It is common to hear people talk about how great Christmas is. Not just in terms of celebrating the incarnation and the miracle of the Son of God but in terms of family celebrations. People paint this amazing picture of the entire family together, filled with love and joy and enjoying each others’ presence. This does happen and we thank God for that. But it is not the full story.
There is a picture somewhere in our house that comes to mind every Christmas. This picture was taken at my parents’ house fairly early in our marriage. The picture is of my mom and dad sitting with our son Logan when he was very young. That picture brought much joy to us. But it also brings sadness to us.
My parents have both been dead for almost ten years and our children, Logan and Abby, no longer live with us. Christmas morning, I will not be able to call my parents to wish them a Merry Christmas. Logan and Abby will not be at our house first thing Christmas morning, waking us up early to get us to open up the parents. I say this not to complain or seek pity but to acknowledge that not everyone has the Christmas they want.
There may be some of you here in a similar situation. You may have loved ones who have passed away, either decades ago or recently, and there will be someone missing at your table. Perhaps there is someone who is still alive but you are separated by either physical or emotional distance. Maybe it has nothing to do with relationships and there is just something in your life circumstances that is just not the way you want it. There is grief for hopes and dreams that have been dashed.
If you are in such a situation, I would want to say, “Peace be with you.” But what does that even mean? And it is so easy for me to stand here and wish you peace without necessarily knowing your pain or having the ability to help you or change your circumstances.
What I love about Christianity is that it doesn’t seek to ignore these feelings or to sweep them under the rug. Nor does it promise easy answers but it addresses these feelings head on.
The fruit of the Spirit that we are looking at today are peace and patience. These two fruit naturally go together as we will see and they offer the solace we seek.
Peace and Patience
If we are going to seek peace in whatever situation, we better know what it means. Most people would say that peace is just the opposite of fighting. But is it? I have an interest in military history and that naturally lends itself to reflections on peace. There is a famous story of the Christmas Eve of 1914 during WWI. The soldiers came out of their trenches, exchanged presents and even played football with each other. There is both beauty and sadness in this story. But whatever it was, it was not peace. The conflict was still there and the next day they began to kill each other again. We have just celebrated the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended WWI. But the problem is that all it did was end the fighting and did not bring real peace. In fact, it ensured that Hitler would rise to power and the fighting would start again. Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister tried to avoid war by making a deal with Hitler and he famously came home holding the treaty and announcing, “We have achieved peace in our time!” Not long later, WWII began. Peace is a difficult state to achieve.
The biblical concept of peace is not just the cessation of hostilities. The Hebrew word shalom means more wholeness. It is not the lack of bad things but the presence of good things. So when we have peace with God, it is not just that God has forgiven us of our sins but that we are adopted as children of God. Shalom is about the way things are supposed to be.
This makes things complicated when we are thinking about the people who are missing in my lives. My concept of shalom is my parents alive and my children living with us. Neither of those things are going to change, so does that mean that peace is impossible.
This is where the other fruit, patience comes in. What is patience? Patience is the acknowledgment that you are not going to get what you want right away. Patience is the willingness to wait in hope for something to come. Our culture does not help us to develop this fruit. It drives me crazy when I have to wait five minutes at a fast food drive through window. Have you ever been in a hurry and it feels like the light is taking forever? If you get your watch out and time it, you will find that the light is not that long. We lack patience.
But patience is the key to peace. Yes sometimes God performs an instantaneous miracle but that is not the usual method. God takes the long road and it takes a while for us to see the change. We should not be surprised that peace seems elusive at first. But be patient, for God works in increments and this year you will have just a little more peace than last year.
This brings us to the Beatitudes. I need to say that the Beatitudes are one of the strangest passages in the Bible. None of this is what we would expect. It should be blessed is the rich, blessed are the healthy, blessed are the families without death or conflict, blessed are the popular and powerful. Instead Jesus identifies as blessed those who we would least expect to be blessed. But he people he describes are people who belong to reality. They are people who know the hurts and disappointments of this life. We would expect them to feel cursed but in Christ it is exactly the opposite.
What do we mean by blessed? Blessed does not mean having everything you want, even though we use it that way even in the church. Blessedness is about being filled with peace and contentedness apart from the circumstances of life. It doesn’t mean that we are to be fake. For example, Jesus doesn’t say blessed are those who have lost a loved one. He says blessed are those who mourn. Mourning is expected as a normal human reaction. Even Jesus mourned at the funeral of a friend.
What Jesus is saying is the mourning or the persecution is not the final word. There is peace that is available. However, this state of peace requires patience. We do not see the twelve necessarily seeing themselves as blessed when bad things happened to them. It took time and it took patience. The reason we can have peace in difficult circumstances is that we have a reason for hope. There is goal toward which our life and all of history is moving. As we celebrate the first advent, we should also think of the second advent. Jesus will return and make all things right. We may not be able to change our immediate circumstances but we can change our perspective. We can seek the peace of Christ and we can do that with a patient attitude, acknowledging it won’t come immediately.
I do not want to minimize the situation in which you find yourself. Pain is real. Loss is real. Disappointment is real. But I would also say that peace and patience are real.
I would like to conclude with some words from Revelation. Revelation was written specifically for people who were suffering and who were desperate for some encouragement. Near the end of Revelation we read this:
“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)