Isaiah 35: 1-10 Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III
Matthew 11: 2-11 December 11, 2016
“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
Prayer: Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me. O Come, O Come, Lord Jesus. Bring in your peace, again to us. Amen.
Two years ago, for our Lessons and Carols worship service, all our choirs and I sang the wonderful Christmas song by Casting Crowns called “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Saturday, a week ago, Barb and I went to see Casting Crowns in concert at Reading, and during the show they sang “I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day.” It was so moving to hear it live. The song’s about the church bells ringing out God’s message of peace on earth and good will to all. Let’s listen.
Before Mark Hall, lead singer of Casting Crowns sang the song last Saturday, he told us that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the great American poet wrote the original poem on Christmas Day, 1864. America was still over 3 months away from the end of the Civil War, and Longfellow’s poem reflected the prior years of the war's despair, while ending with a confident hope of triumphant peace—maybe because President Lincoln was just re-elected, and there was a renewed sense of hope in the nation.
That’s just one side to the story. The other side was that Longfellow’s wife Fanny had died two years earlier in a tragic accident, and his son Charles was severely injured in the war one year earlier. So, Christmas was hardly a time of peace, let alone being “merry.” He wrote in his journal on Christmas Day one year after Fanny’s death, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.”
But, the bells kept ringing a different message in his heart.
Finally, on Christmas Day of 1864, he wrote the poem believing that the bells ring out the message that our living God is a God of Peace, even in times of despair and devastation (http://www.whatsaiththescripture.com/Fellowship/Edit_I.Heard.the.Bells.html, retrieved December 9, 2016).
In the Hebrew language and Jewish religion, peace is “Shalom.” “Shalom” is a concept. It’s not any one thing, like the absence of war, violence, or fighting. It is that, but it’s much more, too. Peace or “Shalom” is a condition of well-being—for a person, a community, a church, a synagogue, a mosque, a nation, the world. It is the fullness of justice, fairness, and equity. It is when everyone enjoys prosperity. It is behaving rightly. It’s being in harmony with each other, nature, and God, too. It’s being hospitable with one another and accepting each other’s differences. It’s a way to greet each other, and a way to depart from one another. It’s a name for God. It’s peace. It’s all of this—all at once, and it’s also each of these as they occur specifically, and more.
Isaiah’s prophetic word told of God’s Shalom for the people of Israel as their time in Babylon’s exile was soon ending. The metaphors abound! The same way that rain water comes and makes the dry land green and fertile again, so God will make their lives lush and filled with abundance again as they leave Babylon. People living with conditions that make life difficult will find those conditions righted toward the good—metaphorically illustrated by the blind being able to see again, the deaf to hear again, the lame to leap again, and the voiceless to sing again. Israel will live in safety… in the fullness of peace, with justice, fairness, and equity. They shall see these new conditions as God’s work—reflecting the glory of the Lord!
But, like Casting Crowns song and Henry Longfellow’s poem, that kind of peace is fleeting. “Hate is strong and mocks the song” wrote Longfellow. God’s peace is not very forthcoming.
It’s not too difficult to see that in the world of John the Baptist. John sent an envoy of his own disciples to Jesus from a prison cell! John’s imprisonment was hardly an example of peace-full conditions. John was in prison by King Herod because John publicly reproached the king for having an inappropriate relationship with Herod’s brother’s wife! And, of course, combine all that John’s preaching ‘repentance’ and the nearness of the kingdom of heaven—well, that threatened King Herod, big time, and he promptly threw John in jail. Not so peaceful.
So, that peace, that Shalom of God was not there. But I wonder if
John had a small inkling, a little bit of hope, even in that dark prison cell. When he heard of all that Jesus was doing, John wondered, “Are you the One? Or should we wait for another?”
Matthew’s telling of the story, though, has Jesus not answering directly but pointing John’s disciples to see what has actually happened in Jesus’ ministry—the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. These reflect Isaiah’s pattern of God’s Shalom. So, in other words, Yes! The Peace of God, the Shalom of God IS arriving through Jesus. He is the One! He is the Christ!
But it seems to me that that kind of peace isn’t very forthcoming in our world, either. It’s easy to hang our heads in despair when we see what’s going on. We know that God’s Shalom isn’t fully our way of life when we witness the intense struggles in our society. Hate crimes and racist intimidation are on the rise following our recent election, according to offices that track such incidents. Hate mail was sent to Muslims in Harrisburg. Church vandalism with white supremacy sayings and logos has been reported in Maryland and Indiana; and even right here in Lancaster County (Century Marks, Christian Century, December 7, 2016, p. 8)
Many of us get so disappointed in the lack of God’s Shalom that we relegate Christmas as a holiday “only for the children.” And, frankly, our commercialistic and materialistic folk try to tell us that what is meaningful is found in what they offer, and in what we purchase, not in some lofty concept of peace promoted by Jesus and a bunch of religious people.
But, I believe the truth is that the Shalom of God is not found in the glittering fantasy of advertising or the false promise of materialism. It is not even found in the holiday of Christmas. When we seek the Shalom of God in these places, we are bound to be disappointed, I think. We can share in all that and we enjoy all that, but is that where God’s peace is found?
As I understand it, the Shalom of God is found not in the holidays of Christmas but in the holy-days of Christmas because holy days reflect a reorientation to the birth of Christ. Thinking of Christmas as “holy days” affirms that he is the one to bring about the realm of God’s Shalom.
It is found, I think, when we engage in the ministries of righting difficult conditions toward the good. Toward the just. Toward what’s right. These, I think, bring us closer to the peace of God. Total peace with a promise that life can be better for all. Peace with righteousness. Peace with hospitality. Peace with justice. “True peace is not the absence of tension,” said Martin Luther King, Jr., “it is the presence of justice” (http://www.goodsearch.com/search-image?utf8=%E2%9C%93&keywords=Peace+and+justice%2C+Martin+Luther+King+Jr , retrieved December 9, 2016).
That is why I affirm that each of us can, if we so choose, write letters of love and support, of peace and good will to the Islamic Society of Greater Harrisburg as a response to the hate mail they received just over a week ago. It’s a simple, little act that can help us be the harbingers of God’s peace and justice, which I think helps to bring about this total peace, this full concept of God’s Shalom.
O Come, O Come, Lord Jesus. Bring in your peace, again. May we bring it in, too. Amen.