Not all Christmas gift stories get remembered years later, but the year my friend didn’t get a bike that was a year to remember. She had been wishing for it for ages, or what seemed like ages to a 10 year old. It was a bright pink Beach Cruiser – a popular bike with thick framing and fat tires, all the kids were wishing for them in the late 1980’s Florida beach town where we lived.
My friend was pretty certain she was getting one. She had been to the store to be fitted with her parents. They wrote down all the measurements and made note of her favorite color paint. It seemed a done deal. Maybe she even spoke like it was certain to others, especially as she rounded out her Christmas list to other family members with all the matching accessories. The bike would be there Christmas morning; she was sure of it.
But maybe she shouldn’t have been. Christmas morning came, and she was ready to feign great surprise upon seeing the bike there in the living room, but it wasn’t. Old enough to know that she shouldn’t be disappointed about a present not received, but young enough to still be disappointed, she went through the rest of the morning with a little less enthusiasm than it might usually stir up. Things got a little harder, though, when she opened the present from her grandmother. It would have been the IDEAL present….
Inside the box was the perfect bike basket – white woven reeds were decorated with those absolutely, completely 1987 vinyl fluorescent flowers – neon green, neon pink, neon yellow. It would have been AWESOME on the front of her bright pink Beach Cruiser if she had, in fact, gotten that bright pink Beach Cruiser. But without the bike, the basket was, well, incomplete.
Up to this point in our Advent worship series the Scriptures we have shared have pointed out a gift of God at Christmas that I think is in contradiction to what we often ask for from God at Christmas, or anytime really. We wish for instant gratification and immediate solutions, but God gives hope, promises to be fulfilled in the future. We wish for nonjudgmental approval of all our actions, but God gives tough love, the refiner’s fire, a call to repentance. We wish for momentary happiness that hides our fears, but God gives lasting joy that comes from Christ’s presence in the midst of struggles.
This week, though, I don’t think our Christmas lists are in the same kind of contrast from God’s gift list. I think instead what we tend to mean by what is on our list is incomplete compared to what God promises to give. It’s like we’re asking for the bike basket, but have nothing to hang it on. How many Christmas cards have you received this year with some version of the message “Peace on earth” embossed inside or out in gilded script? It’s a message fit for the angels to sing, and I would be surprised to hear that any of us DON’T wish for it. Peace. It’s our wish for our lives, our wish for the world, and according to Micah, it’s definitely on God’s list to give.
Micah is the prophet toward whom the chief priests and scribes in Matthew’s gospel turn when telling King Herod that Bethlehem will be the birthplace of the Messiah. Bethlehem, Micah prophesies, will be the source of the new David as it was the birth place of the first David, the beloved king of Israel. Bethlehem, Micah prophesies will be the place from which God calls the new king, the Messiah, who will shepherd God’s people as David shepherded sheep, who will finish gathering them into one people, as David held the kingdom together united. Bethlehem will be the source of the Messiah, the new David, the new king, a new kind of king, who will bring them together, feed them and make them strong. He will make them secure against all their enemies. He will be the one of peace. It’s what God promises. It’s the gift God delights in giving. It is peace.
War was at hand. The horrors of battle and cities under siege were the common knowledge of the people of Bethlehem and throughout Israel. The thought of a king coming out of this battered land, and a king of peace, was absurd. Peace is not how you build a nation. Peace is not how you find strength against your enemies, how you display majesty to the kingdoms of the world, how you make a home for your people surrounded by nations that are different. Peace, the absence of fighting, the absence of aggression and destruction and devastation, won’t get you too far in rebuilding the glory days of old. Or so the common theory holds.
And I think that’s because the common theory holds a pretty limited view of peace – an incomplete view, you might say. “Peace on earth” - - what is it we’re asking for when we pray this along with the angels. What are wishing for when we send it in our greeting cards? What does it mean when we celebrate it’s coming in Jesus who was born in Bethlehem?
