“Peace Beyond Bethlehem”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
December 31, 2017: Christmas I
Like any good American, on December 26 I ventured out to take in all the after-Christmas sales and return some things Santa brought that weren’t quite right. All the stores were mobbed, of course; people running around snapping up boxes of lights and ornaments and wrapping paper at 66% off. I was one of those people and I loved it! I did, however, notice something unusual: as the crowds jostled around for a good deal, none of the stores were playing music. None. This was unusual, because about two weeks before Thanksgiving, most stores started piping in Christmas music. These melodies accompanied us in the grocery store, at Dillards, in our favorite restaurants, in our cars to and from work. But now, on the day after Christmas, the music was gone. I imagine that after closing time that day, most stores packed up whatever was left in order to make room for Valentine’s Day merchandise.
Its amazing how quickly Christmas passes, isn’t it? After all the preparations, inside and outside the church, after four weeks of Advent, after carols and service projects and big meals and special worship services—after all this, it’s suddenly done. The presents have been opened, the recycling bin is overflowing with wrapping paper, the tree is dropping needles quickly. Whatever is left is marked down, priced to sell, then packed off until next year. Its amazing how quickly Christmas passes, isn’t it?
Of course, Christmas isn’t done. You know that and I do, too. The church long ago knew it as well. Our ancient siblings in faith developed the celebration called The Twelve Days of Christmas in order to keep the mystery and the joy and the festivities going. They knew that there was no way to really celebrate Christmas in one day; they also knew that there was no way to celebrate the incarnation, God becoming one of us, in one day. So in the twelve days between Christmas and the Wise Men’s visit to Jesus on Epiphany, Christ’s people contemplate and celebrate and wonder at God’s tremendous love for us. Can you understand Christmas by thinking about it for a day or two? I know I can’t; I probably won’t even fully understand it for as long as I live. But while everything in the stores is gone and the music has stopped, we leave the trees and lights up in the church and sing carols for a few weeks more, and we invite God’s spirit in to help us understand the great mystery of Bethlehem.
Now, I offer this reflection on how quickly Christmas passes not as a critique of secular society. I’m not saying that we need to keep Christ in Christmas because I don’t think he ever left. I’m not even trying to discourage your participation in the economics of the holiday season. Rather, I offer this reflection because I think we need to keep Christmas going as long as we can in order to face all that the New Year will bring. I think we need to keep Christmas going as long as we can because it offers so much more than presents and a good story—it offers us hope, for a better day and a better world for a better life, hope that shouldn’t be confined to the month of December. I also think we need to keep Christmas going as long as we can so that the peace of that holy night, the peace in which Christ slept his first night on earth, has a chance to extend far beyond Bethlehem. But how? How do we keep Christmas alive? How do we live in its hope and peace even after we’ve seen the baby and head back home from Bethlehem?
Simeon’s song is odd. It is particularly odd considering that he sings after Mary and Jospeh have placed their newborn in his arms. It is a song about his death. He has been waiting to see the sign of God’s redemption, and now that he has seen God’s commitment to the world made manifest in the child, he now asks to depart—that is, to die. Beautiful, but also a tad disturbing to young parents. The peculiarity of Simeon’s song doesn’t end with his death, either. After praising God for the light that Jesus will shed on all nations, Simeon blesses Mary and Jospeh, but also tells them that their son will inaugurate the rise and fall of many. He tells them that Jesus will be opposed so that the true nature of people will become clear. Simeon ends his strange song by telling Mary that a sword—a foreshadowing of the crucifixion—will pierce her heart also.
