Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me

Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me. 

I bet you can hear the song in your head. Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me. Let there be peace on earth, the peace that was meant to be. 

We sing it often this time of year. It comes on the radio. We hear children’s choirs sing it and, indeed, it was originally written for children’s choirs by Jill Jackson-Miller and her husband, Sy Miller, back in the early-1950s. 

In the years before writing, Jackson-Miller had gotten a divorce from her first husband Felix Jackson. They both were Hollywood actors whose careers were mostly behind them. Jill, whose birth name was Evelyn Merchant and who usually went by the stage name Harlene Wood, had acted in several Three Stooges movies among other enterprises. When they got divorced in 1944, Jackson-Miller had been suicidal, overcome by her feelings of depression from the divorce. 

And then, one day she sat down and penned these words. She reported that it was upon discovering the “life-saving joy of God’s peace and unconditional love” that she recovered from her suicidal depression and wrote those inspiring words that have lifted our hearts ever since:

Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me. 

Peace we celebrate at Christmas because Christ came to bring peace, to “guide our feet into the way of peace,” as our scripture puts it this morning. Let’s hear that now. It’s Luke 1:67-79, the song of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.

Scripture 

Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.

Zechariah sings his song, known as the Benedictus, after receiving back his voice, for he’d been mute for at least nine months. 

As Luke tells it, the narrative of Christ’s birth begins with Zechariah doing his priestly duty in the temple. He’s going about his business, having entered the sanctuary where only priests could go. There, Gabriel appeared to him. He announced to Zechariah that his wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son! 

This was remarkable because Luke takes pains to point out that both Zechariah and Elizabeth are old and Elizabeth has proven barren all her life. For Zechariah, it’s not enough that an angel of the Lord is appearing before him to announce this good news. It’s such stunning news he cannot believe it. 

He asks Gabriel, “How will I know that this is so?” Gabriel, stunned by his question and inability to immediately accept this good news, declares that Zechariah will be mute until his son is born. Immediately, Zechariah finds himself unable to talk. 

Imagine being unable to talk. Consider my profession. Imagine trying to pastor a church and being unable to talk. Speaking was just as important for priests in Jesus’s time as it is today for me, so this would have seriously hindered Zechariah’s ability to carry out his duties. He is plunged into silence. 

And that’s how Zechariah will remain until John the Baptist is born. 

Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me. 

Abraham Lincoln as a young man, getting started in his life, told anyone who would listen that he intended to live a life where he would be remembered. He expected to live such a consequential life that he would be remembered for many years past his death by all the people in the country. He was not shy about saying this to friends and acquaintances alike.

Having gained some traction in a little farming community in rural Illinois, Lincoln decided to run for the state legislature. He was affiliated with the wrong party, being a Whig in a Democratic stronghold, but he out campaigned his rivals and got elected. And then reelected. 

At the state capitol, Lincoln pushed an aggressive agenda of infrastructure improvements for rural areas. Whigs were more prone to spend than democrats but, because it benefitted rural areas, the democrats went along. Lincoln’s projects passed but many were financed with debt. 

Lincoln was celebrated for his accomplishments and elected to Congress. In Washington, he quickly angered many on both sides of the aisle by standing up against the very popular Mexican-American war, directly criticizing President Polk who was, at that point, very popular for his handling of the war. Lincoln also had the bad habit of bullying and cajoling his way into what he wanted, alienating himself in the process.

Then, a great Recession hit. America, prior to the establishment of the Federal Reserve, used to have a semi-regular boom-bust cycle, and this was one of the bust moments. Illinois’ debt came due and they could not pay in part because of all the debt they’d taken on to finance Lincoln’s rural infrastructure projects. Illinois faced potential bankruptcy. The legislature and the public laid the blame at Lincoln’s feet. 

In 1849, Lincoln left Congress and returned home to Illinois as a failed and very unpopular politician. His projects and priorities had either failed or were in tatters. He decided that he wold never be remembered, never be known, and decided to put his nose to the grindstone as a lawyer, working hard to provide for his family, staying out of the public eye. 

And that is how Lincoln remained for several years.

Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me. 

Theodore Roosevelt as a young man was brash, arrogant, pushy, and people liked it. He got himself elected to the New York State legislature, pushing an agenda that sought to reform working conditions, especially for New York’s poorest workers. For him, this legislation was a stepping stone. He saw a clear path for himself directly to the White House. He labored and worked and campaigned for fellow Republicans. He especially labored hard on the 1884 presidential campaign of James G. Blaine who was running against Grover Cleveland. While he alienated some supporters by advocating for the thoroughly-corrupt Blaine, he saw Blaine as his ticket to a high post in the federal government. Then, he would leverage that position to eventually gain a higher office and run for president.

