Peace To All People

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On that first Christmas night, so long ago, the shepherds fell to their knees as they beheld a wondrous presence. They bowed, with their heads so close to the ground that they could smell the rich dirt beneath their knees, and heard a host of angels crying out, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14) As the years have passed, these words have persisted at Christmastime. We print them on our cards, we sing them in our carols, we write them in our stories: “Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” “Peace on earth,” “Peace,” “Peace,” “Peace.” Yet, somehow, in the two thousand years since they were first proclaimed, the angels’ words have lost their power. They have come to be happy reminders of warm, cozy feelings that many of us associate with Christmastime, rather than signaling a powerful change that was taking place in our world.

When the angels’ songs pierced the cold, dark fields that night, they heralded the beginning of a life that would shake the very foundation of our existence in two profound ways: by His sacrifice and by His teachings.

First, because the baby born that winter night would offer himself up as a sacrifice to appease the wrath of a perfect God, the angels’ songs proclaimed that the time had arrived when the favor of God, which had been lost through sin, would be restored.  The Bible tells us that when sin first entered our world, Adam and Eve heard God coming and hid from Him. In other words, their sin shattered the intimacy they once shared with God and the angels’s song so many years later proclaimed that men could again draw near their Creator. “Peace,” they sang, “peace to those on whom God’s favor rests.”  They rejoiced before the shepherds: “Finally through God’s son, His favor can rest on you,  unworthy though you may be.” The praise of the angels was an announcement that the sin of man no longer demanded that he was the enemy of God. Instead, unlike Adam and Eve men could again stand before God naked and unafraid.

But let us consider that moment when sin first entered our world again. Immediately after Adam and Eve found their relationship with God to be shattered by their disobedience, they discovered that their own relationship had been marred. While Adam had once loved Eve so deeply and intimately that he viewed her as part of himself (Genesis 2:23-24), after sin entered the world he became so detached from his beloved and so controlled by his fear that he turned on Eve in an attempt to deflect blame from himself (Genesis 2:12). God Himself identified this shift in their relationship when He told Eve that, because of her sin, “you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you” (Genesis 2:16). Because of sin, the selfless peace of right relationship that had existed between man and woman was lost. Not surprisingly, the Bible tells us that this disruption of peace spread beyond the relationship between the first man and his wife. The story that comes immediately after Adam and Eve’s descent into sin and their banishment from the garden, tells of the murder of their son by his older brother (Genesis 3).

Peace no longer dwelt with humanity. There was no peace with God. There was no peace between men.

Yet, in the fields outside of Bethlehem on a dark Christmas night, the angels announced the birth of one who would teach his children to live in peace with one another again. This little baby whose birth brought peace between man and God would also grow up to teach that the love of our neighbors was second only to love of God (Mark 12:30-31). The same child would one day proclaim that those who fed the hungry, quenched the thirst of the parched, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the sick or imprisoned are the ones on whom His favor truly rests (Matthew 25:31-46). This tiny baby, the one whose birth was celebrated by choirs of angels, came to restore all of the peace that was lost through sin. He came to bring man peace with God through His sacrifice and He came to teach peace between neighbors.

These past few years, though, it has been difficult to believe the angels’ promises of peace. Continued conflicts in the middle east, battles with ISIS, the threat of nuclear war with North Korea, the weakening of alliances within the European Union, the fear of Russia all remind us of the fragile state of peace on a global scale.  At home, we have witnessed our leaders fighting with words that are banned from our homes and overlooking violence their peers have done to others for the sake of their own power. We have been forced to face the horrific resurrection of racism that we thought was dead. We have mourned for our brothers and sisters who are being killed on the streets, at concerts, in their schools, and in their places of worship. We have turned our backs on those orphaned and abandoned by addicted parents. We have blamed and neglected our own countrymen who suffer unimaginable losses.  Even nature seems intent on seeking revenge for the years of abuse that we have battered it with and our determination to continue to take it for granted. In short, all too often, we find ourselves forgetting the song of the angels, and instead sing along to the words of Longfellow: “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!'”

