Merry Second Day of Christmas! Two nights ago, I preached my first Christmas Eve sermon. The title is Peace Begins With Christ. The Texts are Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 2:1-20. The text is below, though when I preached it I added a paragraph or two spontaneously, and those aren’t included here. Soon, though, the audio recording will be posted on the audio page of our church website – http://www.pghupperroom.com.
Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.
It was Christmas Eve in 1914. World War 1 had begun that year when Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. That Christmas Eve, British troops and German troops were stationed on opposing sides along the Western Front. Between the two sides was a “no man’s land” that was littered with dead bodies from both sides. The Pope, Benedict XV, had been pleading with national leaders for a truce, at least for Christmas. The British commanders were unwilling to stop the war, though. But that Christmas Eve along the Western Front something happened.
The exact order of things are different depending on which historian you hear from and which diaries and letters those historians read. But things went something like this. The German troops began to celebrate Christmas Eve by decorating the trees around them with candles. The British saw the Germans’ Christmas trees, and the British began to sing Christmas carols. The Germans heard, and began singing carols back. Eventually each side sang Silent Night to the other. And the Christmas Eve celebrations led to a cease-fire.
The two sides began to shout Christmas greetings to one another, and eventually the cease-fire escalated to an all-out truce between the two sides. Some of the German troops traveled half-way into the “no-man’s-land” between the two sides, and some of the British troops went out to meet them, and the groups exchanged Christmas gifts with one another of military insignia, chocolates, cigarettes, and whatever else they had on them. The truce continued into Christmas day. Groups of British soldiers met with groups of German soldiers for games of soccer. German soldiers helped British troops recover and bury their fallen comrades, and British troops did the same for the Germans. Along some parts of the Western Front, the “Great Christmas Truce of 1914” (as it’s now known) lasted past New Years Day.
There’s something about Christmas that increases our desire for peace. The carols we sing, the candlelight…. the ambiance invokes a longing for peace. Christmas songs on the radio express this longing for peace. Even beyond the traditional Christmas carols that make it on the radio, you can also hear John Lennon and Yoko Ono singing “War is Over if you want it.” You can hear Bing Crosby singing a duet version of Little Drummer Boy with David Bowie, in which David sings “Peace on earth, can it be.” Even the completely banal song “Here Comes Santa Claus” includes the lines “Peace on earth will come to all, If we just follow the light, So let’s give thanks to the Lord above ‘Cause Santa Claus comes tonight.” (What Santa Claus coming down ‘Santa Claus Lane’ and giving toys to children has to do w/ peace on earth I’m not entirely certain…)
This desire for peace goes back to the first Christmas. We just read the story of the angels coming to the shepherds. The angels conclude their announcement to the shepherds by singing “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
And the longing for peace goes back to the prophecy we just read from Isaiah. The Messiah will be called, among other titles, “Prince of Peace.” And, “of the increase of his government and of his peace there will be no end.”
At the time when Isaiah first gave this prophecy, there was a longing for peace among the Jews. The condition that Isaiah uses at the beginning of this passage was an apt description – “People walking in darkness”; “People dwelling in the shadow of death.” (The phrase of “shadow of death” – it’s the same that appears in Psalm 23 – is a phrase that in Hebrew means “deep darkness.” It’s the kind of darkness that’s so pitch black you can’t even see your hand in front of you. You can’t see where you are, and you don’t know which direction to take your next step.)
That’s the situation Judah was in, they didn’t know what to do next. They were surrounded by stronger nations, the strongest of them was Assyria. So, they decided it was in their best interest to work a treaty w/ Assyria, so they formed a covenant with the Assyrians. The problem was that the Assyrians demanded that the covenant include the Jews accepting the idols that Assyrians worshipped. So the Jews were left with a choice, relative safety through a political allegiance, or faithfulness to YHWH.
The situation led them into captivity and oppression. The situation left them asking questions like, “Is our God truly Sovereign over history if the godless nations are stronger than God’s nation? What is the role of God’s people in the world? Does divine judgment mean divine rejection? What does it mean to trust God? Are the Assyrian idols stronger than God and therefore superior to him?”
