Christmas Peace
by Jack Wald | December 11th, 2016

Luke 2

(Luke 2:13–14)
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Peace. Where is it? The angels appeared to shepherds in the vicinity of Bethlehem promising peace. With the birth of Jesus, the promise of peace was given. Today, in Bethlehem, 2,000 years later, people live in fear not because angels appear in the sky, but because of a war taking place.

Here are news reports from this year.
Israeli troops moved into the northern outskirts of the Palestinian-ruled city of Bethlehem today after a surge in violence following the assassination of a far-right Israeli cabinet minister.

In Jerusalem where Jesus went for religious festivals
Israeli authorities said four Arabs who had tried to attack security officers and civilians with knives and a car were shot and killed in separate assaults, shattering the late-summer calm. A Palestinian woman who was in the car used to ram Israelis was shot and in critical condition, while two Israeli soldiers and three Israeli civilians were treated for light wounds.

The land where Jesus was born and raised, where he collected his disciples and spoke to crowds of people is now a land at war. Where is the peace that was supposed to come with Jesus?

The whole world is in turmoil.

The United Nations has warned that northern Nigeria faces the “largest crisis in Africa” as the government’s war with Boko Haram has become increasingly bogged down. Villagers under siege are typically forced to abandon their crops, devastating local food supplies. Those who escape Boko Haram are generally transported by the army to camps where basic supplies are also desperately scarce.

The residents of Aleppo in Syria are desperately trying to escape the destruction of their city.

In the first ten days of December there have been twelve bombings in Iraq, Libya, Colombia, Thailand, Egypt, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, and Turkey. 2016 has been a year in which the world has faced almost daily terrorist attacks.

In the 2000 years of history since the angels pronounced those words there has been war after war after war after war. When there has not been a war, families and neighborhoods have made their own wars. Parent against child, brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor. Incest, murder, theft, rape, child molestation.

What peace were the angels talking about?

Maybe the angels meant there would be peace just for a short time? But the world into which Jesus was born and lived was a world at war. Herod was busy eliminating his rivals which included the slaughter of male babies two years or younger in the area of Bethlehem. The Roman empire was busy expanding and defending itself against attacks on its borders. There were wars in what is today Europe and the British Isles were invaded. All this happened in the lifetime of Jesus.

There has never been peace in this world. Not before Jesus was born, not during the lifetime of Jesus and not since the death and resurrection of Jesus.

So what peace were the angels talking about?

?????? is the Greek word for peace. When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek 200 years before the birth of Christ, this word, ?????? was used to replace the Hebrew word “shalom” which in Arabic is “salem”. Shalom and salem are the traditional greetings in the Arab and Israeli worlds and the meaning of these greetings carries with them a general sense of well being.

Shalom is found 155 times in the Hebrew Scriptures and  ?????? 95 times in the New Testament. As you read through these 250 verses, it become clear that peace means something other than the absence of war.

For example, when King David called back Uriah from the battlefield because he wanted to cover up his adultery with Bathsheba, we read this verse: (2 Samuel 11:7)
When Uriah came to him, David asked him how Joab was, how the soldiers were and how the war was going.

In the Hebrew, David asks Uriah, “How is the shalom of you? How is the shalom of the soldiers? How is the shalom of the war?”

If peace, shalom, means the absence of war or the absence of hostility, David’s questions make no sense. “How is the absence of war of you? How is the absence of hostility of the soldiers? How is the absence of war of the war?

When Job suffered the loss of his family, health and possessions, he complained to God, to his friends and to anyone who would listen:
(Job 3:20-26)
“Why is light given to those in misery,
and life to the bitter of soul,
21 to those who long for death that does not come,
who search for it more than for hidden treasure,
22 who are filled with gladness
and rejoice when they reach the grave?
23 Why is life given to a man
whose way is hidden,
whom God has hedged in?
24 For sighing has become my daily food;
my groans pour out like water.
25 What I feared has come upon me;
what I dreaded has happened to me.
26 I have no peace, no quietness;
I have no rest, but only turmoil.”

Job struggled with the loss of all he had enjoyed and concluded that he had no peace. He had no shalom. How does he define the lack of shalom? No quietness, no rest, only turmoil. The story of Job is a story of a man who struggled, trying to understand how all these terrible things could have happened to him. He struggled trying to find peace when his life had fallen apart.

I like to quote Augustine of Hippo because he was a Berber born in what is today Tunisia and who was Bishop of the church in Hippo in what is today Algeria. I like to quote Augustine because he is a testimony of what once was and hope of what may once again be here in North Africa. Augustine defined peace as “the tranquility of order.” The tranquility of order. The Biblical understanding of shalom and peace is not the absence of war or hostility or trouble or difficulty, but a sense of order or tranquility in the midst of war and hostility.

Let me present an image of peace, two stories of peace, and then take a closer look at the source of our peace.

First an image of peace: A friend once read a favorite poem of his and I have always remembered one line from it. The poem talked about how we must carry a candle safely through a storm. Picture yourself walking through the dark during a terrible storm. The wind is howling, trees are creaking in the wind, the rain is pouring down, the sky is flashing with lightening and thunder and you are walking along with a candle. Can you keep a candle burning in such a storm? It seems impossible to imagine that a candle would continue to burn in such an environment.

The image of peace is walking along with a candle that continues to burn in the midst of such a devastating environment. It seems impossible, but the candle continues to burn.

The image of peace is to carry a candle safely through a storm. Now let me tell you two stories of peace.

There was a little girl who at the age of ten had her world turned upside down. In one year her mother died in childbirth and her father was killed in an accident. Who would take care of her? Who wanted another mouth to feed? She and her brothers and sisters were divided up among family members and she went to live with an uncle who used her as a servant. Her life had never been easy, she had always had to work, but now she did it without the love she had received from her mother and father. She began to harden her heart to protect herself from the cruel life in which she found herself.

A few years passed by and she became a teenager and then one night her uncle came into her bed and abused her. This new harsh reality further hardened her and she went deeper and deeper into herself, doing her chores during the day and then dreading her bed at night.

After a few years of this, she discovered she could make a living selling her body to those who crept to her room in the dark and anonymity of night and so she left her uncle’s house. She lived as an outcast, despised by all respectable people in town, unable to go to the synagogue or participate in community life. Little boys made fun of her, throwing stones at her. No one protected her. No one defended her and the wall she built around her soul to protect herself from the pain of life became stronger and she became a hardened woman, unable to be hurt by any accusations or jeers or humiliation.

And then one day she heard about a rabbi who was coming. He was a great teacher and many miracles were done at his touch or his spoken word. “Why do I want to bother with him?” she thought. Then she heard that women who had been prostitutes were now following him and living a new life. She was curious about this and paid attention to those who talked about having seen him.

Her curiosity frightened her. This news was an attack on the wall she had built to defend herself and she was terrified of life without her protection. So she resisted this man she had never seen and never heard. But there was something about the reports that she could not put out of her mind. She found herself being irresistibly drawn to him and when he came into town, she slunk along the edge of the crowd, not wanting to get too near, not wanting the respectable people to drive her away, not wanting them to know she even cared about the things he was saying and doing.

She hadn’t intended to stay long. Just a quick look and then off to her other affairs. But his words, his voice had a magnetic quality and she could not tear herself away.

This rabbi said:
(Luke 5:31–32)
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

(Luke 6:37)
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.

(Matthew 11:28–30)
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

These words came into her mind and heart with power. She was surprised that for the first time in a long, long time she felt hope. She had never felt this way before and she knew she had to see him. But how? She was an unclean woman and her touch would defile a holy man like this Rabbi. It was impossible. But her heart would not allow her to walk away. The pain of her life thrust itself up from deep within her and she fought to keep it down. This was nonsense. There was no hope for a woman like her. Why was she even thinking like this? But she had to see him. How?

Then she heard that Jesus was going to be at the home of Simon the pharisee. She knew Simon and she knew it was not wise to go to his home, but she could not keep her feet from walking to his house. The impulse was too strong and she did the unimaginable and went to see him. She passed by the room where she lived and worked and picked up a jar of expensive perfume.

When she saw him reclining at the table, she could not contain herself. She fell to her knees weeping, wetting his feet with her tears. As her tears washed the dust off his feet, she dried his feet with her hair and anointed them with the perfume she had brought.

And then she heard words which like a battering ram broke through her already crumbling wall of protection
Your sins are forgiven.”
“Your faith has saved you; go in peace.

And peace danced through the broken-down wall into her life.

What changed for this woman? Did people all of a sudden think she was a decent, upstanding citizen? Was she treated with respect as she walked down the street? Did all the terrible memories she had disappear? No. But in having her sins forgiven by Jesus and entering into a relationship with him, peace entered her life and she began to have a candle that would burn through the fiercest storm.

There was another woman who was treated as an outcast. She had been a respectable member of her community, going to the market with other women to shop for her family, going to the synagogue for worship, celebrating weddings and births and mourning at funerals. But then her life changed. When a woman had a discharge of blood, she was considered ceremonially unclean for seven days. But this time the bleeding would not stop. Day after day she had a discharge of blood and so could not interact with the other people in town. She was perpetually unclean and anyone who touched her would also become unclean.

At first she thought this would go away. This was temporary. Her family thought this would go away too, but it went on and on and on. Week after week, month after month and then year after year. Her body shriveled as did her world. No longer was she welcome in the synagogue. No longer could she go to the market with the other women. No longer could she be a participant in family events. Her family cut her off. She became an outcast as if she were a leper. She lived on the fringe of society.

She sunk into the misery of physical and emotional humiliation, dependent on people throwing her a scrap of food or a bit of money. She who had felt the caresses of her family and friends entered into an isolation in which she craved the feel of someone’s hand as much as she craved a bite of food to eat.

Twelve years of suffering. Twelve years and then she heard about a man, a rabbi, who had performed great miracles. People had been cured of diseases, a widow’s son had been raised from the dead. Surely he could help her as well.

She heard he was coming into town and determined she would speak to him and ask for his help. All her hopes were put on the visit of this rabbi and she could think of nothing else.

She saw him coming from a distance and her heart sank because of the large crowd surrounding him. There were so many people and if they touched her, they would be unclean. She knew she was unclean and that it was up to her to stay out of the way. If only he were alone and she could go up to him. If only he would stop and the crowd magically part so she could approach him, respectfully keeping her distance and asking, pleading for his help. But the crowd made that impossible.

The crowd approached with Jesus surrounded by people. She could see him as he came up the hill to where she waited. Her heart was pounding, despair was rising. How was she going to be able to talk to him? How could she go on living like this? She had to do something? If she couldn’t speak to him, maybe she could at least touch him. She could not restrain herself and she crawled, elbowed and forced her way toward Jesus. and just as he was passing, she strained and stretched out her arm and just managed to touch his robe.

Immediately she knew she had been healed. Her bleeding had stopped. She stayed where she was, frozen in place, overcome with emotion as the crowd pressed forward. But then, to her horror, Jesus stopped.

“Who touched me?” he asked. Peter pointed out the absurdity of the question. With a crowd like this, everyone was touching him. But Jesus persisted “someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.” The crowd looked around at those close to Jesus. With a heart pounding, her face flushed, her voice trembling, filled with joy at having been healed but with terror at what might happen to her now for her boldness, her chutzpah in going up to a holy man, a rabbi, and making him unclean, she confessed to what she had done.

For twelve years she had experienced rejection from all those she had loved and who had loved her and now that her body had been healed, she heard words of spiritual and emotional healing.  “Daughter,” not woman, not stranger but daughter. “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.” and peace swept in like a fresh spring breeze into the stale air of her life.

