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HIS NAME WILL BE CALLED PRINCE OF PEACE

 

Isaiah 9:2-6                 Luke 2:21-32

 

Everyone (everyone, that is, except the manifestly unbalanced) craves peace.  We long for peace among nations, peace within our own nation, peace within our family, and, of course, peace within ourselves.  In our psychology-driven age it’s the lattermost, peace within ourselves, that’s the pre-eminent felt need. The pharmaceutical companies have profited immensely from our preoccupation with inner peace. Prominent preachers like Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller have made a career and attracted a following through preaching the same sermon over and over for forty years; namely, how to acquire inner peace.

And yet a moment’s reflection reminds us there’s a peace we ought not to have. There’s a peace born not of inner contentment but rather of inertia.  Several years ago an Anglican bishop penned a greeting to all the parish clergy in the diocese wishing them peace.  One clergyman wrote back, “My parish doesn’t need peace; it needs an earthquake.”

There’s another kind of “peace” (so-called) that God doesn’t want for us and which he’s determined to take from us: that peace which is the bliss of ignorance, the bliss of indifference, the bliss of the deafened ear and the hardened heart in the face of suffering and deprivation, abuse and injustice. Our Lord himself cried to detractors, “You think I came to bring peace?   I have news for you. I came to bring a sword.”   We mustn’t forget that the metaphor of soldiering, of military conflict, is one of the commonest apostolic metaphors for discipleship: to follow Jesus is to follow him in his strife.

Nonetheless, he whose coming we celebrate at this season is called Prince of Peace.  He himself says, “My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, give I unto you.” Then what is the nature of the peace he longs for us to have?

 

I: — The first aspect of such peace is “peace with God.”    The apostle Paul writes to his fellow-Christians in Rome , “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” To be justified by faith is to be rightly related to God in a relationship of trust, love and obedience. To be rightly related to God is to have and enjoy peace with God.  Plainly, not to be rightly related to God is have enmity with God. Is it also to be aware of enmity with God? Not necessarily. Most people who lack peace with God and therefore live in enmity towards God remain unaware of it. When they are told of it they smile patronisingly and remark, “Enmity towards God?   I have nothing against him. I’ve never had anything against him.” Such people need to be corrected; they need to be told that even if they think they have nothing against God, he has much against them. He reacts to their indifference; he resists their disdain; he opposes their disobedience; he is angered by their recalcitrance.

Yet even as God rightly resists the indifference of ungodly people (indifference that is actually contempt of him), and even as God reacts as he must, it distresses him to do so.   He longs only to have the stand-off give way to intimacy, the frigidity to warmth, the defiance to obedience, the disdain to trust.  For this reason his broken heart was incarnated in the broken body of his Son at Calvary ; for this reason his Spirit has never ceased pleading.         Sometimes in the earthquake, wind and fire like that of his incursion at Sinai, at other times in the “still small voice” that Elijah heard, God has pleaded and prodded, whispered and shouted, shocked and soothed: anything to effect the surrender of those who think they have nothing against him but whose indifference in fact is enmity.

What God seeks in all of this, of course, is faith.  Not faith in the popular sense of “belief”; faith, rather, in the Hebrew sense of “faith-fulness”, faith’s fulness: faith’s full reliance upon his mercy, faith’s full welcome accorded his truth, faith’s full appropriation of his pardon, faith’s full love now quickened by his ceaseless love for us.  It all adds up to being rightly related to him.  With our hostility dispelled, ignorance gives way to intimacy and cavalierness to commitment. We simply abandon ourselves to him. “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” He who is the Prince of Peace effects our peace with God.

 

II: — Knowing and enjoying peace with God, Christ’s people are now blessed with the peace of God.  The peace of God is that peace which every last individual desires. The peace of God is that “eye” of rest at the centre of the hurricane, the oasis in the midst of the desert storm, the calm in the midst of convulsion, the tranquillity that no turbulence can overturn ultimately.   The peace of God is that peace which God grants to his people as they face life’s assaults. No one is surprised to hear that peace with God issues in the peace of God; a peace with God that didn’t issue in a peace deep inside us would be an exceedingly hollow peace.