One day as he was about his business at the state legislature, he received a telegram. His first child was born! A daughter. Roosevelt ran around the legislature, pumping every hand, telling everyone he’d become a father. Within minutes, a second telegram arrived. With no explanation, Roosevelt suddenly bolted for the door and went straight from Albany back to his home in New York City. 

There, he found both his wife and his mother dying. Within hours of his arrival, they were both gone. Roosevelt was completely overcome with grief. In his journal on the day both his mother and wife died, he marked a giant X and then scribbled at the bottom, “the light has gone out of my life.” 

A few months later, in a desperate attempt to escape the grief, he moved to North Dakota, where he had ownership of a cattle ranch. He lived there for about a year, staying out of the public eye, deciding his life was over and he would just be a cowboy. 

And that is how he remained: a recluse, for quite a while.

Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me. 

Charles Wesley was the poet to his brother John Wesley’s prose. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was busy in 1739 running the Methodist movement as it spread like wildfire across Britain. Charles, wanting the people to be able to sing their faith, spent his time writing poetry, much of which is in our hymnal as hymns. 

One of those hymns is Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. In the first line, Charles speaks of peace, “Hark! The herald angels sing glory to the newborn king. Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” From there, he goes on to talk about not only the glories of Christ’s birth, but also the nature of what Christ brought to earth. 

He speaks to the same things Zechariah sings about, his tongue suddenly freed from being mute after his son is born. Zechariah praises God who remembers the people, who has provided mercy and the means of salvation, a salvation that will expand beyond just the people of Israel. He sings a song in praise of what God will do through Jesus. In fact, he has more to say about what God is doing through Jesus, who isn’t even born yet, than about his own son, who was just born. 

Zechariah is doing what his son, John the Baptist, will do, preparing the way of the Lord. Because Zechariah gets it now. He didn’t get it when Gabriel visited him, but he gets it now. 

He gets what Charles Wesley writes: Hail the heaven born Prince of Peace, hail the Sun of righteousness. Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings. 

It speaks the word that Zechariah powerfully speaks at the end of his song of praise, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace.” 

Zechariah and Charles Wesley speak this message:

Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me. 

Lincoln found peace as he went to work, doing what God had called him to do at that moment: provide for his family and be the best lawyer he could be. And ironically, it was because he followed that call and gave up trying to be remembered that he is remembered by all Americans, and with a great fondness and respect. Lincoln sought nothing else than what God called him to do, and in doing so found peace; a peace he extended to the country throughout the Civil War.

Roosevelt found peace on his cattle ranch in North Dakota. He gave up his ambitions, he gave up trying to make something of himself. Life was short, life could turn on you in a second, he said, and he recognized he needed to make the most of every second. After a year in North Dakota, he returned home to his daughter and committed himself to labor not to advance himself but to advance the conditions of the working poor. He sought justice, rather than advancement, and in doing so found peace; a peace he extended throughout his tenure as president, eventually leading to the Nobel Peace Prize.

Jill Jackson-Miller, suicidal from her divorce, found peace because she discovered the unconditional love of God. And then, she was able to write Let there be peace on earth, a song about peace, a song about what Zechariah sings, that God will “guide our feet in the way of peace.” 

A song that Charles Wesley sings, “peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.”

A song we can all sing when we know this truth in our hearts:

Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me. 

Because they knew, from Zechariah through Charles Wesley and two presidents and finally to Jackson-Miller, that there can be no peace in the world until we, as individuals are at peace with God. 

Peace must begin with us, in our relationship with God. 

Zechariah was reconciled to God. In the time between meeting Gabriel and his son being born, Zechariah found healing in his relationship with God. 

The same can be said for all the examples this morning, perhaps most clearly with Jill Jackson-Miller, who remarked that she found peace through her relationship with Christ, one that apparently did not exist before her divorce and suicidal depression. 

All of our folks we’ve highlighted this morning were reconciled to God and found peace. They found they were “risen with healing in his wings.” They knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were reconciled. 

And so, they could sing with Wesley, “Joyful all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies, with angelic hosts proclaim, Christ is born in Bethlehem. Hark! The Herald Angels sing. Glory to the newborn king.” 

They were reconciled with God and found peace in their hearts. And so it must be for us. 

