ran out, I took my temperature—104. Calling my doctor, he said get to the emergency room, pronto. I called Donna. She took me to the hospital. 

I had no idea how sick I was. At the front desk of the ER, they checked my temperature, blood pressure, breathing and heart rate. They had me on a gurney with an IV in my arm before Donna was able to park the car and find her way back inside. I spent the next couple of days in the hospital fighting sepsis, which probably came from the biopsy. Thankfully, the biopsy came back negative. 

A few weeks after that, Hurricane Matthew raked the Georgia Coastline. It was estimated that Skidaway Island lost 20% of its trees. Our paradise island was a mess. A year later, they were still hauling away timber, brush, and wood chips.

But was 2016 a bad year? 

Yet, with all that happened in 2016, I still have some good memories. And these memories are not just from the morphine they gave me for my leg. I never felt alone or so loved. Nor did I feel abandoned by God  

So, while I won’t deny that 2020 has been bad, especially for the families of over 300,000 Americans and the million others around the world who died, for me personally, it doesn’t quite rise to 2016. And, looking back on things, as bad as 2016 was, it wasn’t terrible. For God remained with me, in the midst of my pain. 

The 46th Psalm

The 46th Psalm is about confidence in a God who is present in the midst of a trouble-filled world. The Psalm is divided into three strophes or sections, each assuring us of God’s comfort while reminding us of the problems we face during our walk on this planet. 

First strophe

The first section deals with natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanoes, hurricanes and tornadoes. 

            Perhaps we’ve not experienced this personally, although there was an earthquake in this area earlier this year. However, parts of our world have experienced all these events in 2020. When faced with such calamities, we may feel abandoned and afraid. But in each situation, the Psalmist reminds us that we should not fear for God is present and in control.  

Second Strophe

The calamity in the second section is not a natural disaster, but one of a human making. Now, war threatens; the hatred of people drives them to ruthlessly attack each other. Kind of sounds like this past election. 

Despite the fact that war is on-going, God’s holy city stands unharmed. Even in the middle of the chaos, God’s city stands untouched. God is sovereign. What can we do, as humans, to challenge God’s sovereignty? God’s city stands as an example of the way it should be. 

Third strophe

And finally, in the third section, we are reminded of God’s judgment. God has the power to bring wars to an end. However, judgement brings destruction; God puts an end to our ability to wage war. God’s holiness demands judgment.  

Visions of noise and chaos and war often demonstrate God’s presence. But here, we find that although God is present, that’s not where we encounter God.

Elijah’s similar encounter

Elijah had a similar experience with God on Horeb. There was a great wind, and God wasn’t in it. There was an earthquake, but God wasn’t in it. And then a fire, but that was not where he encountered God. Instead, after these events, Elijah experiences God in sheer silence. Elijah encounters God in a way that’s a similar to the promise made in the Psalm. Be still and know God.[1]

Be still, let the turmoil of life spin around you, and know that God is there with you.

What does this mean?

            There was a point in my life where I thought this Psalm told me to go to where I could experience stillness and quietness. What a convenient interpretation. I could use it as rational for a backpacking or canoe trip. I still believe that getting away from the turmoil of life can be a spiritual experience, but I no longer believe this Psalm is telling us that we should go hide.  

Another way to interpret the Psalm

Instead, I have another idea what this Psalm means. God sits me down in a chair. All around me things spin out of control. There are things I need to do. In the similar fashion, God lets the Psalmist experience the turmoil of life before revealing himself.

With all this chaos spinning around me, my first through is, “what can I do to fix it.” Isn’t that a human response? I want to do something. But in this chair, God’s hands remain on my shoulders gently encouraging me to stay seated. Then I hear a whisper, “sit still.” The voice is soft and soothing. Such a simple message with a profound implication. 

It’s as if God says, “I’ve got this, let me take this burden from your shoulders.” Even in the midst of all kinds of troubles, we can find peace in our lives and we can know God. 

