Bart Erhman is a college professor of religious studies who has written a number of books that aim to raise doubt and suspicion over whether the truth claims of the bible are truly believable. Though in his younger days he was a strong Christian, he now considers himself somewhere between agnostic and an atheist.
Once at an event, he was asked, ‘What would it take to get you to believe in Jesus?’ His answer was simple, and really revealing, saying,
‘If Jesus had fulfilled his promise to bring peace on earth.’
For Bart Erhman, as he saw it, if Jesus were to have fulfilled his promise to bring peace on earth, then he could indeed believe in Jesus.
The problem for Erhman was that Jesus promised something that he either hasn’t or simply can’t deliver. After all, here we are in 2021, two thousand years after Jesus lived and dwelt among us, and yet in our world today we hear about or experience things like school shootings, race riots, deadly tornadoes, political turmoil, domestic violence, cancer diagnoses – look around and you might very well conclude that the word peace might be one of the last words you would use to describe our world today.
And yet the promise of peace is central to Jesus’s mission – he promised it to his disciples on the night before he died when he told them, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you” and even more, the promise of peace is central to the Christmas story, where on the night he was born, as we heard just a few minutes ago, the angels sang this song:
“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to those whom his favor rests”
So, what do you think - might Erhman right? Has Jesus overpromised and underdelivered in this promise of peace from long ago?
Or could it be that this Jesus, this Prince of Peace, came to bring a different kind of peace altogether, specifically rest for our hearts and minds and souls.
This morning we continue on in our Advent sermon series, where we’ve been reflecting on the Christmas story as told in the Gospel of Luke. The last couple weeks we’ve read about key
characters such as Zechariah and Mary, stories that serve as the preamble to Jesus’s birth. And today we find ourselves right in the thick of the Christmas story itself as we zoom forward to the very night that Jesus, this newborn King was born.
And so, this morning, we’re going to spend a few short minutes and try and walk in the shoes of the shepherds from long ago, as we reflect on this peace that Jesus came to bring and then, in light of that, consider what it is that we are called to do in response to it all.
So first, let’s try and better understand the kind of peace that Jesus came to bring. First,
Jesus’s birth brings peace because, in the words of the angel, Jesus’s birth brings good news of great joy for all people.
On a night that seemed like just an ordinary night, a group of shepherds working the night shift, they all of a sudden come face to face with an angel, who at first terrifies them, but then says this,
“I bring you good news of great joy for all the people: today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.“
Now, notice what the angel is doing here. He is giving good news. And here’s the point. You and I can find peace with God because the gospel is good news, not simply good advice.
The gospel at its very core isn’t a message about what you and I need or ought to do. No above all, the gospel at its very core is an announcement. It’s good news about what God has done for us. Part of it being the arrival of the Messiah, that is, Jesus himself.
And friends, what do we experience when we hear good news? We experience peace and rest. A deep and inner peace, not in the sense of peace as the absence of conflict or suffering like Erhman understands it, but rather peace in the sense of rest and identity and security. A deeper, inner peace that’s found when we are rightly oriented to the one who created you and me.
Now, contrast that against, say, good advice. Good advice often brings anxiety, fear, and exhaustion because oftentimes when we hear good advice we feel crushed by the weight and pressure of it. Our culture today is filled with good advice, 5 easy steps to a better marriage, 3 ways you can find more money in your budget, 6 ways you can get your kids to love and respect you at the same time, 4 things you can do every day to get the body you want by next Thursday. Gosh, it’s exhausting. Someday I want someone out there to write an article titled, “How to lose 3 pounds in 8 months.” Now, that’s advice I can get behind.
And good advice doesn’t just characterize popular culture, it’s true of just about every other religion ever. In fact, consider Buddha’s final words to his followers - “Strive without ceasing.” My goodness, maybe some find those words motivating and inspiring. I personally find them absolutely exhausting, because when or how could one ever know that they’ve strived, (striven?) far enough. And when that question is constantly hanging in the balance, how could a person ever hope to experience peace with God?