To know peace, we must be reconciled to God. That’s how peace begins with us. 

That’s the core of this truth: let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me. 

We might be facing sins in our lives that we either refuse to give up, like the ambition of a Lincoln or a secret sin that we think no one sees. We might want to go our own way and do things as we see fit, like Zechariah. We might want to continue to live life as we are, even though we can clearly hear God calling us in a new direction. 

Or, we might not be facing sin but facing a depression, an anger, or any other powerful emotion that we refuse to let go of. We must be honest about our emotions, face them, and then give them to God. Jill Jackson-Miller gave her depression to God. So did Roosevelt. We might find ourselves angry with our relatives, or even angry with God. We can’t outrun it, we can’t escape it, we must face it, and then we must tell God how we’re feeling. 

We must be authentic with God. 

For when we give God our challenging emotions, when we tell God about our sins, we find reconciliation and there, we find peace. 

What all our characters this morning have in common is this: they chose to get real with God about their situation. And when they got real, they were reconciled and found inner peace. Only when they had that inner peace could they be peace to others. 

Without his failures and public humiliation, Lincoln would never have known the inner peace that allowed him to bring peace to this country during and after the Civil War. Without his terrible depression and hopelessness, Roosevelt would never have known the inner peace that allowed him to be an effective president. Without his doubt, Zechariah would never have known the inner peace that allowed him to sing his song of praise. 

God redeemed their suffering and, through it, they found inner peace. But first, they had to get real with God, they had to be authentic with God and honest with themselves about how they were feeling. That is how they found inner peace. 

There can be no peace on earth until we each find inner peace. 

When we have inner peace, then we can be peace to others. Then we can live out Jill Jackson-Miller’s powerful words: Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me. 

So let us examine our souls to see if we have inner peace.

When we lash out in anger, losing our tempers, it reveals that we do not have inner peace. Anger, instead, dominates our soul. 

When we retreat into our homes and refuse to be social, being irritable with everyone and rejecting love and care, it reveals that we do not have inner peace. Bitterness, resentment, or loneliness perhaps dominates our soul. 

When we are stepping on top of others to get ahead, unconcerned with the damage we are doing to the lives of others, it reveals that we do not have inner peace. Unchecked ambition and pride dominate our souls. 

When we are mean and ugly to others, more concerned to exact revenge or speak our truth than we are concerned for the wellbeing of the other person, it reveals that we do not have inner peace. Self-righteousness dominates our soul. 

When we shame ourselves, looking in the mirror, thinking our bodies ugly, it reveals we do not have inner peace. Self-hatred dominates our soul. 

When we are hard on ourselves, thinking that we will never be perfect and will always continue to fail, it reveals that we do not have inner peace. Insecurity dominates our soul. 

Whenever we do not act in ways that show we love God and love our neighbor, whenever we mistreat others, or whenever we mistreat and fail to love ourselves, we reveal that we do not have inner peace. 

And so long as we do not have inner peace, we cannot be peace to others. 

Peace is like a ripple effect. When one person is at peace, it causes others to be at peace. This is especially true for leaders. When the leader is at peace, the organization tends to be at peace. When the leader is anxious, the organization tends to be anxious. When the leader is angry, the organization tends to be angry and insecure. 

Peace is like a ripple effect. When we are at peace, the peace we exude just by living our lives impacts others, guiding their feet in the ways of peace. 

If we want our families to be at peace, if we want our workplaces to be at peace, if we want our city and county to be at peace, if we want our church to be at peace, we must be peace. And to be peace, we must have inner peace; we must be reconciled to God. 

We must get real with God.

The truth remains: Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me. 

This morning, are you reconciled to God? Can you sing that you know personally Charles Wesley’s words: “Glory to the newborn king, peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled”? 

Are you real with God? About your sins? About your struggles? About what ails your soul?

This morning, can you say that you’re at peace in your soul? 

If the answer to any of this is no, it’s time to present yourself before God just as you are. Bring whatever troubles you, whatever ails you, whether it be sins or unresolved negative emotions. Come just as you are. God is waiting with healing in his wings. 

For “mild he lays his glory by, born that you no more may die, born to raise you from the earth, born to give you second birth. Hark! The Herald Angels sing glory to the newborn king!”

There can be peace in our homes, in our families, all around us, if we will reconcile with God to know that deep inner peace that God provides.

Don’t delay. Get reconciled with God. Get real with God. Begin today by making this your prayer: 

Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me. 

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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