Bring Us Focus, God of Peace. This is our theme for the Third Sunday of Advent. As I thought about the difficult work of peacemaking, a poem came to mind which was later turned into a familiar Christmas song. It was written by Henry Wordsworth Longfellow on Christmas Day, 1863:

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!

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

     The remarkable thing about this poem is that Longfellow wrote it after two major tragedies happened in his life. In 1861, Longfellow’s second wife of 18 years, Fanny, had trimmed some of their seven year old Edith’s curls. Fanny decided to preserve the clippings in sealing wax. Melting a bar of sealing wax with a candle, a few drops fell unnoticed upon her dress. But when a gust of wind came through an open window, the hot wax ignited her dress, completely wrapping her in flames.

To protect her children, she ran into Henry’s study and together they tried frantically to put out the flames.  Henry severely burned his face, arms, and hands. The next morning, Fanny died. Too ill from his burns and grief, Henry did not attend her funeral. Later, he grew his trademark full beard because of his inability to shave after the tragedy.

The first Christmas after Fanny’s death, Longfellow wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” A year after the incident he wrote, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” Longfellow’s journal entry for December 1862 reads, “A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

Then in 1863, during the Civil War, Longfellow’s oldest son, Charles, joined the Union cause as a soldier without his father’s blessing.  While dining at home on December 1, 1863, Longfellow received a telegram that his son had been severely wounded in battle four days earlier. Charles was shot through the left shoulder, with the bullet exiting under his right shoulder blade.  It had traveled across his back and skimmed his spine. Charles avoided being paralyzed by less than an inch. However, his recovery would take at least six months.

On Christmas Day of that same year, Longfellow wrote a poem about his feelings of loss and pain in the midst of a season whose message is captured by the angel’s greeting to the shepherds: “Peace on earth. Good-will to men!” Listen to the next three verses of the poem, two of which are excluded from the song:

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn the households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

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!”

     If Longfellow had ended the poem this way, it probably would not have been remembered. However, Longfellow somehow found it in himself to write one last verse:

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.”

     In the midst of his pain and loss, Longfellow held onto the hope contained in the message of Christmas. The Child born in Bethlehem is the Prince of Peace, whose reign will outlast all the hate and suffering that exists in our world. Perhaps he wrote these words to convince himself that this was true. Perhaps he wrote these words because he knew deep in his heart that they were true. The reason why I spent so much time telling his story this morning is that his poem helped me to see our First Lesson in a new and different way.

The prophet Isaiah proclaims A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots. The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of planning and strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.”

I’m certain that when Longfellow sat down to write his poem, he must have felt like the “stump of Jesse.” He must have felt like a piece of lifeless wood decaying in the forest. No hope for growth. No hope for being fruitful. All that was left to do was sit there and rot. But Longfellow also knew the promise of Christ to make all things new. The promise that a new shoot can sprout from a lifeless stump; a light can begin to shine in the darkest of circumstances. This is the hope we have in Jesus.

As Isaiah continues his prophetic words, he envisions the kind of world this shoot from Jesse’s stump will create. As a side note, Jesse was the father of King David. Both Matthew and Luke go to great lengths to let their readers know that Jesus was of the house and lineage of David. The world this shoot, Jesus, will create is one where “the wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young lion will feed together, and a little child will lead them.”

The peaceable kingdom. The reign of Christ. This is what those Christmas bells proclaim. Predator and pray will live together in harmony. As Charles Schultz states it, “The beagles and bunnies will lie down together.” It is the promise of a world that is quite different from the one we now inhabit. We may not see this world on this side of eternity. But Jesus promises us that the peaceable kingdom will be our home some day.

This is the promise that I hear Longfellow clinging to in his poem. It is the promise that we should all cling to when we find ourselves surrounded by tragedy and loss. It is the conviction that Christ is stronger than all of the powers of this world who seek to exploit and devour us. They may kill our bodies, but they cannot kill our souls. We belong to Christ and we are, first and foremost, citizens of the peaceable kingdom.

In 2017 when we’ve witnessed terrorism around the globe, threats of nuclear war, mass shootings in our neighborhoods, hate speech of all kinds, and charges of sexual harassment coming to light, It can make us feel like we’re the stump of Jesse. It can make us feel like peace is an elusive goal at best.

But, friends in Christ, those Christmas bells keep on ringing. In the midst of things that cause us to be anxious, sad and afraid, they remind us that God is not dead nor does God sleep. The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail with peace on earth good-will to all people.

If our theme for today is Bring Us Focus, God of Peace, perhaps Isaiah is telling us that peace often starts out as a tiny shoot defiantly growing from a lifeless stump. It doesn’t become a tree overnight. It takes time and nurture in order for it to grow.

Perhaps our challenge this Advent/Christmas season is NOT to bring peace on earth. Perhaps it is to grow peace within ourselves, as we make room for the Christ Child to dwell in our hearts. If we can achieve peace in our hearts, then, maybe, we can extend that peace, to our families, to our friends, to our neighbors, to the people in this room. Maybe we can extend that peace, to the hungry, the homeless, the abused, and the forgotten. Maybe we can even extend that peace to those whose political party is different from ours. Imagine that!

Peace is not something that comes easily in our world. It takes a lot of hard work and effort to achieve it. But I am convinced that with Christ’s help we can begin send out shoots from the lifeless stump of Jesse, and create places in our world where the peaceable kingdom is the law of the land. AMEN.

Copyright ©2017 by David Eck

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