You see, the gospel is just the opposite: It’s good news, not good advice. It’s the story of how God came down in the person of Jesus Christ, who lived and dwelt among us.
The Messiah, the Christ, our Savior and Lord has finally come. Through him your sins are forgiven, through him you are reconciled to God, through him you are given new life. That means there’s hope for the hopeless, joy for the joyless, peace for the peaceless. Now, that my friends, is good news.
And so, how do we find peace with God? Well, it comes by embracing the good news that the first angel shared as good news for ourselves, and to embrace this newborn King as our Lord and Savior too.
And since the gospel is good news, not good advice, it means that our reasons and motivations for obedience are renewed as well. Obedience is not performed in order to earn our standing before God, rather obedience is embraced because it’s simply living in a way that’s consistent with your identity, as children of God.
And in addition, though it truly is good news, it does not mean that it’s easy news, or brings about an easy life. The peace that Jesus brings doesn’t mean that we will experience peace and protection from the struggles and suffering of our world, but rather peace in midst of the struggles and suffering of our world.
In fact, the very next thing Jesus says, after he says to his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you is this … in this world you will have trouble.
Jesus’s birth brings peace because it’s good news, not good advice. And because it’s good news and not good advice, that means it’s good news for all people. Not some, but all, not just for the rich and famous, but also the poor and lowly, for both working class shepherds and white-collar college professors. Anyone, truly anyone, can get in on this. And for those who respond to this good news with believing hearts, they too will experience peace, for as the angel sings,
“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to those whom his favor rests”
Or in the words of the 4th century bishop Augustine - “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
Jesus’s birth brings peace because it’s good news, not good advice and brings rest to our hearts and minds and souls. Now, in a few minutes, I’ll finish this sermon with a story about what the peace of Christ can look like for you and me in everyday life. But before that, I want us to consider how we are called to respond to this good news ourselves. Like, what’s our responsibility here?
Well, on one hand, we respond ourselves through faith and obedience and yet in addition, just like the shepherds long ago, our job is to go and tell. To share this good news with others.
After the angel visited them, after the other angels gathered around for what must have been the most incredible private concert under the starry skies, the shepherds looked around at one another and essentially said to themselves, “This is the greatest news ever! What are we waiting for? Let’s go!”
And so it says, 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child,
You can see what they did. They went on their way and shared what God had made known to them. They spread the word and became the first evangelists, the first missionaries of the Christian era. 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.
That was their response, and Jesus desires for it to be our response too. To go and tell.
So friends, how might we be able to share this good news of great joy for all the people this Christmas season? I know anytime we get anywhere near the word evangelism we can sometimes panic a little bit and think “No way, that’s not for me.” And I get that, sometimes that kind of stuff makes me nervous too. And though I hope to have conversations and gatherings where we can help each other grow in our ability and comfort in sharing our faith in a natural and compelling way, for today, I want to challenge you with something even simpler than that.
I want you to consider inviting someone to join you this year for our Christmas Eve service. In your bulletin, you’ll find a postcard. It’s red. It’s rectangular. You can’t miss it. We want to invite you all to prayerfully consider and think of someone you might give that to and invite them to join you this Christmas Eve. Now, if that sounds out of your comfort zone, I get that. But yet, I want to reframe why you’d ask someone in the first place, and that is, you’re not inviting them with the purpose of wanting something from them, but rather for them.
In other words, the idea isn’t that you’re making a sales pitch, but rather thinking to yourself, “Who in my life could use some good news these days?” Maybe it’s …
The busy and overwhelmed parent friend of yours who always looks like they have 17 things on their mind at any given time.
The neighbor next door who’s always a little short with you in conversation and seems a little reclusive.
The widow or widower who’s spending their first Christmas Eve without their spouse.
Your kid’s teacher who’s been through the year of all years as a teacher, just trying to make it to the next day in one piece.
