On Christmas Eve 2012, I preached the following sermon (with a few edits) reflecting on Jesus’ birth, the kingdom of God, the Newtown, Connecticut, tragedy, and the hope we have to share with others.
As many of you know, Walt Disney has purchased Lucasfilm, which includes my childhood favorites like E.T., Indiana Jones, and Star Wars. The good news is that the world of Luke, Leia, Han, and Obi-Wan will be just as alive for my children as it was for me. The bad news is that I’m not sure you can ever make anything quite as exciting as the original trilogy!
But the original Star Wars trilogy drops us in the midst of a great conflict between the villainous Empire and the Rebel Alliance, George Lucas’ space age mash-up of the American Revolution and Vietnam. Brave and noble warriors, the Jedi, rose up to battle these dark forces, bringing light to the people who had been enslaved, gathering a disparate people together behind the new hope of something better. Some people were on the fence; some gave up their idealism to join the more powerful, winning side. Some remained faithful even though it cost them much. But in the midst of that darkness, those in power could not, would not, give up their power so easily, and the conflict raged. Would one rise above the Empire’s control and lead the people to freedom? Could this dark world be driven back by someone wise, and brave, and pure? (Are you humming the theme song yet??)
The world Jesus entered as a baby was pretty grim, too. There wasn’t an abundance of food or money in Judea, and the people lived under the watchful, taxing eye of their Roman oppressors. It’s these rulers who sent Mary and Joseph hurrying to Bethlehem even though she was nine months pregnant, and these people who the Jewish people expected would one day be thrown off of their backs by a long-awaited warrior Messiah. But the Messiah didn’t really meet expectations, did he? He was born in a manger, not in the crib of kings, but homeless, with nothing to his name, but his mother’s love and his father’s devotion. He did not come with the crashing sounds of thunder and heralded by trumpets, but without fanfare, meek, mild, weak, and innocent.
And what of the means by which the word spread? Sure, we know that wise seers later came bearing gifts, that a star surely gave them the means to find the baby. But they were late to the party! The first carriers of the word were shepherds, whose livelihood required them to spend night after night in the darkness, caring for sheep that couldn’t have even belonged to them. The lowest on the totem pole, those who cared for the unclean animals, these were the people chosen by God to carry the world, to bring the light to the rest of the world?
Given the state of things, I find myself wondering how their world looks different from ours. We grumble at the taxes put on us by the government, we worry about the things we must do for our families and the things we’re forced to do by others. We live in a state of hurrying from one thing to the next, striving to make ends meet and keep those in authority of us happy. But we live in a world beyond that of those shepherds, don’t we? We live in a world that continues to spin on after the death and miraculous resurrection of Jesus, where the truth has been presented to us by the once and future king of the universe himself.
Everything is changed… and yet nothing is changed.
The majority of our world still lives in the dark. There are those who have become so disabused of the idea that God would care enough about his own creation to humble himself to live our lives with us, to experience our pain, and to ultimately die on the cross. What kind of God is that anyway? But isn’t it true that that’s the kind of God we would WANT to serve? One who actually loved us? Others see this as too painful, too gritty.
And all loving God would never require so much pain and sadness to make the world right. It just can’t be that this baby born in a manger would be the same resurrected, nail-pierced man we worship on Easter. But then others see the only means of changing this world wrapped in violence, power, and control. That the Messiah who would come must forcefully need us, the Church, to take what is His, to claim it for him and stake violently the truths that we hold to be true. But if I may borrow from Star Wars again: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
God was already here before he sent Jesus. God didn’t need to show up… but we needed to be able to see him. God is present in our joy and present in our suffering and present even when we haven’t asked him to be there. The thing is, God doesn’t need our permission.
So what if God doesn’t need our defense? What if it really does make the most sense that on Christmas, What if the peace that the angels announced to the shepherds, the message they gave them to share is still the message that God brings to us at Christmas, asking each year that a few more of us would understand and believe?
Consider again these words spoken to the shepherds in Luke 2: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
“And on earth, peace.” Seriously, what does that look like? What would PEACE ON EARTH look like? Too often, we can act like peace on earth is only something meant for heaven. But if it was meant simply for heaven, why torture some poor, outcast shepherds with the suggestion that they might find it here and now? Doesn’t the “peace of earth” go with the “do not be afraid?” How are shepherds, fending off wolves and lions from killing their sheep, worrying about their master’s sheep falling into a ditch and breaking a leg, supposed to understand what “peace” looks like?
