Prince of Peace

Good Government

The First Sunday After Christmas

Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 145, Luke 2:1-20

Good Government

                I went to the Ferghana Valley to learn what God was doing there.  The first lesson I learned was that I must first learn what man was doing there.

We fail, I think, to comprehend the light until we have seen the darkness . . . until we venture out into the Ferghana Valley, or some such hell.

In a place called Andijon, on the old Silk Road in the east of what is now Uzbekistan, I watched the nightly news.  Some Westerners resident there translated for me.

First, let me tell you what I had seen that needed no translation.  When the Soviet Union crumbled, the subjugated peoples of Central Asia had thronged the streets in celebration, toppling statues of those ogres of old.

And then, in no time at all, other old ogres resumed their places.  Lenin and Stalin had finally, mercifully been exorcised, but the apparatchiks who had represented their ghosts so ably hardly hiccupped.  They resurfaced in the new national bureaucracies, with conveniently rearranged initials.

Who needs the KGB?  The GKB or BGK will do just as well.  In those giddy days just after the Iron Curtain melted, the same old thugs replaced themselves in the places of privilege, answering no longer to Moscow but only to themselves.

Everywhere I turned, I saw a billboard featuring the forbidding face of the local strongman, known as “president.”

He had statues of his own and motorcades that held up traffic for an eternity.  And so it was that I was hardly unbelieving, if still amazed, at what I heard on the TV news.  Andijon occupies the center, there in the Ferghana Valley, of one of the most fertile cotton-producing regions on the planet.

You’ve heard of banana republics?  This is a cotton republic.  In October, all the schools, including the universities, shut down so all the students can bend their backs to the harvest.

And because Uzbekistan possesses precious little other than cotton to sell outside its borders, for a month each year the harvest is the lead story on the nightly newscast of the state-controlled television network night after night after night.  All cotton, all the time.

In a good year, the stolid anchorman reports in an approving tone the progress of the harvest.  In a bad year, he proceeds in a scolding tone to lament the failures of the farm managers to achieve the president’s lofty goals.

But of course, there’s always a story behind the story.  The Westerners filled me in.  Each year, before the harvest, the president establishes a quota for that year’s crop.  He bases it on his reckoning of what the nation’s coffers must reap from the fields to sustain his agenda for the year.

Considerations such as weather are irrelevant.  The dictator’s need is paramount.  And so it is that in a bad year the BGK or GKB or whatever it is now called rounds up farm managers and throws them into the slammer to let the nation know what happens to those who disappoint its revered leader.

Of course, such is the way of tyrants in all places in all times.  Here there is a flip side, and this is the image that sticks in my head almost two decades later.

Occasionally, in a very good year, when the rains are plentiful and growing conditions ideal, the harvesters meet the quota early.  And when they do, the students return to school and the farm managers pick up a bonus.

And the crop that remains rots in the field.  The quota has been met.  Picking more cotton would be to no purpose.  The dictator’s appetite has been sated; like Raggedy Andy, he is stuffed with cotton.

To the west of Uzbekistan, in Turkmenistan, the president anointed himself “Turkmenbashi” – Father of All Turkmen.  He renamed the days of the week after his nearest and dearest, beginning with Mom.

But before we dismiss him as a cartoon character . . . He had a passion for chess, and spent millions on a glistening chess palace to attract the world’s grand masters to his tournaments – while his people went hungry.

To the south, in Afghanistan, the ancient ethnic strife went on in one bloodbath after another.  One tribe gained the upper hand and herded scores of people from the rival group into a railway boxcar in the sizzling summer, locked them inside and cooked them to death.

I multiply examples to make the point that in America our prosperity creates a veneer of civilization that masks our depravity.  If not for the grace of God we, like them, would be destitute of both money and morals.

But God, but God, but God – praise His holy name! – is full of grace.  And as long as the people of Central Asia draw breath they, like us, may turn unto Him, beg His forgiveness and receive His pardon.  He is the hope of the world, every sin-soaked square inch of it.

Just before our passage for today from Isaiah 9, the prophet tells of those in Israel who will respond to the coming Assyrian invasion by seeking God through mediums and wizards rather than in His law that reveals His character.  These will “see trouble and darkness, gloom of anguish; and they will be driven into darkness.”

Those who sow darkness reap an even blacker gloom which has no end.  This was Israel in Isaiah’s day.  Just before him, his prophetic colleague Amos denounced God’s people because, “They sell the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals” (2:6).

