(a sermon for December 27, 2015, the First Sunday after Christmas; last in a series, based on Roman 5:1-5; Luke 2:8-20 and Isaiah 9:6)
“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” – Isaiah 9:6
Every Christmas season carries with it some very special memories; and in our family the Christmas of 2004 will always be remembered as the one in which my wife Lisa became an international media sensation!
And I’m not kidding (!)… the story is that that year the school system where we lived had essentially banned all things Christmas: there were to be no decorations, no music, no parties, not even a “Merry Christmas” was to be spoken, while the origin and meaning of Hanukkah was being taught as a matter of cultural significance; this despite the fact that there had long been a policy in that system (developed together by school officials and local clergy, I might add) to allow for both traditions to be an appropriate part of the curriculum, and observed with equal respect and all due celebration. It just didn’t seem right that Christmas should be totally ignored, so along with another concerned mother in the community, Lisa went directly to the school board to ask why!
And it just took off from there: suddenly we’re being called by the likes of the Associated Press, the New York Times, and the Sydney Australia Daily Telegraph (!), all wanting to know about the battle these two women were waging in the so-called “War on Christmas!” Lisa was interviewed on radio talk shows, both locally and across the country; Court TV wanted to talk with them; and Fox News had actually scheduled a live remote before they got “bumped” by developments in the Iraq War! And the thing was, it was never about Christmas “versus” Hanukkah; this wasn’t meant to be a statement on religion and certainly not an opportunity to proselytize. It was simply a heartfelt desire that our community be wholly inclusive of both traditions of faith during a very important holiday season. But that didn’t stop the media from pressing their point; and in fact, what I think I’ll remember the most in walking in the house in the middle of the afternoon just a couple days before Christmas – a time when, as you can imagine, Lisa is crazy busy getting stuff ready for the holiday (!) – yet she’s still, albeit very reluctantly, talking on the phone (and looking rather harried, I must confess), and as she’s talking, Lisa is rolling her eyes as she hurriedly scribble a note to me which reads: “THIS IS CNN!”
The good news about all this media scrutiny is that it culminated in our local school board realizing it needed to honor its own policy; and as an affirmation of that decision I (for some reason!) was invited, along with a local rabbi, to take part in a big event at the middle school to give a presentation on the origins and meanings of both holidays, and to do it from a faith perspective! There was music, and laughter and story-telling (both the rabbi and I got to read from holy scripture); there was even a rousing rendition of “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy” – complete with foot stomping (!) – sung by over 200 middle schoolers, which is an experience in and of itself! The whole thing, I have to say, went a long way in both celebrating our diversity and appropriately keeping the joy of Christmas and Hanukkah alive in our community. But even more than this, I have to tell you that in this little holiday celebration, in which for a few wonderful moments we were all truly “one in the Spirit” and were in one small but significant way “the whole people of God,” this pastor began to see just a joyous glimmer of what “peace on earth, goodwill to all” can really look like in this world as we know it.
It’s easy, after all, for us to become cynical about that particular sentiment of the season, is it not? Given the on-going reminders we receive of the state of terror and violence all around us, to say nothing of the constant vitriol that emanates from the mouths of both those in power and those who wish to be in power, it’s hard not to begin to echo Longfellow’s verse about how “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men.” Moreover, for so many this time of year there is this overwhelming sense of sadness, grief, anger and even fear that cannot help but cast a pall on any feeling of Christmas spirit. Truly, the dream of peace on earth does seem so elusive, but oftentimes we’d settle for some peace of heart and mind! In all honesty, I think that’s one reason that so many people find their way back to church this time of year; because we are simply yearning to know in our own hearts the experience of a “silent, holy night” where “all is calm and all is bright” and to have it linger forever. We need for the world… and our very lives… to be made full and whole.
So isn’t it wonderful, then, that our God has given you and me the gift of a child who will be called “Prince of Peace?”
It’s the last of the four names given to God’s promised Messiah in Isaiah, and in many ways it’s the most amazing of all. For what we have here is the bold portrayal of the God of the Universe coming to this battered and bruised world of ours to bring peace – real peace; deep peace – that represents more than merely the absence of strife and war, but also peace in the sense of wholeness, harmony and fulfillment. It is no accident that the Hebrew word Isaiah uses here is, in fact, “shalom,” which we understand to mean the whole peace of God; literally “to bind together the fragments of life into a meaningful whole.” Actually, what comes to mind here is the image of a braided “rag rug.” Have you ever seen one of these? These are rugs literally woven and braided together with old and ragged bits and pieces of cloth, taking that which individually means nothing and which holds no strength, but which together can be something of great beauty and purpose.
