Peace in Our Time

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 9:6, NIV

Before we get to the Prince of Peace. I want to share a mystery with you. I have often been puzzled by the rail bridge that lies between junctions 16 and 17 on the M25 near Uxbridge. It carries the Chiltern Main Line Railway over the M25 motorway. And the mystery is that it bears the immortal line “Give Peas a Chance”.

Who does these things? Why would you risk life and limb to hang off the side of a bridge over the M25 to paint, in a reasonably interesting font, “Give Peas a Chance”?

I guess it’s a play on the song “Give Peace a Chance” by John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band. It has no doubt raised a wry smile from hundreds of thousands of motorists, because it is funny when we swap peace with peas.

As a child I had tonsillitis and blocked ears every winter. I remember being confused at Infant School, at a Christmas assembly, when I heard that Jesus was the Prince of Peas. I was less than impressed because peas in the 1970s, at least in my home, were a very singular variety, known as tinned.

It clearly makes little sense to view Jesus as Prince of Peas. But when we look at the world today, we might question what it means that Jesus is Prince of Peace. His first arrival around 2,000 years ago did not usher in a time of peace. Jesus himself did not expect that either; whatever Isaiah had said. When speaking of his return he pointed out that war, rather than peace, would continue. Jesus said this:

You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.
Matthew 24:6, NIV

So, what does it mean that the promised child, according to the Prophet Isaiah, will be Prince of Peace? Is Isaiah guilty of over promising? Or did Isaiah get it plain wrong?

Part of the answer is the need to understand what Isaiah meant by peace. The word he used is shalom. This word can refer to the absence of war, corresponding to our English word peace. But it means more than this, as we will see in just a moment.

But to be fair to Isaiah, elsewhere in the Bible, the absence of war brought about by Jesus—Isaiah’s Prince of Peace—is promised and explained further. The question is ‘when will there be peace?’, rather than if there will be peace.

John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band’s sentiment is a wonderful ideal:

All we are saying is give peace a chance.

Jesus, the Prince of Peace, will bring an end to war, but only after his return—in what we might call the beginning of the age to come. Whilst in faith we should be grateful, in our impatience and horror at the reality of war we want this now. Who does not want an end to war right here, right now?

Isaiah’s Prince of Peace—Jesus born in a manager—can bring peace of a different sort, both here and now.

Shalom is a rich word and the foundation of the Bible’s good news. It is about wholeness, about healthiness, about happy relationships and most fundamentally of all it is about peace with God. This latter meaning—peace with God—is a possibility here and now through Jesus our Prince of Peace.

Jesus was sent to this tiny, and otherwise unremarkable planet, by God his Father to make peace with men, women, and children. The brokenness we see that haunts this world is explained in the Bible in the story of how paradise was lost in the garden of Eden. This accounts for our lack of peace, our broken relationship with God.

Whatever we might make of a primeval garden, the broken relationships it describes are self-evident all around us. Humanity in taming the Earth has created untold damage. Men and women struggle to live in harmony under the same roof. Inequality is worked out in our daily choices and can feel hard-baked into reality.

Evidence of all this brokenness, frailty, and that old fashioned idea called sin, is self-evident truth. It is broadcast in the news. Written large in newspapers. Worked out in social media. Is not every person, community, and neighbourhood on this planet blighted by weakness, frailty, bad choices, and that old fashioned addiction called selfishness?

A broken world, and the frail people who broke it, need a peacemaker. Someone who can bring humanity and God to the table to speak of peace. Until that relationship knows peace, shalom in all its other forms cannot begin. Peace with God is what Jesus brought with him in his journey from heaven to earth that first Christmas, and worked out in his life and ministry, and finally in his cross and resurrection.

That the Christmas child is the Prince of Peace is a remarkable claim. It took me eleven years from hearing that Jesus was Prince of Peas to knowing his peace personally. Why not take some time this Christmas to reflect on the possibility that peace with God might be a genuine possibility? You might just find the only present that goes beyond the advertising.