On Christmas Eve, 1914, 100,000 British and German troops were involved in unofficial cessations of fighting along the length of the Western Front. The Germans began by placing candles on their trenches and on Christmas trees, then continued the celebration by singing carols. The British responded by singing carols of their own. The two sides continued by shouting Christmas greetings to each other. Soon thereafter, there were excursions across No Man’s Land, where small gifts were exchanged, such as food, tobacco and alcohol, and souvenirs such as buttons and hats. The guns in the region fell silent. The truce also allowed a brief period where recently killed soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties. Joint services were held. But the peace only lasted a few days.
Two thousand years later and we’re still looking for peace. We’re looking for God to so overwhelm us and fill our senses that we ARE NOT AFRAID. Not afraid of living alone. Not afraid of losing our savings or our house or our car. Not afraid of death and dying, or the loss of a loved one. Not afraid that what we have isn’t good enough. Not afraid that our lives aren’t worth it. Not afraid that we haven’t stumbled so far that God doesn’t love us anymore.
HEAR THE GOOD NEWS: You are loved by the one, true God. Who made you individually in his image. Who created you for a purpose and longs to know you absolutely, intimately, in relationship. DO NOT FEAR. PEACE ON EARTH. It’s truly amazing to me, and I’ve been reading the Bible for awhile now! To go back and look at the ways that Isaiah prophesied about the kind of change Jesus would bring.
We read today from Isaiah 9 about how “the people walking in darkness” (the shepherds, us!) have seen a great light…” How this son born TO US would be the Counselor, the Everlasting Father, the prince of (what) PEACE!” Thousands of years before Jesus, this is prophesied. And his reign as prince is clothed in JUSTICE AND RIGHTEOUSNESS. Again, amazing… thousands of years before Jesus, God is giving his followers a heads up that Jesus is coming, that things won’t be the same, that PEACE and JUSTICE and RIGHTEOUSNESS would go hand in hand.
I’m sure that if I took a poll, you would uniformly admit to wanting peace. Wanting peace in your relationships Wanting peace in your children and grandchildren’s schools Wanting peace around the world. But if the Good News announced to the shepherds in that dark world two thousand years ago was that Jesus was the means of peace for everyone, what must we do to GRASP THAT PEACE right now?
We’ve been crying over the lack of peace via musics for awhile, especially in stories of protest and outrage at the wars we’ve faced in the last two hundred years. In 1849, Edmund Hamilton Sears commented on the wars going on then, between Mexico and the U.S., between slavery supporters and abolitionists in his hymn “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear.”
He wrote: “The world has suffered long; Beneath the angel-strain have rolled2 Two thousand years of wrong; And man, at war with man, hears not3 The love-song which they bring; O hush the noise, ye men of strife, And hear the angels sing. For lo, the days are hastening on, By prophet bards foretold, When with the ever-circling years Comes round the age of gold. When peace shall over all the earth Its ancient splendors fling, And the whole world give back the song, Which now the angels sing.”
We long for that peace, but we can’t seem to find it. I wonder sometimes if God isn’t shaking his head, wondering why we don’t get it? “Do they think I’m going to let it get so bad there’s nothing left? Are they waiting for me to show up and fix it miraculously? Wasn’t the miracle of Jesus enough? What about the miracles I’ve worked in their individual lives?”
Jesus never acted like the world wasn’t broken, like people weren’t suffering, like children weren’t dying. By the time he was four, King Herod had worked out a plot to kill all of the boys his age! A fact which seems eerily relevant in December 2012. But Jesus told his disciples to be peacemakers, to turn the other cheek, to literally lay down swords when soldiers came to arrest him in the garden of Gethsemane, to take up their cross days before he got up on his.
So why don’t we act like he asked his disciples to? What would it take for us to “GET” peace? In another song, one that has stuck in my head this December, as I watched mall shootings, abductions, bombings, and domestic violence flash across the ticker, hours before Sandy Hook Elementay made the news, speaks to the truth that peace isn’t EASY. Maybe it’s not even how we’re wired.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day,” on the Christmas after his son had died fighting in the Civil War in Virginia, despairing the true dark nature of parts of our lives even in the face of celebrating Jesus’ birth: “And in despair I bowed my head; ”There is no peace on earth,” I said; “For hate is strong, And mocks the song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
But as a man of faith, he knew that our story doesn’t end with a period. It ends with an exclamation point. It ends with hope … like the Coke Zero commercial where the man keeps experiencing life but adding “and…” We know that even in the midst of our darkness that isn’t how the story ends. Wadsworth’s hymn closes: Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ”God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men.” God’s not dead or asleep but he’s waiting for us to WAKE UP!
To grasp Right Prevailing and Goodwill to humankind But how do we become part of that? How do we hold onto that hope with our lives and our hearts? It seems like the examples range from pretty ordinary to amazingly serious.
If I say I want peace, I need to consider the way I treat my wife and my children.
