TEXT: Isaiah 2:1-4; 9:2, 6-7
It’s “the most wonderful time of the year” again. The time when we get excited to celebrate long-held and beloved traditions. When we adorn our homes with decorations – both new ones and old ones that makes us nostalgic for Christmases past. When we watch the kids get excited as they anticipate the arrival of a jolly fat guy to fulfill their desires for material possessions. Yet, during this most wonderful time of the year, we adults tend to live perpetually without peace. Instead, we live in a Season of Stress. Stress over all the expectations surrounding the holiday season. Stress over getting the house ready. Stress over preparing the food. Stress over making sure you’ve got the perfect gift for every person on your list – which is exacerbated if you get an unexpected gift and feel obligated to buy a gift in return.
Then there is the stress over preparing for and attending holiday gatherings with friends and family. The questions swirl in our minds: Who will be there? Which family members will make it this year? Which family members will fight over politics or dig up a long-resolved family issue? Will I be able to keep my mouth shut when my drunk uncle makes some horribly racist remark in front of my kids? Should I keep my mouth shut? Because doing so teaches my kids that such talk is acceptable. Or do I stay silent just to keep the peace for everyone else? Just to keep things calm and bright?
We are all too aware that America is more divided today than since the Civil War. We are fighting more than ever before. Protesting more than ever before. There is so much noise surrounding the many issues of contention within our culture that some of us are hoping and praying for the peace of a silent night. Meanwhile some of us fear that the holiday season will just amplify the divisions – making them wider and deeper. How can we find the peace that we need in our lives right now? How can we make sure that it carries on after the holidays are over? Is such peace even possible?
The prophet Isaiah speaks to the people of God in the midst of a Silent Night – but it’s a silence that no one likes – the silence of God. Chapters 7 and 8 tell of the Southern Kingdom of Judah surviving two major invasions. In the second attack, Isaiah tells King Ahaz to trust the Lord God to protect them against invasion – and that a child called “Immanuel” will be a sign of God’s presence. So Ahaz waits. And God remains silent. No such child is yet born. And the enemy approaches. Desperate, Ahaz choses to trust in an alliance with Assyria over the Lord God, which keeps their enemies away. But now Judah is subject to the Assyrian king – forced to pay tributes for continued protection and to build idols to the Assyrian gods to appease their new ally. They now “walk in darkness,” under Assyrian oppression.
But then, Isaiah proclaims a light in the darkness. The birth of the promised child – the new King of Judah who will rule like his ancestor David – bringing endless peace to the land through his justice and righteousness. Isaiah already described what this promised peace would look like in Chapter 2 – when God will judge between the nations – fairly settling all disputes and making all things right between people. God’s judgment is a part of this promise for peace – one is not possible without the other. But it will not be Israel who models this peace. Instead all the nations will “stream back to God” – a phrase that can also be translated “shine in joyful radiance.” The other nations of the world will become the “light in the darkness” that leads Israel back to God. And when this peace comes, weapons of death will be turned into gardening tools that nourish and give life. And this seemingly impossible peace can only happen if God is involved. Humanity’s righteousness cannot accomplish this peace on its own.
At the beginning of the service, I told the story of the Christmas Day Truce. British and German soldiers agreeing to cease fighting for 24 hours so that they could celebrate Christmas with their own sides. However, when the two sides stopped fighting each other, stopped shooting each other, stopped trying to kill each other – a Silent Night emerged. A night silent enough for them to hear each other celebrating. Silent enough for them to hear each other singing – “Silent Night, Holy Night.” Silent enough for them to hear each other’s humanity. The sound of the song in the silence drew the soldiers out of the depths of their trenches onto the higher, ground known as “no-man’s-land.” There, in a space known for certain death, a peace was born, and enemies greeted one another without the security of weapons. It was a miraculous moment of peace that could have only occurred by the power of God. And while it may not have been the eternal peace prophesied by Isaiah, it was a momentary glimpse of what can happen when enemies, “beat their swords into plowshares /and their spears in to pruning hooks.;/ [when] nation shall not lift up sword against nation/ neither shall they learn war any more.” It was a momentary glimpse into the coming Kingdom of God.
On Christmas Eve of 2014, a British production company aired a television special to remember the 100th anniversary of this event. The event was simulcast from two different churches – one in Britain, and one in Germany – to symbolize that miraculous moment of peace. Here is a transcript of that event:
Host of the broadcast: “… 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 ceasefire allowed soldiers on both sides 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.”
“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:”
Voice 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.”
Voice 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.”
Voice 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.”
Voice 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.”
Voices 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.”
Host: “In a letter sent from the front on 29th December 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 3 pm on Christmas day when a German officer called his men in:”
Voice 6: “A German soldier said to me ‘today nice; tomorrow, shoot.’As he left me he held out his hand, which I accepted, and said: ‘Farewell, comrade.’ With that we parted….”
Host: “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…?”
If we desire peace once again – not just during “the most wonderful time of the year” but all year round – we must stay silent long enough that those walking in darkness can be heard. Then we must listen: Not to respond. Not to react. Not even to defend ourselves. But we must listen to understand the anguish of another. To make ourselves vulnerable to their pain. To empathize with their suffering. And then repent of our own involvement – direct or not – in the suffering of another – remembering that in the bible, “repentance” means more than just “saying you’re sorry.” Repentance also includes turning your life around so dramatically, that you never have to say “sorry” again.
And while we cannot bring about this prophesied impossible peace ourselves, we can practice this peace – among our family and friends, throughout our community, and especially within ourselves. For if you are not at peace within yourself, you will never be at peace with your neighbor. And if you are not at peace with your neighbor, then you are not at peace within yourself. Isaiah tells us that peace between people only comes through repentance. And that possibility for peace reawakens within us each Christmas season. For…“Christmas comes not to awaken nostalgia, but to awaken our hearts to the ways of God, calling us to [repentance] and setting us free to be agents of God in the world to which Christ came…[T]o learn from and make common cause with the "nations," [with] the outsiders, [and with] the others. For, under God's instruction [in Christ], there is no more "other"…[there is] no more ["us"] and ["them"]…[there is no more foreign or native, rich or poor, gay or straight, religious or atheist, Democrat or Republican, enemy or ally – for Christ keeps erasing all the boundaries we draw between us]…[but] until that happens”, [until we recognize our shared humanity and turn our lives back to God’s instruction in Christ]…this world will never be able to “sleep in heavenly peace.”
Friends, as we enter this Advent Season, let us listen to Isaiah’s call to repent and practice peace.
And may that peace be so, now and forever more. AMEN.