Asbury First United
Text: Luke 2: 1-14
We can become so immersed in Christmas imagery that we lose track of what the symbols mean. Shepherds, Kings, a Virgin Mother, Cattle, the Manger, Angels. What on earth do these images stand for?
Our culture does not give us much help. Our country begins the day with Katie Couric, a sweet soul, and ends the day with Larry King, a kind man. We are comfortable in the easy world of images. Our visual culture, though, makes it more difficult for us to deconstruct our own cultures, to think critically and carefully about the way we have been formed.
Our ancient writers were trying to teach their churches, and all churches, the meaning of the birth of the Messiah. They were not content with the basic fact, reported by Paul: “born of a woman, born under the law”. A Jewish baby boy. Period. No, they needed to identify and interpret the full meaning of the moment.
“Let there be peace on earth”. We sing this hymn with gusto, and as a call to arms, so to speak, it is quite fitting. Yet, do you notice its location of peace? Peace is in the future. Something yet to come, for which to work, toward which to travel. The location of peace is in the unforeseen future.
“The peace of God which passes all understanding”. We so bless one another at the close of an hour for ordered worship. Now, the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ. As a blessing, this too is quite apt. As the younger preacher was told of his first sermon: “It was like the peace of God” (it passed all understanding and endured forever). Yet, do you notice its location of peace? Beyond us. Beyond our ken or comprehension. The location of peace is beyond us.
“Peace I leave with you. Not as the world gives”. So the church receives encouragement from the Risen Christ. Not the world, though, but the church. As a gift to the community, this is very special and lovely. I confess with you that the lastingly good things in my life have come through the church. We have had a lively discussion, over the last generation, about the Reign of God and the Church of God. For one, I affirm both, and the Scripture carries both. But do you notice this location of peace? Inside, not outside.
“Oh Day of Peace that dimly shines”. That is found at 726 in our once new hymnals. May swords of hate fall…Then shall the wolf dwell with the lamb…The hope of peace shall be fulfilled…As a prayer for what we have yet to receive, this is altogether satisfactory. And as a hymn it is unsurpassed in beauty. One Day, O Lord. How Long? Yet do you notice the location of peace? Then, not now.
Pierre Laclair and Jean Lebeuf went camping in the Quebec woods. Late at night they heard the scratching, scrabbling claws of a bear on their tent.
Pierre, we are lost! It is a grizzly bear. The meanest and fastest animal in the forest. He will eat us alive.
Pierre quietly laced his boots.
My friend, it is no use intending to run. This animal is more agile than a rabbit, faster than an antelope, quicker than a snake. If you run into the forest he will catch you. If you climb a great evergreen he will trap you. If you try to outrun him he will stop you. We are lost.
My friend, dear Jean Lebeuf, to be saved I do not need to run into the forest, nor to climb a great evergreen, nor to outrun this bear. To be saved I do not have to run faster than the grizzly. No, to be saved, I just need to run faster than YOU.
It is a mystery, for sure. For, to our way of thinking and seeing, any sort of peace needs keeping and building.
Our service men and women, named again in our worship program, are committed with risk to keeping the peace. They are peace keepers. You will find their names printed for pray support in our bulletin insert. This week we e-mailed many of our young people in military service. Two responses came recently. Jason Kreutter sends his Christmas greetings, his affection for the congregation, his intention to worship among us on Christmas Eve, and signs off “very respectfully”, Jason. Scott Alpaugh sends his Christmas greetings, his sense of feelings about the next year, and his expectation to miss holidays, birthdays, and families. Scott greets me as “TC”, a nick-name he gave me on the basketball court, because my red and white patterned shorts reminded him of a table cloth. Scott hopes to be with us on the Sunday after Christmas, and looks forward to greeting and speaking to friends after worship on that day. Today, Christmas Sunday, we remember and honor those of our church family who are working to keep the peace, of whom Jason and Scott are fine examples.
