[This is my sermon from Sunday, Rebecca]
There once was a King who offered a prize to the artist who would paint the best picture of peace. Many artists tried. The King looked at all the pictures, but there were only two he really liked and he had to choose between them.
One picture was of a calm lake. The lake was a perfect mirror, reflecting the peaceful towering mountains which surrounded it. Overhead was a blue sky with fluffy white clouds. All who saw this painting thought that it was a perfect portrayal of peace.
The other picture had mountains too. But these were rugged and bare. Above was an angry sky which was torn by lightening and from which rain fell. Down the side of the mountain tumbled a foaming waterfall. This did not look peaceful at all.
But when the King looked more closely, he saw behind the waterfall a tiny bush growing in a crack in the rock. In the bush a mother bird had built her nest. There, in the midst of the rush of angry water, sat the mother bird quietly on her nest.
We live in a world which longs for peace. We look at the news and see countries ravaged by war, we see countless lives destroyed by fighting, we see thousands and thousands of fearful people fleeing the carnage. We look around us and see families torn apart by conflict, we see relationships broken, we see people living with the emotional and physical wounds of hate and abuse. We look at our diaries and long for a moment’s peace in the midst of the relentless busyness. We dream of standing by the shore of a calm lake and watching cotton wool clouds float across blue skies whilst the sun warms our faces and we savour the stillness. If we are fortunate enough to be able to do so, we plan holidays in beautiful places where we can get away from it all and enjoy a week of peace and calm.
In one sense there is nothing wrong with this but is this really peace? After much consideration, the King chose the second picture. The second painting won the prize for the best picture of peace “Because,” explained the King, “peace does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. Peace means to be in the midst of all those things and still be calm in your heart. That is the real meaning of peace.”
That peace is the peace which Jesus experienced in his earthly life. That peace is the peace which Jesus offers to us. That mother bird on her nest is a picture of Shalom, the real peace which Jesus is offering. Shalom is not an absence of war and conflict but an inner stillness. Shalom is not a promise of escape from troubles but a promise that ‘when we are in the storm, the storm will not be in us’ (Matt Redman). Shalom is not a guarantee that our lives will be quiet but a promise that our hearts will be still.
So what is this peace which Jesus enjoyed and gave to his friends? What is this peace which he offers us? At the heart of Shalom is the idea of having a right relationship with God. The ancient Hebrew priestly blessing sums up the centrality of relationship with God to finding true peace:
‘The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.’ (Numbers 6.24-6)
The peace God tells Aaron to bless the Israelites with comes from them being God’s people. Jesus was able to experience the peace of God even as he approaches his death because he has a relationship with his heavenly Father. We can experience the peace of God regardless of the circumstances we are going through because we too can have a relationship with our heavenly Father in Christ.
St Augustine famously said: ‘My heart was restless until it found its rest in you.’ He had led a life full of wine, women and song until the prayers of his devout mother were answered and he finally came to believe in Jesus. He then found that peace that he was seeking. Peace in his heart. We too can turn to God and find our peace in him for our Gospel reading reminds us that God will come to live in those who love him.
So what will it mean for us if we have that peace of God in our hearts?
‘As he prepares to leave his disciples and go to Calvary, Jesus says to his friends: ‘27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.’
If we have that peace of God in our hearts we can be like that mother bird and not be anxious or afraid. She knows that she has built her nest on firm foundations. She knows that the bush is protected by the crack in the rock. This reminds me of the story of how God placed Moses in a cleft of the rock whilst he passed by so that Moses might see his glory without dying. It was an act of care and protection in the face of enormous power. It was an act of love. Like the bird, we can know that God will protect us. He does not promise to keep us from bodily harm but he does promise to keep us from spiritual harm for we are his beloved children and he has given us eternal life in Christ Jesus. In the midst of the storm, we can know that God will give us the strength and comfort we need for the burdens we have to carry. Even in the storm, we can have that quiet assurance which comes from being a follower of Jesus and know the peace of God in our hearts.
If we have the peace of God in our hearts, it will affect what we say and do, it will have an impact on our lives and on the lives of those around us. Jesus reminded his disciples that those who love him will obey him and that the Holy Spirit will not only teach them what that means but enable them to do it. How peaceful we feel in our hearts is a good guide to whether or not we are doing God’s will in big things or in small. In his letter to the Colossians, St Paul wrote about what a Christian life would look like, about how we should love others, be patient with others, forgive others, ‘and let the peace of God rule in your hearts’ (3.15). When I have said something I should not have said, it is the lack of peace in my heart that convicts me of the fact that it was not right and of the need to repent and do something about it. When I was working out whether I should come to the Itchen Valley, it was that sense of peace in my heart more than anything that made me believe it was God’s will.
[Archbishop of Canterbury 30th April 2016 ‘We are always calling for peace. That is the call of the Church. Peace with God., peace with each other, peace with the world.]
Thomas Merton was an American Roman Catholic writer and mystic. He wrote that ‘Man is not at peace with his fellow man because he is not at peace with himself; he is not at peace with himself, because he is not at peace with God.’ If we wish to be at peace with others, have good relationships with others, we need to be at peace with God. Shalom will lead to the peace we long for, peace for us, peace for those around us, peace for the world. For at the heart of Shalom is love and it is love that will turn swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.
I do not know which painting your life more closely resembles today: a calm lake or a foaming waterfall. Either way I pray that you will know God’s peace, that peace which passes all understanding, Shalom.
Jesus says to his friends: ‘27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.’
The peace of the Lord be always with you. Amen.