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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Peace Like A River

A Sermon Based Upon Romans 5: 1-11.
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday,   September 7th, 2014

…..Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, (Rom 5:1 NRS)

The story goes that Batman and Robin decided to go camping. They set up their tent and are asleep. A couple of hours later, Batman wakes his faithful friend. "Robin, look up at the sky and tell me what you see."
             Robin, who is used to these midnight lessons, replies, "I see millions of stars."
"What does that tell you?" asks Batman.
             Robin ponders for a minute. Astronomically speaking, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, it tells me that Saturn is in Leo. Chronologically, it appears to be approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, it's evident that God is all-powerful and we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, it seems we will have a beautiful day tomorrow.
           What does it tell you, Batman?"
           Batman is silent for a moment, then speaks: "Robin, you're an idiot, it means somebody stole our tent while we were sleeping.”

We don’t always see the most obvious.   Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees.  The truth can be as plain as the nose on our face, but we still can’t see it.   And it may not even be our fault.  Who’s to blame for not being able to see the nose on your own face?  But as this funny joke about Batman and Robin joke can remind us, we can be misled and deluded by many things, even important things, so that we fail to know what is most important of all.

God’s peace is one of those ‘most important’ things we must know.  Along with God’s grace, it is one of the foundational realities which enables living the Christian Life.   When the apostle Paul began his letters, his greeting was always two-fold:  “Grace to you and peace from God…” (Rom. 1.7; 1 Cor. 1.3; 2 Cor. 1.2; Gal 1.3; Eph. 1.2; Phil. 1.2; Col. 1.2; 1 Thess. 1.1; etc).   I find it rather strange, that in my many books of theology found in my personal library, many of which write about the Christian life, seldom is this simple word ‘peace’ mentioned in any important way.  There are a couple of exceptions, like a book on Christian Ethics (By Stanley Hauwerwas) entitled, “The Peaceable Kingdom” and a book entiled, “Just Peacemaking” (by Glenn Stassen).  In them you can find all kinds of important words like grace, justification, propitiation, and reconciliation, but seldom do you see any direct mention or direct discussion of the kind of “peace” that only comes “from God”.    Perhaps it is taken for granted, but can we live the life God has called us to by taking God’s peace for granted?

Paul is writing to Christians in Rome, but he does not take either ‘grace’ or ‘peace’ for granted.  He starts his letter with a wish for both: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”  (Rom. 1.7).   Our text from Romans 5 is the fourth time Paul mentions ‘peace’ in this letter, but it is not the last.   He will mention peace 6 more times in this one letter.  Paul does not take God’s peace for granted.

But we can, and we do.  We do not always realize the importance of having peace until we are at war.   When the Soviet Union quickly went to war with Afghanistan, it was a war in the mountains and hills that nearly broke the mighty Soviet army, who limped home in defeat.  When the United States went quickly to war in Iraq, we won the war quickly, but the cost of winning that war so quickly keep coming in, as Iraq is even more fractured and dangerous today, than it was when the thought there were weapons of mass destruction.   If you recall, Jesus himself once said before you go to battle, you’d better ‘count the cost’.  The cost of losing the ‘peace’ can be a terribly great cost.   We dare not take peace for granted.

This is even more important when we consider what it means to have ‘peace with God’.   When Paul speaks of having ‘peace with God’ he is speaking about a peace God makes possible ‘through’ Jesus by giving us ‘access’ to God’s ‘grace.’  Yet, even though God gives us access to his grace and peace, does not mean we are always able to access, ‘obtain’ or ‘stand’ in it, to use Paul’s own language.  God’s peace can be right in front of us, but we can’t still fail to seize it or realize it in our own lives.  As Paul says later, we must ‘pursue what makes peace’ (Rm. 14.19) so that ‘the way of peace’ doesn’t remain ‘unknown’ to us (Rm. 3.17).

In the news recently, came the unsurprising revelation that the very popular Robin Thicke and his wife, Paula Patton are getting a divorce.    Are you surprise?  Known for making dirty music videos with nude women, dancing obscenely with Miley Cyrus, and publically cheating on his wife, not seeing his wife for four months, is it any wonder?  It is believed that Thicke has released a song “Get Her Back” that openly hints he’s been trying to win his wife back.  He said in an interview on NBC and elsewhere, that his cheating is not the real reason his wife is leaving: “There’s a lot of different reasons, there isn’t just one.  There’s a long list….I changed, and I got a little too selfish, a little too greedy, and a little too full of myself.” (   A televised interview was even more revealing when asked about all those terrible things his wife and others are saying about him, his answer was:  “It’s worst that that!   I am those things and even worse”.

