December 6th 2020

I often think that ‘peace’ is one of the greatest gifts God has given to us. At this time of year we focus on it more, Jesus being known to us as the Prince of Peace. Peace is one of those things we take for granted until it is taken from us but there are different forms of peace. I wonder what peace means to you.

There are different forms of peace though. There is the kind we enjoy when all is quiet, when the phone has stopped ringing and we can sit for a moment with a hot brew and simply relax – you know that ‘ahhh…’ feeling. Similarly, there is the practical peace we experience on a day-to-day basis in the absence of battles or war. Then there is peace of mind, when we are confident that we have done our best and can rest easy in any given situation. And finally, for our purposes today at least, is inner peace – the kind that the Apostle Paul describes as a “peace that passes all understanding”.

I rather suspect that we don’t really appreciate the peace we enjoy until it is taken from us, stolen if you like, and when that happens life becomes all the more difficult to deal with. For example, feelings of guilt, anxiety, fear, despair, concern for self, or another are all emotions that have the power to overwhelm us, especially if we don’t at first recognise them for what they are – things that rob us of the calm assuredness we function so much better under.

During times of war, or when violence or terror surrounds us, our peace of mind is stolen by the threats that accompany them – the threat to life, our own and probably more so, our loved ones; the threat poised over our homes, our livelihoods – the fear of loss of all that is dearest to us. Living with the uncertainty war and terror brings has the power to wipe out any sense of peace we may have previously enjoyed.

In our current environment, our sense of peace has undoubtedly be stolen by the very real fear so many of us have about how damaging and life-threatening this dreadful virus can be. For many, the anxiety surrounding it all is immense. The weight of responsibility for keeping everyone safe can be overwhelmingly heavy, and the ensuing stress it brings can destroy any hope we may have to the deeper peace we long for.

Inner peace is the core that holds us together when the going gets tough. But this too can be stolen from us. The power of darkness latches on to our weaknesses and heightens our anxieties. It pushes our buttons if you like – you know – the ones that if pressed have the power to set off an immediate chain reaction of emotions and responses that may or may not be helpful to anyone, least of all ourselves, and how we see things starts to become distorted by the assumptions we end up making when under pressure.

I have such buttons, and I am sure many, of many, if not all of you have them too. And the annoying thing is that the person pushing the buttons often has no idea they are doing it, because in truth, they aren’t. It is just that what has been said or done has struck a raw nerve for us and in an instant, peace is gone. I know this, because I have been on both sides of it. I have been the one hurt or angered, but I have also been the one who unknowingly have pushed someone else’s buttons. Neither position is helpful.

Over the years however, I have learnt how to deal with these buttons, at least when it comes to my own. For I have learnt that whilst I may not be able to switch that button off or remove it like a computer app I no longer require, I now know how to recognise my reactions and so take a moment to reflect and consider what is really going on. This means that sometimes I have to write my concerns down, then leave it overnight, or for a few days and then come back to it. Often I find that the response I first had was because I was tired, or it was affected by a past experience which has absolutely no real bearing on the present. Recognising our own frailties and weaknesses is an important piece of the armour we wear in fighting the powers of darkness, because once we know what we are dealing with we can do something constructive about it. I hate being the cause of my own discomfort, but the truth is, too often we only have ourselves to blame.

The thing is though, there is a way out, a means by which we are offered hope and encouragement to see beyond the cloud of darkness that living with this ever present virus brings. It has been a long and difficult year for us all. But as we approach Christmas we are reminded of the hope Jesus brings. On this particular Sunday we are reminded of the peace he shares with us – a real and lasting inner peace that is ours for the taking.

The opening verses of Isaiah today speak of the peace God wants for all his people, a peace he has already given. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins”. Peace is not only offered, promised…it is already ours.

How many broken hearted people are there in our communities today? How many of us long for the comfort promised here by God through Isaiah? Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Could this be an important key for us in all our relationships too. Tenderness. Tenderness and patience not just with others, but with ourselves too. Lord, speak tenderly to we, your people, for we need your comfort and peace.

Whilst Isaiah assures us of the promised comfort of God, Mark points us to the person in whom that peace is to be found. Isaiah cries out “A voice of one calling: In the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.” Interestingly, Mark interprets the Isaiah passage differently saying, “a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for him.”

Was Mark wrong? Did he manipulate the text to suit his own ends? To be honest, this is where it helps to understand the language in which Isaiah was written. You see, in biblical Hebrew there is no obvious punctuation – none. The translator has to interpret what he or she reads by trying to understand each word in context with the other words around us. And to complicate things further for the uninitiated, Hebrew words can have more than one meaning.

At the end of the day though, what matters in both passages is the underlying message being sent. Our God is one who has promised hope and comfort for his people. From the beginning of time God has cared for his people but also from the beginning of time, we have largely gone our own way and as a result got in to too many deep holes. Through Isaiah, God assures his people of the love he has for them and that in him is to be found that deep and lasting comfort, or peace if you like, that they crave.

Mark points us to Jesus who was the fulfilment of that love. Jesus was the one who paid for all our sins making it abundantly clear to us that God’s love could be no greater. Our peace is in knowing that love, in experiencing that love, in knowing that with him, that peace described by Paul is ours for ever.

Let me finish today then by reminding you of Paul’s closing words in his letter to the Philippians.

“ 4Rejoice in the LORD always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5Let your gentleness be evident to all. The LORD is near. 6Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-think about such things. 9Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me-put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”

May these words bring us all the peace we long for during this festive time. Amen.

Please click on link below to listen to City Alight singing “All my ways are known to you”

All my ways are known to you