December 2, 2018 — Rev. Paula Norbert
Today, we begin our journey to Christmas as we observe this first Sunday in Advent. We read the texts from Isaiah so that we may revisit the prophetic vision of peace that would have been familiar to the Jewish people in the time of Jesus.
As we hear this beautiful description of a King in Isaiah 9, it speaks of a leader who would bring the people out of oppression that will be heard again in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. The people understand that true peace depends on a just and compassionate ruler; however, the reign of Caesar and his Pax Romana was a “peace” that came with the high cost of suppressing human rights. The Jews at that time had a deep longing for real freedom, for light and thus this precious vision from Isaiah resonates, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” God’s presence is associated with light throughout the scriptures. Let us pray, O God of light and love, we yearn for your light in the darkest parts of our world. Be with us this day and in the weeks ahead as we look to the birth of your Son Jesus once again in our hearts and in the world. Amen.
In Isaiah 2, we read of the nations “streaming” to the mountain of the Lord’s house and this language evokes that sense of light. The Hebrew word herecould mean a stream like water or ﬂow like a river but it can also mean “to shine in joyful radiance.” As the nations move closer to God, they radiate the light of God–they reﬂect it. And so we see the stars, the candles, the images of light both here in our church and streaming through the darkness in the evenings as we enjoy the lights that are so central to this season. As the candles are lit every week during our time of worship, we are invited to “come closer” to God’s radiance and to take that radiance and “walk” it out into the world. Isaiah’s use of “walking in God’s paths” is a beautiful metaphor, an image that reminds us of our responsibility to live in a way that creates more justice, more compassion, more light in the world. As one commentator put it, “Light is what makes it possible to follow a path.”
We also hear in Isaiah the well-known phrase of turning the weapons of war into the tools of gardening, of growing and nurturing. We are challenged to use our ingenuity, our creativity, our energy for good and for building up. How might we find other ways, creative ways beyond war to reach across the divides and ﬁnd our common humanity. And so, we revisit the amazing story of the WWI “Christmas truce” of 1914. The word “truce,” comes from the root word for “faith, faithfulness, assurance of faith, covenant, truth, ﬁdelity, promise.” When we speak of coming to a truce, it doesn’t mean remaining silent in the face of important concerns like tyranny and oppression, but that in the pursuit of justice, our covenant and promise is to the thriving of all humankind. 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” and “might” played out in an unimaginable way for those that expected something quite diﬀerent. The “Prince of Peace” transformed lives in calling us to right relationship around tables and on the roadway and to right living (right-eous-ness), including calling us even today to live out a day-to-day compassion for those not like us.
In 2014, a television special was aired in the U.K., produced by Kathleen and Chris Loughlin of PictureWise Productions, on the 100th year anniversary of the Christmas truce. On the show, they televised a candlelight Christmas Eve service from two churches–one in Great Britain and one in Germany–to commemorate that important night of peace from a century before. They shared the voices from soldier’s letters at that time who had written about their experiences of that very special night. Here are some of what was written..
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.”
Voices 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, and other things, 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.”
At the conclusion of this special, the host shared the following words, which I believe are important words for us too as we begin this sacred season of Advent …“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?”
As we look ahead to these weeks of Advent, and as we remember the meaning that this beautiful hymn “Silent Night” has brought to many across the centuries, we begin this first Sunday with an invitation to find 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 may sometimes perceive as the enemy, or simply different for various reasons. The story of that Christmas truce more than a century ago may inspire us like that one person who issued the initial invitation to come out of the “mouseholes” and connect face to face. We each have the capacity 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 our children. It might just change the course of history, if only for a day.