A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va., on December 9, 2012.
When some children are born into the world, they already have a host of expectations on their shoulders. Recently, the tabloids are all abuzz over the pregnancy of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William, and all of Great Britain is already focused on this child, eight months before birth. That’s obviously extreme, but I remember when Thea was born, and as I held her in my arms in the hospital room, I was overwhelmed by the miracle of life. I felt like I had entered into a whole new world. (Little did I know then just how different my world would become!) And as I looked at Thea, I couldn’t help but thank God for the gift of this child, and I wondered what she would become one day. I did the same thing for Wesley. And I imagine that this week, Peter and Amanda have similar thoughts and feelings for their newborn son, Micah.
This morning in our Gospel Lesson from Luke, we hear the joyful prayer of a father after the birth of his first-born son. The father’s name was Zechariah, a faithful priest. He and his wife Elizabeth had been trying to have children for years, but they were not successful. Now, Elizabeth was considered too old to have children. So imagine Zechariah’s surprise, when one day, while he was serving in the temple, an angel of God appeared to him with the most amazing news: he and Elizabeth were going to have a son! A skeptical Zechariah wanted proof, since both he and Elizabeth were old. And for his unbelief, the angel made Zechariah unable to speak until the baby was born.
Poor Zechariah! You can’t blame him for being skeptical. God knows that for years, he and Elizabeth had been trying to have a child. And he had heard too many hurtful comments from too many insensitive people asking why they were still childless, whispering behind their backs wondering what sin they had committed against God to cause them to be barren. When Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, we know that this angel was delivering a prophetic word from the Lord – for all Zechariah knew, this stranger was there to deliver a low blow, some cruel joke on a sore subject! But because of Zechariah’s doubtfulness or self-protectiveness or pragmatism, now he had to endure nine months of complete silence while waiting for the child to be born. How awful for Zechariah, we think. But let’s look at the bright side — for Elizabeth, those nine months might have been the most peace and quiet she’s had in her marriage for years! Finally, the expected day came: Elizabeth gave birth to a baby boy, and afterwards, Zechariah was able to speak again. Oh, it was as if a dike had broken and nine month’s worth of words came flooding out of his mouth: he first praised God and prophesied that a redeemer from the line of David had come to rescue his people. And then Zechariah tenderly turned to his son John, and pronounced this prophetic blessing upon him: “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, 77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven 79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” A new age was dawning, the Prince of Peace was coming, and John was to prepare the way and guide his people down the path of peace.
Peace. Peace. So many times, we think of peace as the absence of conflict and the presence of harmony among individuals and nations. In the Hebrew mindset, peace is an absence of conflict, sure, but also much more. Peace is “shalom,” meaning “wholeness and completeness.” It is like a jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces are in their right places, and we are once again able to view the picture as a whole, the way it was intended to be seen. But so many times, our lives are like a messed up jigsaw puzzle, with pieces of our lives strewn all over the floor, some here, some there, some mangled, some under the sofa cushions, some just plain missing. Things happened to us in our past, people have deeply hurt us, our bodies have failed us, and we can’t seem to experience wholeness, completeness, and peace within ourselves. Sometimes, out of our pain and our hurt, we lash out against other people, we hurt them, and we end up in a state of conflict with them, and peace is no where to be found around us.
A man was walking along the beach when he stumbled upon an old-fashioned oil lamp. He picked it up and rubbed it, and lo-and-behold a Genie appeared. The amazed man asked if he was going to receive the usual three wishes. The Genie said, “Nope … due to inflation, constant downsizing, and fierce global competition, I can only grant you one wish. So … what’ll it be?” The man didn’t hesitate. He said, “I want peace in the Middle East. See this map? I want these countries to stop fighting with each other.” The Genie looked at the map and exclaimed, “Gadzooks, man! These countries have been at war for thousands of years. I’m good, but not THAT good! I don’t think it can be done. Make another wish.” The man thought for a minute and said, “You know, I feel like I just don’t measure up to other people and to myself. I feel like all my life, I’ve been working unsuccessfully to win the love and approval of my parents, and as a result, I’ve been looking for love in all the wrong places. I wish . . . I wish that I’ll have a healthy sense of self-acceptance so that I’m free of those bad feelings and insecurities.” “All right,” said the Genie letting out a long sigh, “let me see that map!”
