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Christmas Eve and Day, December 25, 2013

Last week I talked to my spiritual director about my broken car, of all things. I said, “It sure feels funny talking about God and my car.” She reminded me that anything I was seeking guidance on was grist for the mill of the spiritual journey. I had a failing catalytic converter and a long trip coming up. The service station could not tell me when it would fail – it could be 100 miles or 2000, they said. So I had three choices: I could drive my car and hope for the best, I could rent a car or I could get the catalytic converter fixed for nearly $1000. I didn’t know what to do. She told me to pray for guidance and then she said that sometimes guidance doesn’t come and it usually means any choice would be OK. I worried about what I was going to do for three days. On Sunday night I decided I would be too nervous to drive my car and on Monday morning I decided it did not make sense to pay for the rental car and then pay eventually to have the machinery replaced anyway. So I put the car in the shop. I felt some peace at having made a decision and hoped that God would take care of my finances.

On that dark night in Bethlehem, the city is at peace. Bethlehem is not the site of conflict because Augustus Caesar has ruthlessly put down rebellions to bring the unsettled parts of the empire together. The shepherds are in the fields doing their nightly work of watching their flocks so they would not stray or be eaten by predators. In a stable in the city, a birth has just occurred, and a very relieved mother and father have laid their baby in a manger. People out and about are speaking to one another in hushed tones, making their ways to their lodgings to get some sleep.

Suddenly, the quiet is broken by the appearance of an angel to the shepherds. There is no mistaking the heavenly messenger – the glory of the Lord is clearly present, and the shepherds are terrified. They have no idea why an angel would appear to them. They are just ordinary people doing ordinary things. But the angel tells them not to be afraid because he is bringing good news for all the people, including them. Good news like no one had ever heard before, though it has been the deepest hope of the Jews for centuries. There has been a special birth, ordained by God. A baby has been born in the city of David who is Savior, Messiah and Lord. God is fulfilling God’s promise to send someone to free God’s people Israel.

The shepherds’ world is shattered (Charles Cousar). All of a sudden they go from hope to reality. They move from dream to revelation. What they and their fellow Jews have wished for has come. But he has come in a very strange way. He is not being announced as a conqueror or a king or even a deliverer, but as a baby, born in a cramped animal stall and lying in a manger. The shepherds wonder at the angel’s words, but he has said this poor baby is the one they have been waiting for, and he is God’s messenger, so they have to believe. Suddenly a host of angels appears praising God and revealing what kind of freedom the Messiah is coming to give – he is coming to glorify God and bring peace on earth to those whom God favors – not those who have necessarily done many good works, but those whom God chooses to bless. God’s greatest gift is peace.

The shepherds decide to go to Bethlehem and look for the sign. Since their old world has crumbled, they are looking for a new one (Charles Cousar). They go to Bethlehem and find the child and his parents as the angel has told them they would. Overwhelmed with joy, they go and tell the people in the area about the news they have gotten from the angel – that this child was the promised one of God and he will bring peace to the world. Their hearers are amazed, but they seem to go on their way. At least there is no record of them doing anything differently. The only one who has a reaction to the news, it appears, is Mary, who takes it all in and ponders it in her heart. The shepherds return to their flocks rejoicing and praising God for this great news.

But a question arises. There is already peace in Bethlehem isn’t there, so how is Jesus going to bring something they already have? The answer is that the peace of Bethlehem that night is only the world’s version of peace, not God’s new world order. God’s peace is not the absence of war, as Caesar’s is. Caesar was called lord and savior, and hopes were raised for a golden age in the Roman empire, but it never happened (Charles Cousar). Peace cannot happen when people are subjugated to another people, even if there is no direct conflict.

We do not have God’s peace because we have a daily routine either. That is at best comfortable stability and at worst a rut. The shepherds worried about their sheep, about how they would care for their families, about being marginalized. Even Mary was not completely at peace. The birth had been a safe one, and that brought relief, but there are other things to ponder – how to raise the child, how he will carry out his mission, what will happen to him as he spreads the good news. And chosen ignorance is not peace. The people the shepherds told go away amazed, but do not change their lives in any way. They go about their business as usual.

God’s peace is the peace that passes understanding. It is peace that the world cannot give. God’s peace is the constant knowledge that we are taken care of, that no matter what happens, God will be with us in the power of the Spirit. Peace in our hearts is the knowledge that we do not have to worry about anything, like I worried about my car. We will get the guidance we need to do God’s will. God’s peace is inward, and many of us have felt that.

But God also promised a Messiah who would usher in a new kingdom, one that would bring peace to the outside world as well, one where we would live in harmony, with everyone having enough, one where the least and the lost are cared for. It is a peace that is not brought about by violence. That’s not a peace that we see very often. Look at the Middle East and efforts by ordinary citizens to bring about democratic rule. Thousands of people have been killed in Syria, and thousands more have fled to other countries. The new president of Egypt, who succeeded the ousted president Hosni Mubarak, is now in trouble himself. Israel and Palestine have always been on the edge of war – even relatively peaceful times are uneasy. Where is God’s peace?

Our society is even more stratified than it used to be. The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. The food stamp program has been cut. People who were barely making it are not able to now and have to rely on food pantries, along with thousands of others already on the rolls. Immigration reform, while a live issue in Congress, is not making much progress, and thousands of illegals are scared to death every time they see a police car. Where is the peace that Jesus is supposed to bring?

It is there, even if it grows slowly. Dr. King’s non-violent civil rights movement and the Truth and Reconciliation Committees of South Africa after apartheid are just two examples. When we feed the hungry at AFAC, we are helping to bring God’s peace to the world. And little moments of God’s peace are all around us. Just as the angel appeared to the shepherds during their ordinary lives, God grants us peace in our daily living. It does not matter if we are happy or sad, busy or bored, anxious or serene. God visits us in humility, as Jesus came, asking to be let into our worlds, into our hearts. That is the peace of Christmas. That is the peace that the angels sang and Jesus brought. Wherever you are, whatever you feel this Christmas, may you experience the peace that passes understanding and may your hearts and souls be joyous and glad.

AMEN

     - The Rev. Ann Barker

 

Works Cited:
Charles Cousar, Texts for Preaching Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), p. 54
Ibid., p. 54
Ibid., p. 44