You can take your life for granted, you can take love for granted, and you can take the peace you have in your heart, life and soul for granted too.   Just a month or so ago, a deputy from Yadkin County Sheriff’s department wanted to meet me at church to inform us about some new crime prevention resources.  While we were talking, she shared about a book she’d read entitled “The Quiet Room”.   It’s a true story about a young woman who one day, while finishing up summer camp as a counselor, started hearing voices in her head and was eventually was diagnosed with Schizophrenia.    Lori Schiller tells that one night, while she was feeling a little confused over a boy she’d like at camp, suddenly a sense of darkness came over her and she hear a voice booming in the night:  “You must die!  You will die!”   The voice in her head would not let up.  She got up out of bed and started running, running, and even jumping for hours, even until the sun rose.  The voices cursed her, calling her names and telling her she was worthless.  Eventually she and voices collapsed in exhaustion.  But they didn’t go away.  The came to her again and again.   The ‘peace of mind’ she once was had was gone.  It took her years of medical treatment to tame the voices that once ruined her peace  (From Lori Schiller and Amanda Bennett,  The Quiet Room,  Warner Books, 1996, pp 4-6).  

While we should never take ‘peace of heart’ or ‘peace of mind’ for granted, for we never know when we might lose it, there are many different ways to think about the meaning peace.    If you grew up like I did, during the days of the Vietnam War, you’ll recall all kinds of confusion about “peace” as many protested that war violently, others burned their draft cards, and many, even the those who supported the war, struggled with whether or war is ever a ‘just’ cause.   A major ‘peace movement’ grew out of that war, which was for some an excuse to be anti-government, but for others it was a real desire to ‘Give Peace a Chance’, as John Lennon sang  (

Peace is the desire of most, but just what kind of peace, and at what cost?  Sometimes we forget that the political reason Jesus was crucified under roman authority was for the sake of keeping the ‘peace’  (Matt. 27.24).   The Roman Peace was known as the Pax Romana, and lasted for over 200 years, beginning at the time of Augustus (27 BC) to the death of Marcus Aurelius (180 AD).  If it had not been for ‘miraculous’ long period of peace, the apostle Paul would not have had the Roman roads to travel upon to share the good news.   But do you know how this so called ‘peace’ was won?  It was a result of imperial might and muscle, violence, bloodshed, and putting the fear of spear into the hearts of people.   Surely that is the way to one kind of peace, “Peace Through Strength” as one American president has called it.  But that kind of ‘peace’ is not the dream of the Bible, nor is it the lasting peace Paul means.

The Biblical word for peace has different meanings too.   The Old Testament word, “Shalom” means wholeness, completeness, and returning to the ideal state of the world as God created it to be.   Even the most religious city in the world, Jerusalem, is named after this desire for peace.   The Hebrew name Jerusalem is made of two Hebrew words: Shalom (Salem) or peace, and Jeru (to rain down), which refers to a place where God’s peace rains down.  As you can tell by reading the newpaper, this is wishful thinking, because Jerusalem today is one of the most conflicted and threatened places on the face of the earth.  Is God’s peace that elusive?
When Paul writes “we have peace with God” he is not talking about the same kind of peace that remains elusive, abstract, or impossible in the world.   This is not the kind of peace that the world never has, but this is kind of peace that only comes from God.   Even the word the New Testament uses,  eirene (used as a common Greek name today, Irene), does not simply mean the cessation of conflict, fighting or war, but it means the presence of something that brings or gives peace no matter what is going on.  This is why Jesus was able to say to his disciples: “My peace I give to you… not as the world gives .  Don’t let your hearts be troubled” (Jn. 14.27).   God’s peace comes as a gift from God no matter the situation we may find ourselves in.

God’s peace is different.  The Christian Life is built upon a different kind of ‘peace’ than the world gives and then quickly may take away.   A ‘lasting peace’ is the kind of peace that can only come from God.   A great example of the difference of God’s peace comes right from our text in Paul’s own words.   When Paul speaks of having ‘peace’ in the same breath of saying that he can even ‘boast in our sufferings’ because he knows that ‘suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and (that) hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us”  (Rom. 5:3-5); when Paul talks like this you know immediately that he is talking about an entirely ‘different’ kind of peace than the world gives.

 God’s peace works differently.  The other thing we can quickly observe about God’s peace is how it works differently, not through strength, but through God’s love.    “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly….God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us….”   (Rom. 5:6,8).   The peace of God is different because it is based upon a whole different way of looking at life, looking at the world, and looking at us.   It is a peace that is based upon what God has done to show his love to the world, and to us, even while we were his ‘enemies”  (5:10)’.   That is how God’s love is different and works differently than any other kind of peace.    In the Christian understanding of ‘peace’  true, enduring peace comes only from God, because it is a peace that is grounded upon God’s loving forgiveness revealed through “our Lord Jesus Christ’  (5:11).