But God . . . As long as a faithful remnant remains, as long as two or three wretched sinners hold out hope for illumination that will overcome the black anguish of their transgressions, our longsuffering and merciful Father will send light into His world.

We come in chapter 9 to His promise that one day, in His time, that light will saturate His kingdom, never to contend again with darkness.  Satan is vanquished, his minions annihilated . . . the creation radiates a golden glow of holiness.

Beloved, as we continue to celebrate the coming of our Savior, we look ahead through the prophet’s eyes to His second coming, to that glorious day when our victory is finally and fully realized.  Both comings loom in our passage and Isaiah describes the two future events in the past tense, for God has willed them to be:

“The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined.”

This is now, for despite the darkness that tries to suffocate us, the light has entered the world, and the light will prevail.  And this is the end of days, the Sabbath that will never cease, the final day of everlasting rest and peace, of unbroken communion with our God.

All who dwell there with Him will know the joy of justice: an end of tyrants, of poverty, of oppression, of sin.

Who will accomplish these things?  President John F. Kennedy said in his Inaugural Address: “Man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty.”

He gave us, in a sentence, the grand delusion.  By his might, man will make all things new.  Not so long ago, a more humble world knew better.  Samuel Johnson wrote, “How small, of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws or kings can cause or cure.”

Our Lord put it this way, “The poor you have with you always” (St. John 12:8).  Until that glorious day of His return.  And then, “Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end.”

He is the Ruler – the only Ruler – whose justice does not poison His mercy, whose mercy does not curdle His justice.  In Him there is no conflict and in His kingdom there will be no contention, only peace.

The prophet pronounces, “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given.”  The Child can be born; the Son can only be given.  The Son is eternal, begotten, not born.

“And the government will be upon His shoulder.”  Many among the church fathers found in this phrase a reference to the cross our Lord bore on the way to Calvary.  “By it,” wrote Caesarius, “the devil is conquered.”

The One the prophet foretells will bear the weight of worldwide government as a trifle, for His yoke is easy and His burden light (St. Matthew 11:30).  With the government upon His shoulder, the yoke on His subjects will be as light as love.

What shall His name be called?  His names shall be many.

“Wonderful.”  In Hebrew, this word is a noun.  When used of God, it refers to One who does supernatural things . . . sometimes called miracles.  It evokes an image of God’s wondrous acts in delivering His people from slavery in Egypt, and now in deliverance from bondage in sin.

“Counselor.”  He is the repository of all true wisdom – in contrast to the wisdom of man.  The wisest man, Solomon, in the end acted so foolishly that the nation was torn asunder upon his death.  This One is so wise as to turn humiliation into exaltation, surrender into victory, death into life.

“Mighty God.”  Israel once had God as their Ruler.  A rebellious people demanded a human king.  Be careful what you ask for.  Both North and South endured a succession of tyrants as wicked as those who rule many nations today.

But God’s chosen people will see their King restored to His throne, and He will be so mighty as to absorb all evil in Himself.

Wearing a crown of thorns on the cross He will cry out, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”  Taking our sin upon Himself He will make us holy as He is holy, and finally fit to be governed by Him.  God is showing us sovereignty deified and humanity purified.  No human ruler can summon the power to bring about a government that establishes everlasting peace grounded in perfect justice.

“Everlasting Father.”  An eternal kingdom requires an everlasting King, and this One will rule not as a despot who oppresses His subjects but as a Father who sacrifices for His children.  Our heavenly Father, who delights to perfect strength in weakness, has sent a Child, meek and mild, into the world over which He will reign.

This name refers not to Yahweh but to Christ, who as our forever Sovereign will be the Father of the coming age.

“Prince of Peace.”  The final name comprises all the others.  Peace – shalom – in the Bible is not what breaks out when everyone stops to reload but the consummation of all of God’s promises to His people.  In this context it is the eternal Sabbath – Shabbat – in which lion and lamb trill in sweet harmony.

How man has strained to bring about this renovation of God’s creation – and not only presidents whose bloated egos tell them they can stamp out poverty or control the rising of the seas.

God gave Israel the human king she wanted.  David subdued her enemies and established peace, and God decreed that a descendant of David would occupy his throne forever.  The warrior David, however, would not erect the temple in which God would dwell among His people.  Hands stained with blood would not build the earthly home of the God of peace.

After his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, David made his peace with God.  And when God gave him another son by Bathsheba after her first died at birth, David named him “Solomon” – in Hebrew “Shlomo” from shalom.  This royal heir was named “Man of Peace.”