Many Christmas adverts seem to promise that this Christmas will be paradise on earth. But I’m not convinced that Tesco or Waitrose supermarkets, Chanel or Paco Rabane perfumes, Baileys Irish Cream or even Jack Daniel’s whiskey can give us ‘heaven on earth’ or bring ‘peace on earth’. But through Jesus Christ I believe we really can have peace in our time.

Advent: Love

In our modern world there are those that would challenge the very notion of love. Sadly, we see regular evidence of the failure of love. We know of, and perhaps experience first-hand, damaged relationships, broken vows and ended marriages. In the news we see celebrities, and the famous, failing to model true love in this age. Too many people can testify to the darker side of love. For some love is just a synonym for lust or sexual coercion and abuse.

In the 1980s the pop duo Eurythmics captured the darker side of so-called love in a song which claims to define love. In the words of Love is a Stranger (1982):

It’s savage and it’s cruel
And it shines like destruction
Comes in like the flood
And it seems like religion
It’s noble and it’s brutal
It distorts and deranges
And it wrenches you up
And you’re left like a zombie

Such a view of love might match some experiences of modern relationships, but it’s also a parody of the Bible’s most famous passage about love:

Love is patient, love is kind.
It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking,
it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
1 Corinthians 13: 4–7, NIV

Both Eurythmics and the Apostle Paul describe love. I know which definition I prefer. For Christians, Saint Paul has the final word because his understanding of love is its truest form – for it is a view of love defined in the very nature of who the God of the Bible is. As the New Testament claims elsewhere: God is love (1 John 4:16).

It is perhaps in worldly love that we see most clearly the damage of humankind’s selfishness. As broken human beings when we aim at patient-and-kind love it is only a matter of time before we fall into savage-and-cruel love. Which of us has not said something to our dearest in the heat of the moment? Sometimes such words cannot be forgiven and even if they can, they are seldom forgotten.

Of the estimated 107 billion people who have walked this Earth, it is only Jesus Christ who continually eclipsed selfishness with selflessness. Though we might want to fix our eyes on the baby Jesus as we think on the noble theme of love. To fix our hearts requires a broken Jesus on a cross.

As Jesus knew all too well:

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
John 15:13, NIV

Advent: Joy

Why are children so much better at showing joy than adults? We are accustomed to seeing regions of the world marred by war and poverty on our TV screens. Sometimes we see behind the reporter, conveying a story of woe and suffering, children playing with expressions of laughter and joy. I am not pretending that children do not suffer daily in such contexts but rather drawing attention to a child’s ability to make the best of a situation and find joy where we jaded adults would not bother to look.

Children unwittingly know the truth of R. S. Thomas’ poem The Gift:

Some ask the world
and are diminished
in the receiving
of it. You gave me

only this small pool
that the more I drink
from, the more overflows
me with sourceless light.

So why is it we adults find joy so elusive? Do we all ask the world? So much of being an adult brings barriers that prevent us enjoying the simple things of life. Joy requires a sense of abandonment to something – this might be playing a game, enjoying being with friends, holding a tame animal, or making time to notice the beauty of creation.

As adults, worry, responsibility, selfishness, and dissatisfaction can be the things that form an impermeable barrier to joy. Perhaps the ultimate death knell of joy is that all too adult concept of cynicism. As adults our experiences in this life can enable us to become either wiser or just plain cynical.

A few days ago, we saw the first people being vaccinated against Covid-19. The UK Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, was seen to shed a tear of joy on national TV. Some of the press and a well-known satirical TV show have questioned the genuine nature of these tears. We might do well to avoid such cynicism. Perhaps we might heed the biblical proverb:

The heart knows its own bitterness,
and no stranger shares its joy.
Proverbs 14:10, NRSV

This is one to chew over. It seems to allude to the difficulty in sharing another’s joy. And it is a warning that too often there’s a binary choice between a path characterised by bitterness or one on which joy is found. In this way it seems that joy is part of the choices that we make. Such choices are all to seldom made consciously. The Bible does more than just offer wisdom on choosing the path of joy, it promises that joy can come from a relationship with God. Paul puts it like this:

. . . the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control . . .
Galatians 4:4–5, NRSV

As we approach Christmas we remember the one born in the stable who makes such a relationship possible, the one who is truly Joy to the World.

