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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve Devotional

Hello, for those of you who are interested. I was asked to deliver the Christmas Eve Devotional at Pastor Dave Anderson's church Crosslands Community Church up near Shrub Oak, NY. They asked me if I would post it online so that people could check it out. If you live in the area, and don't have a church, Pastor Dave is a great guy, and has a wonderful family, and the church people are great. You can check out their website at www.crosslandscc.org.

Peace

My favorite Christmas song is “I heard the Bells on Christmas Day” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I especially like the part: “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 goodwill to men.”
The angels brought the message to the Shepherds, “Peace on Earth; Goodwill to men.” As I was thinking about the song, I found that I too was feeling a bit cynical just like Longfellow was at the start of the song. It seems like there are a lot of things that contradict the message of peace on earth. Every time I look at the news, all I see is war and strife, marriages falling apart, hearts being broken, government troubles, death, countries around the world at war with each other, the list is endless. It’s easy to wonder why if God told the angels that the good news was about peace on earth, why isn’t there any peace on earth, and why is it that I have so little peace a lot of the time in my heart?
Why is peace so hard to maintain?
But as I was thinking about this, I didn’t get a revelation in the same way that Longfellow did by being reminded of the words of the carols the bells were tolling, but I did almost immediately envision an image of an orchid. It came to me that peace is a lot like an orchid. Orchids are one of the most temperamental flowers. Orchids need a certain type of light, soil, water, and temperature or they die. They require constant cultivation. In an article entitled “Caring for Orchids,” at articlesbase.com, I found this:
Orchids are beautiful, exotic plants that are temperamental, but can be successfully grown indoors as a decorative houseplant. Orchids are not that complicated, and if you understand caring for orchids and their needs you can grow these exotic and beautiful plants.

Orchids will thrive in your ordinary home environment if given the proper potting bark, right amount of water, proper amount of sunlight and fertilizer occasionally.
I found this part particularly interesting in light of the drought that it seems like I’ve been going though lately.
Orchids usually grow on the trunks and branches of trees. This means that their roots are used to drying out before being given water again. When growing one of these plants in your home, you should let the potting bark dry out completely before watering.
So as a side note, it seems that there is some connection between the drought that the Orchid goes through, and their beauty. And as Christians we are often called on to experience suffering before we experience God’s joy. I Peter 5 says that we will suffer for a little while and then God will restore, support and strengthen us, and set us on a firm foundation. This has been a cause for joy for me lately, as I cling to the fact that the suffering I endure is only temporary.
True Joy comes from understanding our relationship with God. Happiness often comes from our situation. But peace seems to be more elusive. It could just be my Midwestern roots, but finding peace is extremely difficult for me. I was raised from the time I was a little kid to prepare for the worst. Never go out with a light jacket, but wear many layers, that way you can take off layers as needed. You can never trust the weather. Just because it started out as a 60 degree beautiful sunny day in June, doesn’t mean that it won’t be snowing by 3 in the afternoon. (That actually happened to me one time when I was helping my dad dig a ditch for a water line.) You just can’t trust these things. People in Indiana have proverbs like: “Never get your hopes up, and then you will never be disappointed.” Very practical advice.
Or how about this example, when I was a kid my front yard butted into US 40, one of the busiest highways in Indiana, so it seems my mom’s solution was to never let us go outside and then we wouldn’t be hit by a car. Until we heard about people a few miles down the road who were sitting in their living room and a truck slammed into the front of their house ripping off half of it. I don’t know how you prepare for that situation. I guess my mom would say, “you think ahead and move.” The way people worry in the Midwest reminds me of the movie “What about Bob?” Bob was afraid that his bladder would burst in public. He believed that if he faked a heart attack he wouldn’t have one.
Yes, there is a point that I’m meandering towards. The interesting point that I’m trying to make is that though I’m talking about peace, worry also seems to require constant cultivation.
Peace requires constant cultivation. If they both require constant cultivation, which plant do we want to cultivate, the Poison Ivy of Worry, or the Orchid of Peace? The two are mutually exclusive. They can’t exist in the same space. They’re like matter and anti-matter, they destroy each other.
Jesus said many times, let not your heart be troubled. Or in another translation Do not let your hearts be troubled. Elsewhere we are warned to guard our hearts.
There was the old Latin term Pax Romana. The Roman Peace. This was an enforced peace of a dominating power over all would-be usurpers, kept in place with torments such as flogging, crucifixion, public burnings at the stake, public executions for entertainment purposes and the threat of slavery for miscreants.
It’s an interesting phrase Jesus used. Do not let your heart be troubled. He didn’t say, your heart will be troubled, so pray and it will go away. He didn’t say, your heart is already troubled, so do a whole bunch of good things so you don’t have to worry. No what he said was, “Let not your heart be troubled, you believe in God. Believe also in me.” Our belief will provide the peace we need.
How easy it is to look at the situation around us and let our peace be stolen away. Peter looked at the waves, and his peace was taken, and he began to sink. David began to look at a beautiful woman, and ultimately his peace was taken away. The Israelites looked at the Giants in the land and their peace was taken. I find that sometimes it seems so much easier to just believe in the circumstance and the situation than to believe in Jesus.
It’s interesting to note here that the opposite of peace is fear. Those who live in war-torn countries are often said to “live in fear,” for their lives, for tomorrow, etc., they live in constant fear. When I was a kid, and the Russians were going to blow us all to kingdom come, we all lived in fear. Do you remember that? Remember being told how to hide under a desk? Like that would do anything against a nuclear bomb!
When I was a kid, I remember people almost worshiping Ronald Reagan when the Berlin wall came down. The greatest fear of our lives was over. We didn’t have to worry about being nuked anymore. I remember before the fall of the wall, I read a book about Spetsnaz, the Russian special forces, and how tough and mean they were. It was said that when Spetsnaz interrogated people they used a file to file down their prisoners teeth until they got the information they wanted. When the wall fell, I almost couldn’t believe that these tough guys would go away so easily. Surely, people that mean and dangerous wouldn’t just cave in because they weren’t getting paid to be mean and nasty anymore? Who would have thought that a force so strong could be destroyed by lack of money? But there you go, these Spetsnaz guys cared more about getting a paycheck than they did about fighting Americans. So no more Cold War.
And finally after thousands of years of turmoil, we had peace. Right?
But peace didn’t last long. We let our hearts be troubled, as a world, and found new conflicts to worry about.
I hope I am making the point and showing how fragile peace actually is? This is why Jesus warned us. You believe in God, believe also in Me, he said. How is it that believing in Him brings this peace? Many people who are not Christians claim to believe in God. But that God is distant and impersonal. In fact, many people don’t want a God that knows them too well, or at least they don’t want to think about God that way. They don’t want God knowing their most hidden evil. Somehow anyone who believes in God, when pushed, deep down knows that God is holy, and not happy with their evil parts. This is why Jesus took his phrase a step further. You can believe in God and not have peace. But believe also in Me, He said. Why? Because knowing Jesus, knowing that He knows you intimately, and yet loves you anyway, is the first step to peace.
Let not your hearts be troubled. When you believe that Jesus loves you, and when you focus on the fact that the Creator of everything, who spoke and entire worlds sprang into existence, out of nothing, who caused baskets of food to multiply out of just a few fish and bread, who caused so much fish to be caught by the disciples that it almost destroyed their nets, who was able to make Himself fit into the body of a virgin, and then be born, go to the cross to die and then come back to life again, who could walk through walls, walk across water, ascend into heaven, and has promised to come back again for us… when you believe that this amazing Being LOVES you, and you focus on that, then peace is the automatic response.
Take a breath, relax. Don’t let your heart be troubled. Let peace swell up in your heart. Things may be hard, but He is in control. Let peace grow inside of you.
That’s why the angels said Peace on Earth. Will there ever really be peace? No, not until Jesus returns. He said so. Is He contradicting the message that He told the angels to proclaim about Himself? No. Where is that peace, is it between evil men who war to possess things that really don’t matter anyway? No, it’s in our hearts when we focus on who He is and believe in Him. It can only come that way, which is why He is the Prince of Peace.
I went to a Quaker school, and Quakers are big on peace. But I never understood from their perspective the passage where Jesus says He didn’t come to bring peace, but He came to bring a sword. Most of the Quakers I knew tended to avoid that passage. But I think what Jesus was saying was that He would be just another excuse for earthy men to war over. I mean look at the Irish, Protestants and Catholics both warring over the name of Jesus. But even in the lives of sincere dedicated Christians, there is lack of peace. When someone comes to Christ, people around that person will not be happy about it. It will cause tension, it will cause strife. But it causes strife in the same way that a doctor does when they have to cut out an infection or tumor. It is painful at first, but afterwards, there is healing.
The peace of Christ comes from within, and is not a Pax Romana. It does not come from without. There is no nuclear bomb anywhere that even comes close to the power of Christ. Liam asked a few nights ago if all the superheroes put all of their powers together would they be as powerful as Jesus. No, they wouldn’t. Why, because Jesus is the ultimate power inside and outside of the universe. All power is derived from Him, and returns to Him. So if anyone could enforce a type of Pax Romana, it would be Jesus. Yet He chooses not to. Notice I said, Chooses, not to.
He has ordained that peace is not something that comes from trusting in our environment. It is not something that automatically comes with the Joy that we have from being set free from sin. It is not something that comes from having stability bought by wealth. It is not something that comes from our knowledge of the Bible. It only comes from actively BELIEVING in Jesus. We can know a lot about the Bible, Satan does, but he has no peace. We can be happy all day long that we’re saved, but if we don’t believe that Jesus is more powerful than our situation, we will lose heart and lose our peace when a trial comes along. We can have our environment and our wealth shaken and we would lose our peace, if we are trusting in those things to give us peace. The only way to have peace and to keep it is by focusing constantly on Jesus.
Longfellow brings up an odd phrase to ponder. “The wrong shall fail, the right prevail with peace on earth goodwill to men.” According to Longfellow, The Right must fight to maintain peace. This is essentially what he is saying by using the word “prevail.” While this is a strange thing to say when talking about pace, it is nevertheless true. We have to fight off all the things that would distract us from focusing on Jesus; from believing in Him. We have to fight off all of the things that want to choke out our peace. We must continue to cultivate the delicate orchid of peace in our hearts.
How do we do that?
Well, I would say that we need to continue doing the things that are good for us. We should pray, sing, read our Bibles, fast, give, serve, or any of the many other things that we can do. But we need to be careful that these things don’t become a list of do’s and don’ts, or regulations to fit in with God. These things are tools that we can use to bring our attention back to Jesus and His love for us and for those around us.
So this Christmas, when you hear the phrase “Peace on Earth,” remember where that peace comes from. Believe in Jesus and experience that peace in your hearts. When the trials of the New Year arise, continue to believe in Him, and continue to cultivate peace in your heart.

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