Tidings of Peace and Joy
Dec. 20 Tidings of Peace and Joy: Advent 4
Today we lit the 4th Advent candle, sometimes called the “Angels’ Candle,” which represents peace. Shortly after Jesus’ birth, the angels proclaim to the shepherds tending their flocks, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased!” (Luk 2:14 NAS) Certainly, we all should be praying for peace, for it is something our world is in dire need of right now. Like the shepherds, we too need to be told not to be afraid, but to be joyful as we remember the birth of Jesus. This week we heard the exciting news of the first Covid vaccine being administered to front line workers and those who are the most vulnerable. My aunt who is a psychologist to Native Americans in New Mexico proudly posted her documentation on Facebook after receiving her first shot, truly a sign of hope. But at the same time, the numbers of new infections and those who have died set new records almost daily. We would all like to be able to just leave our homes and have a sense of peace and safety. We would like to have peace as we transition to a new administration in the White House. We would like to have a sense of peace when our kids go to school or work. We would like to have peace when our country continues to have protests, and tensions are rising with other countries, such as Iran, China, and Russia. As we head into a new year, we pray for peace in our world and in our hearts after such a difficult year.
The Gospel of Luke tells my favorite stories of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. We have prophecies fulfilled, signs and wonders, visitors from afar, and, of course, angels. All give a sense of peace and joy. An angel appears to Zachariah, John the Baptist’s father, while he is tending to his duties in the Temple. Gabriel tells Zachariah:
Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. (Luk 1:13-14 NAS)
Unlike Mary, who receives Gabriel’s message willingly, Zachariah doubts it. He can’t believe that his wife will conceive, and the joy birthed when a child is born certainly is beyond his wildest dreams. His doubt brings consequences, as he is told:
I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God; and I have been sent to speak to you, and to bring you this good news. And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which shall be fulfilled in their proper time.” (Luk 1:19-20 NAS)
If an angel ever speaks to you, don’t disagree with what is said! Our Gospel passage that was read earlier comes in later in the story, after John is born and named, and then Zachariah speaks, filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesying, giving what would be one of the most famous songs of thanksgiving in the Bible, used as a prayer in the Catholic Church for centuries, known as the Benedictus, after the Latin version:
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior, born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets he promised of old that he would save us from our enemies, from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to set us free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:67-79)
Certainly, this is good news for all of us doubters, for this man who didn’t believe at first is now filled with the Holy Spirit, prophesying for all to hear. There are many wonderful promises here: the Savior provided, freedom for God’s people from oppressors and the freedom to worship Him without fear, the fulfilment of prophecy, and the showing of God’s mercy, salvation and peace. All things that we could certainly use right now, all of them promised through this baby boy born long ago. We seek to celebrate these events again and be touched by these promises, still unfolding. Here, John the Forerunner is also prophesied, and we have noted recently that it is now our turn to prepare the way of the Lord. We may wonder why angels don’t appear to us like this, but maybe not, for as Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel once said: “If an angel ever says, ‘Be not afraid,’ you’d better watch out: a big assignment is on the way!” This of course does not mean God no longer talks to us, for He now talks to us more through the Holy Spirit, often whispering into our hearts to see if we are paying attention, but sometimes in bigger ways too. We of course are still given our assignments from God, just not from an angel, but from the Holy Spirit.
After a difficult year, we may want glorious angelic appearances, signs and wonders, and words of prophesy fulfilled, but we are called to persevere based on our faith in Jesus. We would like to hear words of peace and joy from above, but instead, we should be looking for that peace and joy in our hearts. For unlike the shepherds and most other witnesses of Jesus’ birth, we have the Holy Spirit within us. Zachariah was filled with the Spirit on this one occasion, but we have the Spirit with us always; we just need to prepare our hearts to be ready and willing to receive again what has already been given to us. We remember that the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We don’t need some big cosmic sign outside of us, we don’t even need an end to all conflict in our world first, for God’s peace and joy and many other good things are at work within us through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit does bring many miracles and signs of great power today just like was done in Biblical times, but also works quietly, comforting us and giving us hope, peace and joy in our daily lives.