Advent: Hope

At this time, even more than is normally the case, hope is in the air. Even the UK government is aspiring to offer us hope. The hope of a vaccine for Covid-19, and the hope of a Christmas in which family, friends, and hugs will be especially cherished. Perhaps this year a love of stuff and stuffing will be eclipsed by a love to be with others, and a love for others. Such a hope for the festive season, although encouraging, is not biblical hope. Although, of course, the love for family and friend accords with the love and relationships which are central to Christian hope.

So, what is this greater hope? The Apostle Paul said:

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction. [Romans 12:12]

The hope that Paul says we must await in joy requires patience because it lies way beyond Christmas. This hope is characterised by love, but it lies beyond the earth. It is a hope in a new heaven and a new earth—a new reality—a place where love abounds, and friendship encompasses God, as well as family and friends. Perhaps we see the value of such things clearer after the events of 2020. Perhaps this is the gift of 2020 vision.

Such a hope is sometimes described as a sure and certain hope because of its foundation. It is founded on Christmas in as far as Christmas concerns God’s Son made flesh to dwell among us. It is founded on Easter too, in that the same Jesus was found to be God’s Son when he rose to life. The sure and certain hope of resurrection is our future hope.

In this way, our hope, is a future beyond our current earthly reality. Yet it is founded in the past events recounted in the Bible. But what of the present? The future hope, founded in the past, changes everything here and now. Christian hope provides new glasses, a God-given prescription to see the world anew.

No more tears. No more death. No more worries. No more frailty. No loneliness. Such a future hope puts the, all to obvious, fragility of our present into perspective. We can live life to the full now sustained by such a glorious future hope. This is the sort of 2020 vision we always need but we perhaps see it afresh this year.

Advent 2018: Pointing to the Light

Readings

Job 28:1–28; John 1:1–18; Matthew 2:1–2

Introduction

At the start of chapter 2 of Matthew’s gospel we find these words:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?

Wise men from the East come in search of the king of the Jews—there is a little bit more to the story of course. But the short account leaves little information for us to work with, and so understand how this odd situation arose. Pagan wise men seeking a Jewish king raises a number of questions. However our imagination fills in the details, there is something timeless in this story. Since the dawn of history, it has been a natural thing for people to seek wisdom. The Wise Men presumably made it their vocation as did a number of groups in the Ancient Near-East.

And it seems to me that Wise Men from the east might well have been hoping for the king of the Jews to offer wisdom. They are likely to have heard of the earlier king of the Jews, King Solomon, famous for his wisdom. Knowing little of Judean politics, they perhaps expected to be greeted by a wise benevolent royal family. In any case, as seekers after wisdom they join the wider cry of humanity which still finds voice today:

“Where Shall Wisdom be Found?”

Where Shall Wisdom be Found?

The Book of Job lavishly and beautifully asks this question. It compares the quest for wisdom with that of the quest for precious stones and valuable minerals. Mining is an enterprise that most of us know little about. We can, however, all appreciate the difficulty and danger of going deep underground to use tools to extract rock in the hope of revealing something useful or something precious. Such a task has always been dangerous, especially in an age with no support from technology other than basic hand-held metal tools.

Looking for wisdom is by analogy hard work. It takes great effort. It is both an individual endeavour and a collective one. The Book of Job is itself a result of the quest for wisdom. It showcases the wrong way to go about wisdom (Job’s friends) versus the right way (Job). Chapter 28, in the heart of the Book, offers something of a prelude to the Book’s conclusion. Job will find that despite all his questions, invited by terrible suffering, the only wise answer is to fear God. Chapter 28 concludes this too:

And he said to humankind, ‘Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.’” (Job 28:28)

It is wise for us to reflect soberly in the waiting time of Advent as to whether we have this fear of the Lord. As we see our lives in the perspective of God’s plan for his creation. As we stand between the First Advent of Christ and his Second, we must wait. Faithful waiting starts with the passivity of reflection. Reflection on the precious wisdom we have from God.

