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Almost Christmas: Altogether Peace

In 1741, John Wesley shared a message called, “The Almost Christian.” In this sermon, Wesley explored how many followers of Jesus are “almost” rather than “altogether” Christian. In the pursuit of becoming “altogether Christian”, Wesley urged people to follow Christ with all they had…It’s truly a message for all generations.

Wesley’s desire was that we would move beyond the basic, surface level, bare minimum…that we would do more than put on a good Christian show, keeping up appearances. He desired that we would become “altogether Christians” as we fully love God, fully love one another, and develop a full trust and confidence in God.

Throughout the Advent journey, we will strive to observe an “altogether Christmas” rather than an “almost Christmas”.

Almost indicates something that is momentary, incomplete, something we can at least attempt to do ourselves.

Altogether implies depth, sustainability, completion or wholeness, it’s about what God is doing and what we can do together.

An almost Christmas is focused on the cultural celebration – which often includes busy schedules, overspending, overextending our credit/calendars/physical well-being, being overcome with worry and Jesus often becomes an afterthought.

Altogether Christmas has Jesus at the center of everything. It’s an invitation to slow down, to remember, to celebrate, to experience love, joy, hope and peace…and to spend thoughtfully and responsibly.

One of my favorite commercials this time of year is Santa and the Mercedes. When the idea first came out, the commercial focused on the one being nice receiving a Mercedes. Now, the commercial indicates that, naughty or nice, you deserve a Mercedes…red for naughty, white for nice. Now, there is nothing wrong with having a Mercedes if it is within your economically responsible spending. But, is a new Mercedes really what Christmas is all about?

Or maybe some of you have been hearing about how your child “needs” a new PS5 this Christmas. Will it really bring happiness and fulfillment? Some of our younger folks are saying, “I don’t know if a PS5 will make me happy, but I’d sure like to try!”

Altogether Christmas moves beyond the hustle and bustle, the jingle bells and fa-la-la-la-la’s towards the full embrace of God’s peace, hope, love and joy.

Today, we are going to focus on embracing, embodying and extending altogether peace. In our efforts to embrace altogether peace, we must begin to embody peace. Are we a peaceful, non-anxious presence in our homes, schools, workplaces, community and world? Do we offer peace or do we add to the chaos?

Earlier this fall, Lowell Griffin sent Emily and I out to find a new washer/dryer set for the parsonage. As we were exploring the wide variety of options…seriously, how many setting and buttons does one really need on a washer or dryer? Apparently, 327 options seem to be the new norm.

Anyway, the salesman asked whether or not Emily wanted an agitator. While pointing in my direction, she said, “No thanks, I already have one.”

If you are like me, and your top spiritual gifts are irritation and agitation, embracing, embodying and extending peace requires hard work and discipline. It also requires transformation from the inside-out, as an irritating agitator does not exude a peaceful presence. In order to embrace peace – we have to allow God to do the work of transformation.

Wesley had this ongoing dialogue between the idea of “almost” and “altogether”. Reflecting on almost peace, Margrey Devega writes, “Think about the harm we cause one another in this country, not just with our actions but with our rhetoric and prejudice as well. Think about the broken relationships you have with loved ones and friends, and the layers of bitterness, betrayal, and heartache you’ve seen over the years. Think about the lack of peace within your own heart. About the unsettledness you feel about your future, the conflict you have against your own inner demons of guilt and shame, and the inability you have to tame the wild horses of anger, fear, and powerlessness.”

With that, many of us desperately desire to experience an “altogether peace.” Yet, rather than peace, we find ourselves experiencing feelings of fear, bitterness, anger, which often leaves us troubled, depressed and numb.

How can we discover and experience the kind of peace that transforms these feelings of fear, bitterness, and anger into something good?

Jesus embodies and fully expresses “altogether peace.” In speaking of peace, Jesus would have used the word, “Shalom”. While we often define peace as the absence of conflict, the Hebrew understanding is much deeper.

The book, “Almost Christmas” says this, “Shalom comes from the root word shalam, which means to be completed, to be healthy or uninjured, or to keep peace. It means peace but also speaks of wholeness, completeness and fullness. Shalom often envisions the whole and complete restoration of all creation. In other words, this kind of peace starts with a wholeness in yourself, but it does not stop there. It then offers wholeness in your relationships with others…Shalom doesn’t just mean the absence of conflict or trouble. It points to the fullness of health and prosperity for oneself and others.”

Altogether peace is complete. It is knowing God is with us, even when we are not aware; it includes speaking the truth in love; practicing empathy (being able to see other’s point of view without dehumanizing them); being forgiving, compassionate and kind. Altogether peace begins within us through the power of the Holy Spirit, and then extends from within to the world around us.

When we experience God’s peace, we receive it…we don’t earn it…it’s God’s gift to us.

If we think of Jesus’ teaching, we are called to be peacemakers, not peace keepers. The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes. In the Beatitudes, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Some of us do a great job of appearing peaceful, regardless of actually being at peace. Do we appear peaceful, even when experiencing chaos? Are we keeping up appearances, looking happy and peaceful, but really not…that’s “almost”, rather than “altogether” peace.

Peace isn’t something we create, it’s something we receive- as we experience peace, we are called to embody and extend peace.

The fruit of our experience and embodiment of peace is to extend peace to those around us. Are we pointing others towards peace? Are we creating peace?

Making peace is difficult work.  Are we actively seeking to make peace with ourselves, family, friends, community, and world?

To come to peace with ourselves requires honest introspection. We have to be willing to admit and confess those areas in which we are not at peace. We can’t overcome something we aren’t willing to name.

To come to peace with others requires honest, yet gentle conversation. Making peace does not necessarily mean the absence of conflict. A peace keeper wants to keep conflict at bay. A peace maker might jump in to see what is causing conflict, work out the root cause of conflict, in order that we might experience lasting peace. If we don’t work at the root cause of disruption, chaos and conflict, we shouldn’t be surprised when conflict is not resolved.

Do we desire to experience peace with others? If so, we have to be willing to have difficult, honest, yet gentle, empathetic and compassionate conversations. This is something that seems to be missing in our world today. We seem to always attempt to resolve conflict and make peace through more conflict, loud, angry, bullish, divisive rhetoric. Maybe the most counter-cultural thing we could do today is attempt to bring about peace through gentleness, compassion, empathy and love?

To make peace in our world, especially for those who are marginalized, outcast, overlooked and powerless, may require getting into what the late John Lewis referred to as “good trouble.”

Sometimes making peace disrupts the norms – look at the life and ministry of Jesus. The guy associated with people others refused to come into contact with…He brought healing and wholeness to those others would avoid…He challenged the religious and governmental powers that oppressed the poor and disenfranchised…He stepped in and defended those who were not able to defend themselves. He flipped over tables and cracked a whip when necessary.

Our Scripture reading this morning gives us some insight on how we can experience, embody and extend peace.

In many ways, it begins by focusing on what we are for, rather than what we are against. It begins by focusing on what unites us – what we have in common – as followers of Jesus – what unites us is Jesus. There are many things that, if we choose to focus on, can divide followers of Jesus. But, if we focus on Jesus, imagine what we can do!

Look at how many times Paul emphasized the word ONE in his call for unity – “ONE body, ONE spirit, ONE hope, ONE Lord, ONE faith, ONE baptism, ONE God.” This ONE unites us. Rather than focusing on our points of disagreement, can we rally around the ONE who unites us?

Some of us needed to talk about being peacemakers prior to Thanksgiving. Anytime there is potential for a family gathering, being reminded of our call to be peacemakers seems relevant. Some of us need to take some notes to utilize at the next family gathering.

Of course, some of us have been waiting all our lives for the CDC to recommend not gathering with our families because our families are nuts! And, the best way for us to make and keep peace is through the discipline of avoidance!

In the midst of the coronavirus holidays, and non-coronavirus holidays, the call to be a peacemaker is needed. If we desire to avoid our circle of family and friends – that’s a strong indication we need to enter into the difficult work of peace making.

As Paul continued in Ephesians 4, we see some helpful practices for making peace.

In verse 25, Paul urges us to “tell the truth”. It seems easy enough, right? However, that’s not always the case. I’ve seen some of the things people post on social media. I’ve heard some of the questionable facts shared in our public discourse. When we speak or post, make sure we have the facts straight. Make sure we are telling the truth – and not just parts of the truth – not being intentionally misleading. Tell the truth. And, if we find out something we’re sharing isn’t true, then we need to admit our errors. Just be honest and tell the truth.

In verse 26, notice Paul doesn’t say “don’t be angry.” He basically says, “control your anger.” Be angry in a way that doesn’t hurt, harm, or demean another or damage our Christian witness. There are things we should be angry about in our world today…injustice, inequality, hunger, homelessness, inadequate access to healthcare or quality education, the fact that Taco Bell is taking the Mexican pizza off the menu. But, in your anger, do not sin. If we are going to be angry, we need to be angry about the right things in the right way.

Verse 27 says, “don’t make room for the devil.” When we are lying or stretching the truth, when we are angry, we become vulnerable to the tricks of the enemy. Be careful.

Verse 28 says don’t steal, but do honest work and share what you can. We think of stealing in terms of property. But, what if stealing also included another’s sense of value and worth? Bishop Gregory Palmer said, “If my sense of self-worth comes at the expense of your self-worth, I’m doing it wrong.” Don’t steal another’s property, value, worth, joy.

Verse 29 reminds us to choose our words wisely. To use our words to build up and encourage, rather than tear down and destroy…Before speaking, we should ask ourselves, “Is what I’m about to say true? Is it helpful? Is it necessary?”

Verse 31 and 32 really bring it home- “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

Do we want to experience peace this Advent season? If so, we need to do our part to work towards peace. Can we experience, embody, and extend peace?

Advent is a season of eager and expecting waiting and preparation for the coming of a newborn King.

Advent is a season of eager and expectant waiting and preparation for the King’s return.

When we read the paper and watch the news, it could seem like peace is far off in the distance.

However, because of Jesus, we know that the reality of peace is already among us. God is with us. God is for us. God has given us the Holy Spirit, to empower us with the ability to embody the peace that only Jesus can provide. God is calling us to do away with those things that disrupt peace, and put on the things that make peace.

This Advent season and beyond, will we do the work of making peace in ourselves, our homes, our schools, our church, our community, our nation and our world? Will we be kind, tenderhearted, forgiving, caring, compassionate, gentle and loving?