Still, as we light our Advent candle this week, we are forced to remember the angels’ songs. We are reminded that Longfellow’s poem did not end in despair. Instead, we must sing along: “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.” As we are comforted by the knowledge that God is not dead and does not sleep and as we begin to hear again the song of the angels who proclaimed the birth of our Savior, we hear Jesus whisper to us, “I am here, Emmanuel, God with you. I have restored your peace with me. Now, go out and bring my peace into the world as I have taught you to do. Advent, the time of preparation has ended. Go now!”

*If you are interested in listening to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Poem, “Christmas Bells,” I highly recommend Casting Crown’s version of “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day.” 

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Rejoice

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The third week of Advent begins with Gaudete Sunday and is my personal favorite. The word Gaudete means “rejoice” as in “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Philipians 4:4). Not surprisingly, the candle that we light on Gaudete Sunday is the Joy Candle or Shepherd’s Candle, which reminds us of the angel’s greeting to the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth: “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior – yes the Messiah, the Lord – has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David!” So, in the midst of the penitential season of Advent, we are called to joy (hence the contrast between the traditionally pink color of the Gaudete Sunday candle which symbolizes joy and the three other purple candles which symbolize repentance and waiting.

Unlike happiness, the joy that the angel proclaimed is an abiding joy that does not change with the seasons or vary with external circumstances. It is not just a warm, contented feeling. Instead, it is strong, enduring, and (for us who have the benefit of looking back after Jesus’s earthly life ended) rooted in the reality that our Savior has been born, lived, died, and rose again. Because of His life, death and resurrection, we can rejoice knowing that we are rescued from the bondage of our sins and that God is working out the realization of His kingdom in our world today.  We can be filled with joy in the midst of the most difficult circumstances because we know that, ultimately, everything will be alright.

The Bible offers us many examples of joyful people who expressed their joy in a variety of ways.  Miriam and David  danced and sang before God as they thanked Him for His work in their lives (Exodus 15:20-21 and 2 Samuel 6).  Hannah, Zechariah and Mary  sang songs of joy for the the work of God, His compassion, and His care for the poor (1 Samuel 2, Luke 1:46-55 and 68-79). The shepherds that we remember during this week of Advent received the angel’s news of great joy and confirmed it with their own eyes. Then they ran to share their joy with others and returned to their daily work “glorifying and praising God.”(Luke 2:17-20) Later, the disciple Paul learned to be glad even when forced to confront his own weaknesses because he saw God working through them (2 Corinthians 9-10). Amazingly, the Bible even offers us a glimpse of the rejoicing ones that fill Heaven: the angels and other Heavenly beings who “fall before the throne with their faces to the ground and worshiped God” (Revelation 7: 11) and those who, having “washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white,” serve God without ceasing as He shelters, feeds, protects, shepherds and comforts them (Revelation 7:14-17).

Even in the midst of our everyday lives, we see glimpses of those who live life with an abiding joy. We see it in the elderly woman at church who can say “it is well with my soul” in the midst of great loss. We see it in those who have been rescued from addiction and live each day in gratitude to the One who saved them. We see it in writers, speakers, priests and pastors. We see it in all who attest to the truth that Christ has come into our world and is at work in our lives. And when we pause to consider that truth – that Christ has, indeed come and that He is working out each aspect of our lives for good – we can see joy in ourselves, no matter what our circumstances may be. The question is, once we have glimpsed this joy, will we keep it buried deep inside or will we, like the shepherds on that Christmas night so long ago, hurry to share the good news with others and allow our joy to permeate our lives, even as we go back out into the fields and resume the everyday tasks involved in tending our flocks?

“Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns! Let men their songs employ. While fields and floods,
rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy, repeat, repeat the sounding joy!”