The peace of God needs to be renewed moment-by-moment throughout life. The peace of God isn’t static, isn’t a state; the peace of God is dynamic, a constantly renewed gift blessing those constantly waiting upon God.  Why the emphasis on “moment-by-moment” and “dynamic”, on “constantly renewed” and “constantly waiting upon”?         Because disruption without us and disturbance within us; these unfold moment-by-moment too. The doctrine of creation reminds us that creation occurs as God suppresses chaos so as to allow life to arise.  In a fallen world, however, chaos always threatens to reassert itself; in a fallen world, chaos always laps at creation, always nudges it, sometimes jars it. A fallen world unfailingly reminds us that the political chaos of disorder, the biological chaos of disease, the mental chaos of unforeseen breakdown: these are ever-present door-knocks of a chaos that ceaselessly knocks at the door of everyone’s life.

Many of the assaults that leave us craving the peace of God are not merely unforeseen but even unforeseeable.         They resemble the “blind side hit” that leaves the football player momentarily stunned. The football player is running full-tilt down the field, looking back over his shoulder for the quarterback’s pass.  Just as the ball touches his outstretched fingertips an opponent, running full-tilt up the field towards him, levels him.  The collision is devastating physically because of the full-speed, head-on impact; it’s devastating psychologically because it wasn’t expected. The worst feature of the blind side hit isn’t the pain of the impact, or even the helplessness of temporary prostration; worse is the disorientation that accompanies it; worst of all is the fear that may arise from it, for if the player becomes fearful of the blind side hit he’ll never want to look back for the quarterback’s pass.  In other words, the fear of subsequent blind side hits has taken the player off the field; he no longer plays the game.

As life unfolds for you and me we are blind-sided again and again. We are clobbered by circumstances we couldn’t foresee and therefore didn’t expect.  Because we didn’t expect them we weren’t particularly armed and equipped to deal with them. Pain of some sort is inevitable; momentary disorientation is likely.  And fear? It would be unrealistic never to fear life’s blind side hits.  The ultimate issue here isn’t whether or not we fear; it’s whether or not our fear is allowed to take us off the field, induce us to quit. Plainly, the peace of God has everything to do with our ardour for life and our commitment to kingdom-work in the face of the clobbering we can’t avoid.

To his fellow-Christians in the city of Philippi Paul writes, “The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”   The Greek word for “keep” (phulassein) is an expression drawn from the realm of military engagements.  “Keep”, in ancient military parlance, has two major thrusts.  In the first place it refers to the action of an army whereby the army repels attackers, holding attackers at bay so that while attackers may assault, even assault repeatedly, they never gain entry, never overrun, never triumph and therefore never annihilate.  In the second place phulassein, “keep”, refers to the protection an army renders inhabitants of a besieged city so as to prevent the city’s inhabitants from fleeing in panic. The apostle draws on both aspects of the military metaphor: the peace of God prevents life’s outer assaults from undoing us ultimately and thereby prevents us from fleeing life in inner panic.

The apostle says one thing more about this peace of God: it “passes understanding”. In fact, it passes “all understanding.” It passes understanding inasmuch as it isn’t natural; it isn’t generated by anything the sociologist or psychologist or neurologist can account for; it isn’t circumstantial. In a word, there’s no earthly explanation for it.         Peace of mind that arose in the midst of peaceful circumstances would be entirely understandable and therefore entirely explicable.  On the other hand, innermost peace in the midst of turbulence and treachery and topsy-turvyness; this is peace that occurs for no apparent reason.

There are parallels, of course, everywhere in the Christian life.  Jesus says to his disciples, “In the world you are going to have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”  Our good cheer arises in the midst of tribulation just because Jesus Christ has triumphed over everything that doesn’t make for good cheer, even as he gathers his people into his triumph. In exactly the same way peace arises in the midst of turbulence and treachery just because Jesus Christ has triumphed over everything that doesn’t make for peace, even as he includes his people in his triumph.

It is the prince of peace who gives us that peace of God which passes all understanding.

 

III: — The one dimension of peace that remains for us to discuss this morning is peace among men and women. Once more there is a logical connexion with the dimensions of peace that we have probed so far: those who know and enjoy peace with God and who are beneficiaries of the peace of God are commissioned to work indefatigably for peace on earth. Jesus maintains that his people are ever to be peacemakers; peacemakers, we should note, not peacewishers or peacehopers or pseudo-peace manipulators.

