The Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 23, 2012
There is something that I like to do each December 24. I don’t always get to do it but I try. At least for a few minutes, I like to sit down and watch the late evening Christmas Eve services on television from St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. There is something about these occasions of worship in these very historic and holy places on Christmas Eve that has captivated me since I was a child and over the years these few moments have become a part of my seasonal ritual.
I share this because almost every year when I tune in, there is some mention of violence. In regards to The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the question always centers on the safety of the people who have come from all over the world for the service. As you are well aware, the Middle East is an incredibly volatile area of the world where various religious faiths converge which creates tremendous levels of tension and turmoil at all times. As a result, the gathering of Christians on Christmas Eve for worship at one of the holiest of sites, always raises concerns about hostility and danger.
As for St. Peter’s in Rome, concerns about safety are more of a recent phenomenon. But, it an age where terrorism is always a concern, the huge gathering accompanied by the presence of prominent figures from all over the world again puts authorities on alert and heightens the level of anxiety that all will go well.
It is ironic, don’t you think, that as we gather and as the world gathers to celebrate the Prince of Peace, fears and worries about safety, bloodshed and violence remain just as present as they have ever been. When you consider this and when we reflect about the fact that recent acts in our own country have led to increasing question about such issues in our own lives, it makes you wonder just what we are to do with the statement of the angels in Luke 2:14 where the emphatic pronouncement is made to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
What exactly are we to do with this statement on this fourth Sunday of Advent – the Sunday of Peace? What did the angels mean? Was there really an expectation that the coming of God’s son would lead to the ending of violence in the world? Or, did the angels mean something different when they spoke of the world wide peace that this child ushered in?
I think the answer to those questions is yes and no. On the one hand, I certainly believe that part of Jesus’ message was about peace as we think of peace. When you read the gospels, it is hard to miss Jesus’ desire that we would find a way as his followers to learn to live with one another in a way characterized more by love and care than by hatred and hostility. At the same time, to suggest that the idea of Jesus as the Prince of Peace is only about the ending of violence is to miss the other side of what the angels were saying. Their pronouncement of peace was also about the fact that the coming of Jesus’ would provide peace within our hearts as well.
This I think is in keeping with the Israelite understanding of peace which was just as much about the presence of an inner strength and contentment as it was about the absence of violence in the world. Further, it is peace on this side of the coin that may have been most valuable to the shepherds who first received this word from the angels. And, despite the violence in our world today, this side of the coin is equally valuable for us. This morning, let me mention a couple of reasons that this was and remains the case
First, the word of peace to the shepherds and the word of peace to us is a call to find contentment in knowing that we are loved by God. One of the ways that Luke 2 has lost its edge as a biblical passage in modern times is when it comes to the shepherds. Today, because of their central role in the story of Jesus’ birth, we have glorified the shepherds and made them a sweet aspect of our Christmas cards, pageants, manger scenes and Christmas trees. But, in the biblical world, shepherds were far from lovable. As a profession, they were among the most despised. They were dirty, lower class and considered not to be very trustworthy. As a result, their role as the first recipients of God’s good news of a son was a radical suggestion to say the least.
Knowing these truths helps us to appreciate the fact that many if not most of the shepherds may have questioned heavily how God really felt about them. After all, maybe there was something to how their fellow countryman felt about them. Maybe they were second class citizens. Maybe they really didn’t deserve anyone’s love, care or respect. And, maybe, just maybe God felt about them just as did everyone else.
This is our human tendency. Our human tendency is to think that if others don’t love us then likely God doesn’t either. Our human temptation is to believe that if others can’t forgive our failures and our shortcomings then surely God will not do so either. If this is who others say that we are, then as bad as we hate to admit it, there probably is great truth to such feelings and sentiments.
I have a friend who went through a rough period in his life several years ago. He lost his job and began to wonder if he was even in the right profession. All of this stress coupled with the criticism that others had leveled against him led him to begin to question how God felt about him as well. One day, he was talking with a confidant about what was happening in his life. At some point in the conversation, his wise counselor said, “Joe, I can tell you what you need to do. Stop trying to be so perfect. Stop trying to always get it right. And, when you mess up, accept yourself as a human being and stop beating yourself up. God loves you just as you are. God isn’t waiting for you to have it all together in order to care about you.”
This was an epiphany for Joe. And, it is not exaggeration to suggest that this moment brought profound peace to his life. I suspect a similar experience happened for the shepherds. The peace of that very first Christmas was at least in part about their coming to understand that God loved them exactly as they were. God wasn’t waiting for them to live up to the world’s standards. God had loved them already and the gift of Jesus was for them.
Second, the word of peace to the shepherds and the word of peace to us is a call to find meaning for ourselves and others in becoming messengers of peace. What is interesting is that after the angels’ visit, the shepherds had a new job. Sure they still were involved in tending sheep, but, they were also now involved in sharing this good news of the Christ child’s coming with the world. They were to be messengers of peace.
This was significant I think for a couple of reasons. First, it said to the shepherds that their lives had a new and more profound meaning than they have ever known. Second, it said to them that this new peace they had found was to be offered to a world that needed it just as much as did they.
The same is true for us. As recipients of God’s peace at Christmas, we are all to find great satisfaction in the fact that our lives have a profound meaning and purpose. No matter what we do for a living, no matter where we call home, no matter how significant or insignificant others might suggest we are — God’s says that as bearers of his peace — our lives are of incredible importance.
At the same time, if there is anything that we can offer to the world, it is the sharing of the peace that we have all known in Christ’s coming. Here is the important word. We live in a world and time that is more about calling us to claim our differences than our similarities — are we this political party or that, are we for this or against that, are we for this team or that one, are we in this class or in that one? Sure all of these differences are in some ways accurate but where do they lead us? They lead us right to where we are. They lead to division, hatred, anger and violence.
The shepherd’s story calls us to embrace our similarities and the realities that all of us, all of us ultimately need the same thing — the peace that comes through the love of Christ. When we embrace this for ourselves and when we make sharing this word with others the ultimate goal of our lives, my hunch is that it will profoundly change how we feel about and treat one another.
Many of you are familiar with a story that I love to tell on this last Sunday before Christmas — this Sunday of peace. It is of the Canadian regiment in World War II that fought in the area of France known as Flanders Field. One year, on Christmas Eve, a soldier in the regiment named Gitz Rice began to play the piano. As the Christmas carols flowed from his fingertips, the soldiers began to join in and to sing. During the singing an odd thing happened. With the Canadians at such a close proximity to the front lines of the Germans, their enemies heard them singing and began to join in themselves. As Rice finished playing, it was the Germans who begged for more. The power and peace of Christmas had brought this odd group together even as they stood on the battlefield as enemies.
Let there be peace on earth…and let it begin in each of us! Amen.