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Finding Peace in God’s Mysterious Will

This is a sermon I delivered on the Sunday in Advent devoted to peace. It is best experienced aurally, and I invite you to listen to it instead of read it, below.

Good morning. Today I want to share a message on something that is very close to my heart – peace. Over many years I’ve travelled to over 20 countries seeking stories which nurture the empathy which builds peace. This month, we are going on an advent journey together, to Bethlehem. Today, we will make two stops – first, to Mary’s home, and then, to Elizabeth and Zechariah’s.

 

Luke 1:26-56 – Mary meets an angel; Mary visits Elizabeth

28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[a] the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

 

Mary Visits Elizabeth

39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

Mary’s Song

46 And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has been mindful
    of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49     for the Mighty One has done great things for me —
    holy is his name.

50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors.”

56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.

 

Being in God’s will doesn't mean things will be easy

The first thing I want to share is that being in God’s will doesn’t mean that things will be easy. Do not mistake smooth sailing as assurance that you are in God’s will, nor difficulties as a confirmation that you aren’t. In Mary’s experience, as in my own, this is not the case.

As wonderful and welcomed as the angel’s announcement was, I imagine that Mary meditated on it privately for a while. She was a teenaged girl of Jewish parents – did she pray for wisdom of how to break the news of her pregnancy to them? Would they believe it was good news?

She was engaged to Joseph, a righteous man. Would he believe that she was impregnated by the Holy Spirit? Would she, if she were him?

Did she wonder, the next day, whether she’d had a dream or really seen an angel? I’ve had very powerful spiritual experiences and I was sure I heard God's voice, but in the morning or when struggles came, I wrestled with them, and even doubted them.

Maybe that’s what prompted Mary to visit Elizabeth, a wiser, older woman who would understand, since she was carrying a miracle baby herself. If Elizabeth indeed was pregnant, then Mary could be confident that she really saw an angel, and would bear the Son of God. Spoiler alert – Elizabeth’s baby would grow up to be John the Baptist, who was going to prepare the way for Jesus. I love the way God worked out the details decades before – and endless centures and eons in advance!

And Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, was a priest. Perhaps he could explain to her the prophecies about the Messiah, and prepare her for what was to come. When Mary arrived at their home, and Elizabeth called her the “mother of her Lord,” I’m sure Mary was greatly encouraged! And Zechariah had also seen an angel – how affirming! I’m sure they had many wonderful talks, and walks, and studies of the Scriptures those three months, although Zechariah would have had to participate by writing. For when the angel announced Elizabeth’s pregnancy to him, he was struck dumb for doubting.

When Mary was asked to do a great thing for God, a risky thing, God provided her the peace she needed, through his voice (which, for us, is in the Scriptures and in our hearts), and prayer, and supportive friends who believed her, loved her, and guided her.

But then she had to return home to tell her family and Joseph.

That part wasn’t included in our Scriptures today – it’s recorded in Matthew 1 – but when she shared the good news about the virgin birth with Joseph, he wasn’t as excited as Elizabeth was. In fact, he didn’t believe her. While he prayed about what to do, Mary was at risk of being stoned to death for adultery, or raising her son as an unwed single mother. I’m sure she struggled to find peace in that situation. How might she have responded?

  1. Prayer. Although Mary didn't know it, there was a battle in the spiritual realms about her baby, and there was about to be one on earth. [While Revelation 12 has layers of meanings, it speaks of a child who would be born, whom Satan would try to destroy. This was fulfilled when King Herod sought to kill the child king, Jesus.] Prayer is essential to our peace, but also to world peace.
  2. Action. After prayer, and reflection, Mary acted. She took action when she went to Elizabeth’s, which was uncommon for a single woman in first century Palestine. She took action when she shared the news with her family. Perhaps she shared Scriptures about the virgin birth (e.g., Isaiah 9). She certainly shared Elizabeth’s miracle pregnancy, and that Zechariah had seen an angel. Maybe she invited Joseph to visit them with her. I’m sure she was also a huge practical help to Elizabeth.
  3. Thirdly, I think Mary came to trust - not to trust that the angel’s word would come true – that came easily - but to trust that the God who did this miraculous work in her, would miraculously work everything else out.

