Advent Peace

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
December 7, 2014 – Second Sunday of Advent
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

                                                                                           Advent Peace

Gospel Reading – Luke 2:13-14

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Hope. Peace. Joy. Love. Again, those are the themes of our four-Sunday journey through Advent. Advent means coming or beginning, and during Advent, we prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus into the world, the beginning of God’s rule on earth.

Hope. Peace. Joy. Love. Last week I preached on hope, and I told you about my friend Brenda who became, sadly, a victim of lost hope when life became too difficult for her. Today our theme is peace. A moment ago, you heard Bev Turner read our brief scripture reading on peace: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’” Or, in another version: “and on earth peace, good will to all!”

Those verses are from Luke’s Gospel, and when Luke wrote these verses, it seems he was very inspired! The words are big; they’re bold; and they’re full of superlatives! (This is especially evident in the Greek.) The multitude of angels proclaimed glory to God in the highest heaven, and proclaimed peace and goodwill to all on earth!

Luke’s angels—suspended between two dimensions (the celestial above and the terrestrial below)—were so ecstatic about this birth that they proclaimed the very best they had to both: glory to God in heaven, and peace to all on earth. Notice what their very best hope for us was: peace!

And that is our hope too, amen? The longing for peace is as old as humankind itself. Indeed, the longing for peace is as old as the absence of peace—the chaos—that our human nature brings about. Likewise, peace as a Christmas theme is, as evidenced in today’s scripture reading, as old as Christianity itself. We read it in Christmas cards. We hear it in carols spanning back centuries. Cries for peace pulse through human experience like the beats of a metronome—percussive, rhythmic, marking times of struggle, conflict, war. We do not learn quickly; we keep playing to the same cadences—peace, war, peace, war, peace, war. And our most eloquent pleas for peace come during times of war, times of unrest, when our hearts long for tranquility and we begin to dare to believe that human nature was intended for so much more than this. Such, for example, was the case with Father Joseph Mohr, distraught priest and resident of a war-torn village in Austria, when he penned the words to “Silent Night” in 1818:

Silent night, Holy night / All is calm, all is bright
‘Round yon virgin , mother and child / Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace / Sleep in heavenly peace.

Fifty years later, in 1867, the longing for peace inspired also Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to write. Longfellow, an American poet during our country’s Civil War, was grieved to learn that his oldest son Charles, who had joined the war without his father’s blessing, had been severely wounded in battle. Longfellow, feeling the dissonance between the Christmas message of peace and the apparent lack of it in the world, wrote:

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.

I 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.

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.”

Another century; another war. Peace, war, peace, war, peace, war. But in 1914, when World War I was raging, a Christmas miracle occurred. You may have heard this iconic story… It was the Christmas Truce of 1914, and this is how the story is told:

During World War I, on and around Christmas Day 1914, the sounds of rifles firing and shells exploding faded in a number of places along the Western Front in favor of holiday celebrations in the trenches and gestures of goodwill between enemies. On Christmas Eve, many German and British troops sang Christmas carols to each other across the lines, and at certain points the Allied soldiers even heard brass bands joining the Germans in their joyous singing.

At the first light of dawn on Christmas Day, some German soldiers emerged from their trenches and approached the Allied lines across no-man’s-land, calling out “Merry Christmas!” in their enemies’ native tongues. At first, the Allied soldiers feared it was a trick, but seeing the Germans unarmed, they climbed out of their trenches and shook hands with the enemy soldiers. The men exchanged presents of cigarettes and plum puddings and sang carols and songs.[1]

And among those carols, the one sung simultaneously in French, English and German because it was known by soldiers of all three languages, was that carol from another war in another country: “Silent Night.”[2] What a beautiful example this is of how the true peace of Christmas overcomes even the trenches of war. The peace of Christmas, inspired by something as seemingly insignificant as the birth of a baby in a barn. But this seemingly insignificant birth came as an outpouring of something very significant: the unlimited nature of a divine love that knows no bounds—that breaks into our world to bring peace to all humankind. If only we could fully live into that love and not relapse into fear, greed, violence and war.

