Sermon: Peace In The Midst Of Chaos
Scripture: Luke 2: 25-32
Date: December 21, 2014
In Ancient times, what you were named was a very important factor in determining who you were and who you would become. A name referred to character and characteristics and origin. In scripture we often see God changing peoples names in recognition of some encounter that He has had with them. Abram to Abraham. Jacob to Israel. Simon to Peter. For example. So we can begin to understand the expectations that surrounded the coming Messiah by the names that were given to him. So think about the number of names that are attributed to Jesus in scripture. Messiah, Lord, King of the Jews, Rabbi, Son of Man, Son of God, Blasphemer, Prophet. Some even called Him Satan. John begins his Gospel by calling Him the Light of the World. And Isaiah, in the passage that was shared to light the Advent Wreath, which is probably the most familiar prophecy concerning the Messiah adds several names to the list. These are the names that Handel built His magnificent work “Messiah” around. Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. And the Angel that came to Mary and Joseph added to the list the names Immanuel and, of course, Jesus.
A pastor by the name of Randy Cross reflected on the importance of names when he wrote:
For the first nine years of my life, I never met another person named “Randy.” Certainly I knew no one named Randolph which is so close to Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer that I hated to think about it; . . (As a kid) I thought my name should have more danger and intrigue in it. So I came up with the perfect name; Mike Flash. It grabs your attention. For a few months, at least in my own imagination, I was Mike Flash; and I walked with a strut. Mike Flash was a boy with confidence and self assurance, a name to be reckoned with
And so, according to scripture, Jesus has many names. But would we expect anything else of a Messiah who, according to the old man Simeon, would be the “light of the revelation of God to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” In other words, a Messiah who would be all things to all people. For the Ancient peoples He would have had to have many names to cover the many aspects of His character. According to Randy Cross:
(At Christmas) God brings the promise in our lives of a new relationship with God. We may not claim a new name, but certainly a new identity is given us as we live our lives for God
And so our task at Christmas and in all the days that follow is to claim for ourselves the new relationship that God offers in whatever form that makes sense in the midst of the circumstances of our lives. Need a King, some one to rule your life? Jesus is King. Need a friend, a counselor? Jesus is Wonderful Counselor. Need to experience grace and forgiveness? Jesus is Lord. Wherever you are – whoever you are – you can experience the Messiah, the Savior at the point of your need. Jesus is all we need. Because at Christmas, Jesus was born for all, to be all, and in all.
Let us pray.
We have been talking about the Impossible Dreams of Christmas. So we have talked about God present with us through Jesus, and about new life and hope for there to be something more of this life then what humanity has made of it. And then last week through the scriptures and the wonderful music of the choir, we experienced in a real way the joyous nature of the story of Jesus’s birth. Today we come to the most difficult and seemingly impossible dream of Christmas given the state of our world today – the age old dream of Peace on earth. Think about how many times we hear during this season about Peace On Earth. Of all the names of the Messiah, probably the one we hear most at this time of year is “Prince of Peace.” Jesus is born the Prince of Peace And yet we watch the news on T.V. and read the newspapers and we wonder, perhaps more than any other time of year, “If Jesus is the Prince of Peace, why then is there so little peace in our world?” For the Jews of 4 B.C. there was no peace. Oh they knew all about the Pax Romano, the peace of Rome. But it was a peace that was won and maintained through violence. The Roman Army was the most powerful fighting force the world had ever known. They had marched into the far corners of the known world, defeating nation after nation, and building an empire that essentially spanned the known world. But to maintain that empire, they had to deploy their troops throughout the empire and put down any dissent to the Pax Romano with swift and terrible violence. As Jesus grew, every time He made His way to Jerusalem, the roads He traveled would have been lined with Roman crosses filled with those who found no peace in the midst of the peace of Rome. The Jewish people waited for a Messiah who would come and restore peace by the use of great power – the power of God. And really, for the two thousand years since, we have not really given up that dream have we? We still rely on armies and strong leaders to restore and try to maintain peace on earth. But throughout the history of humanity that dream has been illusive at best, and impossible at worst. It has proved to be an impossible dream because we have tried to rely on humanity as the arbiter of what true peace is. We have tried to rely on man to bring peace to God’s creation. When the prophets talked of the Messiah as the prince of peace, the people had thought that meant peace between nations. And so they thought the Messiah would bring peace through might. Match violence with violence. But God had something completely different in mind. His was a peace that would be brought in by right. The peace of God, the peace brought by the Messiah could not be separated from righteousness. And righteousness was not a matter of nations and government and armies, it was a matter of the individual heart. And so, here’s the thing. When God finally sent the Messiah, He changed His name in order to change the expectations. Now I think to truly understand this we need a quick lesson in names and linguistics. Let’s go back to Matthew’s account of the dream that Joseph had in which the Angel told him to support Mary because “what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus.” Of course we know that. But what has that go to do with peace? Well here’s the thing. The name that was given to Joseph would have been the Hebrew name Yeshua. “Jesus” is the Greek translation of the name “Yeshua”. But the better translation of the Jewish name into English without the Greek filter, would be the name Joshua. Now, of course, we associate the name Yeshua, or Jesus, with salvation. But the Jewish people of 4 B.C would have associated the name Yeshua or Joshua with the first Joshua, who led the people into the promised land after the death of Moses. And Joshua was most closely associated with the fall of Jericho and the walls that came tumbling down. So Joshua was known as the “wall breaker.” And that association would have been clear to Joseph and those who learned of Joseph’s dream because it was in the name that God gave the Messiah. This baby Yeshua was coming into the world to break down walls. He will be Joshua, the wall breaker. It’s when the walls are broken down, that peace will come.