Recently, we noted that Jesus is the greatest gift ever given to us, and that in response, each of us should seek to give our hearts to Him, and be a gift to our world, using the spiritual gifts given to us. We have been reborn through faith in Jesus, what are we going to do to bring rebirth to our world? In other words, as Elizabeth gave birth to John, and Mary gave birth to Jesus, what shall we as God’s people give birth to? How can we be a people, and this church a place, of peace and joy, reflecting the fulfillment of prophesy and the grace of God given to us through the birth of Jesus?
Is this a strange idea, of us giving birth? Can we identify here with Nicodemus, not able to comprehend how he can be born again? Here’s an even stranger way to put it, in the words of Meister Eckhart, the fourteenth century German mystic:
We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I also do not give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time. When the Son of God is begotten in us.
What do you think of that? Isn’t it interesting that he presents the birth of Jesus as an “eternal” event, in the sense that it keeps happening, unceasingly? What do you think of that? I like the idea, but it boggles the mind! The Son of God was not just begotten long ago, but is begotten again and again, not just every time someone acknowledges Him as their Lord and Savior, but also as we grow spiritually and seek to be faithful, putting His teachings and the example He set for us into action. We are to “give birth” to Jesus again in our own time and culture. “This, then, is the fullness of time. When the Son of God is begotten in us.” In other words, this is the fulfilment of prophesy, and the fulfilment of God’s promises in the proper time, similar to what Gabriel said to Zachariah. When we respond in faith to the urging of the Spirit, seeking to be faithful and fruitful, we continue to give birth to Jesus, once again bringing into the world God’s promises of hope, joy, peace, and love.
Is that too weird for you? We live in a world where people believe in crystals and spirits in trees, but have reduced Christianity to mere rules and procedures. In centuries past, we talked more in metaphors and could handle ambiguity and symbolism. Now we just want the facts, and proof. We are talking here about being unified with Christ and with each other as we seek to further the Kingdom of God. Jesus is alive in us, we carry Him into our world, the power of His Spirit is at work in and through us. Again we ask: how are we to respond? What can we do to show the world God’s peace and joy in a troubled time?
First, let’s remember what we have already done and continue to do, and celebrate what we have accomplished: we have Worship services, coming together to share God’s love; we fill the Blessing Box, we built a Grotto and a garden, and we take care of the buildings and grounds and try to get them as beautiful and inviting as possible. We care for others and pray for those going through tough times. Hopefully, those who experience these things will be touched by God’s peace and joy. Anything else we should mention and celebrate?
Second, we remember that the main way for non-believing people to experience God’s peace and joy is by interacting with His people, including us. We too share the anxieties everybody else have, but through Jesus we have been given the Holy Spirit, and are carriers of His peace and joy. We are called to comfort and serve those in need, performing acts of mercy in Christ’s name. To do so, we must make ourselves open to the Spirit, allowing it to use us, and we must avoid the things that will hinder the Spirit from acting through us. We align ourselves to the will of God, avoiding sin and evil, asking for and relying on God’s grace and forgiveness, so that the Spirit will be able to fill our hearts, allowing our peace and joy in Christ to be spread as we interact with others.
Third, we also need to be at peace with each other. Conflicts will arise, so we must assume good intentions in others, even when we disagree, and have open communication laced with forgiveness. We focus on our mission, not on what we want or on having our own way. As Paul says in Romans 16:
Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting. For the report of your obedience has reached to all; therefore I am rejoicing over you, but I want you to be wise in what is good, and innocent in what is evil. And the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you. (Romans 16:17-20)
We strive to eliminate anything that will allow satan a foothold amidst us. Our joy and peace shall crush him. After being here for so long, we might be unaware of the things that seem unwelcoming to visitors, such as entrances that are difficult to find, dirty floors and bathrooms, and people who don’t smile or say “good morning” or “welcome, I’m glad your here.” We must always strive to do better.
We may not have angels appearing to us, telling us what to do, but we have been given insight through the Spirit into the mysteries of God, partakers of His grace through the sacraments and His Word, our hearts filled with joy and peace even during this tough time. We too can give thanks as Paul does at the end of the Letter to the Romans:
Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith– to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. (Rom 16:25-27 ESV)
We may not think we are anything special, but God has called us to carry His peace and joy into the world. He considers us worthy to be servants of His only Son. In Him, and through the Spirit, we are strengthened and given a mission to share Jesus with our world in peace and joy. It is now our turn to help fulfill those promises made so long ago.