by Daniel Harrell
We all know what it’s like to lie wide awake in the middle of the night. Worrying. Anxious. Panicked. Angry. Sometimes it has to do with what’s happened: a muffed presentation at work, a soured relationship, a hurtful comment, a missed opportunity with the kids. But more often, what keeps you up at 3AM in the morning is not what actually happened as much as what might. A job you might lose, a relationship that might unravel, words someone might say, a child who might get into trouble. Then there’s the grudges and animosities: the boss, the spouse, the other person, that jerk; they’re the ones really at fault. The resentment and anger fuels the anxiety. By 4AM you’re on to being anxious about your anxiety. Inevitably a better Christian than yourself will counsel you to “let go and let God,” that you should just “stop worrying and pray about it.”
Such advice smacks of insensitivity and makes you want to smack the person offering it (which might make you feel momentarily better). But these people are only paraphrasing Scripture. Philippians 4:6-7: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” This is a cross-stitchable verse from Philippians if ever there was one. I’ve devoted my Sundays since Easter through Pentecost to such verses from Philippians and aside from this morning’s, I do have one more which I will unveil in Rosland Park on July 7. Between now and then we’re off on a bit of vacation to visit family in North Carolina, and then on to St. Thomas with Boston family for some island peace that passes all understanding.
This morning’s beloved passage from Philippians, while enticingly hopeful, can feel hopelessly patronizing. Of course it was Jesus who first admonished us to stop worrying. “Consider the lilies of the field” he said. “look at the birds.” “Just seek the kingdom and all will be well.” Is it really that simple? How then to explain when my sincerest kingdom search fails to provide any peace of mind? Is there something wrong with my faith?
Not necessarily. Last week I looked at “pressing on to win the prize for which God has called us heavenward in Christ Jesus” in Philippians 3, adjusting Paul’s analogy of a runner to that of a bad skier. My point was that given the hot chocolate guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus (you’ll have to listen to the sermon), the faith we practice is not about being able to successfully please God, but is rather a response to God’s existing pleasure of us through Christ. Whether on our skis or our butts, for better or worse, one way or another, God guarantees that even Christians who are bad at being Christians still make it down the mountain and safely to the lodge. Holy Ghost gravity hauls us home.
This secure future in Christ is reason enough for us to not worry. Better still, it compelled Paul to admonish the Philippian church, even amidst its own troubles and conflict, to “Rejoice in the Lord!” And just in case they thought he was being patronizing he said it again: “Rejoice!” More than a trite “be happy,” Paul issues an invitation to worship. To gather as God’s people and praise the Lord is a undeniable source of solace. How many of us even this morning have sensed our troubles dissipate amidst song and welcome, amidst prayer and the presence of children? Worship is that collective surrender of ourselves to God; the yielding of our souls to the Spirit and to each other. It is a tangible means whereby we seek the kingdom. Worship in turn confirms the right order of the universe, it places everything in perspective, it gives us power to do as God directs.
Paul parlays this perspective into another precept: “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Gentleness, is your Bible’s take on an important if untranslatable Greek word also rendered reasonableness, forbearance, moderation, considerateness, magnanimousness and good sense. Aristotle used it to denote the generous treatment of others, refusing to insist on the letter of the law. It is a willingness to tolerate another’s limitations, making allowances so that justice might not injure. It is the forbearance of Christ, forgiving those who know not what they do. Having praised God for his grace toward you, gentleness toward others extends that grace into everyday life. The motivation for this gentleness is tucked in at the end of verse 5: the Lord is near. This implies both time (The Lord is near to returning) as well as space (the Lord is nearby). It is not meant as a warning (be gentle or else because the Lord is near) but as encouragement (you can be gentle like your Lord because he is near).
It also means you don’t have to worry about anything anymore. “But in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” When the clock blinks 4AM and you’re tied in knots, Paul tells you to unloosen those knots into prayers. Practice gratitude. With the Lord nearby, you might as well let him in on what He already knows and let his peace guard your heart. But again problem is that this is no sure thing. Converting worries into prayers doesn’t automatically bring peace of mind.
You might be interested to know that this is the only place in the entire Bible where the phrase, the peace of God, appears. Whereas we tend to equate the peace of God with peace of mind, this is not necessarily what Paul had in mind. Paul uses peace in a military sense, apropos for Memorial Day, describing it as a garrison guarding your heart. Such peace is situational rather than existential, the absence of external turmoil instead of inner calmness amidst turmoil; world peace rather than personal peace. Jesus defeated the final enemies of evil and death. World peace is here for the taking. His kingdom has come. God’s kingdom should not be relegated to some fluffy, harp-laden pie in the sky in the sweet by and by when we die, but understood as the reign of Christ now, a victorious future that breaking into the present. Scripture portrays God’s kingdom as one of power and peace. Swords are beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks. Nations do not take up swords against nations, nor will they train for war anymore. Every knee in heaven and on earth and under the earth bows, and every tongue confesses Christ as Lord, all to the glory of God.