Solomon built the temple and God moved in.  The Shekinah glory took up residence in the midst of His chosen people on the holy mountain Zion.  The kingdom expanded to its greatest expanse ever before or since.

Israel stood poised to claim all of the territory God had promised to Abraham, that vast land that stretches from the Nile to the great river, the Euphrates.

Peace spread like the Nile overflowing its banks in springtime.  Royalty traveled from far countries to pay homage to King Solomon, the man of peace, and to drink of his great wisdom.  The king’s coffers bulged with gold.  The God of Israel must indeed be the one Mighty God.

But Solomon would be not only the first son to sit on David’s throne but also the last – among mortal men.  Waging his campaign of peace, he conquered not on the battlefield but in the wedding chapel.  He formed political alliances through marriages with foreign women.

They toted their gods along and worshiped them and, ere long, others in Israel joined in.  Now they exalted Yahweh as one god among many.  The kingdom split in two like a rotten log at Solomon’s death, never to be reunited.

But what does Isaiah say?   Isaiah declares that a son of David will reign on that throne over a kingdom that is one.  He will “order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever.”

Man has had his day.  God allowed him to play king, and we can survey the wreckage that is the history of the kingdom of man.  Man will not bring about this enthronement the prophet promises and the ordered world that will be its fruit.  “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.”

The word underlying “zeal” sounds a throbbing chord of jealousy.  The Lord your God is a jealous God.  He says, “You shall have no other gods before Me.”  Solomon, he of the 700 wives and 300 concubines, chose God’s very first commandment to trample.  Of course, fatigue can fray a man’s faculties.

The Prince of Peace will remain ever faithful.  Royalty will make the arduous journey to bow before Him as well, even when a wee King, but His head will not be turned. David’s incorruptible Son will not falter in His zeal for His mission.  He will suffer no idol worship in the temple of His kingdom.  He is the temple, for the glory of God dwells in Him.

He will populate His realm with those who have made their bodies temples of His Holy Spirit. And this kingdom will span all the territory from the Nile to the Euphrates and far beyond until His glory penetrates and hallows every crevice of His creation.

He came as a Child.

He came to conquer the world.

He came armed with the invincible gospel of peace.

He came to teach us to perfect our strength in weakness.

He came to establish an everlasting domain He will rule as King of kings.

He came to impose a government that allows us to find ourselves in Him, a government that will endure for ever and ever, world without end.  Amen.




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Peace for the Asking

The Second Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 55, Psalm 25, Romans 15:4-13, St. Luke 21:25-33

Peace for the Asking

                Delwyn was a short, skinny convict in his 30s, pale as paste, who hailed from South Dakota but had run afoul of the law in Texas.  I met him in a prison I visited on a weekly basis for many years.

Each time I entered, Delwyn would greet me with a smile and each time I asked him how he was he would beam even brighter and say, “I am blessed!”  He was one of those folks in whom the Holy Spirit appears to have taken up residence and then turned on all the lights and left every one of them burning.

And I encountered Delwyn many times.  Long after he had completed the 18-month pre-release program Prison Fellowship operates in this particular prison, there he sat.  Completing the program places no obligation whatsoever on the parole board to grant a man’s release.

Year after year, some prisoners receive a set-off, as it’s called, and after they have done everything required of them they remain on the unit for an eternity.  Delwyn was one of these.  I don’t know the number of years he languished in that prison but I do recall somebody telling me, “Delwyn’s got the record.”

He had served more time since entering the program than any other inmate before him.  He may still hold that record.

My role as a volunteer at that time was to teach a journalism class and to oversee the prison’s monthly newsletter.  When I taught my guys how to conduct an interview, I wanted to add practical experience to the instruction.  I told them to bring a volunteer to class, an inmate who would sit for a mock interview.

One week, I walked in and there sat Delwyn, smiling.  I asked how he was and he said, “I am blessed!”  I assigned one of our class members to do the interview.

Now, asking a prisoner about his crime can be a delicate business and I coached my guys to probe gently and, if they met resistance, to move on.  A mock interview wasn’t worth creating bad blood.  These guys live in confining quarters.

The interviewer went to work and Delwyn did not balk in the least.  In fact, his story gushed out like water from a fire hydrant.  Still a teenager, he lived with a female relative and her two sons.  The woman told Delwyn and her younger son that the older son, a grown man, was demon-possessed.  She said there was only one way to eliminate the demon.

One night, she led Delwyn and her younger son to the man’s room and while he slept they fell upon him with hammers and murdered him.

