- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004

The following are excerpts of a sermon given recently by the Rev. Gareth W. Icenogle at the National Presbyterian Church in Northwest.

There is no doubt we are living in highly anxious times. Anxiety is the result of sustained fear and unhealed pain. Anxiety is connected to unresolved anger. Anxiety is the result of the sustained absence of love. When we are lost in personal and communal anxiety, we are hungry for peace — peace in our souls and peace in our relationships.

A significant Old Testament prophetic writing is Isaiah, a “major” prophet. Isaiah, like other great biblical prophets, called people away from preoccupation with “stuff” and “business” and “busyness” to invest in the “presence” of God. Isaiah personally understood that peace only comes in the right presence. Being present with the wrong things or people or the wrong gods, does not bring peace, but brings anxiety. Anxiety is the absence of peace. Anxious people are constantly looking for peace. We are a global network of cultures looking for peace in the midst of growing anxiety. We are seekers of satisfaction and fulfillment, but we miss the source of such a good life.

The ancient biblical word for peace is “shalom.” While we think of peace as the “absence of war,” the ancient Hebrew people understood it as the “presence of God,” which implied the presence of God’s blessing. It was the Greeks who brought us the idea of peace as the absence of war. If we understand peace as “right presence,” then we as humanity have to answer the question, “How do we find the presence of the One who brings peace?” Peace does not come quickly or easily. In a Western culture of quick fixes and easy answers, we don’t seem to have the patience to reach the kind of prevailing peace that can be sustained. Anxiety also comes because there is a disconnection between our personal life and our communal life. We are so busy doing and getting that we do not take the time to be or to relate. Our frenetic lives are driven by schedules and agendas, by going and coming, by attaining, succeeding, winning. We do not have time to reflect and relate to ourselves or to others or to God. We do not take time to meditate or contemplate.

We do not have the priority of silence, solitude and prayer. We do not enter into “meaningful” conversations with others, especially others who are different from us. We avoid ultimate questions and, as the Pulitzer Prize winner Ernest Becker said many years ago, “We go shopping rather than deal with death.” We avoid “God” conversations. We live without God and, therefore, we live without peace.

The holidays ironically are great times of anxiety. In our secular consumerism, we have lost the “holy days” of the “holidays.” The holidays have become times of intensified activity rather than focused humanity or disciplined divinity. We miss the sacred in the midst of the secular. We do not experience the presence of God in the midst of such prodigious performance. During times which were first established to put us in touch with peaceful presence, we, as the late James Loder of Princeton Seminary used to say, “experience the presence of the absence” — we sense we are alone and cut off. Actually, we are simply preoccupied with the wrong priority. Rather than being centered in God, we become paralyzed with parochial pursuits that suck the source of life from us.

Isaiah writes, in a passage made very popular by George Frederick Handel’s oratorio “Messiah,” “The people who walked in darkness, have seen a great light … for a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests on His shoulders and He is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Isaiah understood that peace is personal, peace is relational, peace comes in the right presence.

Peace is embodied in the reality that God loves us and that God is present with us, for us and through us. We who walk in darkness without being in the presence of this personal light, wander, hungry and thirsty, looking for something or someone who will fill the darkness. But there is only One who is such a pervasive presence — the Prince of Peace, the Son of God.

Advent and Christmas are the Christian celebrations of God coming to us in a special person: a prince, a royal son, a noble leader, a prevailing presence, the Christ, the Messiah. Peace comes as a person, and he comes to us personally. God bids us into personal relationship with this eternal Prince who continues to be present for us and with us, if we choose to engage Him.

Another great prophet, Jeremiah, said, “If with all your heart you seek Him, you will find Him.” This personal discovery of personal presence is the only full solution to personal, communal and global anxiety.

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