For unto us a child has been born…his authority shall grow, and there shall be endless peace.
Tonight, as we light the Christ-candle and remember the coming of Emmanuel – God with us – we are compelled to ask a simple question: what if? What if this child born in a manger many years ago has changed everything? What if our longing for peace, our hope for a new world is not in vain but rather as real as a child born to expectant parents, as a father embracing his wayward son?
We all yearn for a world without war and bloodshed. In light of the tragedy in Connecticut, we yearn for a world where children are not in danger from semi-automatic weapons and the perverse motives of the few. In light of the fighting in Syria, or the recent genocide in Darfur, or conflict in Gaza, or the ongoing skirmishes in Afghanistan, we hope for a world without military intervention, where tanks no longer roll over homesteads, where we no longer have to tolerate an acceptable amount of collateral damage or civilian casualties. Peace usually amounts to this: Lets take our instruments of violence and go home.
And so at Christmastime we sing songs about silent nights and peace on earth. But I wonder, what is it that we mean when we sing ‘peace on earth?’ Do we sing only of the end of war? Have our minds become so complicit in the dysfunction of our world that we can no longer imagine peace? Only the end of violence?
“For unto us a child is born…
Children are born every day into a world that lurches from crisis to crisis. They are a sign to us of a future. They are a picture of new possibility. For children are helpless and innocent. They know the face and voice of their parents almost immediately. They do not know what to do except to trust and as they grow, to explore. Children love with abandon. But they inevitably grow out of this. For as our children grow they learn to be less trusting and more careful. They learn to protect themselves and their hearts by withholding love, by excluding others, and by engaging in violence of their own. They become like us. And we call this loss of innocence maturity.
Inevitably, the hope we have for our children becomes mired in the same angst of the parents. The peace and possibility of a new life gets swallowed up by our crude world.
But what if a child was born whose entire life was a sign to us of a future? What if a child was born who did not only trust and love with abandon in the innocence of his first years, but who grew into maturity without learning the art of withholding love or excluding others for the sake of self-promotion? What if there was a child born to us who grew up and did not learn the ways of war or violence? What if there was a child born to us who grew up and never learned to hoard his possessions, but who shared freely with any who had need, who looked out for the least of our brothers and sisters and took them in? What if there was a child born to us who never learned to hate his enemies, but rather learned to throw them dinner parties, and who responded to insults with love and compassion, to violence with the offer of forgiveness?
Would this child not upset the whole order of our world? Would this child not point to a wholly new way of picturing all of creation, such that we could never again speak of the survival of the fittest or taking an eye for an eye or of asserting my will by the point of a sword? Would not the kindness, compassion, and grace of this child simply shatter all that we have been led to believe?
Such a child born to us is the sign of a new world, a sign of a future that is trustworthy and good, that will come to pass. The Bible tells us in many places that this new world inaugurated by this child is characterized by peace or shalom. Shalom is an all-encompassing word that means the good life, it means wholeness, justice, reconciliation, and rest from all that ails us. It is the life we imagine and long for and yet never quite reach. It is the life of a new world; it is the life that this child grows up to demonstrate in the midst of this competitive, destructive, and fallen world.
The child grows up to be a man. We know him as Jesus. And he shows us that our pitiful and pitiable visions of peace ask for far too little. When we say “peace on earth” we really just want an end to war and violence and coercion. We are asking for a tylenol when we really should ask for the antidote.
But the tylenol is not peace. Peace is not only the absence of war or of conflict or violence. Peace is not just safety from that which might harm us. Rather, peace is presence, life, trust, love, rest. Peace is something real and material, not just the absence of bad stuff. Peace is as real as a child in a manger, as the embrace of a father for a wayward child. Peace is a new order made possible by this child who grows up to be king of a wholly unexpected kingdom, a kingdom characterized by shalom.
For unto us a child is born, and the government will rest upon his shoulders…and we will call him Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
As this child grows up, he begins to tell stories as a way of inviting us into this new order of shalom, of peace. In one instance, he tells us a story about a wayward son who acts hatefully and brings great shame on his father and his family. The son takes his father’s inheritance and spends it on disgraceful things. He ruins himself and he breaks his father’s heart. But the prodigal son runs out of money and hits rock bottom. In desperation he decides to come back to his father and beg for a job.
Any of us listening know the right thing for the father to do. In our understanding, the father must protect his own honour and shame the son. The son should be adequately sorry so that the father will not be taken advantage of again. Only after the son has payed for his crime could reconciliation be possible.
But the kingdom of shalom is surprising and different than we might expect. In the story that Jesus tells, the father sees the son coming, and goes running out the door to throw his arms around his son. By running, the father brings shame on himself. By throwing his arms around the son, the father takes upon himself the humiliation of the son so that he might again welcome his son into his family.
This is a picture what God is like.
This child born to us is the very presence of God – the father running toward the wayward son. In this child, God humbles himself so that we might again be restored into God’s family. In this child, in Jesus, God gives his own wealth, his own reputation, his own life so that we might again live. So that we might again be whole. And this is why our longings for peace are almost always too modest.
On the night that the Christ-Child was born, angels appeared in the night sky to announce his birth to shepherds. After telling of the birth, they began singing “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to humanity, upon whom his favour rests.”
And this is both the sign of peace and our confident hope that such peace is possible and real. This child is born to us as an unwavering sign that God’s favour rests on us.
This child, Jesus, grows up and remains with us even today because God so loves the world. And so we wait now for Jesus to come again and fulfill the work of peace that he has begun and pointed toward, for we know that shalom is not our doing, but the creative gift of God.
Tonight we rest in the loving arms of our God, for we know Emmanuel – God is with us. And we anticipate the fulfillment of God’s intentions for us and our world, when all things will be made new, when he will wipe every tear, when there will be no more war, when we will live in such communion with God that there will be no more need for the sun.
For unto us a child is born, and the kingdom of shalom will rest upon his shoulders…for his authority shall grow continuously, and there shall be endless peace.