Isaiah 9:6-7, John 14:27
The website Statistic Brain has tracked the “must-have Christmas gift” for the past few decades. In 1983 everyone had to have a cabbage patch doll. In 1985 we just had to have an $18 Pound Puppy. In 1989 American households scrambled to get a new Game Boy, followed by the 1995 Beanie Baby craze, and the 1996 Tickle Me Elmo frenzy. In the ensuing years American consumers knocked themselves out to buy the following top yearly must-have Christmas gifts: a new iPod (2002), A Wii (2006), a Kindle (2010), the Angry Birds Board Game (2011), the Doc McStuffins doll (2013), and the Frozen Sing Along Elsa Doll (2015).[i] During this Advent season we are looking at the four gifts Christ gives to each one of us by looking at the four words that serve as themes for the four Sundays of Advent, the four Sundays leading up to Christmas: hope, peace, joy, and love. Last Sunday Pastor David spoke about hope. Today, we’re talking about peace. How many of us could use a little more peace in our lives?
Last Saturday my family and I were gathered around the television at my grandpa’s house watching THE GAME., cheering on, pleading with, and sometimes yelling at our beloved Buckeyes. Except for Becky and Sterling. At one point or another each one of us hid our eyes, unable to watch. My grandpa even had to get up and go to the kitchen. He couldn’t take the stress anymore. We were all yelling and hooting and hollering … and eating. We had a great time. And then Monday morning the news came via social media: active shooter on the Ohio State campus. Students across the sprawling campus were told to shelter in place. To hide quietly if possible, to fight if their life was in imminent danger. That’s standard protocol for that kind of situation. And then word came that it wasn’t actually a shooter, but a student who used his car and then a knife as a weapon. As I read the updates in the news throughout the day, I came across comment after comment that went something like this: “Will it never stop?” “Why does this keep happening?” “Will we ever find peace?” To be honest, the same thoughts were going through my mind. We’re tired of shootings. We’re tired of bloodshed. Whether the source is terrorism abroad or the angry or mentally ill right here among us. We’re tired of hearing about innocent people of any race being wounded and killed needlessly. Columbine. Oklahoma City. Sandy Hook. Virginia Tech. Orlando. Now Ohio State, and countless other places. We’re tired of it. Our hearts cry out, “Will we ever find peace?” Maybe for you the lack of peace hits a little bit closer to home. Conflict in your community, in your family, at work. Conflict, anxiety, worry, fear, in your own heart. We’re anxious. We’re stressed. Will we ever find peace?
We’re disciples of Jesus, right? The Prince of Peace. We follow the Prince of Peace, right? Does that mean something? Or is it nothing? Just a title?
What is peace? Most of us view peace as the absence of something. As a nation, when we are at peace with other nations, there is an absence of conflict with them that usually opens the door to people coming and going between our nation and theirs more openly for visits and vacations, and maybe for work. We talk about peace in our families when family members aren’t arguing with one another. In fact, we equate peace with quiet, don’t we. We talk about needing some peace and quiet. For us, peace is usually the absence of something: conflict, noise, excessive activity. Close your eyes and imagine yourself in what for you would be the most peaceful setting you can think of. For me, it’s a warm, early summer evening sitting on the porch swing listening to the birds and spring peepers while the horses graze in the pasture. I bet everyone’s scene was different, but I bet there were some similarities too. Scenes that were calm. Tranquil. Quiet. No stress. No pressure to be somewhere, to do something.
But many times, the kind of peace we’re thinking about is a forced peace. People aren’t really thinking positively about one another, dealing lovingly with one another. They’re just tolerating one another because they have to. There are lots of nations that don’t like us much that tolerate us because they don’t want to be on the other side of our military, or because they want trade deals. Or at work, people get along because the boss put the hammer down. How many of you who are parents have taken a road trip with your kids? And how many of you, at some point, have turned around and said, “Stop touching each other. Stop looking at each other. Just sit there and look out the window and BE QUIET! I need some peace.” But there’s something missing from that kind of peace. There may be no outright conflict, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t tension. A bigger bully just came in and imposed an external sense of peace. But hearts aren’t at rest. The kids may not be arguing. The car may be quiet. But inside they’re seething. That isn’t peace.