Scripture’s portrayal of God’s kingdom typically uses the present and past tenses even though our experience has not yet caught up to God’s reality. World peace is for the taking but we have not embraced it. The Lord is near but we resist. On our recent trip to Israel I remember standing in the country’s northern tip, at the mouth of the Jordan River, where just over one hill to the northeast was Syria—collapsing under the weight of its own internal violence—and then across a field to the northwest was Lebanon—rife with animosity and terror. Both avowed enemies of Israel, both just footsteps away, footsteps that on that day which could have been walked across a beautifully verdant hillside and a lush field of green. It felt like the most peaceful place on earth. But nobody wanted it.
Nobody except for the tourists. Not only were the surroundings lush, but the water is crystal clear, which is why most tourist groups looking for a baptismal encounter with the Jordan River choose this location for a dunk even though it is nowhere near the place John the Baptist did his baptismal business. Travel downriver to the actual site and you have to go to the middle of the desert where the water is muddy and smelly—just like our sins. You’ll be relieved to know that our Colonial group picked the smelly site for our baptismal experience. No need to pretend things were better than they are. Thankfully we’re Congregationalists instead of Baptists, so we only had to stick our feet in the water.
Getting to the authentic baptism locale meant traversing military checkpoints to cross from Israel to Jordan. Landmines rimmed the road. Still, Jordan remains the lone border country truly at peace with Israel. A bellicose Iran threatens just over Jordan to the east. An increasingly Islamic Egypt churns to the South. Lebanon and Syria are to the north and resentful Palestinians smolder in both the West Bank (to the east) and Gaza (to the west). What unites these enemies is the intent to wipe Israel from the face of the earth, an intention already depicted on Palestinian maps where Israel is nowhere to be found. Israel responds by walling off the Palestinians behind massive security barricades. Poverty and unemployment are rampant behind these walls, with strict limits on every movement. On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry urged Israeli and Palestinian leaders to “demonstrate leadership” in the coming days in order to find a way back to direct peace negotiations. But there’s little motivation to do so. We visited a Palestinian Lutheran church whose pastor explained how Israeli and Palestinian identities are too wrapped up in conflict and suffering for any real peace to occur. One reason we humans refuse to resolve conflict is because we’re addicted to the energy it generates.
War is like an addictive drug. Or in our drone-driven days, an all-consuming video game. Historians, journalists, politicians, movie-makers, novelists and Memorial Day celebrations endow it with qualities it often does possess: excitement, exoticism, power, bravery, patriotism, chances to rise above our small stations in life. Its violence and destruction share a deadly and dark beauty. Even with all the carnage, war can give us what we so long for in life: purpose, meaning, a reason for living and dying. In his recent graduation speech to the United States Naval Academy, President Obama told America to “Look at these young men and women. Look at these sailors and Marines. Here are the values that we cherish. Here are the ideals that endure. In an era when too few citizens answer the call to service, to community or to country, these Americans choose to serve. They do so in a time of war, knowing they might be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice.”
The supreme irony is when war is engaged as a means to peace. We see this in Scripture, Old Testament and New, where what Christian tradition labels as just or holy war condescends to human sin for the sake of justice and reconciliation. Just war engages most fiercely on the cross, where God’s holy anger is unleashed against every evil which offends, frustrates, threatens, endangers, impedes and destroys. The cross reveals the anger of God in its darkest beauty. And yet the cross is understood as the ultimate expression of God’s love. This too is ironic. The sin Jesus bore—of which we all share guilt—brought down the full fury of heaven. Yet that fury against sin made possible our peace with God—a peace that surpasses all understanding. God gave himself for our sin. Why do that if not for love’s sake? It was the ultimate sacrifice; a war that ended all wars, a love that applies not only to us personally but to us as cultures and nations. In the book of Ephesians, to hostile Gentiles and Jews, avowed enemies of each other, the apostle Paul wrote “now in Christ Jesus you who once were estranged 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.”
That Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem was obliged to suggest everybody give Jesus a chance. If such simple words sound patronizing, could it be because we choose to receive them as such? Maybe our dismissiveness is not due to Scripture’s simplicity, but to our own failure of imagination and refusal of faith. The problem is not that the peace of God can’t be understood, but that we too often have no genuine interest in understanding it and letting it work. We pay lip service to its ideals, but admit that when it comes right down to it, we prefer hatred and jealousy and envy and conflict. The grudges we bear provide an addictive energy, that keeps us jazzed with its sinister power.
Which is why the peace of God must guard our hearts, like a peace-keeping force operating deep within country. The evils that threaten your borders act on your own soul too. Thus the peace of God guards but it also imposes with the goal of making you a peacemaker. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said, “for they shall be called the sons and daughters of God.” The reverse is also true. The peace of God is a sign of salvation, proof that the Lord is near and his Kingdom come. As churches sing every Palm Sundays, quoting the prophet Zechariah, “Rejoice greatly, for your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey…. He takes away the chariots and the war-horses and breaks the battle bow. He proclaims peace to the nations. His rule extends from sea to sea and from the Jordan to the ends of the earth.”
There has been progress on this front. According to the Center for Systemic Peace, the general level of armed conflict and lethal violence in the global system has declined dramatically, falling over 60% from peak levels during the Cold War.
“The Lord is near.” The reign of the Prince of Peace comes. He takes away the chariots and the war-horses and breaks the battle bow. He proclaims peace to the nations. Seek the Kingdom and all will be well. Let the gentleness of Jesus be evident in you. Practice peace. Love and forgive your enemies. “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus..” It truly is as simple as that.