Life is unpredictable! Am I right? You plan your day out and then, “wham” a phone call shatters all of your well-made plans. Or maybe the car breaks down, or the mail brings an unexpected bill. Things happen and these things can easily disturb our peace, if we let them. Now, how about Zechariah in passage from Luke. How could he have ever anticipated what would happen that day as he carried out his routine responsibilities in the Temple? His attention was more likely on getting the incense right, or remembering the blessing he would offer afterward. But encountering an angel? No, I don’t think Zechariah had considered that possibility.
Someone recently said to me – if an angel appears and says “do not be afraid,” you should probably be afraid because something is about to happen! This is what Zechariah discovered that day in the temple. Like a powerful zoom lens, the scripture takes us from Judea where Herod is King, to Zechariah, a righteous man, husband of Elizabeth, a righteous woman, to the temple where he is serving, to the time of the incense offering, to the appearance of the angel. We are brought directly into the scene as Zechariah is going about the routine responsibilities of a priest in the temple. By tradition, only one of the priests is selected to enter the inner sanctuary with the incense and in this case it is Zechariah. So Zechariah enters alone, as everybody waits outside for him to exit and give the blessing. But just like that, Zechariah’s world turns upside down as he encounters the angel Gabriel. He responds in terror and fear to this divine presence, and who of us wouldn’t, for Gabriel is not a soft fluffy angel in a white dress and diaphanous wings, with long blond hair – he is God’s messenger and his appearance is unsettling, and even terrifying. He is not that patient with Zechariah, either, for as soon as Zechariah asks a question, he strikes him speechless.
In an instant Zechariah’s world changes from one of settled routine, following the Hebrew laws and rituals, serving twice a year in the temple, hanging out with his wife Elizabeth. You know, doing the stuff we do day in and day out. I cannot even imagine how he must have felt – terrified, happy, fearful, anxious, overwhelmed – a whole range of emotions that might best be described as emotional chaos.
Have you ever found yourself in a state of emotional chaos? I think we probably have all been there. The unexpected or unexplainable happens and we don’t know what to think or feel or do. It is very easy, at such times to allow ourselves to be overwhelmed to the point that we are no longer able to find a place of peace within ourselves. That is where peace is truly located, right? Within. You can be in the most wretched of places and still be at peace. The apostle Paul was essentially saying this in Philippians when he wrote from a prison cell, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret … I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:11-13) Conversely you can be in the most beautiful, serene place in the world, but if you are internally in chaos you will totally miss it.
So, what is peace? Wikipedia defines peace as a “certain quality of existence which has been sought after, yet seldom found in a long enduring form, since time immemorial.” In one sense, peace is understood to be a lack of conflict in which there is a freedom from fear of violence. Peace is also defined as a sort of inner calm or tranquility which does not depend on the daily uncertainties of life.
Scripturally, we are offered inner peace through Christ, in a way which is beyond our understanding. This peace is based upon the promises of God as fulfilled in Christ and is not dependent upon outer circumstances. As believers, we have an obligation to “let the peace of Christ rule” in our hearts (Colossians 3:15). This means we have the choice either to trust God’s promises (letting His peace rule) or to rely on ourselves and reject the peace He offers. As Jesus was preparing his disciples for his coming arrest and crucifixion near the end of his ministry on earth, he offered them peace based on the truth that He had overcome the world (John 14:27; 16:33), yet in the same breath he informed them they would face persecution in this world. So, even though it may not make sense, true peace may not be the absence of conflict, but rather peace right in the middle of chaos. Peace within that makes no sense based on what is happening around us. Peace in spite of fear – tenacious and resolute. Not unlike the hope we talked about last week that hangs on, even when it seems hope is gone.
Peace is also a responsibility. Would you agree with me if I said that in the world today we are not moving toward greater peace, but toward greater division. I see people in great conflict with one another – in families, in our communities there is unrest, violence, in the government, in the world where there is dissension and fighting. It is our responsibility to share peace by acting out of compassion and not fear. We can promote an atmosphere of peace by listening to all sides of a story. I like to call this the “benefit of the doubt” principle. If we can give others who may have wronged us the benefit of the doubt until we have heard them out, we can promote greater peace in our relationships. We can also promote peace by praying for our world.
Back to Zechariah. I would like to think that as Zechariah absorbed what the angel said, as he absorbed the significance of what was to happen, that a sense of peace might replace his initial response of chaos. The situation would still not be under his control – he still couldn’t speak, he still couldn’t change the events that would come, he couldn’t even predict how he and Elizabeth might handle a tiny baby, a toddler, a youth, a teenager – since he and Elizabeth were both “up there” in age. Yet, a certain inner peace must have been present in order for Zechariah’s first spoken words after nine months of silence to be “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,” and that inner peace could only come from one place. From within, from a focus on and trust in God. The same is true for us.
Of all the items that popped up in my news feed in the past week or so, this photo, had the most profound impact. Never mind the ridiculous, and heinous behavior of our nation’s leaders and of world leaders. Set aside the politics, the disasters, the speculations. Ignore the arguments and accusations. Ignore the chaos. Look at this. This is at once one of the most heartbreaking things you will ever see yet also one of the most hopeful. These are the hands of Rohingya refugee children aged 3 to 10, who have fled with their families from their homes in Myanmar (or Burma) to the relative safety of refugee camps in Bangladesh. These are the hands of children holding toys they have made or found from discarded objects. A bottle cap, a spinner, a whistle or even a small AA battery. Originally, French photographer Ed Jones, intended to photograph what people had brought with them as they escaped a bloody crackdown by security forces in Burma. But what he found was that no one had brought anything with them. Instead his focus turned to the Rohingya children, and aren’t children often the wisest among us?
With nothing much to call their own, the children, quickly get to their work – which is, of course, play. And in play, the children may find a certain peace, a certain joy even. There is something within them that defies all common understanding. Perhaps, this is partially what Jesus intended when he said that we should “receive the kingdom of God as a little child.” (Mark 10:13-16)
And so, in a world that is rocked by violence, and in our daily lives where life is unpredictable we can find peace. For peace is a state of heart that is beyond understanding, that is found by focusing on and trusting in Christ, who has overcome the world. And encouraging peace is our responsibility as we point people toward Christ and as we model peace in our lives.
Last week I suggested that we start a hope revolution, I wonder what it would take to start a peace revolution – could we do it by taking the worst of circumstances and looking for what is useful and healing, by not allowing ourselves to be drawn in to conflict, by sharing the peace of Christ, by acting out of compassion, by listening to what others have to say, by praying for peace in our world and in our lives, by finding a child-like contentment and joy, by recognizing that Christ is the source of peace in our lives? Take heart my friends, the Prince of peace has come bringing – peace that passes understanding, peace that guards our hearts and minds. Peace that a world in discord needs more than ever. Let the peace that comes from Christ rule in our lives and in our hearts.
Let us be people of peace. Let peace live in your heart and share the peace of Christ with all you meet. Share peace by acting out of compassion and not fear. Share peace by listening to all sides of the story. Share peace by praying for our world. In this Advent season, we need to see, feel, and share peace. As you go out into the wonder of God’s creations, share peace and hope with those you meet. Amen