CHRISTMAS SERMON 2017
I remember looking at our eldest, Caroline, just a few days after her birth. She lay in her Moses basket so perfect, and so content. She looked utterly and wonderfully peaceful. I was filled with wonder, joy, thankfulness and humility. I have no doubt that Mary and Joseph likewise looked on their new born son, Jesus, in just the same way. The shepherds, and other visitors, may well have done the same. The Psalmist uses a similar image to express his own trust in the living God; ‘I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned Child with its mother: like a weaned Child is my soul within me.’ (Psalm 131.2)
There is within us all a longing and desire for peace. We long for peace of mind and of heart. We desire peace within our families and friendships. We want harmony in our places of work. We yearn for peace between the nations.
In our first lesson we heard the promise of the child who would be Prince of Peace; in our second we heard again the angels song, ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those whom he favours.’ Jesus birth and the longing for peace go hand in hand. Peace is a key part of the message of this Christmas season.
WHAT IS PEACE?
But what do we mean by peace? Well it is certainly the absence of conflict. When next November we commemorate the ending of the First World War we will be recalling that the horrors of that long conflict were at an end. The killing stopped; the conflict was over. We will rightly remember and give thanks for the peace.
But we know from matters closer to hand that the absence of conflict between 2 people working in the same office, or neighbours on the same street, no longer abusing one another is not truly peace. The office atmosphere can still be poisonous; the neighbours can still avoid each other and not speak.
True peace is far more than the absence of conflict. True peace, shalom in Hebrew, Salaam in Arabic, is about wholeness and total wellbeing. In Community terms it is about the whole community being healthy in every way. In terms of the nations it is about harmonious and mutually supportive relations. In personal terms it is about health of body and soul. It says that relationships with others, with God, with the creation and with ourselves are all healthy and strong. It is this fullness of peace that Isaiah envisions and of which the angels sing. The coming of Jesus is about true peace.
PEACE IN OURSELVES
Well those are nice words and sentiments but life is so busy and fraught do they really mean anything in today’s busy world? There are so many things that lead us to be anxious and fearful. We worry about our, or a loved one’s, health. Many have serious anxieties about making ends meet financially – whether that be an old person concerned about the costs of their care, or a young working family struggling to survive on limited income. Others worry about job security. Then others about having somewhere to sleep tonight other than the street. For some the fears and anxieties are a multiple of many factors.
The shepherds may well have had plenty of anxieties. They were amongst the outcasts of their own society. They were either caring for another person’s sheep so worrying that they did it right, or for how long they would have work. Or they might have been looking after their own sheep and worrying about wolves and rustlers and what price they would get when it came to market.
Joseph and Mary must have had moments of concern on their 70 mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem; and in the difficulty with finding somewhere suitable to stay. Like all new parents there would have been concerns during labour, and once the baby was born. Perhaps added concerns because of the trust God had placed in them with this special child.
Yet I believe that they found peace around the Christ child. Not a peace that took away all the anxieties, or even the fears, but a peace that in the very midst of it all God was present and somehow, mysteriously, in control. The peace came from realising that they were not at the centre of it all and nor did they have to carry all the weight on their own. God was with them. It was knowing God in the midst of the business, the anxieties and the fears that meant they found peace.
It is this peace of heart and mind that God offers us still through his Son. The peace that comes through trusting his love, his faithfulness, his mercy and grace. The peace that comes when we put Christ at the centre of our lives rather than ourselves.
PEACE IN OUR COMMUNITIES
But this message of peace is about much more than simply personal peace. It is about our communities too.
In Bishop Auckland, where I live, there has been a marvellous example of Community peace building throughout Advent. Each day a new shop window has been unveiled based on a Christmas carol or song. We have had everything from ‘Hark the herald’ and ‘Angels from the realms of glory’ to ‘Rudolph the red nosed reindeer’ and ‘The 12 days of Christmas’. Each window hosted by a different shop; each window created by a local school, Bishop Auckland College, or a local community group. At the unveiling each day the relevant song has been sung. On Saturday around 50 people journeyed their way up Newgate Street to Fore Bondgate and the Market Square stopping at each window, being greeted by the shop owner or manager, singing the relevant song and being broadcast live on Bishop FM Community radio. You may have seen clips on Tyne Tees news as they were with us for the whole time. It had been coordinated locally with all the churches support. The Town Team and Council were fully engaged. Durham County Community Foundation helped with the funding.
Here were churches, community groups, local authority, businesses, schools, artists and others all collaborating for the good and wellbeing of the whole community. They were all centred around the story of Jesus’ birth and the message of peace and goodwill.
It was a first rate example of building a community of shalom. The same was seen at the Community Christmas lunch in Woodhouse Close on Thursday. You may well think of examples from your own community and town.
When the Prince of Peace is put at the centre then people of all ages, from all backgrounds and with a huge range of skills and interests come together to build peace into a community.
There will always be forces at work seeking to break such peace; as the Bethlehem story itself will later tell us.
But on the night of Jesus’ birth as the shepherds ran through the packed out town telling the news a Community was being built together in peace centred on the new born Saviour. Such peace in our communities can still be created and built.
PEACE IN OUR NATIONS
Which leads me finally to reflect on peace in our nations. Frankly it does not look great at present does it? Syria still engulfed in civil war; Yemen; South Sudan; the Rohingya people; Congo; and the apparent wider threat from North Korea to name those most widely known. But they are far from the only conflicts taking place.
Then there is the ongoing question of just how Europe will relate well to itself, and we with it, in the future.
The Isaiah vision is overtly political as it is about nations and the end of warfare. The angels’ song is more political than we often acknowledge for the Roman emperor, the occupying power in Israel, declared the Pax Romana. The angels sing that true peace comes not from a human emperor but from God revealed in a baby born under occupation.
Peace in the nations is not to be found then in the constant assertion of power and might but in the fragility of being with people and in humility and service.
Negotiating peace that is focussed always on ‘our best interests’ rather than the wellbeing of all, and the good of the other is not true peace. Seeking peace that sees the other as solely threat or enemy or lesser than ourselves is to fail to see God’s image in all people, and fail to live out of grace and mercy.
Equally to give in fatalistically to believe that war and conflict are inevitable when God himself holds out for us a vision of all creation at peace. As the wonderful carol, ‘It came upon a midnight clear’ so powerfully puts it,
‘For lo! The days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When, with the ever-circling years,
Comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendour fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.’
Peace is what we all long for and seek.
This Christmas let us reflect afresh on God’s declaration that his Son is truly the Prince of Peace. Let us hear again the song of the angels, ‘Peace on earth’. First let us receive this peace in ourselves, then let us seek to be bringers of this peace in our families, communities and world.
May the God of peace be with you.