The family member of yours who’s been burned by the church or been disenchanted with it in the past.
After all, the angel’s promise wasn’t that God was bringing good news for some people, but rather, for all people. Whomever it might be, maybe write a personalized note on the back, or maybe as you give it to them in person you can say something simple like this – “Hey, we’d love to have you join us next Friday night for our Christmas Eve service. It’s a candlelight service, we’re going to sing just about all of the Christmas carols, and you’re going to hear some good news in 12 minutes or less.” That’s it. Truthfully, we could have put something in the Tribune or Dillonite, but yet it’ll be 10 times more meaningful if the invite comes from you.
So friends, who in your life needs some good news these days? Who in your world these days seems a little restless? Who in your life needs a peace that surpasses all understanding? Take the postcard. Make the invite. We’d love to have you and your friends join us this Christmas Eve, whether here in our sanctuary or afar via Facebook Live.
And I’ll finish with this. I promised I would tell a story about what the peace of Christ looks like in everyday life. So here it goes: Years ago I read a story about a family who posted on Facebook what they called a Brutally Honest Christmas card, which is kind of wonderfully refreshing as most every Christmas card includes only the good stuff. Stuff like Sandra got a big promotion and is now head of sales for the entire Western Hemisphere or little Noah got a gold star in toddler gymnastics … whoops, I think I just started reading from our Triller Family Christmas card … sorry about that …
Anyway, as for the brutally honest Christmas card, this one truly was brutally honest. It said, "In the past year, I experienced a traumatizing pregnancy and birth, and nearly died. Our baby had to be hospitalized. We left our jobs and moved across the country and said goodbye to amazing friends. Our van broke down for good. We moved to the outer edges of Portland, a food and cultural wasteland." (Not exactly sure why we’re taking cheap shots at the city of Portland, but whatever, that’s not the point… )
They go on to write, "Our upstairs neighbors drove their car into my daughter's bedroom. Every month we hope this time we won't qualify for food stamps, but it hasn't happened yet. It was the year of temper tantrums, strange fevers, panic attacks, and shut-down souls. But the other day we came home after being at my parents' house, while they were fixing my daughter's wall due to the aforementioned car, and as we walked in, I said, 'I missed this place.' Just a quiet, pleasant thought. I see glimmers of our new normal. Neighbors dropped by Afghan food, and we ate it standing in our kitchen, wanting to cry with how good it tasted, and how it felt great to have community with people who are very different from us. My daughter is friends with blond boys named Lucas and black-haired boys named Muhammad."
"My baby is going to start crawling, and we are going to keep learning to be generous, vulnerable, hopeful, grateful. We might go to church more Sundays than not. But the most significant thing is that Jesus is no longer abstract, a walking theology, a list of dos and don'ts to me. This is the year I recognized him as my battered and bruised brother, and I see how he never once left my side. 'It's been our hardest year,' my husband said, and then paused. But our kids sure are great, and we don't have the energy to pretend we're okay, cuz we're not, which means our friends now really know us, and that feels good. And so the light around us remains, we take our mercies as we get them, and as we see a new year just around the corner, maybe, just maybe, this one will be better."
How about that for a Christmas card? So brutally honest, and pretty refreshing at that. And though they never used the word in their Christmas card, there’s one word that seems to capture it all – peace. An all transforming peace. A peace that didn’t shield them from life's pain and suffering, but rather a peace through a person, One who never left their side as they walked through life’s pain and suffering.
So friends, how’s your heart as we sit here less than two weeks from Christmas morning and is peace a word that you would use to describe your own soul on this Sunday morning? And as you look at your world around you, your friends, your family, your neighbors and colleagues, who in your life is in need of some good news? Who you want to invite to join you on Christmas Eve to hear of this good news of great joy to all people:
To you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
The angels sang:
“Glory to God in the highest,
on earth peace on those whom his favor rests”