This is the peace the angels promised would come with Jesus. The promise was not that war and hostility and difficulty and trouble would disappear. The promise was that the sustaining presence of Jesus would enable us to endure through any storm we encountered. This woman who had endured twelve years of suffering still had a difficult life ahead of her, but she now had a candle that would burn through the storms that would come.

When we come into heaven, we will meet these two women who were highly regarded in the early church and we will have the privilege of speaking with them, hearing their stories. We will meet hundreds and thousands and millions of people who will share their stories of how Jesus brought peace into the turmoil of their lives. And before then, we have the privilege of hearing from each other about the peace Jesus brought into our chaotic and troubled lives.

We’ve had a definition of peace, an image of peace, and two stories of peace. Now let’s take a closer look at the source of our peace.

On the night Jesus was arrested, what were the circumstances in which he found himself? He sat with his disciples in the upper room, sharing their Passover Seder meal. He knew he would be arrested that night, tortured and crucified. He knew that the disciples into whom he had poured his life over the past three years would face a critical test. He knew that they would fail the test. But how then would they respond to their failure? The future of the church hung in the balance. His life was anything but calm and peaceful. It was filled with apprehension, fear, grief and yet he spoke these words to his disciples. (John 14:27)
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

In the midst of his turmoil and the approaching violent storm that would take him up, toss him this way and that, and leave him dead and hanging on a cross, Jesus had a peace that he gave to his loved disciples as a gift. “My peace I give you.”

In that same discourse at that last supper with his disciples he said this: (John 16:31–33)
“Do you now believe?” Jesus replied. 32 “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me.
33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

In Jesus we have peace. In a world that Jesus promises will give us trouble, he gives us his peace. We have peace in this troubled world in which we live because we have been offered a living relationship with God through Jesus. He has overcome the world. The power of this world to destroy us has been itself destroyed and so we can have peace. No matter what difficulty we face, the love of God for us in Christ Jesus cannot be taken from us. God’s presence will be with us through whatever difficulty we face and when we die our physical death, he will take us to be with him for eternity.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.”

My peace is so easily lost. When there is a significant rupture in a relationship, my peace is lost. But it does not take significant events to take away my peace. The candle I carry gets blown out by the slightest bit of wind. When our dishwasher stops working or the freezer no longer works, my peace is disrupted. When someone cuts me off in traffic, my peace is disrupted. When my computer crashes, my peace is lost.

I’ve been carrying a candle through the storms of live for more than forty years and it frustrates me that the flame is still so fragile. I have to fight to maintain my focus on Jesus so that the disruptions and distractions of this world don’t blow out the candle of peace I carry. I have to remember that I am God’s beloved son and my performance in life does not change who I am. All the possessions I am carrying through life will be left behind, so it does not matter how many I have, what shape they are in, or how well they do their task. The person who cuts me off in traffic is someone God loves and is seeking to bring into his kingdom. The person who offends me will hopefully be my eternal brother or sister. We need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and remember who we are, his beloved daughter, his beloved son.

I know that some of us are facing earthshaking, volcanic pressures in our lives. Financial pressures eat away at us and we wonder how we will be able to survive. Health issues force our hand and make us go where we do not want to go. Loneliness eats away at us and we long to be in a relationship with someone who can love us and care for us. Doubts and insecurities eat away at us as we try to do what we think we have been called to do. There are memories and experiences from the past that although deeply buried, keep coming to the surface to re-inflict us with pain. The wall we have built to protect ourselves seems inadequate and needs to come down.

Our pilgrimage through this life is packed with difficulty and trouble. We face our own personal trouble and difficulty and carry the difficulty and trouble of those we care about. As our heart takes on the compassion Jesus has for the world, the suffering of others becomes part of what we have to carry.

God wants us to hear the words Jesus spoke and speaks again to us this morning. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.

Don’t look for trouble, trouble will find you. And when you find trouble, go to Jesus. Feel his touch of power and hear his voice of love. Receive his peace.

*************

Philippians 4
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!  5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.  6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus