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"Peace on Earth...REALLY?!"

Nov.29, 2015 Community Advent / Christmas Service

Lk.2:8-14, 22:24-27; Eph.2:11-18

Are you "at peace" - or "in pieces"? We long for integration and wholeness in our life, reconciliation and resolution of conflict, to be "at piece" rather than "in pieces". But often it's hard to get there on our own, because it depends on outside factors - relationships with other people, for example - that are beyond our control. Advent heralds the coming of the Messiah or Saviour who can heal us, save us, make us whole, resolve our inner tensions and fragmentation. Bring true peace.

There's a meme (one of those cute plaques with a saying on it) circulating on social media that goes something like this: "One day someone is going to hug you so tight that all of your broken pieces will stick back together." Sweet thought - but we can wait a long time for that to happen, because most normal mortals, like us, are prone to selfishness and jealousy rather than love and self-giving. But as WD Gough once said, "God takes life's pieces and gives us unbroken peace" (P-E-A-C-E). God is the One who can hug us so tight that our pieces stick back together.

The night Jesus was born, as Luke records in chapter 2, an army appeared to some simple shepherds out in a field: an army of the heavenly host. The shepherds were terrified: an army appearing suddenly is not usually a good thing! But THIS army came to announce, not war, but peace. The heavenly messengers announced the birth of a Saviour, a Lord. This conqueror though was born as someone weak - a baby; someone bound up - wrapped in cloths; someone in a vulnerable position - lying in a manger, where things are put that are going to be EATEN, consumed! Then the whole army of heavenly host opened their mouths and uttered, not a battle cry, but a strangely serene song: Lk 2:14 "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"

"On earth, PEACE..." REALLY?!! As this Advent begins, we are aware perhaps more than other years how much our world LACKS peace. Just over 2 weeks ago, terrorists carried out co-ordinated bombings and shootings in Paris that killed 130 and wounded hundreds of others. Social media erupted in a show of support as people tinted their profile pictures on Facebook with the colours of the French flag in solidarity. However, this was quickly criticized as others pointed out how much violence goes on in other countries yet gets missed by the media. Why did the hashtag #PrayForParis spread so quickly when Beirut in Lebanon, or Nigeria, which have suffered similar deadly attacks, did not? Does this partiality reveal our own subtle bias to support those who are "like us" - and turn a deaf ear to those of other races, cultures? We in North America can RELATE closely to a city like Paris - even though they don't speak English, they LOOK a lot like us, and their civilization is as modernized and affluent. By contrast, Lebanon or Nigeria don't impact us to the same degree; it's easier to ignore strife there. But this capacity to be ignorant on our part also betrays our latent racism, our indifference to the suffering of others who look or sound different from us.

"Peace on earth, goodwill among men..." How does Jesus' advent or "coming" make a difference? How does He shake our selfishness and bias so that the peace of which the angels sang can start to become a reality in such a fragmented, tense, conflict-ridden world? In short, He does it in two ways: transforming our view of AUTHORITY and of OTHERS.

First, He transforms our view of AUTHORITY. The mighty company of heavenly host announce Him as "Jesus Christ THE LORD." (Lk 2:11) The fundamental Christian confession is, "Jesus is Lord": Romans 10:9 "if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." Accepting and submitting to Jesus' authority then, acknowledging Him as Lord, is key. Yet how He approaches authority is different from the typical approach of earthly rulers.

As ISIS vies to become a geo-political force to be reckoned with, it uses tactics of fear, terrorism, intimidation. "If you fight us and we catch you, we'll slit your throat." "We'll bomb a concert hall and kill dozens." "Knuckle under and submit, or be killed." It's an approach that relies on physical power to intimidate and dominate: not so much unlike that of world conquerors of the past - Alexander the Great, Hannibal, the Caesars, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin... An all-too-common and formidable approach.

Jesus one day confronted His disciples when they were arguing amongst themselves who was the greatest. Luke 22:25f "But he said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves."

The Caesars "lorded it over" other nations and selected flattering titles such as "Saviour" and "Father of the Nation" or "Benefactor". But Jesus called His followers to a different approach: rather than playing the heavy and throwing our weight around to bully and intimidate others, we're to lead by serving, discover true greatness by submitting our resources to others' needs as if we're the younger one in a relationship. And Jesus demonstrated this approach in His own unconventional life. Being born in a barn, wrapped in confining strips of cloth, helpless as a newborn. Healing and feeding multitudes, to the point of being hard-pressed. Daring to call out the religious leaders on account of their hypocrisy, greed, pride, and oppression even though it rallied murderous forces against Him, and eventually culminated in His own crucifixion. Riding into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday on a lowly donkey rather than an imposing war-horse. He made Himself available to grieving widows in distress, and took time to welcome children into His arms for a blessing, even though the disciples tend to shoo the parents away thinking the Master was too busy for such trivial encounters.