God’s peace, God’s shalom, is much like that; in which the bits and pieces of life’s many experiences woven into something of meaning and insight and fulfillment. And isn’t that true; so often in and through all the myriad stresses and conflicts of life, we will find ourselves, often inexplicably, experiencing God’s peace; a clarity amidst the murkiness that helps us to know which way to go, with a sense of God’s perfect presence and love as we do so. This is what can only be described as deep peace; as Robert Raasch has defined it, it is “the kind of peace that enables us to experience an inner calm in spite of all the circumstances that would normally cause us stress. It’s like the calm in the eye of a hurricane… perfect stillness and peace while storms rage all around.”
And what makes this all the more incredible is that this one who comes to us in the manger of Bethlehem, this tiny infant who is also named Jesus, is the one who will be called “Prince of Peace.” That’s significant, too; for in Isaiah’s time, the title “prince” did not so much suggest an heir to a throne as it did a chief, an overseer, an owner; so what Isaiah is saying is that true peace will literally belong to the Messiah, the “Prince of Peace,” and that in turn, his peace will be our own, both now and eternally. As Paul said to the Romans in our epistle reading this morning, “Therefore, since we are justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access to this grace in which we stand.”
What this all means, beloved, is that no matter what happens to us in this life, no matter where we are or what we’re going through; whatever challenges await you and me during the year 2016 and beyond, God will not let us go through it alone; through Jesus our Emmanuel, God gives us the strength to face it, endure it, triumph over it, and grow from it. We need not feel weighed down by the harshness of life, nor be paralyzed in fear of life’s injustices and uncertainties, but in fact dwell in a life that’s whole and full and imbued with purpose; for “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ!” It’s true, deep peace, and it’s what leads us to all joy in living. It’s like the story of the little boy who misunderstood the words to “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing;” you know, the line, “peace on earth and mercy mild?” Well, this boy might have said it wrong, but he got it right when he sang, “Peace on Earth and Mercy Wild!” Jesus, our “Prince of Peace,” brings us a mercy that’s wild, indeed!
On a starlit night roughly 2,000 years ago, a motley group of shepherds were “living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock.” Understand that these were “third shift” shepherds; odds are they didn’t even own the sheep, but worked for those who did! The truth is that even they knew they were the last people who ever expected to see “an angel of the Lord [standing] before them,” much less a “multitude of the heavenly host.” But it was to such as these to whom the angels’ message of a Savior was given; and it was they who first heard that glorious proclamation of peace!
I have to say that it’s always sort of intrigued me to think that just as soon as the “angels had left them and gone into heaven,” the shepherds immediately ran to Bethlehem “to see this thing that [had] taken place, which the Lord [had] made known to them.” Certainly, this was incredible, life-changing good news, but there were still practical matters with which to contend; for instance, weren’t they concerned about what would happen to the sheep? Don’t you think these “third shifters” would have been worried about still having a job in the morning if they just ran off “willy-nil” like that? Certainly the more reasonable and prudent thing to have done was take care of business first and then, after the sun came up, go into Bethlehem to check things out?
Well, of course, they had to run to Bethlehem to see this; they’d heard the voices of angels, for heaven’s sakes! They’d seen a heavenly host and heard the good and joyous news of a promise fulfilled: that of a baby born who is “the Messiah, the Lord,” and that in and of itself filled them with all glory. But I suspect it was even more than that; that in those first moments just after the angels departed, these shepherds were simply overcome with the feeling of it all… first that bit of linger fear that comes with having experienced a heavenly host (!); and then the sheer excitement of the news that had been told them; but then something else… this profound feeling of calm, really, and a sense of well-being that was quickly and steadily bubbling up into… an incredible experience of wonder and joy! It was peace; and not just the peace on earth of which the angels were singing, though that was very much a part of it, but also a deep peace that was rooted deeply within their hearts. And so, who could do anything else at that moment but go and see, and then run to tell the world!
Dear friends, the challenge for each one of us – especially now as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day become Christmastide – is that is we come to recognize and truly know that wondrous, joyous peace as our own, so that we might be moved to live out of the wonder and joy of it. And as we’ve said, it’s not always easy given the chaos and confusion of the world around us, and the prevalence of all that which would actively work against Christmas and Christ in the culture of these days. But just as a diverse group of middle-schoolers can be gathered for a few choice moments for a truly “faith-filled” celebration, so our Prince of Peace can come into our world, our lives and our hearts to unite us with him.
For as Christmas surely comes, beloved, so does Christ! To slightly paraphrase something written by Presbyterian poet Ann Weems, “Even now [he] comes in the face of hatred and warring – no atrocity too terrible to stop it, no Herod strong enough, no curse shocking enough, no disaster shattering enough. For someone on earth will see the star, someone will hear the angel voices, someone will run to Bethlehem, someone will know peace and goodwill: the Christ will be born!”
The Prince of Peace will come!
May the gift of true, deep that he brings be yours today, tomorrow and in every day to come in the new year.
And may our thanks ever be to the God who comes to us as “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace!”
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry