Prince of Peace with a Sword?

Come back soon to watch the video of this teaching here.

Synopsis: The underlying understanding of biblical peace (shalom) is not simply a superficial absence of conflict or war, but a deeper wholeness, harmony, and health.  This is the means and end of what God is up to.  In fact, it is the definition of the salvation God has offered and provided and delivered from the very beginning of creation, through all of what happened in and through Jesus, up until now, and will be forevermore.  To find this peace is to find God, Life, Source, etc.  This peace, however, is radically different than the peace most often pursued or accepted individually and in the broader world today.  The contrast between the peace of God/Christ and what we generally pursue is so great, in fact, that the pursuit of it feels like the opposite.  The question for us is, which peace will we pursue?  Which peace will we trust as true peace?

If we could wave a magic wand and immediately bring peace over wherever we waved it, where would you want to wave the wand?  Syria?  Afghanistan and Iraq?  Nigeria?  US Race Relations?  Gender inequality?  LGBTQ?  Religions of the world?  Cancer battlers?  Domestic violence sufferers?  Extreme poverty?  Human trafficking?  It’s a long list, isn’t it?

It’s been a long list for a very long time.  It was a long list at the time of Jesus’ birth, too, and lots of people wanted God to wave a magic wand and pacify all the things on the list.  They thought God would anoint someone to usher in the wand waving, so to speak.  The Messiah (anointed one) would purge Israel of the Roman Empire so that the Jewish people could have their homeland back to rule as their own.  This would mean peace for the people.  Why wouldn’t everybody want that to happen?

Joseph lived in the hillbilly region of ancient Israel.  He was a country boy, and barely made a living as a carpenter.  When you think of Joe, don’t think Jonathon Scott of HGTV’s Property Brothers’ fame, transforming lackluster homes into showpieces on the dime of their clients.  Think day laborer hanging out in the parking lot across the street from Home Depot, hoping to pick up a job that day.  He lived at a time in Jewish history centuries after they called their land their own.  They held out hope for that day to eventually come, but with the Roman Empire occupying their land, it would take a miracle.  Joseph worked hard, probably practiced his faith like most people, and was planning on eventually getting married, having kids, the whole package.  He was already engaged, and was probably trying to get his home built so that they could finally get married.  Then this happened:

This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her fiancé, was a good man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly.
     As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
     All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet:
          “Look! The virgin will conceive a child!
          She will give birth to a son,
          and they will call him Immanuel,
          which means ‘God is with us.’”
     When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus. – Matthew 1:18-25 (NLT)

The prophecy cited is interesting.  It comes from a time when the Jewish nation was divided, literally.  Israel was to the north and Judah was to the south.  This prophecy came to the King of Judah, who reigned in the south.  He was terrified that Israel and Syria were going to join forces and wipe out his little country.  The prophet Isaiah got a message from God that it wouldn’t happen, and to prove it, God would give this sign: “Look! The [young woman] will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’). By the time this child is old enough to choose what is right and reject what is wrong, he will be eating yogurt and honey. For before the child is that old, the lands of the two kings you fear so much will both be deserted” (Isaiah 7:14-16).  God was saying that a magic wand of sorts was going to be waved.  The Jewish people of Judah could expect peace, not war, regarding their enemies to the north (which included their former countrymen, Israel).

What Matthew is doing here is drawing a parallel for his readers: this is how God showed that God was with God’s people back then.  God is going to act in a similar manner again in the birth of Jesus.  Things are about to look up.  Hope is on its way.

The next verse(s) after this near-prophecy from Isaiah are usually not noted in Christmas cards, in Handel’s Messiah, and generally not in our collective memory: “Then the Lord will bring things on you, your nation, and your family unlike anything since Israel broke away from Judah. He will bring the king of Assyria upon you!”  In other words, the initial peace will be followed by sheer terror.  The peace will be short lived. The wand waving would only work for a moment.  There were deeper issues that a quick fix wand wave couldn’t address.

Isaiah doesn’t end there, however.  In the distant future, God would finally bring lasting peace:

For a child is born to us,
     a son is given to us.
The government will rest on his shoulders.
     And he will be called:
          Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
               Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His government and its peace
     will never end.
He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David
     for all eternity.
The passionate commitment of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies
     will make this happen! – Isaiah 9:6-7 (NLT)

In Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, a host of angels appear to some shepherds that very night and proclaim with their song: “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to all with whom God is pleased” (Luke 2:14).  The Gospel writers are telling us that with Jesus, God is with us, and part of that good news is that there will be peace.  Peace because the reign of God will be reestablished, which means Rome will be pushed out of their homeland.  Could this be the magic wand wave everyone had been hoping for?

What do you think of when you hear that peace is coming with Jesus?  What does peace mean to you?  Maybe for you it means that the longest war in our nation’s history will come to an end.  Or that the civil war in Syria will end.  Or that terrorism will end.  Or, closer to home, that racial conflict in the United States will go away.  Or political battles between Democrats and Republicans will come to an end and congress willactually make progress.  Or even closer to home, that your abusive partner will stop abusing you physically, and/or sexually, and/or verbally, and/or emotionally, and/or spiritually.

Maybe you’re a realist, and don’t hold out hope for any of the above conflicts to be pacified, so you think inwardly.  Inner peace is what it’s all about.  No matter what’s happening in the world around you, God’s good news is that you can weather it because you are calm on the inside.

