Patience, Peace, and the Promise of God: A Christmas Message from Bishop Carter

December 20, 2022

By: Bishop Ken Carter

Peace, Patience and the Promise of God

A Christmas Message by Bishop Ken Carter for the Florida and Western North Carolina Conferences of the United Methodist Church.  

In anticipation of his birth, there was a word from the prophet, Isaiah:

He will be called wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting Father, prince of peace. Isaiah 9

The father of John the Baptist, Zechariah, spoke of the birth of his own son:

He will give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. Luke 1

A heavenly choir sang praise to God on the occasion of the birth of Jesus:

Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace. Luke 2

The teaching ministry of Jesus began with a word spoken on the mountain of the Beatitudes in the Galilee:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Matthew 5

In the midst of the storm, as the disciples faced persecution and uncertainty and fear, Jesus spoke to the winds and the waves, and to the disciples:

Peace, be still! Mark 4

When he was about to leave this earth, Jesus' last words were ones of comfort:

Peace I leave with you My peace I give to you I do not give as the world gives to you. Let not your hearts be troubled Neither let them be afraid. John 14

Each year at about this time, in the days leading to Christmas, we hear these same words. This year, as last year, we are in the midst of wars and rumors of wars, especially Russia and Ukraine. This year, as last year, we see violence in the continued mass shootings. This year, as last year, we can look within and sense uncertainty and fear, and, if we are honest, the absence of peace.

Most of us want peace. Not everyone wants peace, but most of us want peace. The dissonance comes because there seems to be so little of it. Our time could be described in the words of the eighth century prophet, who critiqued those who would go around announcing, "peace, peace, when there is no peace." Jeremiah 8

This Advent, in our churches, we will light the candle of peace and we will read the scriptures about peace and we will await the coming of the promised prince of peace.

It was the dream of the prophets. It was the hope of his parents. It was the message of his preaching. It was the legacy of his passover.

Peace. We want peace. But we know so little peace in our world, in our community, in our lives.

So, what do we do with this dissonance? How do we resolve it? One response is to say that we are not peaceable people, that we do not really care enough about peace to make it happen. This would be the problem. It's as if we have not figured out a way to construct peace or make it a reality.

But this is not quite right. Because peace is not something we can create or invent. And to go more deeply into all of this, we don't always really know what peace is, do we? Some people sentimentalize peace. Peace is like a warm blanket or a hot bath or a sedative. Some people compartmentalize peace. I think of the homes in Latin America, in neighborhoods I have walked through, the walls lined with cut glass bottles, the jagged edges exposed, to separate those inside from those outside, to keep the peace.  We do this in more sophisticated ways north of the border. 

Could we have peace if we just built a gigantic wall? In the land where the prince of peace was born, his ancestors on both sides have little desire for peace, although the multitudes of Palestinians and Israelis want peace.  I remember a memorable visit with many of you to the Walled Off Hotel.  Could we have peace if we just separated the people we like from the people we don't like?

Is that peace? It turns out that peace is something different.

Here is a definition. Peace is a right relationship with God. And a right relationship with God always places us into a right relationship with each other. And here is a further conviction. We do not make it a right relationship. God has already done that. God has already made peace with the world.

The early followers could look back at Jesus, in the same way the prophets looked forward, and they could see the peace that he had made possible on this earth:

We read in Ephesians 2:

In Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. Ephesians 2

He is our peace. Peace is not a human achievement. Peace is a gift from God. And here we find ourselves much closer to the prophets, much nearer to the people we meet in the gospels. We are praying for this gift, eagerly awaiting this gift of peace. It's like we are driving home for that Christmas family feast, we are not there, but we can almost taste it!

Advent is a time of transition.  

In the 40th chapter of Isaiah, the prophet speaks of a transition, of change. The season of punishment has ended; now is the time of restoration and renewal. " Comfort the people with this good news," the prophet says. Go to the top of a mountain and shout it out for all to hear. Those who have been wounded are now the very ones who will comfort others.

In one of the epistle readings for Advent, the third chapter of II Peter, there is a further reflection on this transition. A thousand years is like a day with God. The transition seems slow in coming. We wait for this gift, but it does not appear. We want this promised peace, but where is it? God is not slow, the scripture reminds us, but God is patient, patient because of our stubbornness and sinfulness. God wants us to repent. God is interested in our readiness to receive the gift. God is not slow, but God is patient.

I am not always patient, especially at this time of year. But Advent is all about patience and waiting, whether you are a five-year old girl obsessed with a special gift or a grandparent counting the days until reunion with family. Patience and waiting.

I love the comment by Henri Nouwen:

"Waiting, as we see it in the people on the first pages of the Gospel, is waiting with a sense of a promise already begun in us. So waiting is never a movement from nothing to something. It is always a movement from 'Zechariah...your wife Elizabeth is to bear you a son.' To 'Mary...Listen! You are to conceive and bear a son.' (Luke 1. 13, 31) People who wait have received a promise that allows them to wait. They have received something that is at work in them, like a seed that has started to grow. This is very important. We can only really wait if what we are waiting for is from something to something more."

Peace is the gift of God, and we wait for it, but the waiting is not passive. "While you are waiting for a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness is at home, while you are waiting for these things," Peter writes to the first followers of Jesus, "strive to be found by him at peace, and regard the patience of the Lord as salvation."

The very absence of peace in our world, the making all things right, has to do with the patience of God, allowing us to use our freedom in his service, allowing us to use our abundance as the provision of his blessing, allowing us to use our woundedness as instruments of his healing.

We are able to wait for peace because we have glimpsed it here and there, now and then; and for the follower of Jesus, the prince of peace, something is already growing in us, a hunger and a thirst for a new world. We "wait with a sense of promise."

It was the dream of the prophets. It was the hope of his parents. It was the message of his preaching. It was the legacy of his passover. It was the longing of his people. It was the fulfillment of his promise.

Pam and I have spent a part of our lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina, where we have served, where we have a home. And not so far away from there, in Charlotte, we have come to know some of the Graham family.  Ruth and Billy Graham were traveling through the Western North Carolina mountains one afternoon, and they encountered several miles of road construction. There was one-lane traffic, there were detours, it was a little frustrating. Finally, they came to the end and they saw a road sign. Ruth Graham turned to her husband and said, "Those words, on that road sign, that is what I would like to have printed on my tombstone." The words on the road sign read:

End of construction. Thanks for your patience.

We are in a time of transition. We are on the way to a better church. It’s a time of active waiting and patient peacemaking. And we wait with a sense of promise. Do not be demoralized if the world does not seem to be a very peaceful place. Do not be downcast if the church reflects the world.  Do not be discouraged if anxiety rules within your heart and confusion pervades your mind.

Those who walked with God before us knew this same dissonance, and yet they listened for a harmony at the heart of the universe, they took the bread and the cup into their hands as grace, they continued to gather for  worship with fellow pilgrims, all of them, all of us without exception under construction. Through it all they discerned a truth that was the joy of human desiring, they dreamed about a peace the world could neither give nor take away, a gift, about to be revealed to us: peace, in the year of our Lord, 2022. 

So what do we do with our dissonance? How do we resolve it? 

God is not slow, but God is patient.

"Still the vision awaits its time,"         wrote the prophet Habakkuk, "Still the vision awaits its time. If it seems slow, wait for it. It will surely come."

Let us pray:

O God, our hope is in you and our dream is for peace in this world, in our churches, in our lives. In the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.  Amen

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