December 24, 2017
Advent 2017 – A Journey of Peace
Advent 2017 – A Journey of Peace
This is the final Sunday of Advent. What an amazing season it has been as we have journeyed together toward Christmas. If you’ve been with us throughout Advent, you know that the word advent is a version of a Latin term meaning “coming.” And these four weeks leading up to Christmas have been our opportunity to look forward with great expectation to the coming of Christ as we have embarked on a journey of hope, love, joy, and peace.
The star has been our theme through this season. That Star of Bethlehem mentioned in Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus and it was the sign that drew those wise seekers to the Savior thousands of years ago. It must have led them over rough routes and smooth ones, through easy passages and ones that appeared difficult with no way to cross. It remained before them as they undoubtedly encountered friends and fellow travelers and as they sat in the company of deceptive and powerful people like King Herod. Through all the circumstances and surprises of their journey, the star never faltered or failed. It faithfully pointed the way to Jesus. So together we continue to look for the light today as we follow the star on a journey of peace.
As we ended our time of signing this morning we sang a familiar hymn. “It Is Well with My Soul.” The old song is loved by so many because of its message: “When peace like a river attendeth my way / When sorrows like sea billows roll / Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say / It is well, it is well with my soul.” – One thing I noticed is this song also has an advent theme as well. But Lord it’s for Thee, for Thy coming we wait, / the sky not the grave is our goal / Oh trump of the angel, of voice of the Lord, / Blessed in hope, Blessed rest of my soul
The song portrays such strength and steadfast trust. But the song has also become famous and more revered for the story behind the words. Horatio Spafford was a businessman in Chicago in 1873. After already losing one child to pneumonia, he sent his wife and four daughters ahead of him on a ship to Europe. While crossing the Atlantic, the ship sank, and all four of Spafford’s children died. He got a message from his wife that she had survived, and he left on the next available ship to go and meet her. During his journey, near the place his daughters had died, Spafford penned the words to the song. The painful circumstances he faced make the lyrics all the more powerful. The words were not written by someone who was enjoying an easy life but by one who found peace—deep, authentic peace—in the midst of heartache.
Yet, when we think of peace, we often think of the absence of hardship, trouble, violence, and fear. As the hymn so beautifully captures, this journey of peace is not immune from those things. In fact, they are central to the story. On this journey we learn that peace is not the absence of trouble but rather the presence of God.
This journey of peace is certainly an appropriate journey for our world today. Just as the ancient Roman world must have felt during that first Christmas, our world seems full of violence and warfare and uncertainty. And the pressures of our daily lives barrage us at an unparalleled pace. Ours is a world in desperate need of peace! But it is a world where the Prince of Peace has walked and understood. He has come, and He is present. His peace is available to us today.
Let’s explore that peace together.
1. Peace found in chaos
How do you picture that night Jesus was born? So many images and songs focus on a picture of “silent night”—a peaceful moment when all was calm and bright. But if such a moment occurred on that first Christmas, it was probably a very short lived moment. Mary gave birth in an animal shelter. I don’t know about you but that dos’t sound very sanitary. My dad is with us for Christmas and before he came we had to clean the house. Can you imagine what kind of chores Joseph had to do before Jesus was born. Not only that but the city of Bethlehem was overflowing with hordes of people who had arrived after many dusty miles on rough, dangerous roads by foot and by livestock. That is why there was no room for them. (On a side note: I believe that this was the beginning of the feast of tabernacles.) Then we see the shepherds started arriving to visit the new baby within hours of His unsanitized birth. that is just at the stable. And don’t forget the company of angels rejoicing and worshiping with abandon. It’s no wonder an angel had to tell the shepherds first not to be afraid and then assure them they brought a message of peace: “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 2:13–14).
There was noise and hurt and pain and struggle and fear that first Christmas. And yet there was great joy and deep peace of the highest order.
Sound familiar? Our journey of peace this season is not one separated from the realities of life but a journey of peace in the midst of life with all its noise and chaos.
Let’s acknowledge the fact that our lives are far from peaceful and the eternal peace promised at Christ’s second coming is still not realized. But as we let the words of Jesus wash over us and through us, He brings His calming message to our spirits like soothing water.
Peace. Be still.