The word that Isaiah used for peace here is a special word for peace. It’s the Hebrew word Shalom. And shalom can mean simply the absence of conflict. But it almost always means not just the absence of conflict, but the presence of well-being. It includes an external sense of peace, but it isn’t forced, because the external peace comes not from outside pressure, from force, but from peace in the heart, internal peace leaking out. And it is a peace that impacts every area of life. It includes a sense of security, health, prosperity, harmony, and genuine friendship. Authentic, all-encompassing well-being. It is a heart and life that exude “All is well.” That kind of peace, shalom, starts with a right relationship with God. It starts with salvation.
And the source of that peace? A child. Look at V. 6. Flip over to Isaiah 11:6. “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together (there’s shalom, real peace between what have for millennia been enemies); AND A LITTLE CHILD SHALL LEAD THEM.” A child. God’s answer to everything that brings fear, and terror, and anxiety, and discord, and conflict, is a child. God doesn’t come with force. He doesn’t come with a heavy handed approach. So insignificant are our sources of fear and discord, and so powerful, so mighty is our God, that his answer … is a child.
Who is this child? Look back at V. 6. He is our Wonderful Counselor. Some translations try to separate those two words into two different descriptions, but this is the correct reading. Wonderful counselor. His wisdom is incomparable. His path, his strategy, is runs counter to everything in the human heart, but it is right. As an adult, the child would say that those who wish to save their lives must lose them, must pick up their cross and follow him. That those who wish to become great must become the servant of all. That his followers are called to love their enemies, and pray for those who persecute them. Not our natural state of being at all. It is the way of the wonderful counselor.
He is our Mighty God. He is not weak or defenseless. His power is unparalleled. His enemies are easily defeated. So mighty is he that he sends his salvation not in heavenly armies, or in legions of mighty, thundering, dragon-like seraphim that Isaiah saw in his vision of God’s throne room. No, his salvation came as a child planted in the womb of a poor peasant girl from Galilee.
He is our Everlasting Father. He is not distant or uncaring. He doesn’t leave us to our own devices. He acts on our behalf, by becoming like us. By becoming one of us. God himself has felt what we feel. In the Incarnation, he chose not to stay “completely Other.” He got down at eye-level, and in the Incarnation, God experienced what it’s like to be tired and discouraged …. He knows what it’s like to hurt and bleed. On the cross, Jesus himself prayed a psalm of lament: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). In your pain, you may be tempted to say, “God, you have no idea what I’m going through. You have no idea how bad I’m hurting.” But God can respond, “Yes, I do.” He can point to your wounds and then to his own and say, “Look: same, same. Me too. I have entered your world, and I know how you feel. I have been there, I am with you now, I care, and I can help.” As our EVERLASTING father, his care and concern have no end.
And he is our Prince of Peace. This phrase sums it all up. He reconciles us to himself while we are still his enemies. “While we were still sinners, he died for us” (Rom. 5:8). He reconciles us to himself. He brings into our lives the peace that we seek. And that harmony, that peace, that sense of all is well, is present regardless of our circumstance. The best peace we as human beings can muster is typically dependent upon what’s going on around us. Human peace is dependent both on us and on others. Shalom, God’s peace, is dependent only upon a child, our Prince of Peace. The angels would call him Emmanuel, God is with us. His parents were instructed by an angel to name him Jesus, the Lord is salvation.
Three decades later, that child, now a man, would stand before his closest disciples, a grizzly death on a cross now looming over the innocence of the manger in which he was born. And in his final conversation with them together as a group before his death, he would leave them with these words. Jesus began this part of the conversation by saying “Let not your hearts be troubled” (14:1). Believe me. Trust me. And then down in V. 27. Peace I leave with you. This was his final bequest to them. Peace. MY peace I leave with you.” This is HIS peace, not ours. He is the source. Not us. “Not as the world gives do I give to you.” This shalom, this peace, may not look like you think it should. But it is there for you. And what were Jesus’ first words to his disciples when he first appeared to them as a group after the resurrection? “Peace be with you” (Jn. 20:19).
