Adv 4 Dec 23 2018
So far, we’ve talked about the Advent promises of hope, love, and joy.
Today, we come to the fourth promise: the promise of peace.
Like love, “peace” is another one of those words that we throw around so freely that it means almost nothing. It was certainly another one of the buzzwords of the 60s. The 1969 Woodstock festival was billed as “3 Days of Peace and Music.” It was the dawning of the “Age of Aquarius,” when peace would guide the planets, and love will steer the stars. Or something like that.
The nation also celebrates peace. Memorial Day was intended to mark the end of the Civil War. Veterans Day was intended to mark the end of World War I. Some folks still note VE Day on May 8 and VJ Day on September 2 to mark the end of World War II.
And of course, peace is also part of Christmas. The song of the angels was, “Peace on earth, good will toward men.” The theme of peace is so central to Christmas, that maybe we’d better take a few minutes to understand what it really means.
In our Old Testament lesson from Micah 5, verse 5 says, “And he [the promised Messiah] shall be the one of peace.” But what does that mean?
(1) The most literal meaning of “peace” is that it’s security. It’s the absence of war; the absence of threats to our physical existence. In our Micah lesson, verse 4 says, “And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure.”
The image of the shepherd and the sheep is important. Sheep are pretty defenseless. They’re not very bright, they can’t run very fast, and they don’t have a lot of defensive weapons. A ram could head-butt you hard, as long as you’re standing in front of him and don’t move. But as a herd animal, the sheep’s only real defense is in their numbers. The wolves can eat some of them, but they can’t eat all of them.
And so the image of the shepherd feeding his sheep in peace and security would have been especially powerful for the people of Bible times.
Peace is security, the freedom from attack. The promise of peace in this Advent season is that Jesus Christ is still the key to peace on earth. Jesus Christ is the one who has the power to end conflict between nations, conflict within nations, conflict within the city, and even conflict within our homes. Jesus Christ is the one who has the power to make us feel safe and secure.
And so this Christmas, we pray for peace. We pray for people everywhere to be touched by the grace of Jesus Christ that can lead us to put away the hatreds and jealousies and greed that lead to war. But more than that, each of us is called to ask, What can I do?
People used to say, “Let’s put the ‘Christ’ back in ‘Christmas.’” This year, the one that’s going around says, “Let’s put the ‘Christ’ back in ‘Christians.’” What can I do to be a peacemaker at home—a peacemaker in this town, in this church, within your home?
(2) But there’s more to peace than security and the absence of war. Peace also includes justice, or fairness within our society. That’s the message of our gospel lesson, in verses 52 and 53 of Mary’s song: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Yikes! Can we skip over that? The new American philosophy says that if you’re poor and hungry, it’s your own fault, and that if you’re rich and full, it’s only because you’re so wonderful and hard-working. If you’re not rich, you must be a loser. That’s how we talk.
But that’s not how the Bible sees it. That’s not how Mary sings it in this passage. The Bible envisions a day of justice, social justice, when the tables are turned, and the powerful stop cheating and taking advantage of the power-less.
The spirit of Christmas is this spirit of justice, the spirit of peace. And so at some point, we need to look in the mirror. Are we being fair to others in our own lives? Are we making peace by being fair to others? Do we expect others to do favors for us, but fail to return the favor? Do we expect others to be generous toward us, but fail to be generous in return?
Or if we do favors, do we do them only expecting something back? Do we truly give freely, or do we give on condition? These are questions of peace and justice that don’t have to filter through the clogged halls of Congress. We can do something about these things right here and now, and begin building the promise of peace in our own lives today.
(3) Third, Micah also speaks of another kind of peace—the spiritual peace that comes through reconciliation. In verse 3, he says, “Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel.” Micah had some specific history in mind, but for us, the point is that in the kingdom of God, the walls that divide us come down. People who are divided and scattered will be brought back together. Peace means reconciliation.
Reconciliation begins with tolerance, and tolerance begins with confession. Before God, all sins, and all sinners, are equal. In Romans 3:23, Paul says, “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
We never quite see it that way. You have sins, but I have excuses. Your sins are disgusting and evil, but mine are simply minor errors in judgment. Jesus himself joked about those who can see the tiniest splinter in someone else’s eye, but can’t see the log that’s jammed in their own.
Tolerance doesn’t mean that we ignore sin. But it does mean that we must meet others knowing that we’re all on equal footing. My sins are just as bad as yours. And to get to that point requires reflection and self-examination, and a lot of brute honesty with ourselves. Work on your own sins first. Let your own heart be transformed by the powerful love of Jesus Christ.
Christmas is a time for reconciliation with one another and living in peace. Too often, Christmastime becomes an excuse to get stinking drunk, get in fights, and settle old scores with our relatives and friends. Ron White used to tell a story about his honeymoon with his wife, Barbara. He says, “My wife’s the nicest person I ever met. But you get her…a couple glasses of red wine, and she turns into ‘Let me tell you something about you that you don’t know.”
Don’t ruin everyone’s Christmas by being a jerk. Even if there are things that you think need to be said, don’t feel obliged to say them at Christmas. Stop and think. Before you open your mouth, ask yourself if Jesus would say the same thing to you.
Peace is a promise, but it’s also something that has already started with Jesus Christ, and so we can get on the bandwagon and start working for peace right here and now. Ask yourself this week what you yourself can do to make the angels’ song come true: Glory be to God on high, and peace on earth, good will toward men—through Jesus Christ our Lord.