Sleep In Heavenly Peace: Advent 1 2018

The following is the first sermon of Advent 2018 at McFarland United Methodist Church in Rossville, Georgia. The series is “Calm and Bright: 200 Years of Silent Night” from Worship Design Studio.

Gracious God, open our ears that we may hear your truth, open our eyes that we may see your kingdom, and open our hearts and minds that we might know the cries of our brothers and sisters who are hungry, and hurting, and sometimes even dying without the knowledge of your love for them. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Happy New Year, McFarland!

No, I haven’t been raiding the spiked eggnog and getting confused. Today is the First Sunday of Advent and it marks the beginning of a new year in the Christian calendar, a cycle rhythm of our life together that celebrates the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Advent means preparation, preparation for a coming King. In our case, as followers of Jesus, we prepare in this cycle not only for the remembrance of the birth of the Christ, but also for his coming again to rule a kingdom that is here and yet to be fulfilled.

It is a time when we are called to slow down and prepare to receive the gift of Emmanuel, God with us, contrary to the popular belief being perpetrated by our favorite merchants who urge us to rush into the maddening crowd to the sound of what would be ringing cash register bells… if cash registers, or point of sale devices as we know them today had bells. Now we hear the annoying sound of the card reader telling us that it is ok to remove our credit or debit card from the machine.

Advent calls us to be counter-cultural as we prepare to receive the one who came to spend his life among us, teaching us how to live and how to love. The one who gave his life for us so that we may have life. The one whose resurrection ensures us the hope of our own transformation as we allow ourselves to be molded by his grace so that the image of the One who created us shines forth in us and through us to a world desperate for that light.

In this Advent season, we will celebrate the 200th Anniversary of one of the best loved Christmas Carols of all time: Silent Night. The song “Silent Night” came to be during an era when the entirety of Europe was in a state of dramatic transition. Political upheavals, wars and economic hardships bled and traumatized the peoples of the Salzburg and Bavaria for decades. Napoleon had disempowered, looted and set fire to entire stretches of land through a series of wars and military campaigns. Additionally, a natural catastrophe with dire consequences came to haunt Europe in the year 1816. The eruption of Mount Tambora in present day Indonesia in 1815 was the largest single volcanic event in nearly 2000 years.  The magnitude of the eruption particulates blown into the atmosphere caused the temperature across the earth to drop 1 degree Fahrenheit on average. Crop failures, debts and a “Year Without a Summer” led to hunger and even more hardship. Against this backdrop, Joseph Mohr composed his poem “Silent Night” in 1816. On Christmas Eve 1818, he passed the lyrics to Franz Xaver Gruber, who added a melody. The result was a Christmas message filled with hope and comfort.

During this series, each of the four weeks of Advent will be themed around each of the four verses of the carol. This week, we focus on Peace.

How appropriate it is for this first week of Advent to be about peace. It is something that we desperately need in our world, in our nation, in our church, in our lives. Divisions among us threaten to tear apart the very fabric of community and identity; divisions that are based primarily in fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of loss of power and influence, and mostly fear of “the other,” the outsider who isn’t like us… or so we are led to believe.

It is in this frame of mind that we engage with our Scripture this morning. In Isaiah 2, we are invited “to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” It is in this place that the Lord will judge between the nations and “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” Instruments of war shall be repurposed to instruments that can benefit all of humanity as the world, under the direction of the God of all nations enforces the dictum that “nation shall not lift up sword agains nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” This is not some Shangi-La pipe dream that the prophet is speaking of, this is the way it will be when the kingdom of God is fulfilled and fully established in the here and now.  Each one of us has the ability to bring peace. I’ll admit that it’s not so easy to do, but if each of us individually decides that the conflicts are not worth it, that the tensions are not worth it, that the animosity is not worth it, then we can make a difference. As the song says, “let peace begin with me,” and with God’s help it can.

On Christmas Eve of 1914, along the Western Front in France in the early months of World War I, British soldiers heard the familiar sound of their German counterparts singing Silent Night from only about 100 yards away across “No man’s land”, <Stille Nacht, Heileger Nacht> and they started to join in, each in their own language. First one, then another soldier from both sides ventured out into “no man’s land” and between soldiers, a temporary truce was called through the end of Christmas Day. Even though the soldiers on both sides were ordered to remain in their trenches and not fraternize with the enemy, the orders were ignored. Gifts of cigarettes and candy were exchanged, impromptu games of soccer were held and for one day in the early days of the war, humanity won the upper hand as soldiers on both side discovered that the things that they shared in common with one another were greater than the differences among them. Primarily that among the common soldier, none of them wanted to be there and that they were forced to be there by conscription. The average British, French, and German soldier had no beef with their counterpart, yet the war trudged on because the leaders had issues and, by God, they were going to fight for control. It was known as the Christmas Truce, and it appeared again, in a diminished form, in 1915, but disappeared in 1916 & 17 as the “War to End all Wars” dragged on and troops on both sides were eager for an end to the madness.

In Isaiah 9, we hear that “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.” As we approach Christmas in this season of Advent, we experience the diminishing of the natural light here in the Northern Hemisphere as we approach the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, at 5:23 pm on December 21 and we celebrate the fact that:

For a child has been born for us,

a son given to us;

authority rests upon his shoulders;

and he is named

Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 

His authority shall grow continually,

and there shall be endless peace

for the throne of David and his kingdom.

He will establish and uphold it

with justice and with righteousness

from this time onwards and for evermore.

Our exploration of the hymn “Silent Night” for this Advent/Christmas season is a way of “shining a light” on the power of reaching out across divides and getting silent enough to listen to the “hopes and fears of all the years” of those we tend to cast as the enemy (or simply “different”) for one reason or another. As we connect face to face, we each have the agency to reach out across divides and connect because we are humans with common human needs and, deep down, we all have the desire for peace for ourselves and our children. It might just change the course of history, if only for a day. 

For unto us a child is born… a child who brings light into the darkness. As followers of the light, let us allow that light to shine in us and through us to illuminate a darkened world. Thanks be to God.

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