 

*Dedicated to my daughter, Marienka Joy Sroubek -wanted child and sorrow that God will turn to joy.

Preparations

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“Uh-oh!” I thought as I listened to my preschooler say, “I have to be really good now because Christmas is coming and I want to get all of my presents, but it’s so hard to be good!” Last year she asked us if Santa was “really real” and because she was in the midst of learning that Heaven is “really real,” and that her sister is alive there, we told her the truth. I was surprised, therefore, that she thought that Mommy and Daddy would give her coal if she was naughty.

“You know,” I said, “I want you to be good because you want to be good, but you don’t need to be good to get Christmas presents. We can never be good enough to receive the gift of Jesus, but He came anyway, right? Mommy and Daddy give you presents because we love you (not because you deserve them), just like God sent us Jesus because He loves us and not because we deserve Him.”

As we prepare ourselves for Christmas during Advent, it is easy to focus on the many ways that we are not ready to stand in Jesus’s presence. Since it is a season of penance, we rightly examine the state of our souls, but we can become preoccupied with our sins and feelings of unworthiness. We forget that our failure to measure up is the very reason that Christmas is such an unbelievable gift: Jesus came into our world in the midst of all of its unworthiness because He loves us. He doesn’t love us “if we do something.” He doesn’t love us “if we don’t do something.” He just loves us.

It is in response to this love that we should begin to prepare ourselves for His coming and to set out on our journey towards becoming the people who He intends for us to be. It is because He loves us that we should persevere through hardship and do the work that He has set before us to do. It is due to His love that we should be willing to go where He leads us. It is only ever in response to His love that we prepare for His coming and never to obtain His love, for it cannot be obtained.

“…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

“…his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.” (James 2:22)

Waiting in Darkness

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Over the next few weeks, mysustaininggrace.com will be posting reflections for the coming week of Advent. Each reflection will focus on the theme of the advent candle for the corresponding week. The first candle, which we will light on December 3rd, is the Prophet’s Candle or the Candle of Hope. 

“Once upon a time…”

Every child knows that a good story begins with, “Once upon a time” and ends with a  “happily ever after.” In between those two points, however, lies unknown dangers, struggles, sorrows and heartaches. Perhaps this story format is so appealing to us because it mirrors that of the Great Storyteller who began His tale “Once upon a time” in a perfect garden and will end it “happily ever after” in a flawless Heaven. Although the festive Christmas season may prevent us from seeing it, the season of Advent reminds of us of our existence between these two glorious endpoints in God’s story.

During Advent, we are asked to remember the long wait for a Messiah, the hope fostered by the prophets, and the thousands of years worth of prayers for deliverance that flooded the gates of Heaven. We are called to recall a time when hope was just a tiny flicker in the midst of darkness, when the people waiting in darkness had yet to see a great light. At the same time, we are challenged to reflect on our own sin-stained souls and to renew our deep longing for salvation. We are forced to acknowledge that the whole of creation “waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God…in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”(Romans 8:19-21) We are required to listen to our spirits as we “groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.” (Romans 8:23).

This spiritual longing for Christ’s coming and salvation is a deep, natural one that rises up from the core of our being and permeates every part of us. It is profound and powerful and all of creation echoes our soul’s groaning. It is like a bereaved mother whose longing for her child is so strong that her arms become painful, heavy and restless as they reach out into empty darkness, waiting to be filled and receiving only the reply of “not yet.”

Advent also reminds us, though, that in the midst of that darkness, there is a flicker of light. Through the spoken words of the prophets, the written words of the Bible, the gaze of Christ looking tenderly out from a portrait, the loving actions of a neighbor, we are reminded that Christ is coming. We feel a shimmer of excitement shiver through us as it whispers, “The arrival is coming!” We hear the swipe of a match and see the tiny blaze of a single candle burning in the black of night. We smell the smoke and feel its slight warmth. Though we can scarcely believe it, it is there. A candle of hope that reminds us that He is coming.