Christmas Peace and where to find it

Well here we are again. Christmas Eve. Another year gone. It hardly seems possible does it? Have you noticed how the pace of life seems to accelerate as we grow older? True, people seem to live life at a much faster pace these days more than ever before. And it is infectious isn’t it? Think about it; how did Kwik-Fit get to be the world’s leading tyre, exhaust and brake specialist?  By promising to fit quickly.  How did Proctor and Gamble become the number one seller of shampoo? One reason – by putting shampoo and conditioner in the same bottle.  Remember all those years when you had to shampoo and then rinse, then condition and rinse. Now it’s just all in one bottle. “Wash and go” is their slogan. Number one.

And if you are old enough to remember, it was 1974 when a new kind of restaurant became very popular in the UK. For the first time in human history a restaurant sold food not on the basis of its quality, nor even on the basis even of its price, but on the speed of service. And we coined a phrase for those kinds of restaurants. We called them “fast food.” Fast food. Not good food, not even cheap food.  Just fast.  But even with fast food restaurants, you still had to park the car and get out and walk all the way inside and order the food and sit down and eat it. And all of that took time. So we invented drive-through lanes, so that families could eat in cars as God intended us to. And the beautiful thing about this is that if you haven’t got time to stop at a fast food restaurant, the children can just scrounge around in the cracks underneath the seats for cold potato chips and lost gummy bears. Now do things get any better, any slower, more peaceful at Christmas?  No it doesn’t does it?  The shops are more crowded, the roads are busier, and parking spaces harder to find. Add to that, there is a lack of sunlight, dark mornings, colder, wetter, shorter days, and your daily routine disrupted by parties, present buying and extended family time. And at the back of your mind is the realisation that you will be paying for Christmas well into the New Year. It’s not the fault of Christmas. It’s simply that Christmas exposes a chronic condition many of us have.  It’s been called “hurry sickness”. It’s the inability to slow down, relax and be at peace with yourself, with others and with God. Let me describe a couple of scenarios and you can decide whether you are afflicted, and if so, how bad.

When you come to the stop light at the Wheatsheaf, assuming you resist the temptation to drive through the red light… you have before you a choice of lanes. Which do you choose and why? Let’s say there is one car in front of you in each lane. Which lane do you choose? If you have this sickness you find yourself checking the make and model of the car and the likely age and gender of the driver. On the basis of that data you calculate who is most likely to pull away first, and that’s who you get behind, if you have this disease. Here’s a second scenario. When you go to the supermarket and you are about to check out, you count how many people are in each of the lines. You look for the shortest line. But then you observe how much is in each of the trollies.  You also factor in the checkout staff and observe their age, speed and dexterity. Then and only then do you decide on which line to join.  And if you’re really sick, when you do finally commit to a line, you keep track of where you would have been if you had joined the line on either side of you. And if the person who would have been you in the other line gets through first and is out the door before you, you feel depressed for the rest of the day. If so you have hurry sickness.

Indeed you are likely also to be “polyphasic.” Polyphasic is a dysfunctional form of multi-tasking where you have no choice but to be doing more than one thing at the same time in order to remain sane. You can drive a car, drink coffee, listen to the radio, talk on the hands free car phone, follow the Sat Nav instructions, signal and make emotionally cathartic gestures, all at the same time. And if you are a lady, you can also apply lipstick and mascara at the same time. And if you have this condition, you are probably working out which stores will be open on Boxing Day to get the Christmas gifts you forgot. If you know you suffer from Hurry Sickness I want to invite you this Christmas to do a rather radical thing, to consider the possibility that maybe you need to slow down. Try living from tomorrow for a week without a watch. Better still, try living without your mobile phone and email. Try driving in the slow lane. Join the longest line in the supermarket and start a conversation with those around you. If Jesus could, why can’t you? – Just for a week…  Slow down and enjoy the taste of each mouthful of Christmas.