Because being in God’s will doesn’t mean things will be easy.

So how did things go with Joseph? Perhaps in answer to Mary’s prayers, or maybe his own, the angel visited Joseph too and told him that the baby inside Mary was indeed from the Holy Spirit and not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. He embraced her into his home. And, for a while, there was calm. There was peace. But new storms were brewing.

 

Finding Peace in the Storms

What can we learn from Mary to find peace in the storms of our lives?

1) Like Mary, prayer is our first step to peace.

Paul encourages us, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:6-7)

Here’s what helps me pray:

  • I have a beautiful prayer corner where I pray. Just sitting in that chair brings a measure of peace, because it’s where I’ve sought God for years. Do you have a special place like that where you can go to pray?
  • When I’m traveling, I bring Merton’s Book of Hours and seek quiet places in nature.
  • I also love Runnymede’s monthly prayer nights.
  • Once in a while, I go to a prayer retreat at Loyola House in Guelph. Usually it’s just for a weekend, but in a time of deep transition, I took a silent week in prayer there. It was very powerful.

How about you? Are you enjoying regular prayer times? If not, when and where could you invest more time for prayer?

I have a prayer handout (below) if you want more resources, ideas, or links about prayer. I invite you to reflect further on it, and find ways to deepen your prayer life. Peace is a process, and prayer leads us there.

 

2) Like Mary, we have to follow prayer with action.

Some actions are common to us all, like speaking the truth, acting lovingly, and helping others. Some flow from our individual circumstances, gifts, and needs. I will share some examples of peacebuilders who inspire me a little later.

 

3) Like Mary, we have to find trust.

I say “find trust” rather than “have trust” because in my experience, trust is a process. It grows out of prayer, and taking action even when we’re scared or feel ill-equipped.

Even when life is difficult and confusing.

Even when it looks like God isn't winning.

Even when sorrow pierces us to the heart.

No, being in God’s will doesn’t mean things will be easy. Being in God’s will doesn’t mean that things will be OK, but it means that you will be OK, because God’s got it, no matter what happens, but more importantly, God’s got you.

Peace is not the absence of storms; it’s trusting God through the storms.


 

Establishing the Kingdom of Peace on Earth

But God’s promise through the Messiah goes far beyond personal peace. It establishes the Kingdom of Peace on earth.

What kind of kingdom casts rulers from their thrones and exalts the humble, and satisfies the poor while the rich go away empty?

A right-side up kingdom.

“For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore.” (Isaiah 9:6-7)

As Isaiah prophesied, the right-side up kingdom is:

  • eternal
  • universal (Matt 28:19)
  • just
  • merciful

The kingdom is both now, and coming.

It’s spiritual, although we enjoy its first fruits on earth.

It’s practical – it involves healing and holiness, justice and righteousness – things we can do and the world can see.

Don’t you long to live in that kingdom? If Jesus promised it was near us, why are there so many problems still on earth? It’s because two kingdoms are fighting here – the kingdom of darkness, and the kingdom of light.

 

Peace through God’s Kingdom

So how do we follow Mary, and her son Jesus, to bring peace on earth, and good will to humankind?

  1. By inviting people into the Kingdom of God. Peace will only be temporary until we find eternal peace by giving our lives to the Prince of Peace, Jesus. "For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son.” (Colossians 1:13)
  2. By fighting the real enemy – Satan, and ideologies and human systems that put profits above people and protecting the planet.
  3. By loving all people – even those who, today, might be called our “enemies.” "But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be [children] of your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 5:44-45a)

 

Kingdoms of Darkness and Light

I have never felt the difference between the kingdoms of light and darkness more starkly than in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where I worked for World Vision for 6 months in 2019. That doesn’t mean evil is more active there; it could mean that I’m blind to the darkness here, or used to systemic global oppression, economic oppression, or human oppression, like trafficking and exploitation.

Our own Kathy Kalanga says that I have not seen the “real” Congo yet, the Congo of generosity, love and justice, but I have certainly seen the dark side. Three times a week we had devotions. We prayed for the kingdom of light to reign, then shared the security updates about the latest activities of the kingdom of darkness.