But another generation, another war. You may be aware that today is Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, marking the 73rd anniversary of the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. In 1941, when the U.S. had not yet entered World War II, the Japanese saw the U.S. Pacific Fleet, based at Pearl Harbor, as a threat to their plans to overtake Southeast Asia, so, two and a half weeks before Christmas, they attacked the base, devastating thousands of troops and dozens of ships and planes in a matter of two hours. And America cried out to God, grieving the loss of hope, the loss of peace.

But the metronome ticked on, and just seven years later, again two weeks before Christmas, peace once again had its day. The war was over, and the United Nations adopted its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This declaration—second only to the Bible among the world’s most translated documents—declares, in Article 1, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood[/sisterhood].” And what would the angels call that? A spirit of peace! Peace on earth, good will to all! And in that spirit, we celebrate Human Rights Day this Wednesday, December 10.

But … another decade, another war. The Vietnam War. In 1955, during the war, Jill Jackson and Sy Miller, a couple in California, did an experiment. They hand-picked 180 teenagers of diverse backgrounds from around the world and brought them together on a weeklong retreat. During the retreat, Jackson and Miller wrote a couple of verses that soon became a theme song for the peace movement and has now also become popular as a contemporary Christmas carol. I remember singing this song in middle school when my only reference to the war in Vietnam was the occasional sanitized black-and-white video clip on the evening news. I had no idea that my classmates’ brothers and uncles and cousins were actually dying over there. I had no idea what terrible emotional and physical condition the survivors would be in when they returned.

Sy Miller wrote in his own words what happened at that retreat: “One summer evening in 1955, a group of 180 teenagers of all races and religions, meeting at a workshop high in the California mountains, locked arms, formed a circle and sang a song of peace. They felt that singing the song, with its simple basic sentiment, ‘Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me,’ helped to create a climate for world peace and understanding. When they came down from the mountain, these inspired young people brought the song with them and started sharing it. And, as though on wings, ‘Let There Be Peace on Earth’ began an amazing journey around the globe. The song spread overseas to Holland, England, Italy, France, Germany, Lebanon, Japan and India; to South America, Central America, Africa, Asia and Australia. The Maoris in New Zealand sang it. The Zulus in Africa sang it.”

Miller continues: “This simple thought, ‘Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me,’ first born on a mountaintop in the voices of youth, continues to travel heart to heart—gathering in people everywhere who wish to become a note in a song of understanding and peace—peace for all mankind.”

And the lyrics? Two simple verses (in its original version):

Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.
Let there be peace on earth, the peace that was meant to be!
With God as our father, brothers all are we.
Let me walk with my brother in perfect harmony.
Let peace begin with me. Let this be the moment now.
With ev’ry breath I take, let this be my solemn vow:
To take each moment and live each moment in peace eternally!
Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me!

Two simple verses that spread around the world and some say jump-started the peace movement of the ’60s and ’70s. Two simple verses that 180 teenagers embraced and shared until the words became one of the best-known peace songs in the history of the world—180 teenagers who saw no contradiction between such a lofty goal as world peace and such a humble, tiny start as “me.”

But in God’s realm, the best things start small, don’t they? A tiny twinkle in God’s eye, saying, “What if I created something that’s a whole lot like me to live in this beautiful world?” A tiny spark in God’s heart, saying, “What if I sent a tiny baby in a manger, someone who could grow up to be a whole lot like them, to show them how much I love them?” A tiny inkling in my soul, your soul, of what peace in this world might really look like—of what it would take to reach out in faith, in courage, and stop that pendulum over on the peace side, and leave it there—forever.

So let there be peace—and hope and joy and love—on earth, and let it begin with me! Let us pray:

We dream God’s dream, of a world at peace

Where enemies are reconciled, and children play in safety;

Where the poor and powerless find justice.

We remember God’s promise of a Ruler of Peace,

Filled with the Spirit of God, of wisdom and understanding,

Of counsel and might, of justice and faithfulness.

We continue on this Advent journey, and we pray:

Come, Lord Jesus!

Open our lives to the peace you bring;

Let us turn to you, and be ready!