Peace on Earth?

Prince-of-Peace-Title

Peace on Earth.  This is a nice thought, but it is also a thought few of us actually take seriously.  It is idealistic, not realistic.  It is a nice sentiment, but it is not possible…or so we often think.  Our world is full strife and conflict.  Right now, our country is struggling to hold it together over racial tension.  Violence, mistrust, anger, and fear are spreading like wildfire.  Last week, on the same day the Christmas tree was lit in Rockefeller Center, riots broke out in protest of the grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer that choked a man to death.  We continue to hear reports about beheadings and public executions at the hands of ISIS.  It is hard to imagine peace on earth right now.  The same was true 2800 years ago, yet the prophet Isaiah wrote the following promise in a flash of inspiration.  This is a revelation of a better world, hope for a better future, and it would become the center of messianic longing for the remnant of Israel:

“Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
    and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
    as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
    when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
    you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
    the bar across their shoulders,
    the rod of their oppressor.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle
    and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
    will be fuel for the fire.
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.
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.”

-Isaiah 9:1-7

This promise was originally received in a time of great strife, instability, and anxiety.  King after king in Judah led the people further away from God and into idolatry.  Threatened with invasion from both Israel and Syria, Ahaz King of Judah reached out to the Assyrian Empire for help.  He could have trusted God for help, but he went against the advice of the prophet.  Assyria is the regional empire in whose shadow these small nations dwell under constant threat of invasion, annihilation, or annexation.  This is a bit like a mouse asking the cat to help resolve a conflict with another mouse.  Now, prompted by the invitation to intervene, Assyrian invasion of Judah is eminent.  As Isaiah predicted, Assyria assists in solving the present crisis only to replace it with another: the chances of being wiped out by the Assyrian war machine are almost certain.  People are afraid.  There is conflict and war all around them.  This passage is God’s promise in the midst of this horrible situation.  God is in control.  Destruction is coming, but God still has a plan.  The promise is a coming “messiah,” a deliverer that will set wrongs to right and bring lasting and true peace. At first, people assumed this anointed ruler was the young king Hezekiah. Long after Hezekiah’s death however, a remnant of God’s people longed for someone who would fulfill this promise completely. Even with this expectation, I am not sure anyone anticipated Jesus Christ. This passage was famously and masterfully incorporated into Handel’s Messiah, one of the most moving pieces of music in history.  Jesus is the “prince of peace” on a level that no one saw coming.

This is a promise of peace beyond human ability.  The theme of this section of Isaiah’s oracles is that every human solution to the nation’s problems will fail.  Their demise is the vehicle that will take them to a place of realization that only God can be trusted.  God’s revelation of light has come to those walking in great darkness.  It is when there seems to be no hope that God’s hope is most evident.  When Ahaz tried to trust in political alliances and military might, he ended up making a bigger mess of the situation.  God’s people have turned away from Him to covenant with pagan nations and trust in their strength, and they will reap the destruction they sowed.  The calamity is not the end of the story, but a chance for God to use the pain as a powerful tutor.  The promise of the Messiah does not come to a proud nation glorifying in its strength, but to a beaten nation, one tied in the furnace of affliction.  No, the darker the days, the brighter the flame of the dawn! The mention of Midian’s defeat is a reference to the story of Gideon, a story that underscores God’s strength and human weakness. God eliminated any cause for Gideon or his fighters to have confidence in human strength by dramatically reducing their number to 300 in a conflict against thousands.  God ensured that everyone would know the victory was His alone.  Where Judah has presently arrived in crisis because of their trust in human systems, alliances, and power – this reference is indicting.  They have led themselves into darkness, but God will lead them out of it.  The truth is that God is a better savior than we can be sinners, and He is better and finding us than we are at losing our way.  We can continue in rebellion, but not without great effort and determined resistance to the One who seeks to re-write our tragic story.  God is interested in bringing us something that we cannot achieve through human effort.

This is also a promise of peace beyond human imagination.  The prophet uses the symbols of the warrior’s boots and the bloody garments to represent warfare.  The rhythmic sound of marching boots is a powerful symbol of the noise of battle, while the bloody garments are a symbol for the pain and destruction left in the wake of war.  The poem does not describe victory in terms of one combatant overcoming his opponent, but the actual end of conflict.  The very implements of war will be burned up.  For this coming king, peace is not realized through conquest but through the end of warfare.  The destruction brought by war will itself be destroyed.  This prince is not a fierce warrior, but a little child.  A child appears insignificant and weak, but with God this weakness can be strength.  His rule is not established in military conquest but in God’s power.  This is not the power of the sword; it is the power over the hearts of humanity.  He reigns over a people transformed through their obedience to God’s will.  It is God’s Kingdom, and it will endure forever.  There is something unspeakably beautiful in the picture that Isaiah paints if you have eyes to see it.  This is a world at peace, a moral order, held together not by force or the threat of force but by love.  He is describing the Kingdom of God, where God’s will is established on earth as it is in heaven.  This cannot be achieved by political systems, though politics are not irrelevant.  It cannot be achieved through social work or through humanitarian aid projects. Human civilization will not climb to this lofty reality through technological advancement.  Organized religion cannot establish it through its programs.  This kind of peace, what the Hebrews called shalom, is almost a dream. This peace is only possible when people surrender their tools, their minds, and their wills to the Kingdom of God.  This king of peace is different than the warmongering empire builders and political connivers of Isaiah’s day (and our own!).  He is the one who establishes peace, not just advocates for it.