In my first month they reported 27 deaths in Goma – in robberies, in demonstrations against robberies, in demonstrations about the death during demonstrations about the robberies... Sometimes people killed robbers in the street, because if they called the police and one arrested him, the next day another would let him go with a bribe. It’s a dangerous city.

When I drove to nearby Rutshuru to document World Vision’s work, including building better schools than the leaky mud-walled classrooms children studied in, providing toilets, agricultural projects and savings groups, my backpack was always at hand, filled with emergency supplies should we be ambushed. While changing a flat tire I was at serious risk of being kidnapped once. Approximately one Congolese person is kidnapped every day there for ransom. Rebels control the game park, and insecurity and poverty are daily realities.

When I flew to Beni, the manager pointed out the deserted homes and fields on the way from the airport. “A rebel group frequently robs people here, taking chickens or goats. They don’t leave without killing,” he said chillingly. While I was there, intermittent skirmishes between the rebels and the army impeded our movements, making it hard to do our work. Now, there's an all-out war between the army and rebels in the Beni area. In Ouicha, the child-friendly space where traumatized children go to play games and have psychological support had been closed for months last year, and now there's more fighting. Humanitarians can't do their work. The people are traumatized, and there are already internally displaced people there who fled other areas that were even worse off. It's difficult.

On top of this, over 2100 people have died in the second largest Ebola outbreak in the world to date. There isn't healthcare there. There is violence that is causing the responders to flee. There are rumours and fears that prevent people from seeking the treatment that they need. It's crisis upon crisis. The UN is in lockdown, responders are fleeing, and people are suffering.

Justice, human rights, and generosity are critical aspects of the rightside-up kingdom that brings peace to people who are suffering all over the world – in Canada, in the Congo, and primarily in the war-torn and developing countries, which suffer worst.

What can we do to bring them peace?

  1. Some are called to go – like our missionaries, like World Vision staff, and me. I am praying for guidance for my next peace mission.
  2. Some are called to stay – and support peace through our actions. So many people need love in Toronto – newcomers, youth on the street, women who were abused, people suffering poverty... We have a great deal of power about world peace through our pocketbooks, like divesting from military stocks, buying fair trade coffee and chocolate, even furniture and gifts from West Elm or Ten Thousand Villages that support local artists around the world. We can boycott stores and brands that don’t pay living wages, whether to garment sewers in Bangladesh or cashiers in Toronto. We can support local stores instead of global conglomerates. We can buy our groceries in person to prevent food deserts from impacting poor neighbourhoods. We can write politicians to prevent pollution, increase overseas development assistance, and invite more refugees to Canada. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi changed the world with organized, sustained boycotts. It works.
  3. We can donate to peacebuilding and economic justice. One good guideline is comparing our disposable expenditures with others’ daily needs. When I went to a peace conference last month in Tijuana, Mexico, after enjoying a $16 dinner, I passed women with children on the street in the shadow of the wall that is keeping migrants from fleeing economic and physical conflict from entering the United States. How can I enjoy the luxury of a dinner out when they can’t provide dinner for their children? I couldn’t. In that situation I gave to the mothers directly, but if I was there longer, I would support an organization which can help them more sustainably and make a bigger impact.
  4. We can politically support organisations that promote diplomacy and disarmament instead of arms races and wars, and work for justice so wars aren’t necessary anymore.
     

More and more, I believe that peace comes down to money. Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and money.” When we love people more than money, we make different choices – individually, corporately, nationally and internationally. When we love people more than profits, world peace can become a reality. And peace is way less expensive! If a fraction of the money that we spent on arms was spent on equity, we could meet the sustainable development goals in 10 years. ($1 of peace prevention saves $16 in post-conflict reconstruction. Our governments must invest more in justice and diplomacy than war.)

I want to take just a moment to reflect on our own actions, our own spending, and some ways that we can align our values to our expenditures and our investments. So let's take a moment now, and I invite you to reflect on this throughout the week, to see what changes you can make to create a more peaceful world.

What change could you make to create a more peaceful world?

 

What changes could you make to create a more peaceful world?


 

Present-day Peacemakers

I want to close with some examples of present-day peacemakers who are establishing God’s kingdom on earth, and give me hope.