One of my favorite religious sayings is said to have come from Laotse, who was perhaps Buddha’s teacher, or maybe even was The Buddha.   The saying goes:
If there is to be peace in the world,   there must be peace in the nations.
 If there is to be peace in the nations,   there must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,   there must be peace between neighbors.
 If there is to be peace between neighbors,   there must be peace in the home.
 If there is to be peace in the home,   there must be peace in the heart.
I never think about peace without thinking about this wonderful saying, but there is something missing in it.   Did you catch it?   It doesn’t tell us where ‘peace in the heart’ comes from?   For a Christian the only source for the peace the human heart desperately needs, and peace that the home, the community, the cities, the nation, and the world needs, is the ‘peace’ that comes from God’s heart. 

How do we get to the peace that is in God’s heart?   This is what the ‘cross’ is about.  This is what makes Christianity different than any other religious faith.  The cross of Jesus Christ reveals to us the peace that is in the very heart of God.   This is why, when Paul talks about peace, he must speak about Jesus dying ‘for us’ on the cross.   Three times, at the end of this text as Paul explains ‘having peace with God (5.1), using the word ‘reconciliation’ (5.10, 11).  He is reminding us again that ‘while we were (still) enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son’ (5,10).   This means that the source of our peace does not come from our hearts, but it comes from God’s heart: “In Christ, God was reconciling the world unto himself, not counting their trespasses against them (2 Cor. 5.19).   When God ‘sends his Son into the world’ it is not to ‘condemn the world’ (John 3.17), because when God shows us his heart and the heart of everything, it is that “God so loved the world that he gave his only son….” (Jn. 3.16).    The source of our peace comes from what God does for us, when he gave us his Son. 

How does God’s peace with us, become our peace with God?   God’s love ‘has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit…given to us’ (5.5), says Paul.   Because Christ died for us even while we were sinners (5.8),  Paul says, “we will be saved through him from the wrath of God….” (5.9)….we “will be saved by his life” (5.10)…”But more than that, Paul concludes,  “we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have NOW received reconciliation” (5.11).  

If you want peace in your heart today, right now, will you take God’s heart of reconciliation into your own heart?  A Jewish book called Wisdom says, “…the peoples saw and did not understand, or take such a thing to heart, that God’s grace and mercy are with his elect, and that he watches over his holy ones” (Wisdom 4.14).   Will you understand what the peoples did not understand?  Will you take ‘such a thing to heart’?   Without knowing God’s heart of peace, we can’t be at peace.   But because though Jesus, God reveals his heart and ‘proves’ that He is at peace with us, we can ‘have peace with God’,  we can live at peace in ourselves, and we can be at peace with each other.  

Rock guitarist Jim Hendrix led a promiscuous life, indulging in drugs and behaving outrageously on and off the stage.   At the end of a concert in 1970, Jim smashed his guitar.  According to Robert McGee and Donald Sapaugh in “Search for Peace”, the audience screamed and applauded, but suddenly the frenzied applause stopped. Jim had fallen on his knees and was staying in that position motionless. He broke the stillness by asking, “If you know real peace, I want to visit with you backstage.” But apparently nobody responded to his startling invitation. Several days later, he died from an overdose of drugs. Peace, real peace eluded Jim Hendrix.

But "God can take life's broken pieces and gives us unbroken peace" (Wilbert Gough).  Horatio Spafford found out. He was a real estate baron and an extremely wealthy man. He was a tremendous Christian and a close friend of Dwight L. Moody. He lived in Chicago, and during the Chicago fire of 1871 he lost his business. In that fire his only son was killed. It seemed like his life was covered by a canopy of dark clouds.

His wife was under tremendous stress, and so he sent her and their four daughters to England, which was her home country, for a vacation. He told them he would join them two weeks later. He put his wife and four daughters on a ship to send them across the ocean.  But as they were in sight of land on the other side, a terrible storm hit, and all four of Spafford's daughters drowned. Only his wife survived. She sent a telegram to him with these two words: "Saved alone."

With the heaviest of hearts, Horatio Spafford got on that ship, made his way across England, got his wife; got on board the same ship to come back. On the way back he asked the captain to show him the spot where that ship went under and his daughters drowned. When the captain got to that spot and showed it to him, he went out on deck and wrote these words:
When peace like a river attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.
(As quoted from a sermon by James Merritt,  “How to Keep Your Head When Others Lose Theirs”).

Spafford could only have written that song because he knew the Prince of peace, the Lord Jesus Christ.  In contrast to Jimi Hendrix, through Jesus Spafford knew that God was not against him, even when fires came and the storms howled.   Through Jesus, Spafford knew God’s heart and could face those difficult moments and the future.  Through Jesus, Spafford was able to have peace because even when he did not feel peace, he still had “God’s peace” in his heart.  Oh, the peace I find in Jesus, peace, no power on earth can shake;  peace that makes the Lord so precious, peace that none from me can take.

If you want peace, real peace, eternal peace, everlasting peace, you can come to the Prince of peace, the Lord Jesus Christ and you can give his ‘peace a chance’.   He’s still the one who knows and shows God’s heart.  Amen.

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