Human kingdoms are often established in tyranny and conquest, upheaval and rebellion.  The foundation of God’s Kingdom is justice and righteousness.  This was such a difficult thing even for the disciples to understand. They were still looking at Jesus like a powerful conqueror all the way up until the cross. It was only after the resurrection that the nature of God’s Kingdom and the depth of the peace that Jesus was to establish became clear.  This Advent season, walk toward peace.  Allow God’s Spirit to help you imagine a better world, then invite God’s Spirit to help you live into that vision. 

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Simple Christmas – God Loved…So He Gave

This year, Echo has been talking about “simplifying” Christmas – not to take the fun away, but to make sure what matters most gets the most attention.
Simple = clear. Simple ≠ excess. Simple ≠ stress. Simple ≠ clutter.

This is about being intentional, doing Christmas on purpose. This Christmas, what we want to do at DCC and in Echo is enter the true Christmas story.

Last Sunday, we finished the series talking about the essence of the Christmas story. John 3:16“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” I know this is not a Christmas passage: there is no nativity; there are no Christmas carols about this verse. But this verse is about the incarnation. The spirit of Advent is really wrapped up in this short verse. God Loved, so God Gave.

1. God Loved the world. Even the messed up fallen world that is full of selfish people and brokenness. He loved us. He loved us in our mess of imperfection and faults. Even with the selfishness we display this time of year, driven to accumulate MORE, he loves us. He loved little girls obsessed with pillow pets. He loved teenage boys with pornography problems. He loved middle school girls that gossip and create drama. Sometimes talking about God’s love makes people imagine that God is indulgent and just gushes on us, like he is happy no matter what. We think something like: “Because God loves me, it means he is okay with me no matter what dysfunction is in my life.” This isn’t quite right. The reality of God’s love means that he feels compelled to rescue us from our brokenness. God’s love motivates him to heal and bring life like a doctor’s compassion motivates him to move toward sick people to make them well. You wouldn’t think that a doctor that did nothing to heal a sick person was compassionate, no matter how nice and indulgent they were. The same is true for God – he loves us, so he cannot allow us to stay as we are. So he acts on his love, and he sends Jesus.

2. God Gave His Son. God’s response to love he felt for the world was to give His Son. He didn’t send a card, or a necktie, or a video game. He didn’t give a fruitcake or some cookies. He gave something precious. God gave the most precious and valuable gift ever conceived. For so long, people have thought about ways to give to God, to satisfy or appease the higher power. Thinking about the Biblical story, what is God looking for? People have thought that the answer is ritual or material or financial. People have tried to give sacrifices and religious activities. What would it mean to respond in love like God responded in love? When God loved us, he gave His son to a broken world.

What if the gift God wants this Christmas is for us to keep doing likewise? What if we are supposed to give ourselves to a broken world? When God gave His Son He gave himself. This is the mystery and beauty of the Trinity. The Father is the Son and is the Spirit. This is the incarnation – where God gave himself. The best gifts then are going to be those that follow in this pattern. The best gift you can give this Christmas is yourself. This sounds right, and it is the Spirit of Advent. God Loved, and so God Gave. We love God, so we Give. This is the response of everyone when their eyes are opened to just how much God gave us. God gave us his Son, God gave us the Kingdom – and so we GIVE. We give something precious and valuable to us to a world that needs help.

This is what it ultimately means to enter the story of Christmas – to follow God’s example in self-giving. Because God gave Jesus, we have everything we need. When you learn to see the world and your situation through the eyes of God’s economy, you discover what already have. The system of our culture always amplifies what we don’t have, but God’s Kingdom gives us eyes to see the enormous amount we do have. Here is the truth: you don’t need anything you don’t already have. You do not need more perfume, another electronic gadget, another video game, or a better cell phone. Our culture tells us these lies and we believe it. The truth is, none of that stuff will make us happy – AND it is entirely possible to shift your perspective and be happy with what you already have! With the eyes of the Kingdom, you see your abundance, and it makes you content and generous.

