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Rediscovering Christmas: Peace in our struggles

Peace in our Struggles

Luke 2:8-20, Isaiah 9:6-7


This past week, as I sat at home recovering from COVID, I was struck by the disconnect between my mind and my environment. I’m vaccinated, and my symptoms were quite mild. So I didn’t really FEEL that bad. But, having tested positive, I couldn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t see anyone. I was in quarantine. I couldn’t come in to the office. Couldn’t see counseling clients. Shipt shoppers went to Meijer for us, and delivered our groceries to our garage. I used curbside pickup to get a load of wood shavings for horse bedding from TSC without ever getting out of my car. I drove into town to pick up the boys from their bus stop (they’ve already had Covid), without getting out of my truck. Aside from going out to the barn to do the chores every morning and evening, there really wasn’t much I could do. My body was at rest and recovering. My mind? Not so much. I couldn’t shake the feeling that there were things I SHOULD be doing.


My work days are usually filled with therapy sessions, study and sermon writing, people to visit, events and youth group meetings to plan. Three days a week I don’t usually get home until between 7 and 9 pm. And of course there’s the daily task of making sure that Lenda and Ruth aren’t running wild in the church tearing things up. But this past week, I couldn’t do any of that. Well, except for studying and sermon writing. I did sneak into the church one day when no one was here to grab my laptop and books so that I could study and write at home. Funny, isn’t it? That even though my body needed to rest and heal, I found a way to keep working, at least a little bit, and my mind got little rest. I spent my time thinking about my clients, frustrated that I couldn’t see them. Thinking about the church, frustrated that I couldn’t be here to work on things or go see people. Thinking about things around the house, frustrated that I couldn’t really go anywhere to pick up anything.


I think that’s how the last two years have gone for a lot of us. Our lives were, for a period of time, basically shut down. Work places were closed. For many of us, if we could work, it was from home. Dress shirt on top, sweat pants on the bottom, and make sure the Zoom camera doesn’t go too low. But, really, much less activity because there was much less to do. And yet, minds filled with worry. Worry about finances. Worry about family members and friends getting sick. Worry about whether we’ll ever get through this and what life will look like on the other side. Worry. Frustration. Anger. Anger because, in many ways, we’ve lost control. And that makes us afraid.


Add to all of that inner turmoil the conflicts in our families, in our communities, at work, not to mention the deepening divide among voters here in our country, and conflicts between nations, and terrorist threats around the world, and I can’t help but think that we don’t really know all that much about peace. God made the world for peace and yet we’ve turned peace into war. The Institute for Economics and Peace, an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank, published for the 10 time its Global Peace Index 2020. Here are some of the report’s findings: Only 9 nations in the world are currently not at war. Over the past 10 years, 87 countries have become more peaceful and 73 have become less peaceful. There were 76,000 deaths in battle. There are 84 million refugees, displaced peoples, and others of concern. Violent crimes cost $1,942 for every person in the world, a total of $14.96 trillion dollars. This figure represents 11.6 percent of the world’s total economic activity. As human beings, we aren’t very good at peace.


And yet peace is one of the defining characteristics of those who follow Christ, of life lived in the Kingdom of God, under the rule and reign of Christ. Peace is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace …” (Gal. 5:22). Peace is one of the gifts Christ specifically said that he was giving to those who follow him. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). Peace is one of the marks of God’s reign in Christ. Turn with me to Luke 2:8-20.


A familiar passage. One we all know. It’s even quoted by Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in answer to Charlie Brown’s desperate question, “Can anyone tell me what Christmas is all about?” Familiar, yes, but there is something remarkable happening here. Because here we have the birth announcement of a King. And not just any king. THE King. Here we have the angelic announcement that the unthinkable, the incarnation, God in the flesh, has really, truly, happened. This is the announcement of the most significant event in the history of the cosmos. The ones making the announcement are certainly appropriate to the occasion. A glowing angelic messenger, and then, tons of angels, filling the sky. And the wording Luke chose to describe the event pictures far more than an angelic choir. The words he used actually describe ordered ranks, as if the armies of heaven suddenly appeared in the skies over Bethlehem, leading the celebration of the birth of the King of Kings, showing their submission to the infant king. What must that have looked like? What must it have sounded like? What a spectacular display. Certainly a celebration worthy of the birth of the one of whom Isaiah said “his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Is. 9:6).


The audience for this angelic announcement? Not so much. It was a group of shepherds guarding their flocks out in the wilderness surrounding Bethlehem. Typically, the audience for the announcement for the birth of a king, and the guests at the celebration of his birth, would be powerful world leaders, global power brokers, people of status and influence. Not a group of common shepherds, people near the bottom of the social ladder. The angelic armies went not to Rome, the center of political and military power, or to Jerusalem, the place where Israelites for centuries had gone to worship God, the city viewed as the place where heaven and earth meet. No, they went to farmland on the outskirts of a small village. The birth of the Prince of Peace was proclaimed to nobodies living and working in the middle of nowhere.


That’s one of the key characteristics of the peace Christ gives us … it comes into the world from the bottom up, not from the top down. It isn’t something achieved by powerful governments or brilliant and inspiring leaders. The peace that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, gives to us is planted deep in our hearts, and it grows and spreads there first, and from there, into the lives of those around us, and up from there. The Kingdom of God always starts as a seed in the hearts of those who follow Christ and grows out and up from there. And the peace of Christ, one of the characteristics of that kingdom, grows right along with it.


Jesus was born as a Jew in Bethlehem, in the Judean hill country, during the pax Romana, the Roman peace, ushered in by Caesar Augustus. It was a time of peace OF SORTS. Rome prospered during this time, and the empire expanded. There was relative stability for most people, although Rome continued to fight wars on the frontiers in order to keep expanding and growing more prosperous. And the conquered peoples, including the Jews living in Palestine, saw heavy tax burdens and a ruling class of their own people who prospered at the expense of the common people. It was peace and prosperity and stability at the expense of conquered peoples. But Rome herself prospered.