James Moore says this: In the time that Jesus was born there were many walls of division. Perhaps the best illustration of that was the walls that divided the sections of the Temple itself. He breaks down the dividing walls of hostility. The Temple was a parable in stone, exposing the prejudices… the walls that existed in society during those times; (and if we’re honest still exist today); walls that included a few privileged people, but excluded and shut out most.
You see, the Temple consisted of a series of courtyards that you had to pass through to get to the innermost part which was the High Altar and the Holy of Holies where it was believed that God dwelled. Those courtyards were walled in and designed to hold people away from God.
So the first courtyard was the courtyard of the foreigners or gentiles. That was as far as they could go. They could not pass through the wall to the next courtyard which was the courtyard of the women and children. They could not move beyond the second wall into the third courtyard which was for Jewish men. But they could not move past the third wall. It separated the people from the altar which rose some 30 feet into the air. Only the priests could approach the altar on behalf of the people. But even the priests (with the exception of the High Priest) could not pass through the fourth wall which was a veil rather than a wall and separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would enter into the presence of God. But even then they tied a rope around his leg so that if he fainted or passed out or died while in there they could pull him out because no one else was allowed to pass through that wall or veil.
But Jesus was the wall breaker, and from the cross he broke through even that final wall that separated God from humanity and as He did, that veil was ripped apart and the walls came tumbling down.
Moore goes on to say:
The Holy of Holies…, which represented the presence of God, was remote, fearsome, austere, and unapproachable. But then came Jesus… and he broke down the dividing walls… and made us one. He broke out from behind the walls… out from behind the veil… out to where the people were. That’s what the Christian faith is all about… God breaking out; God smashing down the walls; God coming warmly and wonderfully into our lives.
I wonder if, as they made their way from the fields to the manger in Bethlehem, it occurred to the shepherds that when the Angels sang “Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” , they were pointing to the One who would break down the walls of prejudice that made them outcasts in their world. And I wonder if as the Wise Men, these foreigners, approached Bethlehem and the Manger, I wonder if they understood that this baby King would break down the walls erected because of different races and nationalities. Jesus came to break down the walls that divide us. And it is when those walls crumble that peace becomes possible. Look again at what the Angels sang that night. They sang of peace, but I’m not sure it was the kind of peace that most had in mind when they dreamed of the peace the Messiah would bring. Because if we look carefully, we’ll see that the Angels did not sing of Peace On Earth as we often do during this season. No, they sang, “on earth peace to men on whom God’s favor rests.” The people assumed that when the prophets spoke in terms of peace and the Messiah, that they meant peace among nations. No more wars. No more conquering armies, no more periods of exile and occupation. But if that was what God meant by peace, then He would have sent the Messiah as that mighty King who would raise up an army and restore peace. But by sending Jesus as a baby among outcasts, God was telling us that peace is a matter of hearts and not armies and governments – that the Messiah would not come to restore peace to the war and chaos of the world, but rather to restore peace in the midst of the war and chaos of the world. Think for a moment about this old man Simeon. No telling how long he had been waiting at the Temple to see the Messiah. And when Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the Temple, he takes the baby in his arms and he says: “At long last I have seen the Messiah and now I can depart from this world in peace.” It’s not that the Romans are gone or would be defeated. It was not world peace that he was talking about – it was inner peace. The impossible dream of peace becomes possible when it comes into our heart – when the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus is born to us. Let us go to Bethlehem and see this one who can bring peace to even our crazy, mixed up, troubled, lonely, sin filled life. You see, I fear that sometimes we dismiss Peace On Earth as an impossible dream of Christmas, not because we have become completely resigned to the war and violence that is so much a part of our collective history. I think we dwell on the impossibility of peace on earth because we don’t really want to deal with the walls, the areas of our own lives, where there is no peace. Because as broken hearted as I believe God is when nations fight nations, I believe that He is even more broken hearted when families fight among themselves. And when there is no peace among neighbors. And when rather than breaking down the walls of prejudice and injustice, we erect even more walls. The possibility of God’s dream of peace is expressed