“I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war!” — Psalm 120:7
“…who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?” — Isaiah 53:8b
“God’s peace comes after the inner conflict of repentance.” — Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas
One of the major themes of Advent is peace. You probably already know this because of the way you’ve been inoculated by Christmas music like most good Americans. Just start singing along…
“Peace on earth and mercy mild God and sinners reconciled…”
“Peace on the earth, goodwill to men From heaven’s all gracious King / The world in solemn stillness lay To hear the angels sing…”
“Sleep in heavenly peace…”
“Bid Thou our sad divisions cease / And be Thyself our King of Peace…”
And those are just the songs written before 1900. Peace is a theme mainly because of Isaiah’s prophecy, that Jesus would be called “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6), but also the cry of the angels when visiting those lowly shepherds (Luke 2:14). We love this idea, that Jesus would bring us peace, especially during such a time of turmoil. But just as we love the idea, it’s kind of difficult to understand how it would ever be achievable.
As we sing songs like this during such a turbulent time in our culture, it seems sort of like a wish into the thin winter air. We’re crossing our fingers for a kind of magic spell of peace. How does Jesus bring peace? How can we be certain it will come?
One clue is found in the birth narrative in Luke 2. After Linus tells us “The True Meaning of Christmas” and recites a good amount of Luke 2, he leaves off (quite appropriately for the children in the room) the circumcision and the presentation of the child in the temple court (Luke 2:21).
This presentation would have been customary for a little Jewish baby like Jesus. The priests were those who confirmed the child was, in fact, Jewish, and was, in fact, “clean” and rid of any strange diseases that would name him otherwise. A check-up of sorts, this formality would matter deeply to Jewish readers because the outcome of such a visit would be the circumcision and blessing, allowing a physical and historical sign that this child was part of the chosen people of God (Leviticus 12:3–4).
Simeon, the mysterious priest only mentioned here in Luke, blesses the child with a famous benediction (Luke 2:29–32), and then the Scriptures say this:
33 And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” — Luke 2:33–35
This comment Simeon makes after the blessing is haunting. Up until this point, it is clear Jesus is the son of God, that the Messiah has been born, that the word has become flesh and dwelt among us, but suddenly the dark shadow of the cross is cast upon this innocent baby: “a sign that is opposed” is mentioned right alongside “a sword” that will pierce the soul of his mother, Mary. Suddenly, the unfortunate truth is prophesied: peace will come the way peace has always come to human societies: through suffering.
Americans tend to think about peace as the absence of conflict, the state of people not at war. Peace is an absence of something to us. But Biblically, peace — famously shalom in the Hebrew — is the presence of God. In Scripture, shalom is the flourishing of humanity in relationship with God. It is about a presence of relationship, the interaction with the Creator, the blessing of his face turned toward humankind. With this kind of radical presence, peace is possible.
But at the same time, this presence is terrifying. Nearly every time God shows us his presence, people fall flat on their face, as though dead. God’s peace that he brings is devastating, difficult to swallow, unfathomable, ineffable. His peace comes through an earthquake, a famine, blood in the water, a burning bush, frogs from the sky, a pillar of smoke. God’s peace is thunderous.
How is this actually “peace?” It’s strange, but upon a deeper inspection of true peace, we would understand that peace itself requires a kind of suffering and turmoil. Think about the United States’ civil rights movement or the South African apartheid, both required immense non-violent suffering to see some level of peace. These movements, while leading both countries to better places (the work certainly not completed yet), costed everything.
Beyond this, each movement required transcendent figures who were unwilling to “take sides” and instead stand for true peace (MLK and Mandela). Both figures offended both sides of the struggle at some point and suffered the consequences. No one was accused more of being a nuisance and “stirring the people up” than Martin Luther King Jr. His non-violent peace-making was filled with strife. It was anything but tranquil. However, by entering in at such a dramatic, aggressive level, both he and Mandela were able to achieve peace.
Even less dramatic and historical, think about when you used to fight with you bratty brother over Ninja Turtles (just me?). What brought peace to an argument over an action figure? The two of you are locked in to your own rights, your possessions — nobody is giving up any ground. It takes an invasion from the outside, your mom or dad, entering in and breaking it up with aggression and assertiveness. The parent jumps in, puts both in their corners, and provides a level of wisdom the kids cannot see. This is what it takes to achieve peace.
They may say, “Your brother bought this toy with his allowance, now you can play with it for 10 minutes, but then you have to give it back to him.” Both sides lose, but gain peace. The prerequisite to peace is disruption.
