"THE VALUE OF PEACE"
Third Sunday in Advent
December 16, 2018
Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church
Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for He will speak peace to His people, His saints; but let them not turn back to folly.
Psalm 85:8 (ESV)
One of the great themes of the Advent and Christmas seasons is peace. It seems that we see and hear evidence of this everywhere during this time of the year. Concerning the coming Messiah the prophet Isaiah writes: "His name shall be called . . . Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6). Zechariah the priest sings of the mission of his son John, the forerunner of the Messiah, telling us that John's purpose is: "to guide our feet into the way of peace" (Luke 1:6). After the angel announced the Savior's birth to the shepherds on Bethlehem's field, we are told that "suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!'" (Luke 2:14 KJV). Twenty centuries later we are still singing of the comfort that this event brings to us, making it possible for us to "sleep in heavenly peace" (Lutheran Service Book #363, stanza 1). And, echoing the words of the Christmas angels, we proclaim the true meaning of our Savior's incarnation: "Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled" (Lutheran Service Book #380, stanza 1). Despite all of the hectic busy-ness that precedes it, the holiday season itself seems to be characterized by a mood of peace. This morning's text speaks of peace: our waiting for it with longing, what it really is, and why it is extended to us. And so this morning we will examine what the psalmist has to tell us about waiting for the Lord's Word, the Word that He speaks to us, and the desired result of that Word.
The text begins with the words: "Let me hear what God the Lord will speak." Some Biblical commentators are of the opinion that the psalmist is thinking back to the days of Nehemiah, when the people of Judah returned from the Babylonian captivity to their beloved holy city, Jerusalem, and prepared to rebuild the glorious city and specifically its walls, to protect it from future attacks. We read in the eighth chapter of Nehemiah: "All the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law" (Nehemiah 8:1, 2). Can you imagine that--a congregation asking their pastor to read Scripture to them for half a day at one sitting--and actually paying attention to every word? The people of Judah, recently returned from captivity, were mindful of the fact that it was their disobedience of God's commands that sent them into exile, and they weren't about to make the same mistake all over again. In the same we, freed from the captivity of our sin, repentantly await the Lord's Word to us.
And what is the Word that the Lord will speak to us? "He will speak peace to His people, His saints." When the Lord speaks of peace, He is talking about something infinitely more than what people normally mean when they use that word. The Lord's peace isn't merely the absence of hostility or the grudging tolerance of people and attitudes that we can't stand. The Lord's peace is something positive--something that is expressed in the well-known Hebrew word shalom. That word, though used as a common greeting among the Jewish people, conveys not only good wishes, but fullness--completeness--even perfection. It is, above all, peace between the holy and just God and His sinful and rebellious people. This is the peace that God speaks to sinners in the Christ of Advent and Christmas. "In Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself," the apostle tells us, "not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation" (2 Corinthians 5:19). We, His perfect creatures broken by sin, are redeemed and restored by the One who comes to take our place under God's Law and judgment so that we might have the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation--and so that we might share these blessings of the Gospel with others.
And what is the desired result of the peace that God speaks to His people in the coming Christ? The text puts it this way: "Let them not turn back to folly." If you will look ahead with me for a bit, we can get a hint of this desired result in the Epistle Reading for Christmas Eve: "For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people of His own possession who are zealous for good works" (Titus 2:11-14). He who came to win for us the forgiveness of our sins and to reconcile us to the perfectly just and holy God didn't do it so that we turn back to our life of sin and thereby make ourselves enemies of God all over again. He did it so that we might be dead to sin in His death and alive to God in the power of His resurrection. The apostle Paul teaches us this same truth with a series of rhetorical questions: "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?" (Romans 6:1, 2). Our peace with God was worth so much to our Savior that He willingly took our place under God's Law and judgment, fulfilling the Law perfectly in His life and making atonement for our sin in His suffering and death. If that peace with God is worth anything to us, we will not want to "turn back to [the] folly" of our sin but will instead want to, as Luther puts it in the catechism, "live before Him in righteousness and purity forever" (Small Catechism, explanation of the Second Article of the Apostles' Creed).
Is peace worth something? To some, it is worth making concessions to opponents in order to foster harmony. To others, it is worth sacrificing their property or even their lives for the greater good. For Jesus, our peace with the God whom we have offended by our sin is worth everything. He gave His all--in more ways than we can ever appreciate--to reconcile us to God and to free us from the bonds of sin and death. Here's the tough question: What is this peace with God worth to us? If we "turn back to folly," continuing to live as if we were still enemies of God and slaves to sin, it obviously isn't worth much to us. As sinful humans, we have no choice. But the Gospel of our Savior gives us Good News: "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus," it tells us. "For the Law of the Spirit of Life has set you free from the law of sin and death" (Romans 8:1, 2). And: "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ has reconciled us to Himself" (2 Corinthians 5:17, 18). That newness of life--that freedom from sin and death--that reconciliation with God--that peace--is all ours, given to us freely and guaranteed to us by the perfect, completed work of the Christ whose return we await with joyful anticipation.
May the One who once came as an Infant in Bethlehem prepare you for His coming again in glory by His Means of Grace, through which He comes to you even now. May He equip you to be His witnesses so that you, like the Baptist in the wilderness, may prepare the way of the Lord. He who calls you is faithful, and He will do it. Amen