in the words of the song that says: Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me. But think about what that really means. Most of us can not do anything to bring peace to Iraq or Afghanistan, but we can work to tear down walls of animosity and disappointment between parents and children and spouses and brothers and sisters. And most of us can not do anything to stop the violence in the streets of Chicago or even parts of Lexington, but we can work to break down the walls of loneliness and grief that isolate neighbor from neighbor. And most of us can’t do much to end hunger and starvation around the world, but we can work to break down the walls of hunger and poverty in our own community. And most of us can’t do much about the increasing hostility towards and between the religions of the world, but we can, like the Angels, issue the invitation to friends and colleagues and even strangers, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see Jesus – the Prince of Peace – the wall breaker.” The impossible dream of Christmas becomes possible when the Messiah is born to shepherds as well as Kings and everyone. And Jesus becomes the Prince of Peace when we embrace Him, receive Him and allow Him to work through us to break down the walls that divide our families and our friends and our offices and our community and sometimes even our churches. When all of us become Joshua’s in this world. And the walls crumble and peace comes in to our hearts and lives.
Corrie ten Boom was a Christian living in the Netherlands when the Nazis swept across Europe, in the middle of the last century. Of course, of the many atrocities attributed to the Nazis, the worst was the extermination of 6 million Jews across Europe. When Corrie Ten Boom and her family realized what the fate of their Jewish friends and neighbors would be under the Nazi occupation of their country they began to hide them and smuggle as many as they could to safety. But eventually they were found out and the whole family was arrested, though none of the Jews they hid were ever discovered. Her father and her sister died in the Nazi prison camps, but Corrie Ten Boom survived. After the war she wrote a book called “The Hiding Place” in which she recounted her experiences. And in it she wrote about Christmas 1944. She was in the hospital barracks of Ravensbruck which she describes as “that barbaric prison camp where thousands of persons, including my dear sister Betsie, had already died.” She writes about the darkness of that Christmas that she felt inside and all around her. She recounts that the guards had mockingly placed Christmas trees in the alleys between the barracks. But she could not understand why they were even there. They were the saddest trees she had ever seen. And then under the trees the guards began to pile the dead bodies of prisoners. Corrie considered that an ultimate act of blasphemy but on Christmas Eve she found herself staring out the window at the gruesome scene, wondering if her sister who had died 9 days before was one of those bodies, when suddenly she said the night was pierced by cries that sounded like a small child, “Mommy! Come to Oelie, I feel so alone” the voice said. And Corrie Ten Boom followed the cries and found a child all alone. Ten Boom assumed that her mother had died and she said to her, “Oelie, Mommy cannot come, but do you know who is willing to come to you? That is Jesus.” And she explained how Jesus came as a little baby and how He still comes to us, even in a horrible place like this. And she said she took the child in her arms and in that embrace Corrie and Oelie celebrated that Christmas together. They found peace in that embrace.
You see, it wasn’t until Simeon actually took the baby Jesus in his arms and embraced Him that he was able to experience the peace of Christmas. And so it is for us. When we embrace Jesus, we find peace.
Many of you know that my favorite Christmas Carol is “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day”. Thanks to Mark and Will for sharing that version of it with us. Many of you know that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the words in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. And so when he wrote the haunting words:
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.”
He was writing of the horrors of the war that the nation was engaged in, and he was. But what you may not know is that Longfellow was also in the midst of personal loss and tragedy. Just weeks before his second wife had died and then while he was in the midst of his grief over that personal loss, he received word that his son had died in the war. And so while the nation sought for peace, Longfellow also sought peace in his own soul. And so the peace that he felt and wrote about was not so much peace on earth, because the war still raged on. The peace he felt was peace within, and so he concludes with a beautiful description of that Christmas peace.
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.”
Till, ringing, singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!
You see, Joseph, that’s what Jesus, the wall breaker, will bring to each of us. Peace in the midst of the chaos of our lives. The Prince of Peace comes to us. And the impossible dream of peace becomes possible this Christmas, in and through you and me. Oh Lord, let there be peace on earth and let it begin with us. Amen