Zephaniah 3:14-18; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18
The last sentence of today’s second reading speaks of the “the peace of God.” Just what is that gift, a gift to which we should pay some attention as we approach celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ? What is that peace? What is it’s meaning for us?
Most of the time we think about peace in terms of world peace, peace between the nations of our world… and rightly so. Also we think of peace in terms of race relations, and that is something for which we are all striving, along with peace in all of our relationships with people around us.
Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s with their riots and open conflicts many of us remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. crying out in his eloquent speeches that “peace is not the absence of conflict, it is the presence of justice and brotherhood.” He was urging us to move beyond simply settling for the absence of conflict and violence. That is a false peace… a peace that sells us short… a peace that really isn’t peace at all. The peace that we all really want is found in a presence, not just in the absence of violence.
In our personal lives we have all experienced moments when we felt a certain peace and contentment after we have accomplished a difficult task. I’m sure you have felt that when you finally reached a goal. In fulfilling a task we all have a sense of contentment and peace. Maybe it’s something you’ve done at work or a job you’ve done around the house. Maybe you’ve have finally resolved a conflict with a member of your family, or reconciled with a friend after a period of estrangement. You have a certain peace of mind knowing what you had to do and then doing it, perhaps even doing it well. You are a peace with yourself. You have done what is right, what is good… you have made the right decisions and knowing they were right, you made decisions that ended the conflict, ended the estrangement.
Isn’t it true that evil is overcome with good? Doesn’t that bring a genuine peace into your life? It’s the presence of good that counts, not merely the absence of evil.
So listen now once again to the words of the prophet Zephaniah crying out to the Israelites in the midst of their trials, difficulties, and oppression: Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you; he has cast out your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear evil no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: "Do not fear, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.
Peace? What kind of peace are we talking about? The peace we really want comes with God’s presence… that’s what we need, that’s what our hearts want.
I often wonder why so many people steer away from going to confession, people who stay away from the Sacrament of Reconciliation. That Sacrament brings such a wonderful peace to those who avail themselves of that great gift. The peace of God that surpasses all understanding awaits us when we hear those marvelous words of absolution from sin, that magnificent prayer of absolution that sends us forth from confession with newness of life, freshness of purpose.
Do you want to find peace of mind, peace in your heart? Listen again to today’s gospel account and the words of John the Baptist: And the multitudes asked him, "What then shall we do?" And he answered them, "He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise." Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Collect no more than is appointed you." Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages." As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ, John answered them all, "I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
What are we to do, we might ask, we who are living two thousand years later? “Do what is right” is John the Baptist’s answer to us. Share your abundance with others; speak the truth; don’t rob others of their dignity; end violence; always do the right, decent, and good thing in whatever circumstance you find yourself. If you do, you will live in peace with others. Above all you will be able to live in peace with yourself. You will have peace of mind, peace of heart, and peace in your soul. Depression will fly from you, along with disillusionment, discouragement, and a sense of defeat. I’m not speaking here merely of contentment. God’s peace is far beyond merely being satisfied. I’m speaking here of peace within your heart, peace within your soul.
The celebration of Christ’s birth is but a few days away from us now… our celebration of the birth of Emmanuel, “God with us.” This isn’t a celebration of God’s presence simply among us; it’s a celebration of God’s presence within us. Writing to the Philippians, the people who lived in the city named after the father of Alexander the Great, St. Paul urged them: Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. This isn’t about what you don’t do. This isn’t about getting rid of something. This is about what you do. This is about receiving God’s gift to you, about putting on Christ, about receiving and then sharing the peace of God.
Yes, as the saying goes, it is better to give than to receive. But it is best to receive, especially to receive when we open ourselves up to accept God’s Christmas gift to us -- the presence, power, and love of His Son, Jesus Christ.