As Delwyn spilled out the story, he might have been describing a day’s work in the prison laundry.  Not a sniffle.  He said he had confessed and repented and made peace with God; he could do no more.

I found myself wondering often afterward if it were truly possible to put away an act so heinous and find peace.  Can it be?  How can it be?

The answer comes thundering down upon us today from the eighth century before Christ in the voice of the prophet Isaiah: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord.  How much higher are His thoughts and His ways than ours?  “As the heavens are higher than the earth.”

Man’s shriveled understanding does not bind God.  God knows a mercy beyond our imaginings, a grace above our dreams.  With God, all things are possible . . . and Delwyn’s salvation is one of those things.

In this season of Advent, we celebrate the arrival in the world of the Prince of Peace.  Peace pours off of Him in a torrent and falls like a spring shower on those He has made in His image.  We bathe in His peace.  It washes away the grime of our sin and leaves us blushing like babes in the pink of new life.

Those many centuries before the Prince of Peace came into His world, our Father told of this advent by the word of His prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah publishes the gospel of peace in his time and place to disobedient Israel, which is under threat from a foreign power, urging trust in God for protection.

But his words reverberate through the corridors of time, down to the tribe of Judah in captivity in Babylon two centuries later and to those who return from exile.  And, finally, to us as well, universalizing a message addressed first to those threatened with bondage to a human enemy and last to those under the yoke of sin.

Isaiah’s gospel unfolds the coming of Immanuel, God With Us (7:14) – not a disembodied principle or an unknowable being that hovers out there somewhere but a loving God who becomes one of us that He might know our temptations and trials as we know them.

The prophet declares Him the Prince of Peace and the author of an everlasting peace (9:6-7) He will establish at the end of history.  This is shalom, the full measure of everything God has promised His people by His covenants.  This shalom is the great blessing the priests of God in ancient Israel poured out on His people.

Is it not still so today?  “The peace of God which passeth all understanding . . .”  It is the peace God provides that establishes us and preserves us in the knowledge and love of God.  How do we attain it?

“Ho!  Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat.  Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

Can it be?  God’s richest blessings on offer at no cost?  Is God running a soup kitchen?  Indeed He is not.  The price of peace is staggering . . . but because God has declared it so His prophet can pronounce our bill paid.  Immanuel of chapter 7 is the Prince of Peace of chapter 9 who is the Suffering Servant of chapters 52 and 53.  He pays the price in blood.

And so, peace for all!  But no.  In chapter 48 we read, “’There is no peace,’” says the Lord, “’for the wicked’” (v. 22).

Are not all wicked, damned by their sin?   Oh, yes, if not for what God has done.  In chapters 54 and 55 the prophet celebrates the saving work of the Servant.  We see first the effects of that work, the healing of estrangement and despair.

Servanthood is much on the prophet’s mind, for it is both the way of salvation and the fruit of it.  The heritage of God’s people is righteousness.  “And their righteousness is from Me,” says the Lord.   Now comes the exhortation to receive this righteousness from God that will bring with it restoration and peace.

How can it be?  Despite their sins, the people of God can look heavenward now and see not the contorted face of the wrathful God who punished their disobedience with deportation and exile but the serene countenance of a loving Father who will welcome them into the very city of God.

This is a radical idea but it is not beyond the grasp of mortal men.  Larry King got it – at least at the head level.  The former CNN host is not a Christian but he considered prominent pastors good programming.  He was fond of posing two questions to them.

First, is Jesus the one and only way to God? This was his test to determine whether the pastor would look through the camera into the eyes of a post-Christian culture and insist on the gospel truth that we can find salvation in Christ alone.

Question No. 2:  Is it possible for a pedophile to find God’s forgiveness and go to heaven?  A rapist . . . serial killer . . . war criminal?

Here was a test of the pastor’s trust in God’s grace.  The world wants justice.  You gonna buy into that jailhouse religion?  Does this God of yours who will send a gentle soul of the Buddhist persuasion to hell let a mass murderer off the hook?

So Larry King may not be a Christian but he gets it.  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . . but any who turn to this God called Jesus Christ can be redeemed no matter how heinous their crimes against God and man.

Even a Delwyn can attain God’s peace.  The Servant has purchased their peace.  Those who accept this free gift can enter into the inestimable privilege of servanthood.

“Incline your ear, and come to Me.  Hear, and your soul shall live.”  Come to God in obedience.  Your obligation and your reward are the same, faithful service to your Master.  Claim the Servant’s sacrifice as your own and become His fellow heir.  Carry that sacrifice to the Father and present it to Him as payment for your sins.