I had this similar conversation at a meeting in September, not at our church. The group I was with was trying to make a decision about a grant request for funds to be spent from a Peacemaking Offering. It was to be a challenge grant for an emergency shelter in a small town in central Nebraska. The shelter is operated by an ecumenical alliance in this small town and ministers to women and children who are fleeing homes where domestic violence is present. The request was not to completely bail the shelter out of its financial pit, but to offer funds that would only be given when matched by the other participating denominations.
In the course of our discussions the question was asked, “What does any of this have to do with Peacemaking?” At first our committee was silent. The one who asked the question wasn’t against the shelter. He didn’t desire for the women and children to have no place to go. His question was a legitimate one as one of the stewards of the gifts given by faithful Christians. What does this have to do with Peacemaking, the cause behind the offering?
His question was a legitimate one, but I think it also highlights our common thinking about peace. Peace, we tend to think, is the absence of war. Peace is a lack of fighting. That’s what we tend to think. That’s what we tend to be asking for when we ask for peace on earth, world peace, peace in our cities. But I think our definition, I think our hopes for what peace will look like, I think what we are used to asking for, is incomplete. Micah declares that the one of peace is coming, but Mary in singing her beautiful song of praise, tells us what that really means. She’s tells us what God’s complete gift of peace really looks like.
Now she never says the word “peace,” but the ability to sing that song in the midst of the life she’s living? Certainly, Mary knows what peace is as much as she knows what it means to need it. There have probably been more than a few battles for her to face in the last several months. A young girl, betrothed to be married, Mary has turned up pregnant, and even in a time and culture that was more open than ours to supernatural explanations for earthly affairs, the story of being visited by angel and conceiving a child by the spirit of God is more than just a little unbelievable. It could not have been a peaceful life for her, those early months of pregnancy – strife with her parents, the worry over what Joseph would think and do, the ridicule and shame from the neighbors, literally fearing for her life in a town where it was legal to KILL her because of the child she carried. Nothing in there sounds like peace even in the absence of an outright war.
Yet, even in the midst of all of that and more, Mary can sing, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Even in the midst of the most traumatic time of her still short life, Mary can sing praises to God. In fact, over and over again, she seems to be the one in the birth narrative most at peace. She seems to know what peace, real peace, complete peace, is all about.
A young girl, from an unimportant backwater town, lifted up to be a blessed servant of God. As insignificant a girl in a world dominated by Roman occupation as Bethlehem had become in the time of Micah after a string of miserable kings had allowed foreign nations to rule the land, and she was the one being lifted up into service to God. She sings of a time coming with the gift of her child when the proud and arrogant are toppled down from the pedestals they occupy while the oppressed and the forgotten, the lowly in the eyes of the world, are raised to new importance. Those hungry for food are filled with what is usually only good enough for the wealthy, who hoard it away for themselves. The rich find out what it means to worry for a little bit. The world is reversed, but most importantly, the playing field is leveled. Everyone has a chance.
War is never mentioned in Mary’s beautiful song, but the conditions that lead to war, the conditions that lead to anxiety and violence, the conditions that lead to both offensive and defensive stances, they are all over her song, and ultimately, she sings they are eliminated by God who comes in the child she carries, by the one of peace. Pride and power abused, hunger and oppression, all these are promised to be removed by the one who is coming, the one of peace. Battlefields aren’t a part of the picture she paints, but the need for them is lost when peace comes completely.
The peace that is promised in the gift of God’s Son, complete peace – it’s about more than just the absence of war; it’s about the presence of justice. It’s the world that God displayed in choosing Mary to carry this gift. It’s the world that Jesus demonstrated by including the outcast, sharing meals with sinners, healing the broken and brokenhearted, loving the unlovable. It’s the world we’re called to bring about as his people, his disciples, the ones bearing his name, Christ, the Messiah – not just a world where fighting is silent, but a world where fighting isn’t even necessary.
May God’s gift of the peace of Christ be with us this Christmas. May the complete peace of Christ be with us and in us and showing through us this Christmas and always.