The Peace of Christ
The aftermath of Paris, the destruction of a Russian airliner, a shooting in Colorado Springs, these are nightly fare on television. Do we live in a broken world? The answer is obvious. Is there brokenness in your life? As a pastor, I continually hear confessions of broken families, broken bodies, broken hearts. “Comfort, comfort ye my people. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem.” Those were the words of Isaiah to a people in exile. Today, we too need to hear words of hope, comfort, and peace.
Some images are iconic. The picture of a naked child fleeing from a napalmed village defines the story of the Vietnam War. The body of a four year old wedged among seashore rocks is the embodiment of flight from the war-torn Middle East. The aftermath of Paris, a destroyed Russian airliner, a shooting in Colorado Springs, these are nightly fare on television. Do we live in a broken world? The answer is obvious. Like the New Seekers from my era—“I would like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony…” Or maybe you remember it as a Coca-cola commercial. In place of voices spreading fear and the hate-driven spreading terror, our world needs a vision of the future, and a whole lot less killing. The world in which we live most assuredly needs comfort, hope, and peace—a sustainable peace.
Is there brokenness in your life? As a pastor, I continually hear confessions of broken families, broken bodies, broken hearts. There is fear as a person learns that he or she has cancer. There is heartbreak as we watch a child or grandchild make a wrong and destructive decision. There is concern when a young person enters a marriage with more baggage than the union can bear. Even if we don’t confront any of these overwhelming problems there are days when we just don’t want to cope, when we want to lay down our burdens and just give in. One of my friends recalls a day when his world became too much for him. He said, “I just wanted to lay my wallet and car keys on the table and walk away.”
“Comfort, comfort ye my people. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem.” Those were the words of the King James version. They have morphed into “speak words of comfort.” Yes, we too need to hear words of comfort, and not just words. Sometimes we need a touch, even a hug, a reminder that there is someone who cares. I take time to greet the children as they arrive in the morning. They need to be welcomed. Their parents need to know that their children are cared for here. And, frankly, I need those moments too. Some of the younger children race toward me to be picked up. Some give me a hug. Some of the littlest ones speak to me. Unfortunately, I’m not fluent in toddler yet, but I try. The relationship is important. Comfort and hope are critical in your world, as it is in mine.
Church must mean many things. It must be a place to which each of us can come with our hurts, with the past that didn’t work out as we had expected, with hopes crushed, dreams dispelled. We need to be able to let the music and the words wash over us and bring a touch of healing. It must be a place of acceptance where we can set aside the façade that we present to the outside world. If the church is truly to be the church it must be a place in which we can acknowledge that we are indeed sinful human beings, and rest assured that every single person in sight is just as sinful, has just as many hidden faults, has rationalized just as many errors as I have. Church has to be the place where God knows who I am, knows the very worst about me, and loves me and forgives me in spite of it. This has to be that kind of church.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. We lit a blue candle today. Advent is a time of preparation. It looks forward to Christmas. Christmas is a time of shepherds and angels, of weary travelers and a baby born under less than sanitary conditions. Christmas is a time of carols and songs—Mary’s song, the Magnificat, and the angels’ song of glory to God in the highest and peace, goodwill to men. My New Testament translates the angels’ song as ειρηνη, which means peace, as we understand the word. I’m not sure what language the angels’ used to communicate to the shepherds. The shepherds’ home language would have been Aramaic. They may have understood the common Greek, but I have a sneaking suspicion that they would have understood the word “peace” in whatever language the angels used as the Hebrew shalom. Shalom is more than simply freedom from war. It isn’t even the lack of the kids running around like wild Indians at home. In the Old Testament the word described a state of wholeness, which might be health, prosperity, security, or the spiritual completeness of the Covenant relationship between God and his people. Shalom is at the very heart of Christmas, because it was for this purpose that the Child was born.
While Advent is a journey to Christmas, a reaching back in history to understand how the promises of God unfolded to reach a manger in Bethlehem, Christmas itself is the beginning of the journey from that manger to the cross, and beyond the cross to the resurrection. It was in those events that the meaning of Christmas was fulfilled. There is nothing sugar-coated about any step in this journey. As the text points out, the Children of Israel had violated the Covenant relationship. Caught up in their own affairs, they were not the light to all nations. They did not live up to the Lord’s expectation, and eventually their world collapsed. If they chose to live according to the standards of the world, the fate of the nations would be theirs. Yes, actions do have consequences. Lifestyles do have results. Yet in the midst of the exile, to them Isaiah proclaimed a word of hope. Their warfare is over. Double for their sins has been extracted. Comfort, comfort ye my people. God himself will establish peace, shalom with his people—first by returning them to their own land, and then in a most surprising way.
The world into which the Child of Bethlehem was born was as dangerous as the world is today. This Child was born to reconcile us with God and restore the wholeness for which we were created. The blue captured in the paraments and the Advent candles does indeed signify hope, and that hope is incarnate—made flesh–when a young girl gives birth to a child, a Child who would bring healing and wholeness, who would indeed bring shalom into the midst of a broken world.
The theme of the Advent meditations this year is Comfort and Joy. Our world needs both comfort and joy. We need to teach the world to sing, to sing hymns of hope. Comfort, comfort ye my people. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem. We need to both hear and speak words of comfort and joy. And that comfort and joy begins with peace–shalom, the reestablishment of wholeness, of reconciliation with our God.