Sunday, December 20, 2015

Fourth Sunday of Advent
Micah 5:2-5a
Psalm 80:1-7
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45 (46-56)

And this man shall be our peace.

Some Christians would rather set aside the Old Testament. They think the God of the Old Testament is different than that of the New Testament. Yet, it is from the Old Testament that we hear the promises that God would send a Messiah, as we do in today's prophetic passage from Micah. God promises that Jesus will be our peace.

I learned something this week I never realized. We all know that during the show "A Charlie Brown Christmas" Linus gives us a monologue about the meaning of Christmas. It comes after Charlie Brown is mocked for picking a puny Christmas tree. The show is a statement about the commercialization of Christmas, amazing to think since it was first created fifty years ago. We think we have it all wrong, but we've had it wrong for generations. Charlie Brown gets upset and begins to yell, asking if anyone knows what Christmas is really about. Linus walks to the middle of the stage and recites Luke 2:8-14, the story of the angels telling the shepherds that a Savior has been born for the world. When he finishes, Linus tells Charlie Brown, "That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." The monologue hits the hearts of all their friends and they end up seeing the value of Charlie Brown's choice and together they decorate it. It is made beautiful through love.

Now Linus, we know, is always afraid; that's why he carries his security blanket everywhere he goes. Linus is often the one who gifts us a glimmer of brilliance with words of truth but is very insecure. Charles M. Schulz, has said of the character, "Linus, my serious side, is the house intellectual, bright, well-informed which, I suppose may contribute to his feelings of insecurity." During the Luke monologue, as Linus says, "Fear Not!" he drops his blanket, a subtle reminder but powerful reminder that the story of Christmas is given to us so that we'll have peace, not fear. He also uses his blanket as a tree skirt for the Christmas tree as he finds peace among the love of his friends. Together they sing "Hark the Herald Angels Sing!" reminding us of the announcement of the angels in Luke 2. The story of Christ takes away our fear and gives us peace.

The peace is not necessary a world without war. This is what we really want. When we quote the song of the angel in Luke 2, we often say, "Peace on earth and good will toward men," asking God to help us be at peace with one another. This is a good thing because war destroys. However, the angels do not sing "Peace on earth and good will toward men," they sing, "And on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased." This is worlds apart from the idea of peace in Luke's world, Pax Romana, which was an external tranquility. The peace about which the angels sing is an inner peace, a more lasting peace of heart and spirit that comes from God, made possible only by the Savior. This kind of peace comes with faith, a faith that is given to those in whom God is well pleased.

This is the promise of Christmas. We want world peace, but God promises inner peace. God promises that we will not have to be afraid when the world is at war around us because we have a Savior that has guaranteed a life beyond today, an inheritance that is eternal. This is not a promise for the world, but for those who believe. Of course, God wants the whole world to believe, but for today there are still many who have rejected the child who is Immanuel, God with us. For today, we have to settle for the peace that comes with faith.

The text from Micah gives us a clue about the One who is promised, this man who will give us peace. He will be born in Bethlehem. It is to this text that Herod's advisors pointed when the wise men asked where to go to meet the baby king who was born. They knew from the prophecy that the ruler of Israel, the Messiah, would come from Bethlehem. Bethlehem means House of David; it also means House of Bread. Jesus is the descendant of David and He is the Bread of Life. In this promise we see that Jesus is truly Immanuel, God with us, both human descending from the House of David and the Son of God. We needed the Jesus who was promised in the Old Testament because He is the only one able to give us peace.

In the reading from the Psalms for today, the writer asked God to save Israel from her enemies and from His wrath for their sin. Between these petitions, the writer repeats the most important petition. "Turn us again, O God; and cause thy face to shine, and we shall be saved." There is no salvation apart from God's presence. When God's face is shining on His people, they prosper in all things. God is never far from us but we have this tendency to turn from Him, to walk away from our God. We turn to others for our help; we sin against God's Word. The wrath we suffer is deserved.

Try as we might, we can't restore ourselves to God. We can't make ourselves righteous enough. We can't redeem our lives. We can't do anything to make ourselves worthy of God's grace, to gain His forgiveness, despite the ways we try. We can't make God come any closer, even through prayer, because our God is never far. Our petition is not for God to change anything about Himself, but for God to turn us back to Him. "Turn us again, O God."

