We are in the first week of Advent. While we in the church often think of it as a time of preparation and anticipation for Christmas, what it really means is the arrival of someone or something. It’s one of those “churchy” words that we actually still use. The advent of the smartphone for instance or the advent of the internet age. During this season we anticipate the coming of Christ. We remember the initial arrival, but we also look forward to his return.
Today, our Scripture passage goes way back, to a time that recognizes conflict and suffering. Then God promises to be a source of peace. God promises one that will bring peace. The second part was originally written for the Israelite tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. They were on the northern edge of the Kingdom of Israel. It was highly desirable real estate with great land for farming. That also means that it was highly contested. The people were often suffering from outside occupation and domination from countries like Assyria that would eventually conquer the Northern Kingdom entirely. In the meantime, it was a land of poverty and hunger. The people were subject to the whims of masters that could take their children into slavery and confiscate their crops. All their hopes were stolen by people who had the final say. The land was in deep darkness.
The people of Jesus’ day felt very much the same. The Assyrians had been replaced by the Romans. Judah, now Judea, was a part of the Roman Empire, an empire that grew through the overwhelming force of its army. After the death of Julius Caesar, there was tremendous infighting among a ruling triumvirate. Caesar Augustus finally emerged victorious. Once he solidified his power he declared the pax Romana, Roman Peace. That meant many things, but what it meant to the Judeans is that any hint of rebellion was squashed brutally. Laws and customs of Roman Army occupation were designed to remove any hope of liberation. However, they still had the prophesies of Isaiah, which provided hope. They remembered the promises that the darkness would be dissipated by the in breaking of the light of God. They had a faint hope that they would be delivered, and that they would have peace.
Now, during Advent as the days grow shorter, and the dark begins to overwhelm, we light candles to remember God’s first in breaking through light and prepare for the second.
Isaiah 2:1-4; 9:2, 6-7 (NIV)
2:1 This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
2 In the last days
the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.
3 Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4 He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
9:2 The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
6 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.
7 Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.
We are given a vision of the nations coming seeking after God to mediate their disputes and to learn from him. “All nations will stream to [God’s holy mountain].” This “streaming” in Hebrew can also be translated as “shining in joyful radiance.” As the nations move closer to God they radiate God’s light. They reflect it. You will see the symbolism of this light repeated as we move through this season through stars, candles, and other lights. These symbols will invite us to draw closer to God’s radiance. Each week I talk about taking the light of Christ with us as we leave worship and sharing it with the people that we meet in our everyday lives. During this season, I invite you do that in a more intentional way. Think of taking this light that we see as a symbol of God and walk it out into the world. As Isaiah put it, “He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” Making the commitment to live in the world in such a way that creates more justice, more compassion, more light in the world.
Do you believe that miracles still happen in the world? The Christmas truce during WW I certainly seems to qualify to me. Do you know the origin of the word “truce?” It comes from the root word for faith, faithfulness, assurance of faith, covenant, truth, fidelity, and promise. Wow, right? Then, in their trenches, these people who are shooting at each other, where it was a deadly risk to go out into no-man’s land between the front lines to retrieve a fallen comrade, start singing “Silent Night” as part of their individual Christmas celebrations. And a miracle happens. Each side recognizes the humanity of the other.
In the silencing of war, if only for a day, we can hear the cries of the suffering of humanity and ask, “Is this the way out of the dark night, or is there another way?” Certainly Jesus’ “kingship,” “reign,” and “might” turned out quite differently than his original followers expected. The “Prince of Peace” transformed lives and continues to transform lives by calling us to right relationships around tables and on the roadway, and right living (righteousness) through our day-to-day compassion for others, especially for ones not like us.
That is part of what is so amazing and miraculous about the Christmas truce. WW I started through a series of events like a snowball running downhill and turning into an avalanche. By this time, the British and the Germans were bitter enemies. The modern industrial tools of war made it especially brutal. Yet, a pause button was pushed for a day in this place.
In 2014, on the 100th anniversary of the truce, there was a British television special that read out some of the letters that the soldiers sent home after that day. We’re going to read a portion of that for you including several of the letters.
Narrator: “… a remarkable story emerged from the front line trenches [of WWI]. Though accounts vary, it seems that in the week leading up to Christmas 1914, groups of German and British soldiers began to exchange seasonal greetings, cigarettes and songs between their trenches. The unoﬃcial ceaseﬁres allowed soldiers on both side to venture out into No Man’s land – the stretch of land between the German and British trenches – to collect and bury the bodies of dead soldiers. One version of events has it that the Germans began singing “Stille Nacht”, “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve. British soldiers, recognizing the tune, joined in. Some groups of soldiers even ﬁnished up with a game of footy (soccer) together.
