During Advent we wait for the coming of Christ again. Since his first ‘advent’ – a word meaning ‘coming’ – Jesus opened the door to the presence of God in our lives. This year we’ll think about the peace Christ brings to our conflicted world.  Jesus said, ‘Blessed are peacemakers for they shall be called sons and daughters of God.’  We have God’s DNA when we’re a person of peace and seek to bring peace! But how do we cultivate such a spirit in our conflicted world? Does peace have a chance, even after John and Yoko’s chant of giving peace a chance? We hardly need reminding of numerous world conflicts that beset our world at any given time. Like the ancient writer of Psalm 120, we echo his words: ‘Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war.’  Our hearts and wills for peace are overwhelmed by the reality of endless conflict: some evil beheading, a Nigerian bombing, or a ‘black Friday’ queue descending into greedy mayhem. Hatred, war, greed and conflict seem always to have the last word. So this invades our own hearts with anxiety, fear and disillusion. Can our world ever be different? If we are to be peacemakers, how do we prepare or guard our own hearts for peace?

1.    Peace is not naturally ours –  John 16:33
Let’s start here and state it as it is. Turmoil and conflict aren’t just out there in a wicked world. Peace in our own lives is a rarity. How often are we conscious of being completely at peace? Very, very rarely! The norm is to be beset with anxieties, fears and tensions. We may carefully control such emotions by presenting a face of perfect calm and a well-practiced, ‘Fine’, when asked, ‘How are you?’ But we know our heart is often anything other than at peace. It’s not peace that is our natural state, it is turmoil!

The more I reflect on my life and meet others through my ministry as a pastor, the more I am faced with how we live our lives from our needs, our wounds and our fears. We have insatiable need of attention: for being loved or at least admired, a need to be influential and to be heard, a need to be successful or at least considered worthwhile. And we have our wounds: whether it is from our upbringing by less than perfect parents, or some sibling rivalry, or from the knack of life to deliver its hard knocks, disappointments and a sense of having failed.  Then there are our fears of something in our past, or a current situation that stokes anxiety, and of course the unknown and dark future where all the ‘what ifs’ press in upon us, especially in the early hours of the night. This is the raw stuff of our tangled hearts. If there were some technology whereby what was going on in our brains could be thrown up on to a monitor, you know what would be displayed for all to see – a jumble of fears and anxieties. The reality is we are tossed about by such feelings.

This is why religions and new age practices that offer forms of meditation are so attractive in our culture. So it is sad the Christian faith is rarely seen as having anything to offer, when our Saviour stated at the very end: ‘I have said this to you so that in me you may have peace.’ (John 16:33) And he underlines what he promised: ‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you… Do not let your hearts be troubled.’ (John 14:27). So just an initial look at what Jesus taught, hints there is much practical wisdom and truth to absorb to keep bringing us into an experience of peace that counteracts the turbulence we regularly feel.

2.    Peace starts with us – Ephesians 2:14
The first task of peacemakers is therefore receiving peace ourselves. It doesn’t stop there – but it does start there! If Jesus’ peace is given by him and not manufactured by us, what precisely do we receive from him? What does it look like? What is its impact? How does it change us? Paul discovered this in a very personal way.  When writing to the Ephesians he stated: ‘Christ himself is our peace…’ (Ephesians 2:14)  On the Damascus Road, in a state of turbulent anger when he was out to get the followers of Jesus, he was confronted by that same Jesus – very much alive! He didn’t merely get a new idea about peace, but a life of peace: his character, his purpose, how he spent his time and himself changed. He realised the very thing he found offensive, indeed blasphemous, in the faith of these early believers – a crucified Messiah – was precisely what humanity needed to overcome its divisions born of self-righteousness, suspicion and fear. Who was put to death on the cross? Well, Jesus of course. But what was put to death on the cross? Answer: hostility. In his own words: ‘by the cross he put to death their hostility.’ (Ephesians 2:16) Jesus willingly went into the dense frenzy of human hostility, but in a spirit, which far from retaliating, worked something genuinely new and creative – mercy and forgiveness. And we call this ‘grace’ and it is a revelation and gift from God. This is what the cross does within us when we open ourselves to it: it gentles us down because we see what we’re like, and that we share in this dense tumult ourselves – we’re wounded by it and we add to it. As we recognize this is the nasty game we have shared in, we become understanding of others. So we receive forgiveness and start the long process of learning to forgive.