Glory and anguish, beauty and sorrow, gladness and opposition. All these and more are contained in Simeon’s song and they are contained in the child in his arms. If we’re being honest, our lives are like that, too. That is why we need Christmas to last longer than 24 or 48 hours, and why we need it to remain strong not just into the New Year but throughout each year to come. This life is wonderful: watching my son grow and change every day, looking on as he was mesmerized by Christmas lights this past month, laughing when he was more interested in the wrapping paper than the toy it contained…this life could not be any more holy or joyful or wonderful. But this life is also terribly difficult. As you and I ate and unwrapped and over-indulged on Christmas, there were many who did not have that opportunity. For every one of our healthy children, there are three or four who are not. Even though many of us took time off this past week to rest and enjoy the season, we have neighbors and family members who still wonder how they will make ends meet working several jobs with no time off.
The good news of Christmas is this: Jesus is God With Us, Immanuel, and he is God For Us, not just some of the time, but all of the time: when we don’t act as we want, when we fail to live into the identity God has given us, and when we don’t make it church as often as we’d like. Jesus is God With us in the wonder and beauty of life and in its complexity and pain and difficulty. This good news is deeply embedded in Simeon’s song, odd as it may be. He sings, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word.” Yes, Simeon is talking about dying, but he is talking about dying in peace. This peace is confidence that God is with him, that God is keeping God’s promises, that God loves and will care for this world through whatever he sees or feels or experiences. Simeon’s peaceful death is a confirmation to us that, in the end, the world will be shaped by an eternal ‘yes’ from God that destroys every ‘no’ the various and sundry voices shout at us.
Peace is what we all want, right? Not beauty pageant peace. Not peace as some philosophical construct. Not peace as me simply getting along with my neighbor who never cuts his grass when I want him to. But peace that is a deep and abiding assurance that God is with us and nothing can separate us from his love. Peace that is an ointment that can be slathered over wounds of all kinds—abuse, war, betrayal, broken promises—that will keep infection out and promote new growth. Peace that compels us to lay our weapons down in order to pick up garden tools or hammers or writing utensils to build a new and better world. Peace that puts aside prejudice and bias, partisanship and social stratification, recognizing that someone’s life, a life created by God, is always hanging in the balance. Peace that gently or not so gently shakes us awake to the junk we waste our time on so that we can refocus, recenter of what really matters. That is the peace we all want, right?
Well, it all starts with Christmas, and with Jesus Christ. God’s peace is rooted in the promise that in Jesus God became one of us and is with us and for us. Full stop. Period. When we claim this reality we can boldly face opposition without fear and we can love those who hate us. When we claim this reality we can acknowledge that God’s light has scattered our darkness, but that our hearts have been pierced, too; this allows us to open our hearts, and our hands and our minds, to others who have also been pierced. When we claim this reality we can sing in the temple and out in the public square in praise of God’s never-ending and unconditional love. When we claim this reality we can continue to love and sacrifice and dare because in God nothing given in love is ever lost or without meaning. When we claim this reality we claim God’s peace: peace that is beyond Bethlehem, beyond Enid, beyond this church and this time and this time, peace that extends into every nook and cranny of the world for all time, that will never come to an end.
That is our challenge and our calling and our joy today: to fully embrace the reality that God is with us, and to embrace that God is with us not just at Christmas or in the pretty lights and presents, but every moment and day we are alive. That is how we keep Christmas going; that is how peace goes beyond Bethlehem. Christ came into the world not just to save us from our sins and bring the gift of eternal life, but to show us how much we mean to God. God’s love for you and for me and for all of creation is so deep and wide and high that God knew words were not enough. Instead, God took on our flesh, breathed our air, walked our soil, lived and died as we do, and raised us to new life. Then God promised to never leave us alone. With this promise we can face whatever the New Year or the new day or next hour has to offer, the beautiful things and the not so beautiful things. With this promise we can courageously serve God and our neighbors, and work for peace in everything we do and say. With this promise we can, when we time comes, depart in peace, thankful for all God has done and is still doing to us, with us, and through us.
My friends, joy to the world the Lord is come! We have seen the face of God, and the glory of the Lord has broken into our lives and shattered our darkness. God is with us! Rejoice! Amen.