William Omonde Mutimanwa, Goma, DRC

William is my friend from Goma. He asked me to ask you, “If children of the world can sleep in peace, without fear of gunfire, why can’t the children of the Congo?”

William was one of 7 siblings born to middle class parents in Eastern DRC. They put him through high school, but couldn’t afford to send him to university. Undaunted and determined, he went to Kigali with $200 of the $1000 he needed and convinced the dean to let him in. He got jobs as a security guard, janitor, and book seller, studied days and worked nights.

But William saw people who were struggling more than him, and he was concerned about them. His first acts of charity was bringing groceries to a sick friend. His next act was choosing 10 students who were struggling to give small monthly donations to. This helped them graduate. When he earned $100, he would give half of it away. When an online friend who had never met him saw his sacrifices through Facebook, she gave him $150. When she saw that he spent it wisely, she gave him a bigger sum. William loved helping people so much that he started an NGO in the Congo, Good Samaritan for Education Organisation, and earned a $75,000 grant to greatly expand the work. He provides school fees for children in the Eastern DRC. Primary school is supposed to be free, but it costs about $20 US for one child to go to one term of school. It's unaffordable for poor families. But the cash flow is difficult and some months he can’t pay his 6 staff. Undaunted, his latest venture is peacebuilding – hosting sports events between two tribes which don’t trust each other and fight. Tribal violence and mistrust are huge problems in the Congo. He's investing in regular, inclusive community dialogues where they can discuss their problems and find solutions together.

William requests your prayers for unity in the community of Buzi in South Kivu (Kalai territory), where fighting between the rebels and army is preventing them from working, cancelled their first sports day, and is negatively affecting the community. Pray that fighting will end and peace will reign, and for the youth to be committed to their community and to peace.

 

Being faithful in small things, even helping a friend with groceries, can start you on a mission of mercy.


 

Light of the World Peace Club, Rubavu, Rwanda

I also want to share the Light of the World Peace Club In Rwanda. I love these 26 youth, who invest all their time and energy, and even their own finances, to rent sound systems for performances. 600 people come to see them do dramas about problems in their community, and appropriately enough today, their current concern is unwed teen pregnancies. I love visiting them, and their energy. They have been judged the second best drama troupe in Rwanda, and they're from a small village about 10 km from my home in Goma.

I believe these youth, with the right support, can change the world. They can. Margaret Mead said, "Never underestimate the power of a small group of people to change the world, because indeed, nothing else ever has." They are amazing. They also shocked me by asking me to be an African grandmother in one of their plays. I don’t know how many people in the Congolese audience understood my English speech, but it was an honour to perform with them.)

 

My Favourite Peacebuilders - You!

But I can’t close without sharing my favourite example of peacebuilders – it's you! It's Runnymede Community Church! This church rocks, in particular, about peace! It was three years ago today that Linda and her family came to Canada. Linda, Raffi and Yacoub are celebrating their third anniversary in Canada on Monday, which means they are eligible to become Canadian citizens. Congratulations! Through a small committee, which taught us for the first time how to invite a Syrian refugee family to Canada, we did it. With your donations of goods and money, we raised over $30,000, furnished them an apartment, and showed the ropes of the public transit system, and helped them practice English. You are their support community. You brought peace to a refugee family from Syria. You guys rock!

And we have quiet peacebuilders amongst us who share coffees and Bible knowledge, friendship and funds to support our local staff. The work as local missionaries, support our foreign missionaries, we support entrepreneurs around the world to earn sustainable incomes. We support our friends inside and outside of our walls, every day. With only $5 a month each the Strawberry Sisters have given $12,000 to hundreds of small businesswomen around the world to support their families.

There are so many ways to bring peace. It can start with just bringing groceries to a sick friend. It’s inner and outer, physical and spiritual, earthly and heavenly. Especially during advent, when we await the Prince of Peace, I encourage you to reflect on your prayer practices, your actions, and your spending, and your calling, because the Kingdom of God is at hand.

Please stand for the blessing:

The Lord bless you, and keep you;
The Lord make His face shine on you,
And be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up His countenance on you,
And give you peace.

(Numbers 6:24-26)

 

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