This is why Jesus gives us his broken body to feed on, his cup of suffering to share in – the bread and the wine. He says: ‘Receive my nourishment for your broken self that you may learn to live peacefully in a broken world. You don’t have to get sucked into the mayhem of fear, judgement, prejudice and violence’ – the environment the bible calls ‘wrath.’ So we need to take regular, long, nourishing chunks of this bread, and deep, long swigs of this cup to live in the way of Jesus Christ. It’s because Jesus’ spirit on the cross was so pure, so full of grace, that we call that spirit, Holy Spirit. Pentecost always flows from Calvary.  And in that Spirit we and the world are remade.

3.    Peace requires we move – Psalm 120
So what does this mean for us practically in our inner life? Back to that verse that captured my imagination some years back and has lodged within me ever since. ‘Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. I am a man of peace, but when I speak, they are for war.’ This is the opening psalm of the collection called the Psalms of Ascents. They are usually understood as pilgrim psalms, used to celebrate the practice of ascending the Lord’s mountain – Mount Zion – to the house of the Lord. In this psalm he’s far away in the tents of Kedar, in Meshech region. Here there’s no sympathy for the dreams and aspirations of a faithful but exiled Israelite. And he comes to realize he can’t go on in this hate-filled and violent environment. Environments affect us – the spirit within a place or community seeps into us. So he contemplates a journey and is reassured that God will be with him as he travels (Psalm 121). Then he meets up with kindred spirits who invite him on pilgrimage (Psalm 122). And suddenly we’re transported into one of the gates entering Jerusalem. What do they pray when they get there? For peace – peace for Jerusalem. Peace within Jerusalem. He has moved from the house of fear, hatred and war into the house of peace. We see the same process in Psalm 27 when he talks about not fearing, but being in the house of the Lord to dwell on beauty.

Peace requires we move. We live in a house of fear, violence, greed and war. This is our world, the society of shopping mayhem on black Friday. And all those very ordinary, normal people – just like us – get caught up in the spirit of it all. We’re naïve if we imagine we are strong to withstand the powers and principalities at work in our culture. The first step to freeing ourselves from it is to recognise we share within it. And daily, we are called to move from tattered tents of our needs, our wounds and our fears, and at the invitation of Jesus to move into the house of the Father. That path to the Father’s house, Jesus prepared for us, by going to the cross. It’s the house of peace and love, where we enter as God’s beloved son or daughter, and we let ourselves be gathered into this new environment of peace and forgiveness. Enter into the house of the Peacemaker daily to receive peace and so become a peacemaker. This is the start. But it is not the end. We must now become visionaries of peace.

For reflection
1.    Share your experiences of how different environments affect you. How they leave you feeling etc.
2.    In what ways do the preoccupations of our society affect us?
3.    Share any experiences you’ve had recently where you have felt completely at peace. How often do we feel like that?
4.    Spend a few minutes and make a mental or actual list of the fears, wounds and needs etc. that tumble around within your heart.
5.    Imagine the state of heart Paul was in on the Damascus Road (See Act  9:1-4; 22:2-11; 26:9-18)
6.    What light does this throw upon what he writes in Ephesians 2:14-18?
7.    Chat about how you become when you are stressed, anxious or unhealthily preoccupied? What are you like to live with?
8.    What is the link between prayer and peace?
9.    Jesus talked and prayed about entering the house of the Father or the Father/Christ making a home in us. See John 14:1-6; 14:23 (reverses the picture); 14:27; 16:33; 17:21;  17:24 & 17:26. In the light of this how can enter the Father’s house daily & keep our fears & anxieties in check?