Our missionaries, whether supported directly or indirectly, anonymously or by name, are committed with risk to building the peace. They are peace builders. In 1985 we met a young couple who were giving two years of service in campus ministry, through Intervarsity Fellowship. They opened their home to students. We liked that. They came and worshipped with us. We liked that. They gathered two weekly Bible Studies, and included our church. We liked that. They went once a year to Honduras, with a dozen students, to build houses. We liked that. They loved their neighbors, especially the poorest in the hemisphere. We really liked that. After a few years, we asked if we could join their ministry! They liked that. In 1992 we went to Honduras for the first time. Now, by grace, the strong muscle of Asbury First has been harnessed to the things that make for peace in Tegucigalpa, through this same couple, Mark and Lynn Baker.
In the long run, it is the work of justice, of healing, and of mercy that makes for peace. Mark, Lynn, Kim, Juan, Julio, all. Today, Christmas Sunday, we remember and honor those of our church family who are building peace, of whom Mark and Lynn are such fine examples.
In this way, two very different people, Scott Alpaugh and Mark Baker, a peace keeper and a peace builder, stand shoulder to shoulder. Of course we do honor and even revere the work of both. Yet, their work, and our prayer and support of their work, crucial work and prayer, by themselves do not carry us to the location of the Christmas peace.
The chorus of angels, standard Jewish apocalyptic fare, are made to greet—whom?
The great Kings of the Orient, who had so long oppressed the children of Moses, are made to visit—where? In a humble dwelling.
The woman who is to bear a child, the one who carries the traditions of queens, of Esther and Bathsheba and Miriam and Deborah, is to bring forth the boy—where? In a manger.
The ruling potentate, Herod the Great, who carries the historic power of the state, is caused to hunt down a lowly Jew—how? In fear.
The great lineage of Jesus, now turning oddly to the house of Joseph, this ancestral line that reaches to Eden, is made to include in Tamara and Rahab and others—whom? The unclean.
It is clear that for these writers, the Christmas Gospel identifies a stunning new location of peace. Not just in the heart. Not just in the future. Not just in the beyond. Not just in heaven. Not just in the church.
The location of peace is on earth. The location of peace is this earth. This earth is the place of peace. Thus peace is not, on the Christmas account, something to strain after. This peace is not something to be constructed. This same peace is not something to be awaited or to be pursued. This peace is not something that lies outside of or beyond earth. “On earth, peace”: this is the Christmas gospel.
Peace, on earth. The good news, the mystery of this feast of Christmas, lies in the strange announcement of the angels to the shepherds. There is peace, here. There is peace, now. There is peace, on earth. It is real, lasting and good. In fact, it is of God. It is God. Where peace is, there is God. Before we set off, with bayonets fixed or Bibles opened, to keep peace or build peace, let us listen with care. Already, God has made peace. God has set peace on earth. God has made space for peace. It is this New Reality, peace on earth, which holds all others. It is an eternal possibility, an unending reality. And wherever peace is, there is Jesus born. On earth.
We must admit that this possibility, this promise, so often seems so far away. Yet for all the difficulty we may find in embracing this New Reality, there is no mistaking what the ancient writers meant. Angels to symbolize heaven speaking to earth. Kings to symbolize the power of peace. The humble mother to make sure that earth, this earth, was central. And the shepherds to receive the great good news.
Here is the point of the Christmas gospel: the location of peace is not above us, not behind us, not before us, not dependent upon us. The peace of Christmas is the way of God, on earth. This is not about what might be, could be, should be, would be, may be. Nor is this mainly about what we keep and what we do. This is not a command, Thou shalt. This is not an imperative, Do this. Christmas is the quiet restatement of what is. Of the truly true. Of the really real.
Where shall we find this location? You will find the Babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger…As much a mystery today as it was of old, on the Bethlehem road…
Here is Christmas to invite you once again, to seek his place among us. To move, to travel, to change, to journey, to walk, to discover the wholly unexpected. In Him. In his growth, among the elders at Temple. In his stories, of a sower and a seed. In his teaching, of those blessed now. In his healing, of the sick and sick at heart. In his friendship, among a small band of brothers and sisters. In his fellowship, quickened in communion. Here is Christmas to invite you once again, to seek his place, the location of peace.
May at last we come to peace, to say, even in the evening of life, as did Augustine of Hippo: “Too late I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient and ever new! Too late I loved you! And behold, you were within me, and