By the time Jesus was born, it had been four hundred years since God had last spoken to His people. They forgot the prayer of the psalmist and tried to turn to God on their own. They tried to make themselves righteous through obedience to a bunch of rules, to cleanse themselves with the sacrifice of animals. The temple priests were busy day and night slaughtering birds, sheep, goats and bulls, begging for God's mercy. The people gave generously to the temple - oil, incense, grain and coin - hoping that God would be pleased with their offerings and shine His face on them once again.

Yet, the writer of Hebrews tells us that God was not happy with those sacrifices. When Christ came into the world in the body that had been prepared for Him, He offered Himself to do the will of His Father. Born of flesh and blood, the Christ would not rule on a throne made of gold and fine wood. The Christ was born to die. Through Him we are all made holy, not by our good works or our righteousness, but by His sacrifice.

During Advent and Christmas we are very aware of the presence of God. Many of the signs in these days are secular, but for those of us who wait for the Savior, even those signs point to the baby in the manger. Our lights remind us of the Light, the gifts remind us of the best gift, and even our parties are experiences in hospitality. We are generous not only with those we love, but with strangers as we give to the poor. Santa Claus might not seem very religious, but even his story has a foundation in faith. We can see our God everywhere if we pay attention.

Yet, as the twinkle of Christmas fades and the tinsel disappears, we easily forget the presence of God in our daily lives. We leave God at the church door and go about our business as usual. This is why we meet together weekly to confess our sins and pray for God's mercy. Though our words might be different, we cry out, "Turn us again, O God!" In response we hear the blessed words of God's promises, see His mercy manifested in Christ Jesus and receive His forgiveness in the Sacraments.

Mary saw the answer to this prayer in the promise of a Son.

God chose a young virgin named Mary to bear His Son. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary conceived the baby who would save the world. When she wonders how it will happen, the angel messenger tells her that nothing is impossible with God. She learns that her relative Elizabeth is also pregnant. Elizabeth is elderly, far beyond childbearing years. Yet, God chose her to carry the one who would prepare the way of the Lord: John the Baptist.

It must have been the most incredible news for this young girl to hear. She was chosen to bear the Messiah. She was nobody; she was just a woman, barely more than a child. She had no wealth, no husband though she was promised to Joseph. A pregnancy would be scandalous. How could Elizabeth be pregnant? Yet, Mary believed. "And Mary said, Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word." Joseph was ready to break off the engagement quietly for the sake of Mary, but God revealed the truth about Mary's child and told Joseph to marry her. He also believed and did as God commanded.

Mary went to visit her relative Elizabeth for a time. In today's story, when Mary arrived and greeted Elizabeth, the child in her womb leapt for joy. Elizabeth cried, "Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb." She could not contain her joy at seeing Mary, the mother of her Lord. Elizabeth is the first to proclaim that Jesus is her Lord. She did so even before the child was born. That confession came not by her own power but by the power of the Holy Spirit.

There is so much about the Christmas story that is miraculous and unbelievable: the virgin birth, the star in the east, the visit of the wise men. So many prophecies were fulfilled, prophecies that were given to us by the people of the Old Testament. The child was born in Bethlehem. Rachel cried out as Herod slaughtered the children of Bethlehem. The most miraculous part of the entire Nativity is the faith of those whom God chose to participate. Mary believed. Joseph believed. Elizabeth and Zechariah believed. The wise men believed. The shepherds believed. God spoke and they did whatever God told them to do.

It wasn't easy for any of them. Mary and Joseph dealt with the ridicule of their community over Mary's pregnancy. Elizabeth and Zechariah gave birth to a child when they were too old to raise him. The wise men risked life to travel a long way to follow a star with a purpose that wasn't more than a theory. The shepherds - who would ever believe what they would say? Yet, they all believed God and did what God told them to do. They had hope that these miraculous things were happening to fulfill God's promises. The responded with faith and saw that Jesus is the eternal establishment of all the promises of God made to the covenant community by those who came before them.

Mary, Elizabeth, Joseph, the wise men, the shepherds were not chosen because they were holy. They were made holy because they were chosen and they believed.

As Christmas day approaches quickly, with the birth of Christ only days away, we are excited and anxious for the coming of our King. We look forward to the day when He will come in glory to take us forever into His presence. Yet, in a few days or weeks, as Christmas fades and the tinsel disappears, we will forget the hope we have known throughout this Advent season. We may even go back to living our daily lives with little notice of God's presence. It is my prayer that after this Advent is over, we will all continue to live as if this is the day our Lord will come in glory to bring His peace to the world forever.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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