Opening the Gift of Christmas, Pt. 2: Open Peace
The Second Sunday of Advent

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
December 8, 2013

Matthew 3:1-12 [link]


Last week I talked to you about some of the advertising slogans Coca-Cola has used throughout the years—“The Pause that Refreshes,” “It’s the Real Thing,” and their latest one, “Open Happiness.”  Our Advent slogan for this year is “Opening the Gift of Christmas,” and we’re trying to do it by opening hope, opening peace, opening joy, and opening love—the four words we have come to associate with this season.  Last Sunday I did my best to open up some Advent hope, and today I will try to open peace, but that may be even harder. 

Because peace can mean so many things.

  • It can mean the silence that falls across the landscape after two armies have done their level best destroy each other—after the last cannon has boomed and the last rifle shot has been fired and the smoke clears over a battlefield littered with bodies.
  • It can mean that sigh of relief that comes when two family members finally use up all their words in an argument and then, all at once, burst out laughing, realizing that they can’t even remember what they were fighting about. 
  • It can mean the stillness that comes only in winter, when the snow has fallen and the pond is frozen and when the pale, silvery sun comes up so slowly you can almost hear the crack of dawn.
  • It can mean that deep inner peace you feel—the “peace that passes understanding”—when you’re getting ready to go into surgery but somehow know that God is going to be with you, and it’s going to be all right.
  • It can mean that moment when the old man sitting by the fire looks up from his book and catches his wife’s eye as she looks up from hers and the two of them smile without saying a word, feeling the love between them.

I think any of those “peaces” could be the focus of the sermon but today’s Gospel reading leads me to think about peace in a different way.  It begins with John the Baptist stepping out onto the stage of history dressed in a rough camel hair tunic with a leather belt around his waist, feeding on locusts and wild honey.  He is the picture of the prophet Elijah, and the first words out of his mouth sound prophetic, in an Old Testament kind of way.  “Repent!” he says, “for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” It doesn’t sound like a bad thing, at first.  Heaven has come near?  That sounds good, actually.  But when you begin to think about it you realize it could mean that God, who usually keeps a safe distance from us in heaven, isn’t going to stay up there anymore.  He’s going to come down here, where we are, and bring his kingdom with him. 

And that’s a little unsettling.

In those days people thought of the sky like an enormous glass dome with windows in it to let the rain and snow and hail come down.  They were on this side of it, on earth, and God was on the other side of it, in heaven.  But suppose the sky opened up one day, and God’s throne was cranked down on a winch until it settled gently on the ground, and God said, “Now, bring me my subjects, one at a time.”  Suppose a long line was formed, and you were in it, getting ready to stand face to face with God Almighty, the Maker of Heaven and Earth.  How would you get ready for a moment like that?  What would you do?  What would you wear?  And what would you say when the big moment finally arrived?  “Nice to meet you, sir.  I’ve heard a lot about you”?  Probably not.  If you could stand at all without your knees knocking together and your mouth going dry you would be doing better than most.

“Repent!” John the Baptist shouted.  “That’s how you get ready for God’s arrival.  You turn away from your sins, you get yourself cleaned up, you start living a different kind of life.”  He must have been very persuasive because Matthew says “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and [lots of folks] from the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”  But when some Pharisees and Sadducees showed up he tore into them, saying, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

These were the religious people of John’s day—members of the priestly class and some of the most devout laymen you’ve ever met.  But John was saying, “I don’t care who you are.  I don’t care if you are a direct descendant of Abraham himself.  If you don’t bear the fruit of repentance your family tree is going to be chopped down and thrown on the fire.  I baptize you with water for repentance,” John said, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  Which is especially interesting to me in light of an experience I had last week. 

I was thinking about this word peace and remembering that Billy Graham had written a book about having peace with God.  So I went online and typed “peace with God” into the search engine.  The first response that came back was a website from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association where I was invited to take a four-step journey to peace with God.  So I took it.  I clicked the first button and learned that “God so loved the world.”  But if I hadn’t known better I might have wondered: Does God love me?  “Yes,” the website assured me, “God loves you very much,” and quoted the Scripture to prove it.  Encouraged, I moved on to Step Two.  “God so loved the world that he gave his only son,” the website said, and I was invited to consider what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection might mean for me.  And then I went on to Step Three, where I learned that “whosoever believes in him will not perish,” which is to say that no matter who I am or how badly I’ve messed things up, God will receive me into his family.  And finally I clicked on Step Four, where I was invited to turn from my sin and promise to live for him.  How could I do that?  By praying this simple prayer: “Dear Lord Jesus, I know I am a sinner, and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe you died for my sins and rose from the dead.  I trust and follow you as my Lord and Savior. Guide my life and help me to do your will. In your name, amen.”

And that was it: four steps to peace with God. 

