Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 22nd, Year of Our + Lord 2013
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
War and Peace – Philippians 4:4-7
War and Peace. I’ve titled this sermon War and Peace. Sounds like it could be a long one.
Why I’ve chosen ‘peace’ is fairly easy to understand, as we heard a very well used passage from Paul this morning: And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Peace from God, which surpasses all understanding, this is most worthy of our consideration every morning, and especially this morning, as we are just a few days from the song of the angels, sung on the night of Jesus’ birth, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men.” Peace from God in the birth of Jesus, the peace that passes all understanding, which will even guard you. Nice.
Peace is an easy choice for a theme this morning. But why choose ‘War?’ What kind of a theme is that, for this time of year? What reasons might I have, or you have, to consider war, on this last Sunday before Christmas?
Well, we would maybe like to forget it, but our country is still involved in a shooting war, in Afghanistan, a perpetually war-torn place, a place where it is dangerous simply to be a Christian. We are indeed blessed not to live in such a place, of which there are far too many around the globe. But nevertheless, many people deal daily with the worries of having a son or daughter or husband or father in a war zone.
And then there’s our culture war, skirmishes blowing up into battles this time of year, such as the current Duck Dynasty kerfuffle. You have probably heard about Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the Duck Dynasty family, and the histrionic reaction Hollywood and the media gave to his very honest response to a question about his Christian faith. Phil spoke plainly and directly and perhaps a little coarsely, although he did stick to proper anatomical terms. Nevertheless, the unabashed condemnation of sin by this long-bearded duck call maker caused a firestorm in Hollywood and the media. Phil has never hidden his Christian faith, and much of what he said was simply a quote from the Apostle Paul in 1st Corinthians. But there’s a battle raging, and soon Phil’s employer, A&E television, suspended him. The family responded by plainly stating none of them could do the show, the most popular show on cable, without their patriarch. Culture war.
Less noticed in the news, but much closer to home for us, there has been a bit of a dust-up these past few days as local Thrivent Chapters in Minnesota, North and South Dakota approved Thrivent Choice benevolence dollars to be directed to Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion business in America. In case you don’t know, Thrivent Financial just recently changed their name from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, which was formed from the merger of two other insurance companies, Aid Association for Lutherans and Lutheran Brotherhood. Thrivent has dropped the Lutheran designation, but still claims to be an organization dedicated to serving the financial needs of Christians. And last week they decided to allow some of their profits to go to pay for abortions.
This cuts pretty close to home, because all of us were in the womb once. Most of us have also had significant dealings with Thrivent or its preceding companies. My baptismal pin, that I wear all the time, was a gift from Lutheran Brotherhood. Many of us have investments or insurance with Thrivent. Many of you have served on various local member committees. And now they want to take the profits they make with member’s money and allow some of it to go towards killing unborn children.
Well, along with people from Synod in St. Louis, President Forke, and a number of other district pastors and laypeople, picked up the phone to find out what was going on. Sensing a problem, the national office convinced the local chapter to rescind their Planned Parenthood approval. But they also decided to suspend all giving to both pro-choice and pro-life organizations, since the issue is so divisive. In an open letter to Thrivent, Synodical President Harrison on Friday noted that the LCMS itself is a pro-life non-profit, so I doubt that Thrivent’s attempt to smooth over the controversy has succeeded. Indeed, I ordered myself a new generic 2014 Calendar from Amazon on Friday. Ever since seminary I have relied on the pastor’s desk calendar Thrivent has given out each year. But I don’t have the stomach to advertise for them anymore, at least not until the people there figure out that God loves life, from womb to tomb, so much so, that the Son of God became an embryo.
There is indeed a war in our culture, a war largely driven by those who reject the Bible and want to curtail, limit, and silence Christians, and even force us to do things against our confession, to force us to obey men, rather than God.
But these are hardly the only wars we face, maybe not even the wars that you fear most. There are the wars that we fight with the people we love the most, strife in marriages, and between parents and children, and between brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors. There are the wars we fight with ourselves, wars against substance abuse and depression and pornography and gambling, and the worship of material wealth, wars that all too often seem to turn for the worst during this season that is supposed to be most joyful.