Peace, wholeness, and completeness “in us” is something we deeply desire, but it is a very tough thing to achieve. In fact, I hazard to say that we are actually incapable of achieving it ourselves. There are times when I feel like Humpty Dumpty, broken and in pieces after having fallen from the wall, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men are unable to put me back together again. I was raised in a very loving family. But my dad is a very quiet and introverted man, and very sparse with verbal affirmation. When we first moved to the United States, Dad was not comfortable going out in public due to his shy personality and his lack of fluency in English. Growing up, I dreaded the end-of-the-school-year awards ceremonies. It wasn’t because I was a bad student. It was because I was actually a good student, and at every ceremony I would rack up the academic awards. But while all my friends’ parents were at the ceremony cheering on their sons and daughters, my parents were at home because Dad didn’t feel comfortable going. I desperately wanted my dad to be proud of me, but he was not there to witness my moment of glory. Instead, each award I received just heightened my sense of loneliness and my fear that I wasn’t living up to my dad’s expectations. I knew intellectually that my dad loved me, but I needed his presence to reassure me of his love. I longed to hear the words of blessing similar to the ones that Zechariah showered upon his newly born son John. And so I worked harder to achieve more. It was only a few years ago that the Lord showed me this broken place in my life. I was shown that my workaholic, perfectionist tendencies were in some ways a result of my lingering desire to make my dad proud of me. But it was burning me out. It was making me irritable and short-tempered with my family. I didn’t like the person I was becoming.
Thankfully, there is One who can heal the broken places in my life, One who can make me whole, One who can give me peace. That One is Jesus Christ, the Peace Child. With the help of Christian friends and counselors, I’ve come to better understand the unconditional love that my heavenly Father has for me. They helped to prepare the way for me to apply to my life what Zechariah pronounced upon his son in verses 77-79. They helped me to understand more fully the knowledge of God’s salvation through the forgiveness of my sins. They helped me to dwell on the tender mercy of our God. They helped me to look for the rising sun that will come to shine in the dark and shadow areas of my life. And as God brings those areas in me to light, and as I share them with my brothers and sisters in Christ, I feel that in this area, I am on the path to peace and wholeness. I’ve also come to understand my father better. His own father was killed when the Japanese invaded China in World War II when my dad was eight years old. My dad was then separated from his mother and siblings as he joined a school of orphans, scrambling from village to village a couple of steps ahead of the invading Japanese army. My dad didn’t have a dad growing up, and so I’m making peace with my childhood past. But there’s more work for me to do to prepare and travel down the path of peace and wholeness that only Jesus the Peace Child can bring.
I know that my story toward peace is pretty insignificant compared to many others that I’ve heard, people with tragic losses, almost unbearable hurts, or bitterly divided relationships. Our stories may be different, but I believe that God wants all of us to seek wholeness and completeness in Christ. I also believe that Jesus Christ is able to bring peace into all of our lives, no matter how broken and fractured we are. And so this Advent, as we wait to receive Jesus Christ the Peace Child, let us prepare the way by not pretending that “I’m OK; you’re OK.” The coming Peace Child wants to make fractured people whole. The coming Peace Child wants to save us from our enemies, even when the enemy is ourselves. The coming Peace Child wants us to have peace with God and to serve God without fear. The coming Peace Child wants us to be holy or set apart and be made right before God as long as we live. And one way Christ helps us to prepare the way is by communing with us at the Lord’s Table. At this table, we remember that Christ understands our brokenness because He himself was broken. We remember that Christ understands our pain because He himself was pierced. It is through his broken body and shed blood that we are made whole. It is by his wounds that we are healed. It is by his sacrifice that we may come to have peace with God, with others and with ourselves, starting now and extending to all eternity. So let us now come to receive and remember the gift of the Peace Child. Amen.