John Ortberg says hurry sickness, and all the stress we experience around Christmas time, is just a symptom of lives built on two illusions.[i] The first is “Someday things will settle down.” We think, “when things settle down, I’ll get round to what matters… when things settle down I’ll spend more time with my family. The fact is there is only one time in your life when things will settle down. When you die. You’ll be amazed at how life slows down then. Until then things will probably never slow down. If you look at the life of Jesus, you see someone who was busy but never hurried.  He had many things to do. But Jesus was always able to love the people that came into His life. He was never hurried. You cannot love in a hurry. That’s the first illusion – Someday things will settle down. The second illusion is this – One day ‘more’ will be enough. Have you ever found yourself thinking “If I just buy this one outfit, if I replace my car, if I purchase that computer, I’ll be fulfilled, I’ll be satisfied.” We are mesmerised and seduced by beautiful people who appear in adverts and tell us we can be successful, happy and fulfilled or look just like them if we buy their product. Using everything from greed, lust and humour their message is “Use me, buy me, wear me, drink me, drive me, own me, put me in your hair… and you can be just like me.” And the tragedy is we allow ourselves to believe them.

James Dobson tells this story about how he learnt this lesson.  “I learned how to play Monopoly from my grandmother. She was a wonderful person. She raised six children. She was a widow by the time that I knew her. But she was the most ruthless Monopoly player I have ever known in my life. She understood that the name of the game was to acquire. When she played and I got my initial money from the bank, I would just try to hold onto it, because I didn’t want to lose any of it. She spent everything, bought stuff she landed on as soon as she could, and she’d mortgage it to buy more stuff. And of course, the way the game goes, eventually she would accumulate everything. She would be the master of the board. She understood that money was how you keep score in the game, possessions are a matter of survival. And she beat me every time. And at the end of the game she would look at me and she’d say, “One day you’ll learn how to play the game.” She was kind of cocky, my grandmother. “One day you’ll learn how to play the game.”   When I was about ten, I played every day through the Summer holidays with a friend. It dawned on me the only way to win was total commitment to acquisition. That summer I learned how to play the game. And by the time autumn rolled around, I was more ruthless than even my grandmother. I went to play her, and I was willing to do anything to win. I was willing to bend the rules. I played with sweaty palms. Slowly, cunningly I exposed the soft underbelly of my grandmother’s weakness. Relentlessly, inexorably, I drove her off the board. The game does strange things to you. I can still remember the day like yesterday. I looked at my grandmother. This is the person who taught me how to play.  She was an old woman by now. She was a widow.  She had raised my mother. She loved me. And I took everything she had. I destroyed her financially and psychologically. I watched her give her last dollar and quit in utter defeat. This was the greatest moment of my life.  And then she had one more lesson to teach me, my grandmother. Then she said to me, “Now it all goes back in the box.” It all goes back in the box.  All of the houses and hotels, Mayfair and Park Lane, all of those railway stations and utilities, all of that wonderful money. It all goes back in the box,” she said. But I didn’t want it all to go back in the box. I wanted to leave the board out permanently — bronze it maybe, as a memorial to what I had achieved. See, when she said, “It all goes back in the box,” it was kind of a way of saying to me, “None of it’s really yours.  It doesn’t belong to you. You don’t own any of it. You just used it for a little while. And now it all goes back in the box.  And next time it’ll all go to somebody else. That’s the way the game works. So when you play the game, don’t forget this one lesson. When the game comes to an end, and the game always comes to an end, the stuff all goes back in the box.”