The only adequate response to blessing and abundance is to figure out how to give it away. The right response to the gift of God is to GIVE MORE. Look at this passage: Luke 12:32-34- “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

This warning follows the story of the rich fool and teaching from Jesus about being content and trusting in God and not worrying about material things. Jesus is reminding people that are focused on material things and the false security they offer that such worry is senseless. “Your father has been please to give you the Kingdom,” what more could you ever need? The response that Jesus sees as natural might surprise us. Jesus teaches that when you realize how much God has blessed you and you recognize what you have been given, you will respond by “selling your possessions and giving to the poor.” You will overflow with generosity! This is one of the most basic teachings of the Bible and one of the deepest laws of God’s Kingdom: you have been blessed to be a blessing to others!

Simple Christmas?

This commercial says SO much about where our culture is during Christmas. Take 30 seconds to watch it and be amazed. The irony in the tagline is comical: “In a time where it is easy to go overboard, Acura invites you to be smarter and over-save.” Yes, that’s right, over-save by buying a vehicle with an MSRP of $42,930 – $54,455.

There seems to be two different Christmas stories fighting for our attention. One is the story of Jesus birth, where God became human and entered our mess to redeem and restore what was broken by sin. This story is called “the Gospel” because it is such good news. The other story often distracts from the true story – the one where people are rushing around from shopping mall to shopping mall, full of tension and anxiety about material things. Do I have the right gifts? Can I buy enough gifts? What can we get Grandpa? Maybe Christmas is more about chaos and mass consumerism and less about Jesus entering our world? Think about the chaos of “black Friday.” Each year, the day after Thanksgiving, people wake up at 3am to wait in line outside of stores and shopping malls to get the best deals on stuff so they can give it to people to communicate love. This is a love story, but it is a love story about a different god, one of stuff. The truth is: black Friday is a worship event…but is it the right worship event? “Advent” is the word the church uses to refer to the season of Christmas, which comes from a Latin word (adventus [Greek: parousia]) which means “coming.” It is a celebration of the coming of Christ. The event of Jesus coming to earth changed the world, and it can change it still. What Echo is talking about this season is “simplifying” Christmas – not to take the fun away, but to make sure what matters most gets the most attention.

Simple = clear.
Simple ≠ excess.
Simple ≠ stress.
Simple ≠ clutter.

This is about being intentional, doing Christmas on purpose. This Christmas, what we want to do at DCC and in Echo is enter the true Christmas story.

The birth of Jesus is an event of cataclysmic scale that should be celebrated with worship and awe, yet we have found billions of ways to make Christmas about us. Why does no one ask” “what are you giving this year?” instead of “What are you asking for?” or “What are you getting?” Why do we make lists of what we want long before the holiday while we wait to the last minute to find gifts for others? The answer is that Christmas is all about ME. This is a dangerous reality for teens, because they naturally occupy the center of the universe already. The danger is that they miss a truth of vital importance: Jesus has come into the world, and His coming demands a worshipful response!

What story does your family’s celebration tell about Christmas? I don’t mean something tacky, like t-shirt slogans or street corner preaching. I do think that our worship should tell the story of the coming of Christ. By that I mean that our heart and our attitude should be focused on Jesus and not on the nonsense of our culture. I am not talking about the “Christmas Spirit” (or whatever that phrase means). I am talking about returning our eyes, our hearts, and our attention to the coming of Jesus.

How do we do this? I know what you are thinking: I saw that Christmas movie. We all have. We all know what the next 30 days will be about. We will see about a dozen movies and hear the same 25 songs over and over again. There is nothing unexpected about the message either. It is the same every year: “Don’t be a Scrooge or a Grinch. Believe in Santa, or all the reindeer will die. The best way to spread Christmas cheer is for singing loud for all to hear. If you get a BB gun for Christmas, you will shoot your eye out. Don’t be bad or ninjas will storm the North Pole and destroy all the toys…” What I think God is looking for is the sense of wonder and gratitude.

So this season, celebrate. Have fun. Give gifts. But celebrate for the right reasons and give gifts that mean something, not just some thing. Here are some ideas:

*Serve Together as a family. We just did this with our 3 year old, so it is possible for you too!
*Get an Advent Calendar or search online for a list of readings from scripture that follow an advent calendar. Commit to doing this for 8 minutes every night. Even better – make one with your family that you can use for years to come.
*Give your time instead of more stuff. Do something fun together instead of adding another video game to the cabinet.
*Sit down and read the story of the first Christmas from Matthew or Luke’s Gospel as a family. Even if it seems cheesy and your teens act resistant, they might secretly love it. Maybe sneak it in before dinner.
*Give a gift that will bring your family closer, like a game you can all play together. (My personal suggestion is Settlers of Catan!)
*Choose which parties to attend and which activities to do on purpose. Limit the amount of clutter on the calendar for the next month.