There are several pretenders to peace among men and women that are just that: pretenders. Pretend-peace, make-believe peace, is simply a matter of pretending that injustice and exploitation, savagery and enforced wretchedness don’t exist.  Pretend-peace, make-believe peace; Jesus says he has come to expose this; expose it and eradicate it.

And of course there’s another form of pretend-peace; it arises not from pretending that injustice and abuse don’t exist; it arises from the deliberate lie, the cleverly-couched deception, intentional duplicity, even out-and-out propaganda.

I am told that those used car dealers who are unscrupulous are adept at a technique known as “paperhanging.”         A used car has a rust-hole in the fender.  The hole isn’t fixed properly.  Instead, paper is glued over the hole and the paper is painted the same colour as the rest of the car.  Anyone could poke her finger through the paper, of course, but it’s hoped that the paper deception will hold up long enough to get the car off the lot.

Paper-hanging abounds everywhere in life.  Much peacemaking, so called, is little more than a smooth tongue smoothing over a jagged wound. Paperhanging peacemaking never works in the long run, of course, but it’s used all the time in the short run to get us quickly past conflicts that will otherwise be publicly visible (and therefore embarrassing) in a family or a group or a meeting. In six weeks paperhanging peacemaking gives way to worse conflict than ever, conflict now marinated in bitterness and frustration; it then gives way to worse conflict still six weeks after that.

When Paul writes, “Let us pursue what makes for peace”; when the author of Hebrews counsels, “Strive for peace with everyone”; when Jesus urges his people to make peace; in all of this we can’t fail to hear the note of urgent doing even as in all of this there’s no suggestion at all of paperhanging.

Then how are we to make peace among our fellows?  In the first place we must always be concerned to see that justice is done. The Hebrew prophets denounce anything else not only as ineffective but as an attempt at magic. God himself castigates the religious leaders of Israel as he accuses them, according to Jeremiah, “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” It’s often assumed that naming something thus and so makes it thus and so. It’s assumed that pronouncing “peace” over glaring injustice will yield peace. But it never does.  Peace cannot be made unless injustice is dealt with first.

Please don’t think I am suggesting something impossible for most people, such as ensuring justice in the Middle East or in Latin America or in war-torn countries of Africa . I’m speaking of situations much closer to home. And in this regard I’m convinced that we fail to name injustice for what it is out of fear: we’re afraid that to identify injustice or abuse or exploitation is to worsen conflict.  Likely it will worsen conflict, in the short run. But often conflict has to worsen if any genuine peace is to be made eventually. To expect anything else is to want magic. There’s no shortcut here. The psalmist cries, “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne.” There’s more to God’s throne than righteousness and justice, to be sure, but without them, the foundation, there would be no throne at all.

In our efforts at peacemaking it’s important for us to examine carefully the earthly ministry of our Lord.         Whenever he himself is made to suffer, he simply absorbs it.  On the other hand, wherever he sees other people made to suffer unjustly, he acts without hesitation. He will go to any lengths to redress the suffering of those who are victimised.  He will stop at nothing to defend the defenceless and protect the vulnerable and vindicate the vilified.         Yet whenever he is made to suffer himself he simply absorbs it.

You and I will be the peacemakers he ordains us to be if we can forget ourselves and our minor miseries long enough to be moved at someone else’s victimisation. But if we are going to remain preoccupied with every petty jab and petty insult and petty putdown, most of which are half-imagined in any case, then so far from promoting peace we are going to be forever rationalising our own vindictiveness.

Remember: when our Lord sees other people abused he’s mobilised, acting instantly on their behalf; when he’s abused himself, however, he pleads for his benighted tormentors.  We are always a better judge of that injustice which afflicts others than we are of that injustice which we think we are suffering ourselves. We retain an objectivity in the former that we abysmally lack in the latter.  Peacemaking requires more than a little wisdom.

 

We are told that he whose coming we celebrate at this season has a unique name: “Prince of Peace.” As we are bound to him in faith we are rightly related to God and therein know peace with God.  Secure in our peace with God, we are the beneficiaries of the peace of God. Possessed of the peace of God, we are freed from our self-preoccupations to work for peace among men and women.

The prophet Isaiah anticipated Jesus of Nazareth as the “Prince of peace.” Centuries after Isaiah our Lord’s birth constrained angels to cry, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.”

 

                                                                                      The Reverend Dr Victor Shepherd              

14th December 2008  

Advent II
Church of St. Bride, Anglican, Mississauga