Living Toward Peace on Earth Good to All
A sermon based on Luke 2:8-14
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 1, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A pastor in his sixties remarked to a parishioner “When you get to my age you spend a lot more time thinking about the hereafter during the holidays.” “Why do you say that?” the parishioner asked. The pastor replied “Well, this time of year I often find myself in the middle of a retail store thinking “What did I come in here after?”
I can vouch that clergy in their sixties do often consider both kinds of “hereafter.” The real one, the theological issue of the hereafter, of course faces all Christian clergy – and not only around death and sickbeds, and worries members have for loved one, but in dealing with theological concepts regarding after-life. It’s not just clergy, laity consider it a lot too. We almost always cover afterlife in our Talking About God summer classes where it is brought up by someone almost every week. Both modern clergy and laity tend to not just consider theological points on the matter but we also turn to science.
While it may seem out of their field scientists also consider the topic. In 2010 renowned physicist Stephen Hawking was asked “What do you believe happens to our consciousness after death?” 1 Dr. Hawking answered:
“I think the brain is essentially a computer and consciousness is like a computer program. It will cease to run when the computer is turned off. ”
There is actually Biblical support for Hawking’s thought in the concept of Sheol, a place of metaphysical nothingness which some Bible verses claim we go to when we die and cease to be. Hawking’s thoughts – and the idea of Sheol– can be disturbing for those of us who think there is life after death. I personally believe there is an afterlife, but I understand why some do not.
While I believe in an afterlife I also believe we are not supposed to aim life on earth toward life after death in another realm. A life aimed at afterlife realms can waste the blessings of life in this realm. There is Biblical precedence for this approach too. Judaism – the religion of Jesus, the theological context he came from– considers the physical and the spiritual to be united. So the Jewish religion has a long history of focusing on life in the here and now, as opposed to life after death. Rabbi Morris Kertzer notes that
Jews have always been more concerned with this world than the next and have concentrated their religious efforts on building an ideal world for the living.2.
And indeed, despite a good deal of emphasis in some of Christianity on living for an afterlife, Jesus, a good Jewish Rabbi, actually taught (and lived out) the Jewish theological point that we need to focus our efforts on bringing the realm of God to earth for the living before we die.
On Jesus’ Way as he lived and taught it, our lives are not supposed to be focused on bringing ourselves from earth to heaven, but rather focused on bringing heaven to earth through ourselves. Here. Now. In our faith Jesus incarnates God from Christmas onward. Christians are supposed to try to do that too. Incarnate God. Help heaven break in on earth. Heaven, the Realm of God, is about love and justice and righteousness for all, it is in the end all about aiming for peace. It’s not limited to concern for individual immortality and individual peace on another plane of existence in the afterlife. It’s very much about bringing peace on earth, aiming our life toward it.
And Advent and Christmas are all about that, peace on earth good will to all. It is certainly what Jesus aimed toward with his short, but powerful, life. It’s what the Gospels promoted in the early church. And Jesus’ religion, Judaism, considers it wise too. Proverbs 3 (13-17) both a Jewish and Christian Sacred text sums it up nicely:
Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.
Psalm 34 (14) instructs us to “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.” that IS what we are to aim to do with our lives. The words from Micah 6 on the walls of this church are God’s only requirements for humans. We to aim toward peace by seeking justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God . . . on earth.
I am NOT disputing that our soul or consciousness goes on to heaven. I am disputing that focusing life on the afterlife in another realm the primary objective on Jesus’ Way. The afterlife we need to focus on should be what we can do and leave behind, that influences peace on earth. We need to focus on loving acts in life that can grow and thrive in a wake of love our lives leave behind. / / /
My first thought when I read Dr. Hawking’s computer metaphor, was “Wait a second there is always a person making choices with input on what a computer and its programs will or will not do.” Our consciousness is much more like a computer operator who continues on when a computer or program dies. At the controls of human life is a soul, our spirits are more than a program. They operate our life. That is the stuff of religion, how to best operate it.
We are comprised of the stuff of science, but we are also comprised of the stuff of religion. That’s an age old idea. Genesis 2 indicates that human beings are made up of two things, earth and Spirit.
The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.
Dr. Hawking as a scientist considered physical elements and scientific laws – the earthly part. But one essential bit of empirical evidence is missing from his answer. Our consciousness experiences a soul, a living-ness and a being that includes (but, at the same time is more than) our physicalness. It does not take a modern scientist to discover this evidence. Thousand of years ago the author of Genesis knew it when he noted we are not just earth (the physical) but are also part of God’s breath (the spiritual). Notwithstanding Dr. Hawking’s musing, that is our actual experience about how life works. We observe a physical and a non-physicalness to our existence; a body and a spirit. Our body is controlled by a spirit of unique self-ness. We are not operator-less machines, our consciousness is not like a computer program. It is our soul sitting in the operator’s seat making choices.
And the choices matter. They matter not only now, but also for the future of earthly existence after we die. Setting aside the question of what realm exists beyond this one, we can experience an afterlife in this realm by living on in the vibrations our lives send rippling out in time through generations to follow. Jesus is proof. His loving actions continue to influence life on earth. Jesus’ life aimed toward peace on earth good will to all still very nuch influences lives now. That is true whether we believe in his bodily resurrection or not.
Jesus has a continuing experiential reality, an afterlife here. His life still matters today! Especially when we turn toward him during the holidays a time we act better and crank-up care and love for family and strangers. We feel better for it. We are better for it. When we do that loving at advent and Christmas our lives matter. Our lives and our loving matters all year long of course.
While our loving acts may be on a smaller scale that Jesus, what we do lovingly can live on affecting lives after we die. Jesus’ teachings, His Way give us the choice that we are reminded of every Advent and Christmas Season: Do we, or do we not, live our lives – operate our lives on earth– for peace on earth good will to all? Peace on earth good will to all is the choice Advent, Christmas, Jesus and God call us to make. If we make that choice for peace – we will experience an afterlife on earth leaving behind a wake of love.
How big that wake gets is up to us. AMEN
* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2010
1 Time Magazine, November 15th 2010
1. Kaplansky, Howard, This information is from the Impact of Judaism on Christianity course at Eden Theological Seminary taught by Rabbi Howard Kaplansky in the Spring of 2005.
2. Kertzer, Morris N. What is a Jew, Touchstone, 1993, 118.
3 Ibid., 117.
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