December 23, 2012 – Advent 4, He is our Peace
To listen to the recorded version, click here: He is our Peace
When you’re young, it’s really hard sometimes to wait for good things like Christmas. There are all these things you have to put up with in the meantime. In our household the approach of Christmas often meant that I went on what my kids thought was a crazy and mostly unnecessary cleaning frenzy, one that sadly involved them as well – lots of extra chores added to their regular daily chores. I was also baking for hours every day for a week or two before Christmas – in those days we had a lot of cookie-eaters in the house! – and the cookies were packed away in tins to be saved until Christmas Eve. But from each batch of cookies we allowed ourselves a test cookie – warm and fresh from the oven, it was a little foretaste of the delights of Christmas Day, a little sweetness to keep everybody’s spirits up in the midst of all the cleaning and organizing and bustling about and that long tedious time of waiting.
During Advent this year the readings from the prophets have been calling our attention to the excellent promises that God’s children have waiting for them: all those ineffably good things that we can hold onto because our God is faithful. He promises us that he will heal the world, and that in the fullness of time there will be justice on this earth, all unfairness set right, all hate and violence vanquished, all goodness vindicated. He promises us that he will purify all things, that he will wipe away all darkness and evil, and that he will cleanse us from everything that separates us from him, our selfishness and our fear and our ignorance and our wounded-ness, all healed, all bathed in the light of his forgiveness and grace. And furthermore, he promises that he will restore to us all that has been taken from us during this long reign of darkness in the world, so that there will be no bitterness or regret or grief any longer but only true and lasting joy.
It would still be a very hard thing for our God to leave his children in this world with no more than the assurance of his wonderful promises – and they are very wonderful promises – if he did not give us a taste of his goodness now. But the good news is that we aren’t just left to hold the fort alone until Jesus comes back, gritting our teeth and hoping for the end, like my poor overworked children eyeing the packages under the tree as they mop the floor and fold the laundry and wash the endless stacks of dishes. Because the promise that Micah gives us in the reading today is not only for the end. Micah is talking about the birth of the Messiah, Jesus, in the little town of Bethlehem, and he writes: “And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.”
When the angel choir sang to the awestruck shepherds in the hills outside Bethlehem those two thousand years and more ago, they proclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men, whom he has favored.” In that moment God gave his people a gift, not just the promise of a gift, but a real and lasting gift. And that gift was his presence among them, Emmanuel, “God with us.” And his presence, as Micah tells us, is peace: he shall be our peace. And Paul, writing to the Gentile converts in Ephesus, wrote, “He himself is our peace, who has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility…for through him we have access in one Spirit to the Father.” When the Birth happened, the whole world was changed, at once and forever, because peace had come among us to stay. The barrier that sin had created between God and the people he loved was broken down once and for all; no longer would God’s presence be hidden away behind a veil in the most holy place of the Temple where no one dared to enter. Jesus was born so that God could make his home with his children, dwelling in our hearts, not a future hope, but a tangible presence, a sweet foretaste of that time when he will come and heal and purify and restore all things.
But even now, he is our peace, and that changes everything. In his letter to the Philippians, writing from prison, Paul wrote, urging the church in Philippi to rejoice in all things and at all times. “Don’t be anxious about anything,” he told them, “but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, make your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” In this world there is still injustice, there is still sin and suffering and grief and difficulty. But we can face all things, as Paul faced imprisonment, with joyful and thankful hearts – which is not to say that we put fake smiles on our faces and pretend that we are not sad or angry or in pain. Not at all – we know that Jesus himself wept at suffering and was enraged by injustice, and if we look with truthfulness at the world around us, and if we are longing for the fulfillment of God’s good promises we can’t help but feel all those things. But because Jesus has come to dwell among us and in us, we can bring our sorrow and our anger and our pain to our Father, knowing above all things that he is with us at all times, that he came to share all our burdens, and that no power in this world can snatch us out of his loving hands ever. And when we remember that, our hearts and our minds are at rest no matter what our circumstances are. In Christ, we have peace. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.
And that is what we share with one another every week in our sometimes-chaotic custom of “passing the peace”. In our liturgy, there is a reason for almost everything; the peace is an important part of the Mass, not just a friendly half-time ritual, and we observe it at a particularly appropriate moment. When we come to the peace, we have confessed our sin to God, and received his forgiveness. We have been “absolved”, we have been washed clean of all the gunk that weighed us down, set free from all of the foolishness and selfishness of our life that made us turn away from God in shame. We are reminded that his mercy and love are never-ending toward us, that he never turns away anyone who comes to him in repentance. We taste once again the sweetness of being beloved children of God. We taste the peace of Jesus Christ, and then we offer that to one another. With a hug, or the touch of a hand, we reassure one another that God is truly here among us. We see Emmanuel, God with us, when we look into the faces of our brothers and sisters. We are like Elizabeth, when Mary came into the house – our spirits leap within us because we recognize his presence in one another. Then we come together to the table and together we share the body and blood of the one who is our peace. And afterward, we take his peace back into the world with us, so that we face all the sadness and darkness of the world with the sweet taste of his peace in our hearts and minds.
When Jesus knew that he would soon be leaving his disciples to return to the Father, he gathered them together and shared a meal with them, what we call the “Last Supper.” Jesus reassured his friends that he would surely return to them, but he also wanted them to know that he wasn’t leaving them alone, to fend for themselves until he got back. Until he returned, he told them, the Father would send the Holy Spirit, to keep everything that he had taught them fresh in their minds and hearts. And he gave them a parting gift: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you,” he told them. And again, Jesus said to them, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation.” We know that; we know that as long as we remain in this life things don’t work like they are supposed to. We hurt one another, and we get sick, nations go to war and the powerful oppress the needy. The creation is still terribly broken. But Jesus didn’t stop there. He told his friends, and he tells us, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
Peace is the knowledge that as sure as it is that there is sickness and war and poverty and grief in this world, it is more sure still that none of these things will have the last word. When the Child was born into the world in the little town of Bethlehem, the foundations of the kingdom of this world were shaken and began to crumble. When the infinite, eternal God became part of this universe of matter and time and cause-and-effect, every other power was put to shame. And when the Son of God gave his life on the cross, even the powers of death and condemnation were stripped of their authority. And yet, we still do battle every day against the tattered remnants of the powers of this world. We struggle daily against our own greed and pettiness and resentments, but the peace of Christ assures us that his forgiveness has no limits. We weep for violence and pain in the world around us, but the peace of Christ assures us that we are not alone in our sorrow, and that there will surely be healing and restoration. We get tired and discouraged, but the one who is our peace reminds us that we can always come to him and lay our burdens upon him, and find rest for our souls.
We are waiting for the fulfillment of the wonderful promises of Advent, for the perfect healing of our broken world, for justice and righteousness to prevail in all things. And we don’t see it yet. For now, we are still carrying on the work that Jesus calls us to do. We are his hands, reaching out to the sick, feeding the hungry, visiting the lonely. We are his voice, offering comfort to the sorrowful, and speaking words of good news to the broken-hearted. We are working and waiting, but we are not alone. God is with us, and he gives us the sweet assurance of his peace day by day, to strengthen us, to bring us joy, to help us see clearly the truth that his promises are sure for the children that he loves as his own flesh. And so, in the hope of God’s sure promises, filled with the assurance of his peace, let us prepare to celebrate with joy and awe the first coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.