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Second Sunday of Advent

Restore Us, O God: Peace,         Psalm 85:1-4, 8-13,           December 4, 2011

Each Sunday of Advent we light another candle and say, "Restore us, O God." Restore our hope. Restore our peace. Restore our joy. Restore your love.

Last week we focused on the restoration of hope; today's topic is the restoration of peace. Psalm 85 begins with a line that was spoken by the people of Israel, after a time of exile in Babylon: "Lord, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob" (v. 1).

But still, something was missing.

The emptiness they felt is very similar to the void that remains deep within us after we earn a degree, start a job, move into a bigger house, or drive a new car off the lot. We know how fortunate we are. / We appreciate God's favor toward us. / We wonder why good fortune in this life gives us everything … but a sense of peace.

Saint Augustine had it right when he said, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you" (Confessions, Book I, Chapter 1).

True peace will escape us until our restless hearts begin to rest in God. Serenity cannot be granted by a diploma, a promotion, a McMansion or a luxury sedan. It comes to us as a gift from God. It includes forgiveness of sin and the restoration of our relationship with the Lord. This is Christmas.

Psalm 85 tells us that God the Lord will "speak peace to his people," and will call for them to respond by turning to him "in their hearts" (v. 8). God's salvation is sent out into the land, and is received by "those who fear him" (v. 9).

God is generous with peace and salvation, but God requires a response. The only way we will benefit from this gift is to receive it by turning to God in our hearts and offering the respect that God deserves.

Each of us must accept this “package,” so to speak, instead of choosing to "return to sender," unopened.

Amid the never-ending controversy of the Middle East Bethlehem made the news by the building of the Bethlehem Wall. That wall, of course, is the 25-foot concrete security barrier that now circles the city of Jesus’ birth. Begun in 2002, the wall was built by the Israeli government to keep potential suicide bombers from entering Israel through Palestinian territory.

The Israeli government and its supporters view the wall as necessary to their security. Palestinians and their supporters see it as a form of apartheid. If the magi were trying to get to Bethlehem today, they’d have to go through some intense security screening.

Tawfiq Salsaa is a Palestinian woodcarver in the city of Bethlehem; one of the craftsmen who carve those beautiful olive wood nativity sets that are sold to the tourists who (are able to trickle into the ancient city and) visit the Church of the Nativity.

Like the other scenes so prevalent in the few open gift shops, Tawfiq’s scenes are arranged in a familiar tableau — Mary and Joseph looking lovingly down at the manger, the shepherds peeking in the door and the magi leading their camels from a distance.

But there’s one glaring difference in Tawfiq’s work. In Salsaa’s scenes there’s a wall between Jesus and the magi. “I wanted to give the world an idea of how we live in the Holy Land,” the 65-year-old carpenter said in his workshop. “I was inspired by our own wall.”

The Bethlehem wall is a place of deep sadness and contrast for people on both sides, most of whom would rather simply live in peace. The wall’s construction has left Bethlehem struggling economically. Unemployment is high and people often wait in lines hours long to be cleared to cross the barrier for jobs on the Israeli side. The wall is a reminder that whenever walls are erected for whatever reason, suffering and a lack of hope soon follow for everyone involved.

When we read the Christmas story and when we sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” this isn’t what we picture. We love the Christmas-card image of a sleepy little town with open streets and gentle, rustic stables.

The fact is, though, that while there was no concrete wall around Bethlehem in the first century, there was no less stark a contrast between the poor of this little village and the powerful holding court in Jerusalem and, even more so, in Rome.

The emperor, Augustus, ruled over most of the Mediterranean world. Augustus was called “a man of peace,” but his definition of peace was that of every empire that has ever moved across the face of the world. For Rome, for Augustus, peace was about victory — about military and economic security.

Augustus killed the opposition, occupied foreign lands and called it peace.

He taxed those conquered peoples heavily in order to fund his military, his building projects and his personal needs and then called it prosperity.

Under Augustus, Rome erected a virtual wall of separation between those who were in and out, those who were rich and poor, those who lived and those who died. Peace was the luxury of the powerful.