Because of this politically instituted peace, Paullus Fabius Maximus, proconsul of Asia, proposed moving the beginning of the new year to Caesar Augustus’ birthday. He wrote, “It is hard to tell whether the birthday of the most divine Caesar is a matter of greater pleasure or benefit. We could justly hold it to be equivalent to the beginning of all things …; and he has given a different aspect to the whole world, which blindly would have embraced its own destruction if Caesar had not been born for the common benefit of all.”


To his proposal, the provincial assembly replied, “Whereas the providence which divinely ordered our lives created with zeal and munificence the most perfect good for our lives by producing Augustus and filling him with cirture for the benefaction of mankind, sending us and those after us a savior who put an end to war and established all things; and whereas Caesar (Augustus) when he appeared exceeded the hopes of all who had anticipated good tidings …; and whereas the birthday of the god marked for the world the beginning of good tidings through his coming …”


Interesting, isn’t it, that the heavenly announcement of Christ’s birth came, albeit to shepherds, with relatively similar language? “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” What is God doing here? He’s saying, “Rome is NOT your savior. Caesar is not your savior. The peace that Rome has created is not complete, or just, and it will not last. I am doing for you what Rome, in fact what any nation or empire, cannot.” The true savior, messiah, and lord lies not in an ornate bed in Rome heralded by the armies of man, but is wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a feed trough, heralded by the armies of heaven.


When heaven’s glorious announcement of the birth of the King of Kings, came, it came to a group of shepherds. To the common people, the poor, the oppressed, the nobodies, the struggling, the sick, the unjustly imprisoned, the unclean, the powerless, God said, “I see you, and I am here with you. Right here, in this field, on the outskirts of small town in the middle of nowhere. I see you. I know you. I am for you, and I am with you.” Stop looking to Rome or to Jerusalem for hope and for peace. Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).


So what is the peace that the Prince of Peace brings? The concept goes back to the Old Testament Hebrew word “Shalom,” which we translate as peace, but which has a much larger, more encompassing view of peace than we normally have. The shalom of God, the peace of Christ, contains within it more than just the absence of conflict. It includes the presence of tranquility, of harmony, of contentment, of completeness, of wholeness and soundness and fulfillment and wee-being and prosperity and safety and welfare. It is a sense of well-being that understands that I am okay in every facet and every arena of life. And so I can be generous, because as a citizen of the Kingdom of God, I operate from a place of abundance, not of scarcity.


Now, this isn’t health and wealth prosperity gospel, which says that the primary evidence of God’s blessing in our lives is our physical and emotional health and the health of our bank accounts. That isn’t what is pictured here. What is pictured is a real and authentic peace that runs much deeper than that. It is a peace that understands that regardless of the circumstances I find myself in in this life, I rest solidly in the hand of God, and absolutely nothing can eternally harm me. So I am set free to love others and meet the needs of others with generosity because the resources of the Kingdom of God cannot and will not run out. The resources of the kingdoms of this world will come to an end. The resources of the Kingdom of God will not.


And this peace runs through the three spheres of my existence. It begins in my relationship with God. Romans 5:1 says, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And from there I begin to live at peace with myself. I experience an inner healing as the parts of my life that are at war with one another are slowly but surely brought into submission to Christ. And from there, from that seed of faith it grows and blossoms into peace with those around me, in my family, with my neighbors, even … my enemies. Others may choose not to live at peace with me, but as a follower of Christ I can live at peace with them. Romans 12:18 says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”


Peace with God. Peace in our own hearts and minds. Peace with those around us. And from there, as we each live under the rule of the Prince of Peace, God’s peace grows. It doesn’t come from the top down, from our government. Because sometimes we disagree with the things our government is doing, and sometimes we need to speak out, to make our voices heard. But we can do so from a place of peace, not despair, grounded in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Hear the words of Isaiah 9:6-7. God alone can do this. And how does God do it? Through a baby crying in a feed trough on the outskirts of a village in the middle of nowhere, whose birth was announced by the armies of heaven with angelic fanfare to a bunch of nobodies, who God wants to remind are important to him. God brings his peace to our lives through Christ, “God with us.”


A woman named Marge had an experience aboard a plane bound for Cleveland, waiting for takeoff. As she settled into her seat, Marge noticed a strange phenomenon. On one side of the airplane she saw a sunset filling the entire sky with color. But out of the window next to her seat, all she could see was a sky dark and threatening with storms, with no sign of the sunset.


As the plane’s engines began to roar, a gentle Voice spoke within her.


“You have noticed the windows,” he murmured beneath the roar and thrust of takeoff. “Your life, too, will contain some happy, beautiful times, but also some dark shadows. Here’s a lesson I want to teach you to save you much heartache and allow you to ‘abide in Me’ with continual peace and joy.”


“You see, it doesn’t matter which window you look through; this plane is still going to Cleveland. So it is in your life. You have a choice. You can dwell on the gloomy picture. Or you can focus on the bright things and leave the dark, ominous situations to Me. I alone can handle them anyway. The final destination is not influenced by what you see and hear along the way.”


“Learn this, act on it and you will be released, able to experience the ‘peace that passes understanding.’”[i]


As followers of Christ, citizens of the Kingdom of God, we can engage the challenges of our times, and the shortcomings of our government, not from a place of fear and anger and desperation, but of peace, because we live under the rule and reign of the one who is the Prince of Peace. “And the peace of God, peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).

[i] Catherine Marshall, “Touching the Heart of God,” Christianity Today (5-15-95)