The only way to bring peace is for a transcendent character to enter in with dramatic, aggressive fashion that exposes the weaknesses of both sides. In such a profound case, both sides are invited to humble relationship with one another based off of the transcendent character’s message.
That, or they assassinate him.
Unfortunately this is the case with all peacemakers, including and especially Jesus Christ. Mandela was jailed, King was shot, and Christ was crucified. We love to claim “peace on earth,” but mostly what we mean by “peace” is everyone acting like us and thinking like us so we “can all get along.” Strange that for all the cries we have to “all get along,” we never want to give anything up ourselves.
Which brings me back to Mary and Simeon.
Mary is told by Simeon a “sword will pierce her soul” right after he claims Jesus to be the salvation for all people. The only way to salvation will be through the sword. And this prophecy, of course was right. From this point on in the story, Mary’s soul is pierced time and time again.
In Mark 3, Jesus’ disciples tell him his mom and siblings are looking for him and want him to come back home. Jesus’ reply is terse: “Who are my mother and my brothers?…For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” To be replaced as a mother by anyone who “does the will of God” is a shot to the heart. Jesus’ ministry absorbed his life, and his life was larger than his family. Mary must have had to grieve the loss of a son before he died.
Of course the most painful thing Mary would go through is the most painful thing any parent can go through: watching your child die. Mary is mentioned at being near the foot of the cross. After all of his disciples had left him, Jesus makes a final provision for his mother by giving her to the care of his only follower left, John the Beloved (John 19:26).
After this brief narrative, we might conclude that Mary would be devastated. The sword has pierced her soul. The ultimate disruption of her life has occurred. There is no peace, only darkness.
This is the kind of peace we sing of during Advent. It is the kind of peace the Mother of Jesus must have had at the foot of the cross. While there is no absence of conflict (quite the opposite, actually), there is a strange presence here. A presence that, in the dead body of Jesus, is working resurrection. The peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of the promise she received from the angel thirty years before the cross:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
“God my savior.”
Even in the dead body of Jesus, peace comes before she’s certain peace is coming. It is an unshakeable hope, a certainty she cannot see, but nonetheless the very certainty of God’s promise. This is the definition of faith, is it not? To have (as the old 1984 NIV says), “assurance of what we hope for and certain of what we cannot see” (Hebrews 11:1). Perhaps she heard the words her son Jesus spoke of a once-dead girl, “Do not weep, for she is not dead but sleeping” (Luke 8:52).
How do we know Mary kept the faith? How can we be sure Mary found peace after the sword to her soul? The answer is in a brief line in the beginning of the book of Acts:
“All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.” — Acts 1:14
The first church gathering after the ascension of Jesus included his mother. All these would be the most devoted followers. As the Roman and Jewish officials hunted any who associated themselves with this controversial, transcendent figure, seeking their own capital punishment, Mary is one of the devoted ones, worshipping the risen Jesus. Peace in the turmoil.
Christmas teaches us that peace comes through the sword — not through violence, but through the “inner conflict of repentance” (Tim Keller). The gospel is not a peaceful message in the modern American sense, whereby all parties fall under a spell of good-feels. No, the gospel is an invasion from the outside, a transcendent character who has shaken up our current system, turned our world upside down with his radical message of a kingdom where the first are last and the last first. Both sides lose so all might gain. This occurs so peace might come not after we suffer, but after he suffers for us.
Why were the witnesses of men like Mandela and MLK powerful? Why is Bonhoeffer remembered after being hung in the gallows of a Nazi concentration camp?
All of them are pointing to something greater than all of them combined. They’re pointed to the profound reality that when we human beings see peace, we destroy it. And when the Prince of Peace, Jesus, came among us, we slaughtered him. And still…it was in that suffering that peace was brought about.
This is precisely why we get strangely beautiful passages like this in our New Testament. I suggest you read them slowly and carefully, as if for the first time:
19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. — Colossians 1:19–20
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace… — Ephesians 2:14–15
Jesus did not come to earth and separate us into the right group and the wrong group. He didn’t join any side. His cross destroyed “sides” and created “one new man in place of the two, so making peace.”
The peace of God is not about both sides “getting along,” it’s not about seeing our differences and learning tolerance. It’s about obliterating our categories, destroying our prejudices, humbling us in light of his cross, and creating for himself the new people of God. Peace only comes through the sword, the astonishing reality of the gospel is that Christ has taken the sword for us, allowing peace no matter the violence that surrounds us.