Jesus brings peace right into the center of our hurt and frantic striving. And He brings the power to cease the noise, calm the storm, and overwhelm our hearts with His restorative sense of perfect peace. He is indeed the Prince of Peace.
2. Prince of Peace
The prophet Isaiah’s words reveal something very important about peace: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
Peace is not just a feeling or a state of being. Peace is a person. Jesus is the Prince of Peace. Throughout Jesus’s life and teaching we see that peace comes from the person of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit—God’s presence with us. By sending His Son, God sent peace into the world. When we abide with Him, we abide with peace. And as we abide with peace, we learn to trust God with the unpeaceful parts of our lives, and we find ourselves transformed within.
In the midst of all that was happening that first Christmas, we are told that “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). On the surface, Mary’s life had not become more peaceful. If anything, things got even crazier with the announcement of her miraculous pregnancy and the birth of a new baby. But Mary was learning to trust the One who was in control. When we can surrender our control—stop worrying, stop planning, stop striving—to the Prince of Peace, we can find rest in Him. The inner and outer chaos, anxiety, noise, and busyness of life may not change, but we can experience peace because we trust the One in control.
Where do you need to surrender and enter the journey of peace this season?
Let me encourage you to encounter the peace of Christ by taking the psalmist’s words to heart: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Such stillness can be a precious commodity in this busy holiday season, but even a short pause can allow us to breathe deeply and connect with Jesus Himself, the source of our peace.
That may mean pausing, even briefly, at the start of your day to read the guiding words of Scripture and to converse with God to align your day. But it may also mean pausing during your workday or in the middle of the shopping mall to breathe deeply and repeat some words from the Bible as a reminder and a realigner. Perhaps to repeat the message “Peace; be still” and let its truth wash over your troubled or hurried mind as it tunes your attention to the speaker, the source of our peace, Jesus.
3. Peace for the World
Jesus came as the Prince of Peace, and we can abide in Him and experience peace in our souls. But we know that peace doesn’t always come to the world around us. As we look around our world and read the daily news, we realize how desperate our world is for peace. Countries are at war. Refugees are far from home. Our neighbors are hurting. There is violence in our schools. There is anger in our families. We continue to live in the place of tension between the past, present, and future—that place in a broken world still churning and reeling until God completes His restoration. Against that setting, our path may not look much like a journey of peace even as we look toward and near Christmas. Jesus has brought peace to the world with His arrival. He continues to fill us with peace through His Spirit, but it is not until He comes again that our world will experience complete and perfect peace.
Yet this is where the peace we experience now can shine the brightest—because it doesn’t always make sense against the surrounding circumstances. The Bible tells us God’s peace is beyond understanding. And yet we are encouraged to draw close to God and to rely on Him for His peace. Philippians 4:6–7 tells us, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” It doesn’t make sense—it transcends understanding. It is too good to be contained by the limits of this world. Its reality is even better. When we abide in the Prince of Peace and come to Him in prayer in every situation, His peace flows over us to settle and guard our hearts and minds.
Maybe this is the paradox of prayer. So often we come to God asking Him to change our circumstances or those around us. Sometimes He does, but more often, He changes our hearts and perspectives. As we pour out our hearts and connect with Him, we are able to see a little more like He does, to trust more confidently in His ability to handle things no matter what, and to settle in the peace of His goodness and faithfulness—to tap into that sense that it’s all going to be okay no matter what, one way or another, because He’s holding us.
That sense of understanding, of calm and acceptance, acts like a guard around our hearts and minds. It’s the gift of peace that Jesus promised when He left the earth. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you,” He told His disciples. “I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).
Those weren’t just empty words. They were rooted in reality—a deeper reality than the harsh conditions facing Jesus’s followers at the time and the ones He knew would come. Jesus knew there was a lot to fear. From the threats of Herod to His death by crucifixion, Jesus spent His whole life with people out to kill him. He knew there was much suffering in store for His followers. Yet He told His disciples—and us—not to be afraid. Why? Because He knows the end of the story. He knows that no matter what troubles us and causes us fear now, in the end, His peace will overcome all. It will sustain us through our difficulties, which may be great but are also momentary in the light of eternity.
As we journey toward Christmas, we can trust that promise for ourselves and for our world, and we can experience peace because we know the One we put our trust in. He is faithful and true. His peace was prophesied long before His arrival: “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you” (Isaiah 26:3). As we have seen, He delivered to us His unfailing promise as the Prince of Peace.
There is one last Christmas song that talks about this peace I want us to think about this morning. It is called I heard the bells on Christmas day. How many of you have sung or heard that song? It is not one we sing often but I want to share with you really quick the story of that song.
In March of 1863, 18-year-old Charles Appleton Longfellow walked out of his family’s house on Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and—unbeknownst to his family—boarded a train bound for Washington, D.C., traveling over 400 miles across the eastern seaboard in order to join President Lincoln’s Union army to fight in the Civil War.
Charles (b. June 9, 1844) was the oldest of six children born to Fannie Elizabeth Appleton and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the celebrated literary critic and poet. Charles had five younger siblings: a brother (aged 17) and three sisters (ages 13, 10, 8—another one had died as an infant).
Less than two years earlier, Charles’s mother Fannie had tragically died after her dress caught on fire. Her husband, awoken from a nap, tried to extinguish the flames as best he could, first with a rug and then his own body, but she had already suffered severe burns. She died the next morning (July 10, 1861), and Henry Longfellow’s facial burns were severe enough that he was unable even to attend his own wife’s funeral. He would grow a beard to hide his burned face and at times feared that he would be sent to an asylum on account of his grief.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was informed by a letter dated March 14, 1863, after Charles had left. “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer”, he wrote. “I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good”
When Charley (as he was called) arrived in Washington D.C., he sought to enlist as a private with the 1st Massachusetts Artillery. Captain W. H. McCartney, commander of Battery A, wrote to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for written permission for Charley to become a soldier. HWL (as his son referred to him) granted the permission.
Longfellow later wrote to his friends Charles Sumner (senator from Massachusetts), John Andrew (governor of Massachusetts), and Edward Dalton (medical inspector of the Sixth Army Corps) to lobby for his son to become an officer. But Charley had already impressed his fellow soldiers and superiors with his skills, and on March 27, 1863, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, assigned to Company “G.”
After participating on the fringe of the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia (April 30-May 6, 1863), Charley fell ill with typhoid fever and was sent home to recover. He rejoined his unit on August 15, 1863, having missed the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863).
While dining at home on December 1, 1863, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow received a telegram that his son had been severely wounded four days earlier. On November 27, 1863, while involved in a skirmish during a battle of of the Mine Run Campaign, Charley was shot through the left shoulder, with the bullet exiting under his right shoulder blade. It had traveled across his back and skimmed his spine. Charley avoided being paralyzed by less than an inch.
He was carried into New Hope Church (Orange County, Virginia) and then transported to the Rapidan River. Charley’s father and younger brother, Ernest, immediately set out for Washington, D.C., arriving on December 3. Charley arrived by train on December 5. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was alarmed when informed by the army surgeon that his son’s wound “was very serious” and that “paralysis might ensue.” Three surgeons gave a more favorable report that evening, suggesting a recovery that would require him to be “long in healing,” at least six months.
On Christmas day, 1863, Longfellow—a 57-year-old widowed father of six children, the oldest of which had been nearly paralyzed as his country fought a war against itself—wrote a poem seeking to capture the dynamic and dissonance in his own heart and the world he observes around him. He heard the Christmas bells that December day and the singing of “peace on earth” (Luke 2:14), but he observed the world of injustice and violence that seemed to mock the truthfulness of this optimistic outlook. The theme of listening recurred throughout the poem, eventually leading to a settledness of confident hope even in the midst of bleak despair.
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
As we end our time together today, let’s pause and soak in Jesus’s words: Peace. Be still.
Let those words wash over you as you repeat them to yourself. The Prince of Peace has come, and He is coming again. And in the meantime, He gives us this message: Peace. Be still.
Prayer: God, thank You that in the midst of the chaos and pain of our lives, You invite us into Your peace. Help us to abide with the Prince of Peace and to rest in the peace that comes from trusting in You. Give us the courage to trust You with our lives and with the situations we see in the world around us. Fill us with Your peace. Keep us in Your perfect peace. Let it continually restore us and draw us to Yourself. And let us bring Your peace into the often-chaotic world around us. Amen.
Benediction: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:24–26)