“Actual letters from British soldiers who witnessed the truce give us a glimpse of that Christmas Eve on the Western Front 100 years ago. Here is what some of them said about what happened:”
Letter 1: “The Germans started singing and lighting candles about 7.30 on Christmas Eve, and one of them challenged anyone of us to go across for a bottle of wine. One of our fellows accepted the challenge and took a big cake to exchange.”
Letter 2: “We came from our mouseholes and saw the English advancing towards us and waving cigarette boxes, handkerchiefs and towels. They had not riﬂes with them and there we know it could only be a greeting and that it was alright.”
Letter 3: “We had a church service and sang hymns, we met the Germans midway between the trenches and wished each other a ‘Merry Christmas’. We exchanged buttons, badges, caps, etc, and we all sang songs.”
Letter 4: “They gave us cigars and cigarettes and toﬀee and they told us they didn’t want to ﬁght, but had to. Some could speak English as well as we could and some had worked in Manchester. The Germans seem very nice chaps who were awfully sick of the war.”
Letter 5: “We were able to move about the whole of Christmas Day with absolute freedom. It was a day of peace in war…. It is only a pity that it was not a decisive peace.”
Narrator: “In a letter sent from the front on 29th Dec 1914, Staﬀ sergeant Clement Barker reports that during the truce British soldiers went out and recovered 69 dead comrades in No Man’s Land and buried them. Sgt Barker also reports that an impromptu football match then broke out between the two sides when a ball was kicked out from the British lines into No Man’s Land. Another soldier writes about how the truce came to an end at 3pm on Christmas day when a German oﬃcer called his men in:”
Letter 6: “A German soldier said to me ‘today (Christmas Day) nice; tomorrow, shoot.’ As he left me he held out his hand, which I accepted, and said: ‘Farewell, comrade.’ With that we parted….”
Narrator: “Remembering this truce a century on isn’t just about what happened then. It’s about what we, God’s children and followers of the Prince of Peace, can do now, in the midst of conﬂict and fear in the 21st century. What we can do today, right now – [this] Christmas, to help our families, our communities, our world hang on to our humanity in the face of brutality? What can we do to continue to love one another and to care about those we don’t even know, while so much around us shouts at us to hate and fear and give up on the real possibilities for peace and reconciliation? How can we meaningfully pray for those we call enemies today as well as those who were enemies in 1914?
(Script of WW1 tribute courtesy of PictureWise Productions http://www.picturewise.co.uk)
Such a profound change occurred in some of these soldiers that they could not shoot at their new friends across the line on the other side of “no-man’s land.” They would not play together and worship God together one day and shoot at each other the next, but the war continued for years. They couldn’t simply quit and go home. They had to be reassigned to different units. The power of a song. The power of God.
Exploring the hymn “Silent Night” for this 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. This story is a powerful reminder that, like that one person who issued the initial invitation to come out of the “mouseholes” and connect face to face, we each have the ability 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 for the children we love. It might just change the course of history, if only for a day.
Yet, we have to acknowledge how hard it is to overcome the ideas that we are convinced are true. How many of you like bats? You know they are so cute and cuddly with their teeth, those eyes, and that naked body. They fly silently. They’ve been the subject of many a scary movie. Yet, they have many positive qualities. They are great for the ecosystem. You may have even made a “bat box” to provide hospitality. How would you like to have one as a pet? Have you ever seen a close up picture of an adult? I’m not talking about vampire bats even. I’m talking about ones that are innocuous to humans and livestock. They still can look disturbing.
This past week I posted a short video online of baby bats in a rehab location being swaddled and fed from a bottle. They were as cute as any critter or baby that you could think of. The response was interesting. The video was played about 100 times. They weren’t all mine, but I’ll tell you the positive feedback paled in comparison with a picture of my dog that I posted the previous day. It is interesting to me how strong the aversion is despite seeing little furry creatures being swaddled and bottle fed. Can we change from Ewwww to Awwww when it comes to even orphaned baby bats?
Are there people that we think of like bats? They are just as worthy as we are …. In point of fact, NONE of us are worthy on own. Rather, we are all equally unworthy. It is only through the love of Christ that any of us become worthy, but who are we to decide? As we are loved, so can the ones that are vilified (like we might do with bats?). They can be given the love and care of God that brings peace.
We all need that peace whether we realize it or not. As we heard in the offertory song, “We need a silent night in here,” inside us. Perhaps, that is part of the appeal of a hymn or carol like “Silent Night.” It offers us a feeling of peace if just for a moment and reminds us of the Prince of Peace that came to save us from ourselves.
Let’s speak the lyrics of the first verse of “Silent Night”:
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace