I’ve always had an interest in the great hymns of the church... particularly in the stories behind those hymns that tell how they came to be written. One of my favorite hymn stories concerns the lyrics of the Christmas carol, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day —written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Now, Longfellow was really not a hymn writer per se, but this poem was set to music and has been sung in churches at Christmas ever since. Inspired by the joy of the Christmas season, Longfellow wrote the poem on Christmas day in 1863.
It starts, “I heard the bells on Christmas day, their old familiar carols play, And wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth, good will to men.”
Well, as Longfellow continued to write lines to this poem, his mind was filled with thoughts of all that was going on in his country at that particular time. The Civil War was in full swing. The Battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg were not more than six months past. Tens of thousands had died in those battles...even more were wounded or missing. It was not a peaceful time in America, and he probably asked himself the question, “How can the last phrase of that stanza be true in this war torn country of ours?” So he continued to write and his next verse went like this:
“And in despair I bowed my head: ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said, ‘For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.’
Now, unfortunately, you and I can probably identify with Longfellow’s feeling of despair because even today, 151 years later, this song of the angels recorded in Luke’s gospel seems like an idle dream. Like the prophet Jeremiah we sadly cry, “Peace, peace!...when there is no peace.”
And I say this because first of all...there is NO PEACE among the nations of the world. War and terrorism continue to wreak havoc on our world. The Middle East is embroiled in blood shed that looks like it will never stop. And this is nothing new. Just as Jesus foretold, there are now and have ALWAYS been, wars and rumors of wars.
And, not only is there no lasting peace among nations. It is hard to find it among people as well. The recent events in Ferguson and New York portray the sad reality that there is still deep division along racial lines in our own country. In our communities and neighborhoods every day newscasts are filled with stories of assaults, shootings, and robberies. This week I read some very depressing statistics that indicate that domestic violence is an ever increasing problem—showing that more and more homes experience a tragic lack of peace.
It was into a world and a time not all that much unlike our own that Jesus, the star of unity, the Prince of Peace was sent.
I would like for you to close your eyes and imagine a scene, a setting that for most of us is near and dear to our hearts. I want you to picture in your mind’s eye the stable scene in Bethlehem. Can you picture it?
What do you see? The baby all wrapped up in swaddling clothes? Do you see Mary, looking into the face of her new born son? Do you see Joseph standing there, his head swimming with all that has happened?
And do you notice the light streaming in? Where is it from? What’s its source on this cold Bethlehem night?
That is the light of unity shining forth from that bright star in the sky that has perched itself over Bethlehem. It’s a beautiful and serene scene, isn’t it?
Now fast forward with me. It is now not that starry night in Bethlehem. Rather, it is the night before the cross. It’s the night of the Last Supper, the washing of the disciple’s feet, the betrayal with a kiss. On that night, Jesus prays. If you will, now picture in your mind’s eye Jesus praying.
What exactly is Jesus praying for on the night before the cross?
Jesus prays for his first followers. It is all recorded in the Gospel of John, chapter 17:11: Jesus prays, “I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one.”
And then, Jesus prays for future believers in John 17:20-23: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
What is Jesus’ praying for on the night before the cross? He prays for unity. He prays for peace. He prays for oneness. This is so very significant. On the night before he would face the pain and suffering of the cross for our salvation, he prays for us, his people, that we might be united as one. At the very heart of our Savior is his deep desire that we would be united.
And, not only does he pray for unity, he achieved it!
That’s exactly what the apostle Paul wrote of in Ephesians 2:13-18: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.”
Here is a truth: Here is why the message of Christmas is so significant. Jesus was born, He came to bring unity. He restores unity between God and humanity. He gives unity among people. On that first Christmas that light dawned into our dark world. And ultimately His purpose was achieved when he gave his life for the life of the world. In the wretched darkness of Good Friday, the Star of Unity, Jesus our Lord, shines brightly for all to see.
But, let’s be honest, we still do live in a disjointed, divided and discordant world. Until our Advent Lord returns to restore all things and bring unity into full completion, we will still have the remnants of disunity around us. Let me give you one stark example.
Consider Bethlehem. Today in Palestine… there is a wall around the little town of Bethlehem. There, the thousands of people who live in that city are more or less held captive to their situation. The Bethlehem wall is a symbol of sad divisions that still exist between people.
Just like the Berlin Wall of days gone by, the Bethlehem wall has graffiti and messages painted all over it. One message reads, “This wall may take care of the present, but it has no future.” Another message echoes the words of President Reagan in Berlin, “Tear down this wall.” Yet another message cries out, “We all bleed the same color.” Another simply reads, “Forgive!”
But I want you to know, that in the place of Jesus’ incarnation, in the little town of Bethlehem, there is a little church, and that pastor and the people of that church are seeking to bring unity by the ONLY thing that brings true unity to the world...the Gospel of Jesus Christ…and the Gospel lived out in lives of humble service. Indeed, ‘the hopes and fears of all the years’ are still met together in Bethlehem. And, as the Christmas hymn says so beautifully, “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light.”
The pastor of that church, Dr. Mitri Raheb has said the following about the work being done in Bethlehem by Christmas Church and its ministries: “Our aim is that our people, who admire stars, will dare to look up and dream, to believe in goals to strive for, and develop a new sense of hope, community, beauty and faith.” [Bright Stars of Bethlehem Website]
Indeed, the Star of Unity is still shining in Bethlehem today. And it can shine brightly here in this place through us!
Brothers and sisters, let us be crystal clear, the Star of Unity will shine brightly as we find our unity NOT in our skin color, ethnic background, common language or common socio-economic status….but in the child of Bethlehem, the baby wrapped is swaddling clothes and lying in a manager, Jesus the Christ.
As the noted Christian author, A.W. Tozer, once wrote, “Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow. So one hundred worshippers meeting together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be were they to become “unity” conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship. Social religion is perfected when private religion is purified.” [In Tozer’s book “The Pursuit of God”]
Joni Eareckson Tada once wrote, “Believers are never told to become one. We already are one and are expected to act like it.”
In Christ….we ARE one!
Paul reinforced this reality boldly when he wrote these words in Romans 10:12-13: “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”
And in Galatians 3:28 Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
But one of the most strikingly beautiful Scriptures on the subject of unity comes in the Old Testament’s hymnbook, in Psalm 133:1: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!”
But let’s be clear, the Evil One would like nothing more than to keep us divided. His truly is a “divide and conquer” strategy. And, because of our pride and our prejudices, we have too often become complicit and willing participants in this work towards division.
But we know Satan’s schemes. We won’t let him win. We can achieve a greater unity as we do what Jesus did to bring unity. We work for unity when we love others as Jesus has loved us. We strive for unity when we forgive as we have been forgiven. Unity is realized when we seek peace in the name of the Prince of Peace. As Ephesians 2:14 states so clearly of Jesus… “For he himself is our peace.”
The word peace is “Shalom” in Hebrew. Jesus himself is our Shalom. And as his peace permeates our lives and our relationships, we are at peace and unity with one another.
Let me close with this story. Unless you live under a rock you know all too well of the unrest and protests that have resulted from the incident back in August, in which Michael Brown, an unarmed, black 18-year-old, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white policeman, in Ferguson, Missouri. We all watched the sad events unfold that led to anger and violence and protests in the streets of Ferguson and in other cities as well. This incident has once again exposed the fact that issues of racism, oppress, and injustice continue to divide our nation even in 2014.
And then a couple of weeks ago on November 24, we learned that the grand jury decided not to indict Wilson on any charges related to the event. And both inside and outside of the church people see events like the tragedy in Ferguson from totally different perspectives. And there is great division.
Immediately after the grand jury decision was announced another wave of unrest erupted as well as protests and demonstrations all over our nation. One such protest demonstration which took occurred in Portland, Oregon.
In the crowd that day was Devonte Hart. Devonte is an African-American boy who entered the world 12 years ago with drugs pumping through his tiny newborn body. By the time he was 4 years old he had smoked, consumed alcohol, handled guns, been shot at, and suffered severe abuse and neglect.
He knew only a handful of words, including the vilest 4 letter words you can imagine, and he struggled to identify with the names of food, body parts and everyday objects. Devonte was a violent toddler and his health was weighed down by a heavy list of disabilities. It was a life with little hope and a future that seemed over before it began. That is until he was rescued seven years ago (along with his siblings), adopted and raised by a compassionate Caucasian couple who helped him turn his life around.
With their unconditional love, nurturing natures, patience and acceptance, Devonte defied all odds and has grown into a young charismatic man with a heart of gold.
“He inspires me every single day. He has proven doctors, psychologists and teachers wrong. His future is most definitely not bleak; he is a shining star in this world. His light shines bright on everyone on his path.”
Devonte and his mom on November 25 attended a protest rally in Portland shortly after the verdict was announced. Devonte planned to engage the crowd with favorite pastime, carrying a sign and offering FREE HUGS.
In a Facebook post, his mom told this story.
“We hit the streets (Nov. 25) with the intention of spreading love and kindness, and to remind (ALL) people that they matter in this world. … I noticed Devonte was struggling. Tears. He wouldn’t speak. He was inconsolable. My son has a heart of gold, compassion beyond anything I’ve ever experienced, yet struggles with living fearlessly when it comes to the police and people that don’t understand the complexity of racism that is prevalent in our society.
“He trembled holding a Free Hugs sign as he bravely stood alone in front of the police barricade. Tears rushing from his eyes and soaking his sweater, he gazed upon them not knowing how they would react. After a while, one of the officers approached him and extended his hand.”
“There were generic questions about his favorite subject and what he liked to do in the summer, but the one that mattered hit straight to the heart. He asked Devonte why he was crying. His response about his concerns regarding the level of police brutality towards young black kids was met with an unexpected and seemingly authentic (to Devonte), ‘Yes. *sigh* I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.'”
The officer, later identified as Sgt. Bret Barnum then, then pointed to the sign and asked, “Do I get one of those?”
This image captured by a Portland freelancer is the result…in what has been called by some “the hug felt ‘round the world.”
Too often, of course, the images emerging from our world and from tense situations like that in Ferguson are ones of conflict and division. Too often, it seems that those divisions are irreconcilable. This one image is a reminder of a different reality, one where opposite ‘sides’ can reach across the gap and initiate healing.
How is this possible? How does that happen? It happens when we allow Jesus Christ, the Star of Unity to shine into the darkness of our hearts.
And the message of Christmas is that we are called to proclaim that message and to live that message in the world around us. We are called to be ambassadors.
When you signed up to follow Jesus, he gave you the ministry of reconciliation. Your life is a bridge over which people walk from death to life.
“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5:18–21, ESV).
God has entrusted you and me, his church, with the message of reconciliation. Are you giving that message away? Is the light of unity shining through you? God pleads with people to become his friends through our lives.
There is a fractured and hurting world that needs to know Jesus became what God hates most––sin––so that they could become what he loves most––his children.
Longfellow doesn’t end his hymn on a note of resignation and despair. “And in despair I bowed my head: ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said, ‘For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.’
No! Because at Christmas light shines in the darkness! Love conquers hatred. Hope and peace has come into the world in the birth of Jesus the light of unity. And because of that he could write:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men."
Jesus Christ, the Bright Star of Bethlehem came to us, lived for us, died for us, and rose again for us. He paid the price of our unity…so that what he prayed for on the night of the cross might be realized among us today. Jesus, He is the star of unity!
In Christ… We are one.
Sermon Topics: advent