Christmas Day is minutes away. Sometime tomorrow, before dawn if you have small children, or after the Queen’s speech if you are more civilised, you’re going to unwrap some presents. They may be from yourself, may be from others. Some will be predictable. Some may be a surprise. Some of them will be handmade and some may even say “Harrods” on the outside. But remember when you open them, eventually they will all go back in the box. You see Hurry Sickness and the preoccupation to accumulate more result in a kind of amnesia, a kind of denial. The denial of the one certainty, the 100% guaranteed certainty in life that one day, sooner or later, we’re going to die.  There is a simple, two-word question people tend not to ask themselves. “Then what?” When I’ve reached the top, then what? When I have it all, then what? When I finally have enough, when I am financially secure, when I’ve got the sought after promotion, made the ultimate purchase, got the ideal home, assured financial security, and climbed the ladder of success to the highest rung and the thrill wears off–and it will wear off—sooner or later you’re faced with the nagging question, “Then what?”  If tonight was your night, like Ebeneezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. If Christmas Eve was the night that your soul was demanded of you, which it will one day –  if God were going to write a single word to summarize your life, what would it be? Fool or friend? Lazy or faithful? The ultimate tragedy must surely be to get to that point and realise that you have wasted your life on a load of stuff that really doesn’t matter. So what is the antidote to Messrs Hurry and Greed? The message of the angels delivered that first Christmas Eve is as much good news tonight as it was 2.000 years ago. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”(Luke 2:14)

1. The Source of Ultimate Peace
Peace is first and foremost an attribute of God. He is “The God of Peace” (Hebrews 13:20). Peace is the fruit of his Spirit’s presence, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace…” (Galatians 5:22). And peace is supremely personified in the person of the Lord Jesus. The One the Prophets foretold would be the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).  The One the angels heralded ” a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord…” (Luke 2:11). The One who himself promised “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.” (John 14:27). He is indeed the God of peace. The source of ultimate peace.

2. The Subjects of Heavenly Peace
“on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”(Luke 2:14). Contrary to popular opinion, this “peace on earth” which the angels declared is not universal or indiscriminate. It doesn’t fall on everyone like a blanket of snow. Nor is it a psychological state achieved through material prosperity, a good bottle of red wine, meditation or breathing exercises. We cannot achieve this peace through self-help. We cannot earn this peace. We don’t deserve it. God’s peace is bestowed “to those on whom his favour rests”. So who gets his favour? Is it bestowed randomly like prizes in the National Lottery? No… See not only, the source of ultimate peace and the subjects of heavenly peace.

3. The Secret of Everlasting Peace
What did the angels say? “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”(Luke 2:14). Do you see it? It is upon those who give glory to God in the highest, that God favours with his peace. It is upon those who put God first in everything, who acknowledge him, who make him the centre of their lives, who will enjoy his favour, who will experience his peace.  “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7). This is a military term. It denotes a sentry keeping guard. Like the sentries at Buckingham Palace guarding the Queen 24 hours a day, God’s protective care gives us inner peace and security to the very core of our being. It literally transcends our understanding because the full dimension of God’s love and peace go way beyond our human comprehension.

The secret of everlasting peace is found in a right relationship with God through the Lord Jesus Christ. How did the shepherds respond to the good news of the angels? “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” (Luke 2:20) So this peace, this ultimate, heavenly, everlasting peace is experienced as we worship God as we trust in Jesus Christ. “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1)

So remember what tonight is really all about. Remember that unless you choose to put Christ first, things will not slow down.  Unless you choose to make Christ the centre of your life, ‘more’ will never be enough.  Take time to savour the incredible truth that God sent His Son, to live and die for the forgiveness of your sins, to fill the void in your life that time and money cannot satisfy, and give you the one gift that will last forever. To give you ultimate, heavenly, everlasting peace that transcends our understanding. I invite you to put Jesus first this Christmas. And if you do, may God bless you with his peace now and forever. Let’s close in prayer.

“Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for the precious gift of your Son. I am rich in so many ways, but foolish in so many ways too. Help me, Father, not to trivialize my life by craving after what does not count and cannot last. Help me, Lord, instead to worship you first and invest my life this Christmas and every day, in becoming rich towards you and generous toward others with my time and my resources that I may truly experience your perfect peace, for ever and ever, and ever and ever. I pray this in Jesus’ name. And they all said “Amen”.

[i] John Ortberg. Much of this sermon is developed from material developed by John Ortberg in An Ordinary Day with Jesus (Willow Creek and Zondervan)