The Promise of Peace: Christmas in the Wake of Tragedy

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A sermon preached at First United Methodist Church of Union Springs, Alabama, on December 16, 2012.


When I began preparing this sermon on the topic of Christmas and the promise of peace, I did not know that I would deliver it only days after what is undoubtedly one of the most wicked and satanic acts of evil to occur in my lifetime. We stood in shock on Friday as we heard with horror the initial reports of the attack on an elementary school in Connecticut. We have shed tears as we see picture after picture and hear story after story of each of the little lives that were cut short only weeks before Christmas. Our hearts have cringed, knowing that we cannot imagine the pain felt by their parents and fearing one day we might.

The Questions and the Promise

Countless times we have heard these questions: where is God in this? Why has God allowed this to happen? And we might add yet another question: Where is the promise of peace? When these questions arise, we need to hear again the message of the angels delivered to those shepherds outside of Bethlehem some two millennia ago:

“Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:10-14).

Where is God? God has come in the person of Jesus Christ, the Babe of Bethlehem, the Prince of Peace. Where is God? God is with us, even in pain and especially in tragedy.

When evil people do evil things, we always ask: “Why?” Some will say it is God’s will and that we just have to trust him. Allow me to go on record: it was not God’s will for those children in Connecticut to be slaughtered on Friday morning. God weeps when these little image-bearing creatures that he formed with his hands suffer violence. This was not God’s will. God has chosen to give us freedom. And God has mysteriously chosen to live with the consequences of our freedom, even if it means pain for us and even though it means certain pain for him. Jesus was born and came into the world precisely because we live in a world where little children are slaughtered by evil men.

Why was Jesus born?

I read a brief article the day after the shootings that was written by a pastor who would remind us that while Jesus’ birth was announced by angels and attended by shepherds, Jesus actually came because of Herod’s soldiers. The mothers of Bethlehem knew what it was like to lose their children to the violent whims of an evil man. And the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem is as much a part of the Christmas story as the wise men and the star, the shepherds and the angels, Mary and Joseph. Jesus was born into a world of violence, and Jesus was born because the world is racked with violence. Jesus was born to bring an end to the violence.

Like ours, the age into which Jesus was born was marked by the promises and propaganda of peace. Luke tells us that Jesus was born during the reign of Caesar Augustus. It was Augustus who is credited with the inauguration of the famous pax Romana, which is Latin for Roman Peace, and describes a period of time usually said to have begun in the year 27 BC and spanned some 200 years into the second century AD. Through this period Rome knew relative stability, and freedom from major conflict at her borders. But the Roman peace was a false peace, as the mothers of Bethlehem knew all too well. The Romans beat all their enemies into submission, and when their opponents could fight no more, they called it peace. Tacitus, the ancient historian, is famous for saying of the Romans that, “they make a wasteland; they call it peace.”

In the days to come, plans will be made; speeches will be delivered; promises will come that we will find ways to stop those who terrorize us. “Peace,” they will say, “peace.” But it will always be partial at best and false at worst. For there will be no lasting peace until that day when every knee bows to worship the King of kings and the Prince of peace.

Jesus came to make peace, to put an end to the violence. And it would, for him, mean suffering. He would take the violence of this world upon himself and allow it do its utter worst in order to bring it to an end and to extinguish it.

Where is God in all this? He is on the cross. Bleeding for us. Suffering for us. Dying for us, that we might be set free from the evil that runs through all our hearts, that we might have peace with God and peace with others, peace that only he can give.

Does God know how much we hurt?

Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Beyond all the sentimentality, beyond all the commercialism, beyond all else, Christmas is about God choosing to come and live in the midst of our pain. He knows what it is like to fear; he knows what it is like to be betrayed; he knows what it is like to have a broken heart; he knows what it is like to be tempted by sin and yet walk in righteousness. Christmas is about the Word of God made flesh with all the dirt and all the grime and all the mess and all the pain that comes with it. Christmas is about a God who knows what it is like to suffer, because he suffered for us. His blood was shed so that our dark hearts could be washed and brought into the light of his love and his joy. And the very Christ who was born in Bethlehem was born again from the dead on the third day. He was exalted to the right hand of the Father. And he reigns now and forever into the ages of the ages.

And  this crucified, resurrected, and exalted Lord, who has been tested and proven perfectly faithful, that one calls us to come to him, to come for his healing, his touch,  his mercy, his extravagance, his beauty, his glory, his very presence. Through him we have peace with God.

We come to the holidays singing songs that declare “all is merry and bright.” But deep down, on the inside, we know that it is not. We live in a world that is still subject to the curse of sin. All creation still groans as it waits for the revelation of the glory of the sons of God. Like the shepherds who worshipped around a manger in Bethlehem, we are invited to bring our pain and our fear and our sin and throw ourselves at the foot of his cross. He has come to us in the place of our pain, and he has taken our pain upon himself. He invites us: “come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

What Can We Do?

One of the things that makes tragedies like the one in Connecticut so remarkably difficult is that we long to do something, to take some action, to bring comfort, to ensure justice. But despite our longings, we are helpless in the face of such grievous sin. The striking thing about the power the cross is that, having been reconciled to God in peace, God desires to make us agents of his peace. This is what the mission of the church is all about. Paul wrote to the Roman believers: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Having been reconciled to God through the blood of Jesus Christ, the people of God are to become agents of God’s peacemaking and reconciling love in a world that still reels under the pain of the curse.

There is nothing we can do about the evil that was perpetrated in Newtown this weekend. But what we can do, in our neighborhoods, in our communities, in our counties, is seek out those who are lonely, those who are broken, those who do not know the peace of the presence of Christ, and bind up their wounds and  lead them to the one who has come to meet them in the place of their pain.

Scripture envisions a day when the glory and the knowledge of the Lord will fill the earth as the waters fill the seas. And that day draws ever closer as the church teaches all the nations to obey everything that our Lord commanded.

What can we do? We can, we must, find those who are hurting and proclaim the gospel of God’s love in the cross of Christ. We must pray. We must read our Bibles. We must worship. We must sing. We must celebrate and promote the things that make for peace. We are the people of the promise, and the promise is the promise of peace.

What can we do in the wake of such tragedy? Perhaps the best thing to do is to wish one another a merry Christmas, perhaps not so much as a celebration, but as longing, a yearning for that day when Christ will come again and an eternal Christmas morn will break over the long winter of the horror of the curse.

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those who whom he favors.” Christ has come. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again. Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas.

 

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Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark United Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties at Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Connect at mattoreilly.net or follow @mporeilly.

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