The Peace of the Lord
December 29, 2013
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” [Luke 2:8-14]
It is still the Christmas season. The trees are still up. But now that the Christmas dust has settled a little, a strange thing happens in the church calendar. On December 25 we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, but on December 26 we commemorate the Stephen, the first Christian martyr, a man who was executed for preaching Christ crucified. On December 27 we commemorate the Apostle John, a man exiled to die in captivity for his proclamation of the Gospel. On December 28 we take time to remember the slaughter of the Innocents, all those male children in Bethlehem and the surrounding region who were mercilessly executed by Herod in his effort to slay the one who was born King of the Jews. It seems appropriate to consider why the angels were bringing tidings of peace when this child whose birth they were announcing would lead to so much bloodshed, when he himself would grow up to say, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” [Matthew 10:34]? In today’s Gospel reading, the man Simeon says that this child Jesus “is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that will be opposed.” Then, to make matters worse, he tells Mary that Jesus will cause a sword to pierce through her soul also. So which is it? Did Jesus come to bring peace, like the angels sang? Or Like children playing telephone, did their message get jumbled somewhere between heaven and earth?
Well, as I mentioned during the early service on Christmas Eve, the problem is not with the angels’ message. The problem is with our understanding of the word peace. The peace the angels announced is not a slogan from a T-shirt or bumper sticker. It is not the mantra of a hippie or some teenager who hasn’t experienced true loss yet. It is not political stability in Iraq, Afghanistan, or even the United States. It’s not political parties reaching across the aisle to work together in finally balancing the budget. It is not relief you feel after you’ve washed and put away the last dish from that tremendous holiday banquet. It is not the silence and calm that falls over the house in January when all the relatives have finally gone home. It’s not even that moment of inexpressible serenity waiting for you when you finish your taxes a few months from now.
As with so much of our Lord’s Word, the world around us cannot understand true peace – and as our Lord’s children, we must be vigilant so that we do not allow a false understanding of true peace twist our Lord’s promise. Peace according to the world is nothing more than the absence of anything troubling or agitating. But peace as the absence of bad things is no true peace, for there will always be more bad things threatening to wrench this so-called peace away from us. The world’s peace is fraught with uncertainty. True peace, the peace that the angels announced on that first Christmas, is the Hebrew word shalom, and it means much more than the simple absence of strife or conflict. Shalom, true peace, includes the presence of everything that our Lord would give to us. It is the establishment of the life that our Lord would have us live. The angels, those messengers of the Lord announcing peace at the birth of Jesus, are announcing that the greatest gift of the Lord, the Messiah, the Christ whom our Lord has promised, has arrived. And with the Christ comes shalom.
Don’t forget, our Lord created us to live in peace. Before the Fall, Adam and Eve lived at peace with the Lord. In Eden, they had everything that the Lord created for them. But once sin entered the picture, the peace was lost. Adam and Eve no longer lived in the perfect garden with all their needs provided. Now they lacked things, and were forced to toil and struggle to survive. Each and every person born since the fall has been missing that important piece of humanity, born without that shalom.
Our sin has separated us from all that the Lord would give us. It has made us enemies of our Lord, and we are left toiling and struggling in our life of enmity to him. Our Lord tells us in Leviticus that when his Law is fulfilled the friendship will be restored, and he will give us shalom, or peace [Leviticus 26]. Yet because we are unable to keep the Law, we are unable to find peace with the Lord by means of it.
But thanks be to God that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Or, as Jesus says in Matthew 5, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” [Matthew 5:17]. Every kid who comes up here for children’s messages can tell you that Jesus died for our sins, and his death and resurrection are indeed our life and salvation. But there is more to the story of our salvation than just the death and resurrection of Jesus. Remember, Jesus didn’t appear out of nowhere as a grown man to die for our sins. He was born as a baby, born under the Law, to redeem us who are under the Law. Not only did Jesus die for us, but he lived for us too. From the time he was a baby, Jesus was working for our salvation, working to restore our peace with God by keeping the Law of God perfectly as we could never do.
Today’s Gospel reading tells us that Jesus was brought to the temple when the time came for him and his mother to be purified according to the Law of Moses [Luke2:22]. He was purified on our behalf, purified for you. He himself is the pure Son of God and didn’t need purification. He did it for us. Luke also mentions the circumcision of Jesus according to the Law of Moses. Jesus was circumcised and purified according to the Law in order to fulfill the Law for us. He voluntarily subjected himself to the entire Law of Moses, the Law that he himself had written, a Law which he was above and immune to, he voluntarily placed himself under its authority and accomplished it for us who are unable to accomplish it for ourselves.
But the accomplishment of the Law comes with a price. As the book of Leviticus makes so clear, the shedding of blood is required for the fulfilling of the Law, “for it is the blood that makes atonement for your life” [Leviticus17:11]. In the shedding of his blood on the cross, Jesus completed his fulfilling of the Law on our behalf, and thus cried out, “It is finished!” [John 19:30].
Jesus did everything required in the Law, and yet he still suffered death. He fulfilled the Law perfectly for us, but was punished as a Law-breaker. He took our failure to keep the Law upon himself, and freely gives his perfect fulfillment of it to us. Because of this exchange, the Law has been fulfilled and we can be at peace with our Lord, as he promised in Leviticus. As the Apostle Paul says in Romans 5, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” [Romans 5:1]. Jesus is our peace.
By the gift of the Holy Spirit, Simeon recognized this peace. Simeon acknowledged that this baby was the peace announced by the angel chorus. He saw in the baby Jesus the savior who would bring shalom to YHWH’s people. So he took the baby in his arms and thanked the Lord that now he would depart in peace, for the salvation of the world had arrived. Simeon spoke about departure in peace not because he expected to be dead within a week, but because he recognized that in the baby Jesus the salvation from above had truly come to Earth. Simeon knew that now no matter when it came time for him to depart, he would do so at peace with the Lord because of the baby in his arms.
That is why Simeon’s song is our song too. Like Mary’s Magnificat recorded in the first chapter of Luke, Simeon’s song from chapter two is treasured in the church. Like Simeon, we too are greeted with the peace of the Lord when Jesus, the salvation of the world, stands among us in his body and blood in the bread and wine of his altar. We may not hold the infant Jesus in our hands, but when we have held that body and blood in our mouths, in our stomachs, in our hearts and in our lives as Simeon held him in his hands, we sing out with Simeon:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared before the face of all people,
A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
In the Lord we have the peace that the world cannot give. It is true peace; it is shalom. In Jesus we have been given all the blessings of our Lord, blessings which this world cannot take away from us. It is the peace that allows Stephen, even in the midst of his own execution, to commend his spirit unto the Lord and pray for the forgiveness of his executioners. Such peace and calm of spirit is possible only when we know that our salvation is secure, and that there is nothing in this world strong enough to wrench it from the hand of faith.
This world will never give true peace, for in this world moth and rust decay, thieves break in and steal, there is always the threat of one more war or disaster or tragedy looming just over the horizon. As we celebrate the birth of our Savior and prepare for the beginning of another new year, we do so with the joy of knowing what else is looming just over that horizon – the return of our Lord Jesus to take us to spend eternity with him in paradise. And we know that when he returns it will not be in judgment over us, but to claim us as his own treasured possession, and we know this because we are at peace with God. Jesus has fulfilled the Law. In a world that is in such disarray, filled with wars and scandals and chaos, we are given the gift of the peace of Christ to rule in our hearts [Colossians 3:15]. So as we enter the new year, may the peace of our Lord guard our hearts and minds in the true faith unto life everlasting.