What we miss when we boil down the Christmas story to a once-a-year celebration of mangers and mall-shopping is the stark truth that Jesus was born on the wrong side of the wall (the wrong side of the tracks).

The emperor Augustus never heard about his birth, nor did the rich and powerful in Jerusalem. The angels did not appear in Rome, or in the temple in Jerusalem. They didn’t perform a concert for the emperor or invade the dreams of wealthy merchants or military leaders. Instead, they came to shepherds and foreigners. When the angels came, they came to Bethlehem — on that side of the wall.

The plan that God was announcing through the angel choir was a plan of peace, but a peace radically different from that so often proclaimed by human empires. God’s plan of “peace on earth” would not come through the power and might of conquering armies and vanquished enemies. It would not be a peace that meant prosperity for some and poverty for others. It was not peace through victory, but peace through God’s justice.

Peace through justice.

Peace through justice. That’s what shalom, the Hebrew word for “peace,” really means: well-being, justice, good news for all the people. It’s the kind of peace that happens when God sits on the throne of the world and not Caesar. It’s the kind of peace described in Isaiah 9 — where the yoke of oppression is shattered and where the implements of war are “burned as fuel for the fire” (Isaiah 9:5).

Most casual churchgoers come to church on Christmas expecting to hear a message about a smiling baby, gentle shepherds, adoring parents and lowing cattle; maybe some precious memories of childhood or a sentimental story about Christmases past, maybe a little something to bless all the gift-buying that we’ve done.

After all, we’re supposed to feel good at Christmas, right? The problem is, though, that the story of Christmas isn’t really at its core about any of those things.

In very real terms, Luke and the other gospel writers want to take us through the gates of our own security and comfort to the other side of the wall. The Christmas carols call us to “Come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem” and “Come to Bethlehem and see.”

We sing that so easily, but the truth is that to really know what Christmas means, we have to go to Bethlehem — to cross our hearts and minds over to that side of the wall where we can hear the songs of angel choirs proclaiming that God is doing something about the real problems in the real world.

What the empire fails to realize is that Jesus breaks down walls — walls of violence and injustice, walls that separate rich and poor, walls that define who’s worthy and who’s not, and walls of sin and death that separate us from knowing the love, peace and justice of God in this world.

In Jesus, God showed that empires cannot and will not have the last word in this world. That word belongs to the true King, the one for whom the angels sing — the true Son of God, the one called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father” and … the true  … “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

Dwight David Eisenhower said in the mid-20th century, "Peace and justice are two sides of the same coin." The speaker was not a peace activist or antiestablishment radical. He was a five-star general in the U.S. Army and 34th president of the United States. Peace and justice are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other.

What would it look like to share in God’s peace? Extend steadfast love to a teenager who is rebelling with every ounce of his energy. Practice faithfulness in your marriage, and make an effort to express appreciation to your spouse. Show righteousness in your school or workplace, by being honest and fair in all of your activities.

Work for peace in your relationships, looking for ways to reduce tensions and increase harmony, instead of picking fights and spreading gossip. If you invest as much in being a peacemaker as in your holiday gifts, this will turn out to be your best Christmas ever.

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.…” (Titus 2:11). Salvation is offered to rich and poor, native and foreigner, seeker and saint, Israeli and Palestinian. Jesus came to break down the walls between God and us. Our task is to live out that salvation by doing and calling for the things that will make for peace.

“Peace be with you” is not just a wish but an affirmation of our Christian intention to live as peacemakers in this world of conflict. Every time we serve the poor, fight injustice, speak for those who are voiceless, or serve a meal to a hungry person, we break down walls of separation. Every great work begins with little steps.  

In Bethlehem, Tawfiq Salsaa still makes his little olive wood nativity sets with the wall between the wise men and baby Jesus.

But even in occupied Bethlehem, even behind the wall, there is hope.

Every wall in every nativity set that Tawfiq makes — is removable.

That’s what Christmas is about: peace on earth — a peace with no more walls.

Restore us, O God. Give us the gift of your peace, so that we can share it with others. Amen.
 

 

 

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