What a surprise, then, when Jesus grows up to make this announcement:

“Don’t imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword.
     ‘I have come to set a man against his father,
          a daughter against her mother,
      and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.
           Your enemies will be right in your own household!’ (Micah 7:6)
“If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.” – Matthew 10:34-39 (NLT)

At the very end of the Bible, in the strange apocalyptic book called Revelation, we get this scene of Jesus:

Then I saw heaven opened, and a white horse was standing there. Its rider was named Faithful and True, for he judges fairly and wages a righteous war. His eyes were like flames of fire, and on his head were many crowns. A name was written on him that no one understood except himself. He wore a robe dipped in blood, and his title was the Word of God. The armies of heaven, dressed in the finest of pure white linen, followed him on white horses. From his mouth came a sharp sword to strike down the nations. – Revelation 19:11-15a (NLT)

So much for peace…

What are we supposed to make of this?  What happened to our warm-fuzzy-snuggly-buddy-Jesus?  Where’d the love go?  How did we lose the magic wand and end up with a sword?

The problem isn’t with Jesus.  At the center of the conflict is our understanding of peace itself.

We very often jump to a definition of peace that simply has us looking for the absence of war or conflict.  Perhaps that’s not completely reflective of what Jesus was after, however.  Jesus was Jewish, which meant that his understanding of peace was likely tied to his faith heritage.  The most commonly used term for peace in Hebrew is shalom.  Shalom isn’t simply a reference to the absence of war and conflict, but literally means to be whole, complete, to be well.  This state of wellness, completeness, and wholeness is reflected in Eden, where God pronounced everything good, and male and female human beings created in God’s image as very good.  That early picture showcases what shalom looks like.  Total harmony in creation.  Not just lack of conflict.  Not just inner peace.  Every broken place restored.  Every dark hatred exposed by light.  Every prejudice under every rock found out and addressed.  Every wound healed.  We’re talking about a deep peace not a shallow quick fix.

Of course, as the Jewish story goes, Adam and Eve made mistakes – as we do – that damaged shalom.  Their story has been repeated in history from the earliest times until now.  We still find ourselves damaging shalom.  Jesus was a restorer of that deep peace with his life.  Sometimes, however, shallow peace is preferred.  When shallow peace is preferred, shalom is a threat, a sword that will destroy.  And it does.  And it will.

Shalom isn’t content with a cease-fire.  Shalom seeks reconciliation, which is much harder and deeper.  Shalom isn’t satisfied with laws on the books calling for equal rights for all in the United States; shalom actually pursues lived-out equality for all.  That means prejudice is challenged.  Racism is called out.  Sexism isn’t tolerated.  When people are marginalized, minimized, and mistreated, shalom comes with a sword – words of peace that pierce pride and bigotry.  Shalom isn’t satisfied with an abuser who stops for a day when genuine redemption is in order.  The abuser obviously is living out of brokenness and needs redemption.  All who have been abused need redeeming.  Systems that allow abusive behavior need healing, to be made well, restored to a way that allows for wholeness.  The prophet Zechariah voiced it this way:

But this is what you must do: Tell the truth to each other. Render verdicts in your courts that are just and that lead to peace. Don’t scheme against each other. Stop your love of telling lies that you swear are the truth. I hate all these things, says the Lord.” – Zechariah 8:16-17 (NLT)

If you’re keeping track, you’re probably realizing that shalom destroys our pursuit of inner peace, too, not because inner peace is bad.  Inner peace is good and is available to all under any and every circumstance.  But inner peace can easily be construed as an activity in isolation.  In our highly individualistic culture, we do not need help becoming more isolated unto ourselves.  Shalom brings a sword to poke and prod us out of the comfort of our personal spirituality to stand for justice where it isn’t.  Shalom cannot exist where true justice fails to be present. Justice only happens when people get off their duffs and see that justice is lifted up and carried out.

Jesus came to bring a sword, because true shalom brings truth and justice with it in the bargain.  His sword was not one of military prowess, and the blood stains (Revelation passage) were likely from his own wounds that he took on for others.  There is an oft-quoted statement Jesus made: you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.  As a stand-alone statement, it’s good and accurate.  But the context of that statement was that he was talking about his own death that would come at the hands of aggressors who didn’t want to hear the truth he brought.  The truth to which he referred was that we need redeeming, and we need a redeemer to do it.  We have a tendency to damage shalom sometimes nearly irreversibly – we can’t help ourselves, apparently – and we don’t like having a mirror held to our faces to see reality.  Being honest about reality is the first step toward real peace.  Seeing reality can be terrifying, however.  We sometimes would prefer to kills shalom and settle for the bandaid peace instead.

But shalom is not ours to kill, and in fact, cannot be killed because it is the heartbeat of God, where love resides and thrives.  Shalom is eternal and eternally present, ready to be realized should we choose to pursue it.  But it is a choice.  The sword refers to that choice.  Not a weapon of bloodshed, but a tool to help us determine who we are and who we want to be, what kind of peace we hope for and what we’re willing to do to manifest it.

Have you settled for peace that is not peace?  Have you settled for the absence of conflict even though the problem simmers beneath the surface in relationships at home, work, or with friends?  This is peace that is not peace.  Have you settled for comfortable inner peace while people near and far are being treated unjustly?  This is peace that is not peace.  The sword of Jesus – his word – calls it like it is, forcing us to answer the questions: who are we, who are we choosing to be, and what are we going to do about genuine shalom in our lives and world?

Over the next few weeks leading up to Christmas, we will be exploring what it means to be people of peace.  Christmas came with a sword for Joseph and Mary, and they chose to step into genuine peace as they brought the embodiment of the Prince of Peace into the world.  Maybe we will begin to experience genuine peace instead of its counterfeit.  Perhaps we will find ourselves helping others find peace as we get off our duff to make sure peace really is available to all people everywhere as the chorus sang.  Maybe it’s this kind of pursuit of peace that finds the favor and power and love of God that enables it to happen in the first place.  Maybe it’s not a magic wand we need after all.  Maybe it’s a sword to cut to the quick so we can heal what needs to be healed, mend what’s really broken, make whole what is shattered.