But the creators of this website made the mistake of including a little button on the side that said, “Click here to chat.”  And I did.  And somebody named Doris began to type in the little box, asking me what was on my mind.  “Well,” I typed, “I’m curious.  This web site says it’s about having peace with God.  I don’t have anything against God.  Does God have something against me?”  “God loves you,” Doris typed, “but he doesn’t love your sin.”  That seemed a little personal, but I went on.  “So, I have to do something about my sin before I can have peace with God?”  “No,” she typed.  “Jesus already did something for your sin.  You just have to accept him as your Lord and savior.”  “So,” I typed, “if I accept him as my Lord and Savior I can have peace with God?”  “Yes,” she typed.  “Would you like to do that right now?”  So, I told her the truth: that I had already accepted Jesus as my Lord and savior, that I was a preacher, actually, planning to preach this Sunday on how to have peace with God, and that I was just doing some research.  “Oh,” she typed.  “Then you definitely need to look at the video.” 

There was a video on the website that explained the whole thing, with some guy rapping while a couple of other guys spray painted the whole story on a blank wall behind him.  “[God’s] plan was for man and Him to be one,” the rapper said, “Creator and creation communing together in beautiful harmony. Sounds perfect, right? So what happened?  Sin.”  And the artists painted a huge chasm between us and God while the rapper said, “Sin opened this void. Sin drove us away from our Friend. Our sins separated us from Him.”  But then he told the story of Jesus, how he lived and died and rose again, and as the artists painted a giant cross reaching from one side of that chasm to the other the rapper said, “Through the cross, we’re now able to get across that great divide caused by sin, separating us from Him, and He’s calling us, but we’ve got to come.”  And the artists painted someone running across that bridge toward God.

And that’s where I got stuck.

Because there don’t seem to be a lot of people out there trying to make peace with God, and honestly part of the problem is the way some people talk about him.  They say that he loves you and wants to have a relationship with you, but they also say that if you don’t accept his son Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior he will send you to Hell.  Where would they get such a thing?  Well, maybe they got it from John the Baptist, who warns the Pharisees and Sadducees of the “wrath to come,” who tells them to bear the fruit of repentance, and who says that every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.  But while I can see why you might want to run away from that kind of judgment, I’m still not sure why you would want to run toward that kind of judge—this limb-lopping, tree-chopping, God of unquenchable fire. 

I asked Doris that question and she said it was all about God’s righteousness.  He couldn’t just look the other way when it came to our sin; he had to do something about it.  Somebody had to pay, and the one who volunteered was Jesus.  I said, “Honestly?  If I were hearing that for the first time it might make me love Jesus more, but it might make me love God less.”  I noticed that the God in this video, the one imagined by the spray-paint artists, didn’t have a face.  There was just this human figure sitting on a throne, with bright light radiating outward in every direction, so bright that you couldn’t make out any features.  And again, I wondered who would run across a bridge toward a God like that, a fearsome, faceless judge, willing to sacrifice his own son as payment for our sins?

But then I began to think about Christmas, and what it means. 

Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew we are told that when Jesus was born it was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s old prophecy, that one day a virgin would conceive and give birth to a son and call his name Emmanuel, which means, “God-with-us” (Matthew 1:23).  So, in Matthew’s understanding at least it wasn’t that God, the righteous judge, sat on his throne and ordered his son across the chasm to die for our sins, it’s that—in the person of Jesus—God himself came to us.  Paul says it like this in Philippians 2: that even though Jesus was in every way God “he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).  It reminds me of that scene from John’s Gospel, where just before the Passover meal Jesus got up from the table, and took off his robe, and wrapped a towel around his waist, and washed his disciples’ feet.  But when he was finished he put his robe back on and resumed his place.  And Paul says that when Jesus was finished dying for us “God highly exalted him, and gave him the name above every name.” 

And this makes all the difference in the world.

If it’s not God ordering his son Jesus across the chasm to die for us, but God himself who gets up from the throne, takes off his royal robes, empties himself, humbles himself, and comes to be born as a helpless baby, that’s different.  And although it helps to maintain a distinction between the Father and the Son, when we say that Jesus is both human and divine we mean that he is God.  We mean that the baby who lay in that manger, wrapped in swaddling cloths, was God in human form, looking up at us with that perfectly beautiful, perfectly vulnerable face.  And as he grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man, he became ever more human, and ever more divine.  You get a sense of that when he wades out into the Jordan to be baptized by John.  John knows who he is, and he says, “You ought to be baptizing me!”  But Jesus says, “Let it be,” and when he comes up out of the water that glass dome cracks open, and a dove flutters down, and a voice from heaven says, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” which is really only another way of saying, “That’s my boy!” 

In other words, the one who would wade out into water still muddy with human sin, the one who would allow himself to be immersed in the human condition, the one who wouldn’t turn away from our sin in disgust but rather take it upon himself, was doing exactly what God would do.  I told someone last week, “I love Jesus.  I think he would do anything for us.  I think he would crawl on his hands and knees through a field of broken glass to save us from drowning in a river of our own sin.”  But when I begin to think, “That’s not just Jesus of Nazareth—a good man and a great teacher—that’s Emmanuel, God-with-us, crawling through a field of broken glass on his hands and knees to save us from ourselves and our sin, well…I get goose bumps.  I think of a God who would go to such extremes to make peace with us and I find myself wanting to run across that bridge to wherever he is.

Jim Somerville 2013
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