This week I read a quote by Nicky Gumbel, the initial author of the Alpha Course: “Peace is not being where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. Peace is being in the midst of those and still being calm in your heart.” Friends, Jesus gave us a promise that most of us would like to ignore: “In the world you WILL HAVE tribulation.” The word means to be crushed burdened, distressed. But he also says “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace … But take heart; I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). He never promised peace as we would like to define it in this world as we know it today. He promised us peace in the midst of turmoil.
But friends, there will come a day when the peace we long for will come. You see, not only did Isaiah deliver God’s promise of a savior who is the Prince of Peace, he also delivered God’s promise that his peace, his shalom, would come to maturity when Christ returns. “He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord” (Is. 2:4-5). The day will come when peace, shalom, the peace of God, is accomplished in Christ throughout creation. But that day is not yet. We live in the time between times as followers, disciples of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. The kingdom of God reigns in our hearts, but not yet throughout the world. We live in a world torn apart by pain and tragedy. We feel the pain. We know the tragedy. We long for peace to come. But we do not lose hope. We refuse to lose hope, for we are disciples of the Prince of Peace. And as his disciples, we are to be beacons of hope. We live as people of hope.
And this hope, this peace, will continue to grow. “From this time forth and forevermore” says Isaiah. The peace of Christ is an uncontainable force. It cannot be stopped. Paul listed peace as one of the first three fruits of the Spirit that God brings about in our lives as we follow Christ. And it is the zeal, the passionate love of God, God’s passionate love for you, that will accomplish this.
Leigh C. Bishop is a psychiatrist and military reservist who was stationed at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 2008. In the dim light of dusk, he watched as a procession of military vehicles approached the airfield, came to a stop, and carefully unloaded a flag-draped steel casket. He knew that somewhere in the U.S., a family was going to suffer a Christmas homecoming that no one wanted. It was a heartbreaking scene for Bishop to take in—and one all-too-familiar in war.
But then he saw another scene on that Christmas Eve. [After watching the casket be unloaded from the military vehicle], “I find myself walking along … the main avenue of Bagram Airfield. All is different …. Soldiers holding candles are belting out Christmas carols with gusto. Down the street, luminaries brighten the walkway into the clamshell-shaped auditorium, where cheerful groups of uniformed men and women enter for a Christmas concert. Two blocks away, the chapel is filling for the six o’clock Christmas Eve service. “War,” writes C.S. Lewis, who himself fought and was wounded in the trenches of France during World War 1, “War reveals a hunger in human beings for joy and meaning that will not be set aside for even the most difficult of circumstances ….”
“Jesus did not come just to provide an occasion to sing carols, drink toasts, feast, and exchange gifts. But we are right to do these things, even as soldiers die and families grieve, because he came. And in his coming, he brought joy and peace – the joy that overcomes our sorrows, and the only kind of peace that ultimately matters. It’s the peace of which the end of all wars, terrible as they are, is merely one token. It’s the peace that means the long war between the heart and its Maker is over. It’s a peace treaty offered in Bethlehem and signed, in blood, on Calvary. So joy to the world, and to every celebrating or grieving or hurting soul in it. The Lord has come. Let heaven and nature – and even those who stand watch with lighted candles in the land of the shadow of death—sing.”[ii]
I’d like to close the sermon today by sharing a song with you on video. It’s my favorite Christmas song. I keep hoping we’ll be able to sing it during worship someday. Eventually, when we have a choir, we will. You know, poetry, song, is often able to say something in a way that prose, or a sermon, cannot. And I think this song captures in a powerful way what it means to follow the One who is the Prince of Peace. The song is called “All is Well.”
[i] Statistic Brain, “Must Have Holiday Items by Year,” (10-1-15)
[ii] Leigh C. Bishop, “Christmas in Afghanistan,” Christianity Today magazine (December 2009), pp. 36-37