If I say I want peace, then not only do I need to change the way I drive but the things I think about other people while I’m driving!
If I say I want peace, then it matters how I spend my money, what I watch, the language I use, and the people I associate with.
If I want peace, then I have to do something when there are people I know starving for food and love, or shivering with cold, in my community.
If I want peace, then the world events that threaten the safety of children I’ll never meet, and countries I’ll never see, have to matter to me.
If I want peace, then the example I set with my family and friends, the lessons on Jesus and the importance of my faith community, have to matter to me.
If I want peace, I have to choose NOT VIOLENCE. I need to choose forgiveness not hate; choose letting go rather than one upping; choose to lay my weapons physically, metaphorically, intellectually, and otherwise down to make myself vulnerable… to peace. I have to choose not to be a Christ-follower when it’s convenient but even when it hurts.
When I was a teenager, I remember a conversation about violence came up. At the time, my father owned hunting rifles, and someone asked him if he would ever use them on another human being. He told those of us who were there at the time that he would never point a weapon at another human being, even if that person in turn had a gun to my mother or my head, because killing them would end their ability to turn and choose God, but he knew where we stood. Someone accused him of not loving us enough, but it didn’t take me long to see that my Dad loved me absolutely, because he loved me as Jesus did—enough to follow through on what he believed regardless of the cost.
Jesus came to Earth as a vulnerable little baby to BRING PEACE. He came to bring FORGIVENESS and HEALING and COMFORT to a world where people were ashamed and scared and sick and isolated. He came to tell them that regardless of what they’d thought before or been told by someone who didn’t really know, in their case—the leaders and teachers about God!, GOD LOVED THEM UNCONDITIONALLY.
Jesus died for that message in the face of authority, and by the grace of Almighty God, he rose again. Jesus’ follow through was A-MA-ZING. How’s yours? Do you believe tonight that you are loved unconditionally? If no one else has ever said it this way before to you, know this: CHRISTMAS is not YOUR BIRTHDAY… but Jesus came so that you would have new birth. Jesus came just for you, and for you, and for you. You are LOVED.
Soak that in for a moment. Enjoy it. Reflect on what that means, that YOU ARE LOVED BY YOUR CREATOR, AND SAVIOR. God broke through the world as we know it, past technological expectations and scientific laws, because God knew we needed a new hope, something bigger and better than what we had before.
I hope that tonight, that this Christmas, you would recognize the stirring of God in your life, the knowledge that you are loved and forgiven, no matter what you’ve done, and that Jesus came to us as a baby to show us that we CAN make a difference in our lives, right now. Whether you met Jesus a long time ago or in the last ten minutes, change for good can occur right now and last forever.
We would all say that we want peace, and we would probably admit that we have things about our life that we want to change—we have things about ourselves that just aren’t quite right. But the answer to those questions, the thing that frees us from our doubts is the belief that Jesus is God’s son, and that he died for our sins. So many times, we feel like we can’t make a difference. We can’t even change our own situations!
But the truth is that God is with us, Emmanuel, that the light shines in us, like the lightsabers my little Jedi carry with them tonight, to light up the world and bring hope in the midst of darkness. We can change our attitudes. We CAN live a life of sacrifice, of unconditional love, of PEACE. We can make our random acts of violence into random acts of kindness. We can choose to forgive rather than to retaliate.
We can recognize, as Gandalf the Wise says in The Hobbit, that while some believe “it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love.”
So how will you stand up to evil? How will you show that peace this Christmas? Will you pray for forgiveness for yourself tonight? Or forgive someone in your heart as we sing Christmas carols? Will it be tonight by calling a loved one who you’re estranged from and saying, Merry Christmas? Will it be tomorrow, by praying for peace worldwide with your family before having Christmas lunch?
Will you give away your extra food or extra clothes to someone in your neighborhood or a shelter who is in need, so that they would have what they need? Will you treat each person with respect and dignity whether you’re crashing the stores for post-Christmas shopping… or serving as one of the people in retail or food service who will be overworked and underpaid the next few days?
PEACE begins with us. Peace begins with the realization that this life isn’t about us. That we are here to love and be loved, to worship God, to celebrate life, to share our resources and be a blessing for others. When we can table what we want and focus instead on what God wants, we recognize that we are the shepherds, who have been living in the dark, isolated and alone, and that even at our worst, God uses us to spread a message of hope if we’ll only believe.
That the light of God has broken through to announce that THIS IS NOT THE BEST THERE IS!
That the best is yet to come. That we are not alone. That “best of all, God is with us.” Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me. Let it begin with you. Carry the good news from this place. Share it in the way you act and the way you talk. Share it in mercy and grace, in forgiveness and love. May Christmas truly be full of peace on earth. Amen.