Our gospel reading today is a quotation of Jesus, and it conveys a lot within a limited amount of text. To me Jesus’ words of peace are among his most meaningful messages, both in general and in the context of today’s discussion. “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.” Can you imagine how wonderful it is if and when we achieve this level of serenity. Have you been there?
One of Jesus’ most graphic reassurances of God’s concern for us as individuals compares us with sparrows. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Matthew 10:29-31
These are among many times when Jesus offers us powerful reassurance that we should be at peace and without fear. Hearing or reading his words, we try to overcome the irrepressible fear that undermines our confidence and accept this wonderful gift of peace and freedom from fear. But who among us has not at times wondered, “How can we be at peace? How can we be unafraid?”
The fact is, our world is frightening! Terrible things can and sometimes do happen to us and those we love. Innocent children and adults are massacred in schools and churches. Automobile accidents suddenly and prematurely end vital lives. Many of us are suddenly confronted by life threatening illnesses and injuries. We live under the threats of a variety of disasters, natural and man made, that can instantly wreck or end our earthly lives. Lives are claimed or severely damaged by terrorists and criminals. These are but a few of the threats that impinge upon our peace and of which we are, in spite of faith and Biblical assurances, often afraid.
It makes us wonder how Jesus, having been here and experienced some of worst this world has to offer, could tell us to be at peace and not be afraid, and in such a matter-of-fact way. He knew and knows it is not all green pastures and still waters. He knows it’s difficult to fear no evil, when there is so much evil to fear. We do not express these doubts to anyone else, of course, or necessarily admit that they lie unarticulated in our hearts. But as human beings, we can find the intersection between Jesus’ reassuring promises and the real world challenging to navigate. We are not so disrespectful as to question the promises of Christ. But we may reasonably question our ability to fully understand and respond appropriately to these promises.
You and I are believers with strong religious faith. We believe in and we believe a God whom we know loves us, a God who is in charge. Our faith in God and his protection is articulated by the Psalmist in many places. Psalm 27 begins, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” We understand those unequivocal words.
And from the 23rd Psalm, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me,” has much meaning for us. We believe the divine promises from the Father and Jesus, as set forth in the scriptures.
At the same time, you and I live in a real world, where we suffer grief, pain, and a limited life span on this earth, a world where our safety and wellbeing are continuously threatened in many ways. Reconciling these perspectives involves studying the scriptures, carefully, determining what is promised us and what is not promised.
It also helps to remind ourselves of the blessings that we so easily take for granted and fail to fully appreciate. There are many and many are magnificent. Even at difficult times, most of our cups do run over.
In today’s gospel, Jesus makes a distinction between the peace he gives and the peace the world gives. Perhaps you wonder about this as I did. The Bible Exposition Commentary offers some enlightening comments about this distinction, part of which I quote:
In the world, peace is something you hope for or work for; but to the Christian, peace is God’s wonderful gift, received by faith. Unsaved people enjoy peace when there is an absence of trouble; Christians enjoy peace in spite of trials because of the presence of the power of the Holy Spirit.
Isaiah 43:1b-3a helps us put several other scriptures into perspective.
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
God did not say we would not have to pass through rivers and walk through fire. His unequivocal commitment was that he would be with us and we will not be overwhelmed, burned or consumed. Not only will we not be able to avoid some of the things that might frighten us, we are told to expect them. Jesus tells us in Matthew 16:24, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” We know about the cross.
The following quotation of Jesus from John 16:33 provides a more understandable version of his promise of peace, “These things I have spoken to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
The tribulations for many are extensive and extreme. We often wonder why a loving God would allow some of these tribulations to occur. The holocaust, various forms of slavery throughout history into the present, unspeakable atrocities inflicted by the powerful on the vulnerable come to mind. The explanation often offered is that these manifestations of inhumanity are the consequence of free will. God has given us the power to choose what we do, and that allows some of us to do terrible things to others. But that does not explain the painful things that are not the product of our inhumanity, such as profound birth defects, terrible illnesses, tragic accidents, and natural disasters. The answer to many of the “whys” pertaining to God and his creation is simple: We don’t know, we can’t know, and we aren’t intended to know.
We do know not to question God’s sovereignty or his love. Paul told us in 1 Corinthians that as he grew up his thoughts and expressions matured from childish to adult. He then explained how he expected the process to continue. “ For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
Many mistakenly perceive Faith and Reality as lying at opposite ends of a spectrum. Those at one end may allow reality to destroy their faith. Some of us have witnessed that tragic course of events. Those at the other end follow a misguided faith blindly and deny or ignore reality. These results are similarly sad and tragic.
As a matter of fact, Faith and Reality complement each other. Our faith must be based upon a good understanding of God’s word. What are we promised? What are we commanded or otherwise expected to do? Faith is a prerequisite for many of the blessings we seek.
We must face reality fully. We have to avoid denial, excuses, and rationalization. We must accept responsibility and repent of our sins.
We must embrace the first part of the Serenity Prayer. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” By this process we will have faith that is totally congruent with our reality, and the blessing is that we will have faith that will enable us to overcome whatever adversity reality presents. To witness the application of strong faith in dealing with difficult reality is to witness a beautiful divine miracle. It is a blessing I have been privileged to witness on a number of occasions.
Civilla Martin appreciated this experience with close friends, a couple named Doolittle. Although Mrs. Doolittle had been bedridden for almost 20 years and her husband ran his business from a wheelchair, Ms Martin noted they lived “happy Christian lives, bringing inspiration and comfort to all who knew them.” Asked about their upbeat attitudes, Mrs. Doolittle responded reflexively, “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.”
Ms. Martin was inspired to incorporate those words and that spirit into the familiar hymn. Two weeks ago we discussed two other examples of people who reconciled their faith with unpleasant reality. Tommy Dorsey, having lost his wife and child during childbirth found himself closer to God and at peace as he wrote Precious Lord, Take My Hand, and Horatio Spafford, after the loss of a son to illness, financial losses in the Chicago fire, and the loss of his four daughters in a shipwreck wrote, we might say declared, It is Well with My Soul.
The rest of the serenity prayer is relevant to this discussion. It goes:
Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen.
Christians not only can be, but should be at peace in a world full of frightening things from inhumanity, to illness, to tornadoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. As Paul realized and told us, we may not understand how we experience this peace, but we do experience it. Paul provided the Philippians and us with precious advice:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice…. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
At this time, I usually say, “May it be so.” Today, let me assure you of what Paul promised. It is so!