Doesn’t seem very Christmasy, does it? It all makes it pretty hard to take seriously what Paul tells us to do: Rejoice always. Doesn’t Paul know how hard so many things are? It makes me think of that sad line from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, Christmas Bells, written in 1863, during the Civil War, a poem now better known as the Christmas Carol, “I heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Longfellow, despairing at the wounding of his son, and the death of his wife, and the destruction of that terrible war, sank very low that Christmas, and he wrote these lines:
And in despair I bowed my head; "There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong, And mocks the song, Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
There is a war on. It seems there always is. What are we to do? Shall we fight? Certainly I was glad for the quick response of Presidents Forke and Harrison to the actions of Thrivent, which at least have made everyone aware of the issue. And the internet uprising in support of the Duck Dynasty star seems good, too. What’s more, in last week’s sermon I spoke of the trend of stealing baby Jesus figures from Nativity scenes, and then yesterday I learned a company in D.C. is giving away GPS trackers to churches, to help them protect their displays from theft, by letting them know if Baby Jesus suddenly starts to move.
Certainly there seems to be a place for fighting back. And yet, that doesn’t seem very promising, as if we are going to win the fight against the way of the world. Certainly the cultural trends seem to all be against traditional Christianity. If you study history, you’ll find they almost always are. And fighting is hardly what you and I want to be doing as we gather with family and Church at Christmas.
Perhaps we should withdraw, retreat from the world and just try to maintain a way of life for ourselves, separate and insulated. Could we find peace there? Well, besides the historical note that both Aid Association for Lutherans and Lutheran Brotherhood were founded somewhat along this line of thinking, there are at least two other problems with this idea.
The first problem is that God has not called us to withdraw from the world. Christians are not to be of the world, that is, we are called to live differently, to build our lives around God’s Word. But we are also to be in the world, for the sake of the world, for the sake of preaching the Gospel. Remember, God in Christ crucified has loved the world, not just the Church, and we are called to proclaim that message, because God through the message preached seeks to convert, to save, more and more sinners.
The second problem with withdrawing to try to find peace is that we will bring the war with us. We can rail and complain about how the world is always working against God and His Church. But each one of us Christians in this world is still a sinner, still resisting God’s Way, even as we seek His Way, still causing strife and discord, even as we seek to live as we are called. Most of the problems faced by the Church and Christians are not caused by enemies on the outside, but rather by sin on the inside. So withdrawing to find peace is both contrary to God’s Mission, and also will not work.
No, our most important response to the wars we face is not to be found in fighting, or in withdrawing, but rather, the answer is in the Lord. Paul’s call to rejoice is not some formless, wishful thinking kind of exhortation, not some Biblical “Don’t worry, be happy.” No, Paul says “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Rejoice in the Lord, that is to say, dig deeply into the wonder of the Lord who came to save, who comes to forgive, who became a human in order to give His life for the peace of the world. And not just for the peace of the world, Jesus gave His life AS the peace of the world. For the forgiveness of sins and the peace that only forgiveness can bring are literally found in the flesh and blood Jesus. He is our peace.
All the culture wars, all the shooting wars, all the personal wars every family faces, all of these things are but symptoms of the real war, the fundamental problem that is at the root of every other problem we face: mankind, every man, woman and child descended from Adam, is by nature at war with God, and He with us. The whole point of Christmas is God’s Son coming to bring an end to that war, the eternally losing war that mankind declares against God every time we sin. Christ did not end that war by calling a ceasefire, but rather by calling down all the firepower of God, against Himself, on the Cross. All of God’s wrath against sin has been expended, on Jesus, so all those who are by faith joined to Him are forgiven, counted righteous and holy, because of Jesus. He is our peace.
This is why the readings of Advent take us so far from Bethlehem. The best way to prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ is to understand exactly who He is, God in the flesh, and why He came, to save us from our sins. And so in the weeks prior to Christmas we hear from Moses, and John the Baptist, and we hear of Christ coming again, to put a final end to all wars, forever. Rejoicing at Christmas does not depend on lights or trees or toys or great food; these are but adornments to true joy. For true rejoicing that brings lasting peace depends on hearing and believing who Jesus is, and receiving the gifts He has won for you, forgiveness, life and salvation, delivered to you through Word, Water, Wheat and Wine.
Longfellow reached a deep, dark place in his Christmas Bells poem, but he ends on peace.
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men."
I wish he would have said a little more. Longfellow is right, and his words are filled with hope, if you know how to fill in the blanks. But the world, and each one of us, needs to hear the blanks filled in. The deeper pealing of the Christmas bells is very specific. Wrong fails in what appears to be its greatest victory, the death of Jesus. And Right prevails in His resurrection. This is the promise of Christmas, and this is the Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, and will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. A Merry Christmas, indeed, Amen.