Sunday, December 4, 2011

Week 2: The Peace which Surpasses all Understanding

I once read that Christmas is treasured because of its sameness—the joyful familiarity of the season, its structure and rhythm.

This Advent, more than years previous, I have seen and heard an emphasis on the parallels between Christ’s birth and His anticipated return. Here in the year 2011, we feel the same trepidation and longing those in Israel felt so many years ago, however, there is an added ingredient to this “sameness”—a glimpse of unforeseen glory. 

This week, the second Advent candle is lit, symbolizing Peace. In Isaiah 9:6-7, the prophet foretold,
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."
Peace. Yet if you know anything of the Roman-ruled Judean country-side, the land and people were experiencing anything and everything but peace. Under the thumb of Caesar and the watchful eye of the religious rulers, the people of Israel were longing for a victorious relief; a mighty king to rise up and crush their oppressors. But that was not what they got. 

Instead, an the angel Gabriel appeared to a simple peasant girl and said,
"Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." [Luke 1:30-33]
 And then later speaking to her perplexed betrothed, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, 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, because he will save his people from their sins.”[Matthew 1:20]

All this was recorded to “fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). [Matthew 1:22-23]

Now it is a well known fact that angels always begin their address by commanding their hearers, “Fear not! Do not be afraid!” But I wonder, in this specific place and time, if Gabriel wasn’t preparing Mary and Joseph for the deep Peace their Child would bring. For where fear prevails, peace cannot. This baby to be named Jesus was a new thing in history—an Immanuel; God with us, in human form! If that’s not a recipe for Peace on earth, I don’t know what is.

As I sit here struggling with the complexity and simplicity of capturing this season into poetic prose, I wonder at the faithful response of Mary and Joseph when they were told of the Child. In God’s great sovereignty, he prepared for His Son a lineage of repentant foreigners and righteous followers. Though simple and poor, they had great trust in the God of the Universe and a faith nurtured by centuries of remembering and waiting for the Lord’s Anointed One.

I imagine the ride to Bethlehem was anything by peaceful. It was time for a census, after all; hundreds, if not thousands, of people traveling to their places of birth. Mary and Joseph would have feared bandits and wild animals as they made camp at night. Once they arrived in Bethlehem, the small town was crowded and loud—the noise of people grumbling and trading, gossiping and gloating. No peaceful place for a baby to be born, much less the Savior of the World. A rough stable would have to do. At least it was secluded with a roof over their heads.

My favorite poet Madeleine L’Engle puts it best in her poem The Risk of Birth:
This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn-
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn-
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.
Later, as Jesus lay newly-born in his mother’s weary arms, angels appeared again. This time proclaiming to a lowly group of shepherds in the countryside nearby,
Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth PEACE to those on whom his favor rests.” [Luke 2:10-14]

“. . . the Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding . . . [Philippians 4:7a]

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