For a number of reasons that I won't bother you with, I was having a tough day yesterday. Then, at work, I was going through a box of stuff that I had brought with me when I left the Lutheran Student Center, and discovered a manuscript from a sermon I preached back in May of 2004. At first, I just scanned it, refamiliarizing myself with the general idea. After a few moments, I began reading in earnest, and midway through decided to go back to the beginning and devour the whole thing.
It was as if God was comforting me with my own words.
Advent is supposed to be a time of hopeful anticipation for the coming of the Christ Child. More often than not, however, it ends up being not much more than the frantic preparations for Christmas...not so much the Christmas of Mary and Joseph and Jesus, but the Christmas of gatherings and gifts and decorations. I have to continually remind myself to keep things in perspective, to allow the gatherings and gifts and decorations to serve Christmas, and not the other way around.
That's not what was bothering me yesterday. But whether it's busy-ness, or illness, or work, or family demands, or loneliness, or death, or a multitude of other things, the pressure for our days to "be merry and bright" during this season can be overwhelming, and can easily spiral folks in the other direction.
Anyway, the sermon I found has to do with peace. And hope. There's two main texts that I covered: Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5 and John 14:23-29. The Revelation passage speaks of the New Jerusalem (if I remember correctly, this actually used to be an Advent text before the lectionary was revised), and in the passage from John, Jesus speaks of sending the Advocate, the Spirit.
May God grant you peace and hope as you anticipate the coming of Christ. Christ in the manger, Christ at the end of time, and Christ in your daily life. Amen.
Here's the sermon text:
It’s been a tough week. Monday night, within a span of about 3 hours, my son, then myself, then my wife all came down with a pretty violent case of the flu. I’ll spare you the details, but with all 3 of us down at the same time, and with no one truly “well” to be able to take care of the others, it was pretty miserable. Thursday afternoon, Pastor Larry Meyer at the Lutheran Student Center found out that the cancer he fought a year and a half ago has come back, and is growing in a lymph node near the original occurrence. He’ll be meeting with his doctors this week to see exactly what he’s up against and what his chances for recovery may be. Halfway around the world, an American civilian was ruthlessly beheaded in retaliation for the sickening dehumanization of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of some of our own soldiers. Gunfire and missiles continue to fly between Israeli and Palestinian forces all over Israel—the roadmap to peace seemingly on an interminable detour. Stocks are falling, prices are rising…
Where is the good news?
Where is God?
We see images every day of the “Old Jerusalem.” Quite literally, the city of Jerusalem, torn apart by centuries of war, of distrust, of terror…we see so many scenes of the aftermath of violence, we see so many images of crying parents over lost children, of so many crying orphans lamenting the loss of their parents. After a while, all the stories blend together, lose their edge—oh, it’s another killing. Oh, it’s another bombing. It’s just another tragedy in Jerusalem…we lose track of it all.
Look with me at John’s vision of the “New Jerusalem” from Revelation: “And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. 22I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; 4they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”
Wow…last week we saw how God makes all things new through Christ. It’s a message of hope in the here and now, a message that calls to us through the pain and brokenness of our lives, and a message that is continued in today’s texts. How powerful, how incredible, how absolutely amazing is the image of the new Jerusalem! To see the city that these days is one of the biggest symbols of humankind’s brokenness and separation, lifted up in this way…the nations walk by its light, kings and people bring into it the glory and honor of the nations, the river of the water of life flows through it, the tree of life grows in the middle of the city…the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations!
I’m going to come back to this image of the New Jerusalem, but first we need to look at the Gospel lesson. Without the words of the Gospel, the New Jerusalem is nothing than a pipedream, a beautiful image of something that doesn’t exist, or at least doesn’t exist yet, something to look forward to in some distant time or place, some future otherworldly heaven that has no effect on us in the here and now except to give us hope for what lies ahead. If that’s all it is, then it does us no good…it’s like having your head banged over and over and over against a brick wall and being told “don’t worry, someday the banging will stop, and you’ll be out of your pain and there will be no more brick wall.”
This week, in our Gospel lesson, Jesus reminds us that we don’t need to only look ahead to some future paradise. We have the promise of the Holy Spirit, described in the NRSV translation as our advocate…it’s also been translated as helper, counselor, comforter…it is the spirit of the living Christ! Through the Spirit, Christ is with us, Christ is in us, Christ advocates on our behalf, he helps us, he counsels us, he comforts us!
In a world of bad news, Jesus tells us “PEACE I leave with you; MY PEACE I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” As Christians, it’s easy to find ourselves falling into the trap of waiting for that beautiful day someday when all pain will cease and all will be right. If that’s all life is, waiting for some magic end out there, then why deal with everything that happens between point a and point b?
If we do that as Christians, we miss the incredible gift God has given us in the Holy Spirit. We feel uncomfortable sometimes as Lutherans talking about the Holy Spirit, but it is the Spirit that is with us today—it is the Spirit who gives us peace.
There are those out there who will say that God blesses them because of their belief in Christ. They will say that they put their faith in God, and suddenly life gets easier. There are less questions, less bumps in the road, things just go well. Jesus never promised us that. He doesn’t promise us that in today’s gospel either. Peace is not the absence of pain. Peace is not sailing smoothly through life. The peace of God which surpasses all understanding, the peace that Jesus gives to us, is not a promise that we will not have to deal with illness, or the uncertain future of a loved one. It doesn’t mean that we will stop being touched by evil and sadness and hurt, whether it’s headlines from far away or events that directly affect us right where we are.
Peace through the spirit is the trust and assurance that even though pain and suffering do occur, we know who is ultimately in control and who has the final say. The world offers us many things—the world offers us a version of peace, the world offers us security, the world offers us happiness. But the world lets us down. The world doesn’t always keep its promises. We have the Holy Spirit who is with us, teaching us, reminding us of all Jesus has told us. When bad things happen we have a God who suffers with us and who is always there to comfort us, and who has already defeated the powers of sin and death on our behalf. We have a God who keeps his promises!
Earlier, I asked, where is the good news? It’s right here.
Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. These are words coming from the very one who in a matter of hours will be arrested, beaten, and crucified. And they are spoken not just to the disciples 2000 years ago, they are spoken to us today. What’s going on in your life? What pain, what uncertainty, what trial, what is it that you are facing today? You have a loving God who created you! You have a loving God who gave himself willingly for you! You have a loving God who even today is with you to comfort and guide you, and who works through you to comfort and guide others!
This is the peace of the New Jerusalem, this is the assurance of life and love that Jesus has given us. The New Jerusalem does not have to be some future paradise we need to wait and hope for, the New Jerusalem IS a picture of the peace of Christ! The kingdom of God has already broken into our world—in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and we have been freed! And every time we taste the bread of the Lords table, and every time we drink from the cup, and when we hear the words “this is my body, given for you; this is my blood, shed for you,” the old Jerusalem dies once more in us, and God gives us his peace, builds in us the New Jerusalem.
“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Through pain, through fear, through darkness, through sin, through whatever it is we face, Christ has given us his peace, has built in us the New Jerusalem, has left with us the helper, the counselor, the advocate, the Holy Spirit.