“And I will make an everlasting covenant with you – the sure mercies of David.”

That covenant God made with David contained irrevocable promises of eternal mercy and peace that would be fulfilled through a Messiah who would come from the line of David.   This Davidic King, we now see, is the suffering Servant.  Is the eternal kingdom to be ruled by a Servant?

David the king was a witness to the power and glory of God.  But now we see that he did not build a nation for himself but a platform to declare the glory of God as King of all nations.  David’s royal heir will take His place upon that throne and rule over every nation.  But He will not conquer with spear and bow as His illustrious father did.

He will overcome the nations with His incomprehensible, sacrificial love.  Those “sure mercies of David” will spill out upon God’s people and overflow onto all nations.  The Prince of Peace is David’s Son, the Servant who conquers to pardon and whose pardon imposes peace upon His creation.

Go to Him!  Go to Him!  His pardon is yours for the asking.  Ask and ye shall receive.

“Seek the Lord while He may be found . . . Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts.  Let him return to the Lord . . . and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.”

Who may gain this pardon?  He who humbles himself and makes petition for the pardon that proffers peace.  Is Delwyn forever beyond the pale of God’s peace?  Was King David, adulterer and murderer, too depraved to enter into it?  Who are you, o man, to decide?  Are God’s thoughts your thoughts?  Are your ways God’s ways?

“My word . . . shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please.”  God’s infallible word reveals His purpose and His plan, but it does more.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (St. John 1:1).

God’s Word puts on flesh and dwells among men.  God’s Word acts in history, bending history to His will.  God’s Word puts God’s plan in motion and achieves His purpose, and that purpose is pardon.

With pardon comes peace, the great blessing.  Peace upon the entire creation, peace that knows no end.  This is the peace He has left with us, not peace as man gives – no parole board, willing or not, can dispense it — but as only the Prince of Peace can give (St. John 14:27).

“For you shall go out with joy, and be led out with peace; the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing before you, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands . . . And it shall be to the Lord for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

Giving glory to God is our very purpose in creation.  When we live according to our purpose we align ourselves with our Creator and we reflect His glory as the moon gathers light from the sun and distributes it on the planet.

The great banquet God spreads before us, saying, “Let your soul delight itself in abundance,” is the peace that comes from the pardon that is ours because our Lord has paid the price in full.  His great heart yearns to pardon abundantly all who will forsake their wicked ways and return to Him.

All He asks is that we ask.  And that is all He asks of any of us and all of us.

These days, Delwyn lives in a town not far from Fort Worth and drives a delivery truck.  I had not thought of him for some time until on Thanksgiving Day a couple of years ago I happened upon a letter he posted on Facebook:

November 28

Dear Family, Today, I’m spending the day with Mother and my brother’s wife and son; Carrie & Caleb. What a blessing!                 And I’m thankful for who I belong to; To Jesus; to my family; to my friends.                 You may know the Lord has left me one dozen chickens to care for, and how one of the hens got her leg broken when I was tossing logs off the wood pile, last year.

So, `MaryLu` was in the basement (hospital) for a couple months. I prayed for her, and anointed her leg with oil. The wound stayed clean, and healed amazingly.                 Anyway, it’s been cold this week; and the chickens cuddle up together, in the hen house, each night. Before dusk, is feeding time and the other day one of the hens came running up to me! All the others were busy eating (I mean, getting after it!), and here comes MaryLu. Bending over, I said; “Well now MaryLu all the food’s over there, Girl”.

She came right up, reaching to climb in my lap. So I picked her up and brought her inside, feeding her at the place her food and water was kept last year.                 Twenty minutes later, I came back downstairs and she was looking around for a place to fly up and roost for the night. Picking her up, I sat her in the little bed of hay & towel. Guess what she did; She layed right down and began pecking the hay up close to her. Before I went to bed, I went down to talk to her and pet her a minute.                 And ya know what?  None of the other hens got treated like that, but I would have picked any of them up if they had come to me.                 You ever wonder why The Lord our God treats some people so up close and personal?  Why does He take some in His very hand, and gently place them into His favorite place for them; into the very dwelling place He stays? And so many others just stay on the ground fending for themselves?                 Tell me if you know.                 And tell me if ya love me too, like I do you.                 Take care now, and have a very Happy Thanksgiving! Yours Truly, Delwyn.

So wrote Delwyn the murderer.  So wrote Delwyn, a man who did forsake his wicked ways and run to God and ask for His eternal pardon.  So wrote Delwyn, a man at peace. Amen.

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