Jesus' whole ministry challenges our ideas of how authority should work. It's not a club to wield to make others comply so you can get your own way. When we make Him "Lord" of our lives, we experience His saving grace, forgiveness, strengthening, and merciful love - poured into us so we can share these things with others. He comes among us "as One who serves", showing us how to serve others in turn.

That brings us to our second point. Jesus challenges our views of AUTHORITY; He also changes how we relate to OTHERS.

In our families of origin, we are raised and enculturated to accept as familiar those who are in most respects "like us" - they sound like us, look like us, behave with mannerisms we grow up with around the breakfast table and in our home. But as we grow up and leave home, perhaps moving to another centre for education or employment, we encounter a rich variety of people who are very UNlike us. This can be a bit threatening, and we may keep our distance, or be slow to trust those who look or practice customs different than ourselves. It's what we've been used to.

I had my own bit of "reverse culture shock" coming back from 2 years in Congo Brazzaville in 1983. We'd been teaching farming and handicrafts to blind people with Christian Blind Mission International. At first it was disconcerting to have little Congolese children running along beside my vehicle shouting, "Mundele! Mundele!" (Paleface) But after a while I became acclimatized. I got used to seeing black faces all around, apart from our immediate family; we lived right in a Congolese neighbourhood rather than a missionary compound. It was a surprise, then, when we went to the airport to return to Canada, and on the two flights home (through Paris). I just could not get used to seeing so many WHITE faces all in one place!

As our children grew up, moved out, and got married, it has been an interracial adventure of another sort. One daughter married a mission-pilot-in-training whose parents are from Germany, but who grew up in Cameroun, so his accent and customs are different than mine. Another son-in-law met my daughter when he was training to be a pastor at a seminary in Calgary. He pastored originally in Zambia, and is a passionate evangelical, a brother in Christ - and very black. My darling grandchildren are of different hues! He even sounds different, because he grew up with "Oxford English" rather than our Canadian dialect. Yet even though he has previous experience as a pastor from Africa, and proper qualification, he has found it a struggle to find a job amongst churches here in Canada. They wonder if there is some sort of "glass ceiling" that prevents congregations from considering someone so visibly different for a position as their pastor. And I will admit, when you realize someone of a different race becomes a serious contender for the hand and heart of your daughter in marriage, it really causes you some soul-searching about your own deeply-hidden racial biases!

Jesus challenges our reservations about relating to OTHERS who may be very unlike us racially or culturally. He makes it harder to dismiss others them simply because they're black or yellow or some other shade of "un-white"; He questions the ease by which we can discount and refuse to welcome a refugee because they happen to be from Syria, or Sudan or Somalia, or to sponsor a little child from Cambodia. He sows the seeds of peace between races and cultures, breaking down that visual dividing wall.

The Apostle Paul reminds the Gentiles in the church at Ephesus that formerly they were "have-nots" spiritually on account of their origins: "un-citizened" in regard to Israel, excluded, 2:12 "foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world."

In the Temple at Jerusalem there was a low wall which bore a stern warning forbidding Gentiles from approaching any closer to the altar and Holy Place upon pain of death. They were "walled off", persona non grata, rejected from entry. But when Jesus came, He upset the Jewish-only religious system, and made it possible for Gentiles to share in the blessings God promised through Abraham for believers from the whole world. Eph 2:13f "But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us."

He Himself is our peace (NIV). Isaiah (9:6) had predicted the coming of a "Prince of Peace", the increase of whose government and peace would see no end. Jesus is the source of real peace between races and cultures because He destroys the barrier of skin colour and dialect, He helps us get beyond the surface to appreciate that this is in fact another person God has fashioned in His image. Another sinner just like us, whose heart struggles with the same temptations we do - temptations Jesus Himself, the Son of God, faced and overcame so He can both relate to us AND be our perfect sinless substitute, reconciling us to God.

Eph 2:15-17 "He has abolished the law...that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near..." By His blood, and through the Spirit, we can enjoy access to our Heavenly Father - without regard to our race or colour or accent. True peace with others only happens when we can start to see past such barriers to the person within whom God loves and Jesus died for.

Peace on earth? It won't happen as long as we try to bully or coerce or take advantage of others, or in any way exploit authority. It won't happen as long as we default to an "us versus them" mindset whenever we view or hear people who are externally unlike us. True peace begins at the cradle and cross of Christ. There we see One who made Himself vulnerable like a helpless little swaddled baby in order to save us sinners from the wrath of punishment we deserved from an absolutely Holy God. There we see One whose serving hands were pierced, whose skin was peeled back by scourging so He might bring us to God and eliminate the dividing wall of racial hostility: as we watch His blood spill out, we realize we need His grace just as much as the next person. He does preach peace to those far away and to those who are near. Let's pray.