01/09/22 “Discord, Loss, and Peace”

Matthew 2:13-18; Matthew 5:21-22; Galatians 5: 19-24

For a bit of fun, I asked Alexa, the internet servant, to give me world peace. I expected it to respond by saying, “I am not programed to give you that,” and perhaps even giving a programmed snicker or a laugh. Instead, it responded by saying that “When all people and all nations voluntarily give up their weapons, there will be world peace.” I didn’t know whether to be more surprised that somebody programmed Alexa to say that, or that the programmer was so good at it. Now, it didn’t tell me how to get world peace. We need to look elsewhere for that.

It must be said that the peace that definition probably referred to was more about people not shooting at each other or getting ready to do so, or having stopped shooting because they were too tired or broke to do so. The Hebrew word shalom penetrates deeper to the heart, but the shallow “not-shooting peace” follows from the deeper shalom peace.

In this season we have heard Zechariah’s song, Mary’s song, and the angels’ proclamation of “Peace on earth, good will to men,” so we know the hopes. In all of these there is an undercurrent that all is not well. After all, if firefighters show up in full turnout gear, you know there is fire and danger. So, as Zechariah said, salvation has com “to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” So, who needs salvation but those who are lost, in trouble, endangered, suffering, troubled or all of the above?

If you need to think a bit about the undercurrent in the most of the Christmas stories, this passage about Herod’s crime (one of many) lays it undeniably bare. Perhaps “raw” would be a better term. It is an inescapable fact that bad things were happening in Jesus’ day. Mary and Joseph, the obedient servants of the Lord, were singed by this evil. Their relatives, close and distant were stricken by this.

It is easy to want to skip over or forget about such things as those which we just read about. However, by forgetting about it, we would dishonor the memory and even the humanity of the people affected by this and similar crimes. They are more than the backdrop to another, albeit larger story. These children were loved and, in the normal course of events, would be able to take their place in the world, deciding who they will be, choosing good or evil, loving and being loved, helping or being helped as their abilities allowed. The parents, now deprived, wept for what was lost to them and to their sons.

The slaughter of the innocents is, in my opinion, a Biblical stand-in for a host of atrocities past, present, and future, where much the same can be said about those other victims and their loved ones. They—these children and the people they represent—are more than a number, and we should remember that they were made in God’s image.

It can be said that a little bit of this is enough; the New Testament really only talks explicitly about how bad the world is in our passage from Matthew, in Galatians 5, in Revelation, and in the first chapter of Romans. It is possible to say that these are included by the Holy Spirit as marks of credibility. After all, a faith that ignores the existence of sin and evil does not live in the real world and does not address our problems. A faith that does not provide help or a remedy is useless. To that task, the rest of the New Testament is spent showing us the right ways—the remedy—and encouraging us to partake of the remedy and not to sin. The Holy Spirit gives us hope and direction, and I will follow that lead.

We think of Herod as being exceptionally evil—almost uniquely evil. He isn’t. Evil, yes. Unique, no. Exceptionally, probably not. I won’t go into a list of self-centered evil rulers through the ages who have done horrendous crimes; I would need to pass out Prozac to get us through it and then serve lunch. There were many. The 20th century had its share; we know of four sessions of mass murder in that century. And if one turns one’s attention to private citizens, there are enough people who want be like Herod were they given the power. I trust that you read the papers and see this. Discord leading to crime, then and now, is found in abundance.

So, what is the solution? There is a joke that, in Sunday School, the answer to any question is “Jesus.” In this case, Jesus is the answer, but how is Jesus the answer?

First, true peace comes from the heart. So does evil. In the Sermon on the Mount, murder could be done in one’s heart and thereby was sin. To be sure, if one must sin, sin in the heart and not in action causes fewer people to get hurt. Still, Jesus spoke strongly against unrepentant heart-sinning and, in practice, such things after a while come out, somehow. Bad thoughts pop into our minds with some regularity, especially when we’re stressed. I don’t think Jesus is speaking of this situation but of the next step: nurturing these thoughts, turning the idea or temptation over in one’s mind over and over. This is the definition of meditating and, alas, one can meditate on evil thoughts as easily as good thoughts.

Let’s go back to Herod for moment. Herod didn’t one day decide to go from being a nice guy to some sort of human scorpion. He was an ambitious son of a fairly high official. He became a tax farmer, which was a predatory occupation. He would have been tried for murder had some relatives not intervened. Herod curried favor with Roman overlords who treated anybody who wasn’t Roman or Greek as dirt. With Roman permission. he conquered Judea from a previous client king, banishing his first wife and first-born son in order to marry the heir of the previous dynasty. I doubt that the woman volunteered. Herod looked out for himself from the beginning: “Don’t get in the way; you will be trampled.”

Herod would have never said, “Lord, let it be done according to you will,” as Mary said to the angel Gabriel. Herod spent a lifetime cultivating the impulses that led to the slaughter of the infants. Being king, he could act on his impulses; the rest of us can’t and, for some (perhaps many) that is all that separates them from Herod, especially if one includes lesser crimes. We can, most unwisely, cultivate these impulses. Most of us let them drop but, in some, the thoughts become a festering wound until they go out and do something bad—really bad—and people get hurt.

Jesus’ guidance in the Sermon on the Mount is in marked contrast to Herod’s life. Jesus is saying that even thinking about these things is wrong. Murder (which we read about in our passage) and lust (which Jesus addresses later in the Sermon) are strong contributors to world discord. But, it doesn’t end there. Greed, lying, selfishness, and disregard for other people also contribute to the discord we see around us. Be expansive: Jesus’ guidance includes these, and it is these that most of us have more problems with. Murder and adultery get our attention, but these other actions slip in and cause problems as well.

To the question “How is Jesus the answer?”, the first part is to follow His teaching. Even just stopping, or more realistically slowing down, our sinning means that we are not adding to the pile of injuries done both to others and to us and, for that matter done by us to ourselves. This does not solve the problem, although a small pile of injuries is better than a big pile.

Zechariah called it when he said, that God’s prophet John would “give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.” We need to repent and forgive and be forgiven, as Jesus taught us to pray and as we just recited. This is the second half of how is Jesus the answer.

Repenting and forgiving are not some magic spells; they must come from the heart. If we didn’t catch the idea from the Sermon on the Mount, we see it very clearly in Galatians 5. Galatians (and particularly chapter 5, I think) can be considered Paul’s paraphrase of the Sermon on the Mount. He tells us what leads to discord, alienation, and spiritual death, and he describes what leads to concord, fellowship, and spiritual life which form the gate to peace.

So, while we will not achieve world peace, the Alexa definition is not far off. The sticking points are “everybody” and “all weapons,” which I take to include even our sharp tongues. We can, for ourselves, achieve our peace first with God and with our fellow believers by reigning in our bad desires and offensive weapons, verbal and otherwise. (I am not speaking of defense here.)

Please also understand that we will not be absolutely successful. World peace will not come until Jesus returns. However, we can make a peaceful island in the midst of the rough sea of discord for ourselves, our congregation, and our town by following and sharing Jesus’ teaching and redemption; go for it.

~~ Ron Myers