Summary: To gain peace in stressful times, we need, like the shepherds of Bethlehem, to be ready and open to God’s doing new things; to set out promptly to respond to God’s action; and to go back into our normal course of life, but with a difference.
These are stressful days. There is too much going on. Too much. Too much work, too much to think about, too many demands, too much.
Why, we have to shop and bake and decorate and plan parties and send cards and on and on. Too much. Stressful.
Too much traveling. I heard an astonishing statistic this week. I heard that 61 million Americans will be in the air, on the rails, or on the highways, traveling for Christmas. Hey, if there are that many going to see others, will the others be there when they arrive? Too much traveling, too much stress.
And then there’s church. The church wants extra choir rehearsals, the church sends out an appeal for debt retirement funds, the church has extra worship services, even church is stress. Too much. Let me out of here. We just can’t handle it all.
Stress and struggle. Yesterday we held a funeral here. And as the funeral procession made its way out to the cemetery, drivers were cutting in on us, drivers were trying to scoot out of side streets to get ahead of us, drivers were racing around us. Stress and struggle, hurry and worry. The funeral director complained about those drivers and their impatience. But then, I want you to know, that on the way back to the church, she got stuck in heavy traffic, and her patience ran out! It’s a stressful time when even the chilled-out mortician loses it!
On top of all of that – on top of the hurry and scurry, too much to do and too little time to do it, too little money to pay for it – on top of all of that, there is something else that stresses us. These special holiday seasons bring back hurts and pains we thought we had left behind. These seasons open up old wounds, and the losses and the defeats of the past crowd into our memories. It’s not easy to feel peace when you remember what you have lost or think about the mistakes you cannot correct.
Just a few days ago a family member of a family member – in other words, someone not related to Margaret or me, but related to Margaret’s sister-in-law – a young man, only sixteen years old, took his own life. No one knows why, but we do know lots of folks hurt because of this, and among them Margaret’s niece and nephew, cousins of this young man. So our son, Bryan, who is also their cousin, but of course on their father’s side, who never even knew the young man in question – our son decided that he would go and invest some time with these two teenagers. And when he told us why he wanted to do that, it came as a revelation to us. Bryan said, “You know, it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve enjoyed Christmas again. Grandpa Rust (that’s Margaret’s father) died at Christmas in 1991, and Grandma Smith (that’s my mother) died at Christmas in 1992, and for several years I just dreaded Christmas.” I say that came as a revelation, because it wasn’t obvious to us that he was feeling that, but he was. It took a while to get past those wounds. It’s not easy to feel peace at this time of the year when you remember what you have lost or those mistakes you cannot correct.
The words of the poet Longfellow ring sadly true for us, don’t they? “And in despair I bowed my head; ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said, ‘for hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.’”
And yet deep down in my soul I believe that God is working to give us the gift of peace. God is not idle; God is not asleep; God is not indifferent. God is working to give us the gift of peace. The question is, “How shall we receive it?” The issue is how we shall receive it, this peace, the gift of God’s love.
Do children still use, to start their games, the little formula, “Ready, set, go”? You’re about to run a race, and everybody knows what to do: ready – get rid of everything that’s in your way. Set – get your body positioned to run. And go – go run that race with all your might. Ready, set, go. That’s what we have to do to receive peace. And it is the simplest of all the characters in the Christmas story who show us that – the shepherds who heard the angel’s song. The shepherds who were the first to witness God’s gift and to receive His peace. They will show us what it takes: ready, set, go.
First, in order to receive God’s gift of peace, you and I must be ready. We must be open. We must be willing for God to do a new thing in us. We must face and dismiss our fears. It is fear, more than anything else, that keeps us from receiving the gift of peace. In order to receive God’s gift of peace, we must be ready, open, willing, expecting God to do something for us that has never happened before.