Reflection is not passive but rather generative as we open ourselves to God. It culminates in right action based on right orientation before the living God. If we are to share the gospel—the ultimate wisdom of God—we need to remember both its value and what it cost. We cannot hope to share this good news unless it is already quickened in our heart, mind and soul.

Where is the King?

The little we know of the Wise Men suggests that they were obedient and generous. Perhaps when they set out, they had little idea of the specific danger they would face from Herod. Though such a journey would have been fraught with the obvious dangers of travelling for many months. Their foreign appearance and the riches they carried would have made them likely targets for bandits.

Does our seeking after Jesus put us in danger? Compared to our brothers and sisters in cultures highly hostile to Christianity we are more likely to face mild inconvenience, or passing ridicule, than any real danger. If pagan kings feel the need to see this Jesus how much more should we his disciples fix or eyes on him?

The Wise Men not only made a bold time-consuming journey. The gifts they brought with them were precious costly things. In their earthly wisdom they recognised the preciousness of this new king of the Jews. Maybe they thought they would receive wisdom from their endeavour and in so doing they should offer something in return. Perhaps they were living out the proverb:

How much better to get wisdom than gold! To get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver. (Proverbs 16:16)

Whatever their original motives they gave generously. What did they receive? Did they see their journey as worthwhile? I think they would have. They most likely never heard the end of the story that they were part of. But they could see God at work in dreams, in signs and in, let’s be frank, his mysterious ways. How else can we label God’s plan for a working-class Judean-born to be king of an oppressed and troubled nation.

What we give to God might be less than the Wise Men gave to Jesus’ family. What we receive, however, is so much more.

John Witnesses to the Light

Like precious stones glinting in the darkness of a mine, so God’s wisdom, Jesus, shines in this dark world. As John says in his prelude to his gospel:

In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:4–5)

John paints a profound picture of the Word become flesh. Part of the revelation that he testifies to is that Jesus is wisdom:

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:9)

Describing Jesus as logos, also implies he is wisdom. The deep questions asked in the Book of Job and answered in part in wisdom literature, in the Law of Moses and sketched in the Prophets, are answered fully in Jesus Christ.  In the First Testament, God could not be seen because of the barrier of sin that humanity chose to build. The closest Job got to the living God, after asking Him some demanding questions, was a speech from a whirlwind. A speech of revelation that left him firmly put in his place as creature before his creator.

This story reminds me of an idea from the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It makes reference to something called the Total Perspective Vortex. In the words of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

‘When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says “You are here.”‘

Douglas Adam’s imagination invents something much like Job’s experience before his maker. Unlike those that enter the vortex, insanity is not the result. Job’s response was to place his hand over his mouth. In Jesus, the Word, we have a fresh revelation. A perspective of a very different sort. As John puts it:

No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (John 1:18)

Pointing to the Light

Where is Jesus?

We would do well to ask this question. Yes, we know the answer with our heads. But reflective waiting on God is necessary for the reality to fill our very bones and refresh our souls. Advent is about waiting. Waiting is not about doing nothing. Waiting before God allows us to hear his precious voice. Waiting allows us to be in an age defined by doing. Waiting allows us to orientate ourselves. The season of Advent is a reminder that we live between Jesus’ first advent and his second. Where is Jesus? He is in the heavenly places with his Father. He will visit us again. We need to look to the light before we can point the light effectively.

Where Shall Wisdom be Found?

The people we work with, our friends, our neighbours, our family members are asking the question where can wisdom be found? They rarely state it that precisely of course. But it is the question that goes to the heart of being human. The question that all of us ask about meaning. The Wise Men gave up time, for God. How much more should we give our time to God? One way of offering our time to God, is to make time to listen to the people in our lives—to listen to how they ask the question, Where Shall Wisdom be Found? Jesus, God’s wisdom, is the answer to their question—but we can point them to the light most effectively when we understand where they are looking already.

Pointing to Jesus

The Wise Men point to Jesus; it was God who enabled them to do so. John the Baptist points to Jesus; it was God who sent him to do so. We too can point to Jesus, God has sent each of us to do this. Of course, we do this best when we do it together as church.