The theme that’s echoed three times in this Psalm is that God is our refuge, our place where we can find solace.[2]

Psalm 46 and the Coming of Christ

 This Psalm reassures us that even in the chaos, God’s present. God stands by us to comfort. God is in the middle of pain. God comes to us; God doesn’t wait till all is calm and peaceful. 

I wonder if we get a wrong picture of what happened in Bethlehem from our depiction of the nativity. We see the idyllic pastoral view of cows sleeping while shepherds converse around a campfire. And then, later in the night, some wise–dudes dress in fancy clothes rides in on a camel with gifts. Such a peaceful night, but was it? 

Scripture tells another story. Herod and his court burn the midnight oil in Jerusalem, worried that their rule will end. They grasp at straws to see how they can maintain control. Out of fear, they commit a terrible atrocity. And above Herod, we have Caesar and his legions. Roman soldiers keep an iron hand on far-flung parts of the empire like Palestine. 

The world into which Jesus was born

We learn in Luke’s gospel that a decree from Caesar forced Joseph and the pregnant Mary to make a trip to Bethlehem. It was no skin off Caesar’s back, but mighty inconvenient for the Holy Family. 

So, the world wasn’t necessarily peaceful on the day of Jesus’ birth. It was a world like ours, troubled. And everyday citizens like Mary and Joseph, along with the parents of young children in and around Bethlehem, were caught up in the powerplays of those with authority. 

It’s into this kind of world that our Savior was born—a troubled world longing for peace. It’s also into such hearts that Jesus comes… If we’re not sick, Jesus suggests, we don’t need a doctor. But if we realize our human frailties, we’ll run to a physician.[3]

The Psalm in 2020

Be still and know that I am God is a message we need to hear in 2020. When we think we can overcome all our problems, we develop a false sense of pride. We feel we can take care of ourselves; a feeling in which we risk making ourselves into a little god. But when we realize that we are truly not in control, we must turn to God and only then can we discover peace. War may be all around us, but we can be at peace because we are assured that God is with us and, in the end, we’ll be with God. 

That’s why God tells us to be still. In the midst of our troubles, we need to trust the God of creation, the God of redemption, and the God of our future.  When we trust such a God, we can have peace.

In a year like 2020, listen to that voice from God telling us to slow down, to be still, and to know that God who set the stars in the sky, who divided the land and water and separated night from day, the God of the cosmos, is also our refuge and strength.   Amen.

Resources and Notes:

May, James L. Psalms: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994.

Weiser, Artur.  The Psalms: A Commentary, Herbert Hartwell, translator. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962.

[1] 1 Kings 19:11-18. Interesting in other ways and in other parts of the Old Testament, we find God revealing himself in these other experiences of Isaiah. In Genesis 1, God’s spirit is a wind over the chaos. The word for wind and breath in Hebrew is the root of the word “Spirit.” God also made himself known to Moses with the burning (but not consumed) bush. 

[2] God as refuge appears in the 1st, 7th and 11th verses. 

[3] Matthew 9:12, Mark 2:17, Luke 5:31.

21 Replies to “Advent 4: Peace”

  1. Yes, really important to take the time out to just be silent and think things through…instead of fretting about the situations we face.??
    Thank you so much for sharing this important reminder…it was much needed!

  2. God telling us to slow down, to be still…

    Yeah, I get the idea almost everyday that if people just went stopped and went silent for a short time anxiety would decrease.

  3. Be still.

    It’s an idea that crosses over to other world religions, too. A lot of really smart people have been telling all of us for a long time: when you lose your way, just stop. Be still. Find peace.

    1. Yes, I agree that it’s a truth that finds more universal acceptance but is also hard for us to do (often we want to just keep talking).

        1. A long time ago, a retreat leader told me that he found people coming on a retreat needed two days to just rest and sleep, that they were so exhausted. I don’t often take guided retreats like that, but do take retreat/planning time away and I have found it’s best if I can take the first two days to decompress, sleep and nap and do light reading, before digging into the “heavier” stuff.

    1. Yes, I’m loving the mountains and writing this as I watch the sun light up Buffalo Mountain. Have a Merry Christmas, too, although I know it’ll be hard without Ken.

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