We know this darkness. We know this longing for peace. We’re still in a world plagued by war that leads to a cynicism that peace could ever exist. Yesterday, I was sitting in Te Cafe writing this sermon, and WYEP was on, and the DJ played the John Lennon song I just mentioned. After the song, the DJ said, “That was John Lennon and Yoko Ono with ‘War is Over’… or… at least we wish.”
In our personal lives we experience a sense of darkness and uncertainty. In my own life this past year, I’ve been coming to terms with my singleness, and not knowing where a r/ship will come from or if it will come. Others in our community are preparing for marriage, and (if they’re honest) have no idea what to expect. Others are preparing to become parents for the first time. Others are facing career decisions. Some of us may be facing financial hardship. All of these things can lead us to a sense of darkness and uncertainty that leaves us longing for a sense of personal peace.
And into this darkness, a light shines. Into this context of confusion and longing for peace, God shows up. Isaiah says that God has given the people joy. And the source of joy is peace. Isaiah describes yokes being destroyed. The Assyrians had a cruel practice of placing heavy yokes on their vassals and captives for no other purpose than to humiliate them. Isaiah says that the Messiah brings an end to such oppression. He describes an end of war, as soldiers burn and destroy even their boots and battle garments, let alone their weapons. That’s how complete this peace is. It’s not merely a “cease-fire” or a stop to violence, it’s the military essentially saying, “Well, that’s it” and destroying their uniforms.
It’s this end of oppression and beginning of peace that’s the heart of the Christian gospel. Christ redeems us from that which burdens us; whether it be personal sin or emptiness or social injustices. Christ longs for us to experience the grace of forgiveness and redemption.
Chris and I meet weekly to pray together and to intentionally share with one another what God is doing in our lives. In those times together, there have been times when each of us has confessed sins to the other. And what I appreciate about confessing to Chris (and what I try to do when he confesses to me) is that the first words out of his mouth are almost always, “You’re forgiven.” That’s an experience of grace and of freedom from any guilt I feel, and I wouldn’t have that experience if I didn’t confess.
This is why in every one of our worship services here at Upper Room we take time for confession of our sin. When we come into God’s presence in worship, God longs for our encounter w/ Him to be an experience of grace, and to open ourselves up to the possibility of grace, we have to make our sin and guilt known.
And these personal experiences of grace are what will lead to the type of peace described in this passage from Isaiah. Personal experiences of redemption lead to justice. Imagine what would happen if Joseph Kony of the LRA – the group that’s kidnapping children in central Africa and turning them into mercenaries – imagine if Joseph Kony encountered Jesus and was driven to confession that led to an experience of grace. Imagine the peace that could come. (This doesn’t mean that knowing Jesus immediately solves all of our problems. Remember that the Germans and Brits at war in World War 1 were both predominantly Christian nations. But, the great truce of 1914 probably also would not have been possible if one or both sides was not Christian…)
This is the heart of the gospel. Jesus Christ, the Messiah, gives us peace through the forgiveness of our sins and peace from oppression.
Then, in this passage, and in the story of Christmas, there is this great paradox. This passage says that God is among his people, that his people are going to rejoice at his coming because he’s going to bring peace and salvation from oppression, it describes the coming of a great king who will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. That his government/dominion will have no end to it’s increasing. And what’s at the center of this:
A Child is born. In something has vulnerable and helpless as a baby, Isaiah sees the guarantee of God’s sovereignty and God’s might.
This is a strange king. First off it says that the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end. That’s uncommon. Usually if a government is increasing it means that there is no peace. In our world, “peace” usually means that no governments are increasing. Usually, if your saving people from oppression, your exercising violence on the oppressor.
God, though, is going to end oppression, increase his dominion and bring peace, by coming into the world as a baby.
And this, is the great lesson we learn from Christ. This is the light we’re given in the darkness – the darkness of our own personal uncertainties and the darkness we experience as a people longing for peace in a world of violence. The light for our path that God gives us in our darkness is the way of humbling ourselves and giving ourselves away.
There’s no greater example of someone giving themself away than the Son of God leaving his throne and coming as a baby, and eventually dying a criminal’s death.
Yet this is the way that leads to peace. Christ coming as a baby brought a stop to gunfire in 1914. The way to peace for us is giving ourselves away in humbleness.