"Peace on earth," sang the angels who announced the birth of the Christ child. The prophet Zechariah wrote concerning the coming Messianic king: "I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth" (Zech. 9:10, NIV).
Jesus, the Messiah, brought peace and wanted his followers to be peacemakers. As we prepare to celebrate Christ's birth, we honor him if we seek to bring peace to a world characterized by war in distant lands, conflict in the public square, and incivility all around us. How, in the face of so much that is not peace, can we bring peace? I'd like to offer a suggestion: as individuals and families, we can intentionally reach out a hand of peace to those who have been scarred by this world's tumult.
Our family had an opportunity to do just that fifteen years ago. For many years, family members who lived elsewhere (me being among them) would travel to our home town in the days before Christmas, and we all would congregate at my parents' home on Christmas Eve. One year, unbeknownst to any of us, a few days before Christmas, four "Lost Boys of Sudan" had arrived in our area and were placed in an apartment about ten miles from my parents' house. The term "Lost Boys" is used to describe children who had fled the Sudanese civil war that raged from 1983 to 2005. These four young men had survived the dangerous trek out of their country and had spent the previous few years in a refugee camp in Kenya, hoping to eventually come to the United States. Now they were here, in the dead of winter. They had never seen snow before, and had clothes suitable only for the tropics. Resettlement workers had dropped them off with a few day's supply of food and a promise to get them better situated after the holidays.
I think it was my brother who learned somehow that these refugees were in town and offered to help. It became a family project. My parents bought them warm winter coats, and we all made sure they had the rest of what they needed in the way of clothing. We invited them to our family gathering for Christmas. Our family Christmas photos from that year show four tall, dark-skinned young men standing among our light-skinned clan. Everyone is smiling, them even more than the rest of us. They told us of the hardships they had gone through and of waiting in the refugee camp, fearing the world had forgotten them. It was an unforgettable Christmas.
"Shalom," the most common Hebrew word for peace in the Old Testament, means more than just the absence of war. The concept of Shalom also includes wholeness, well-being, security, and salvation. In a word, Shalom means flourishing. What better way to celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace than to reach out in a tangible way to foster the well-being and wholeness of someone in whose life peace has been lacking? Chances are you won't happen upon refugees from a war zone a couple days before Christmas, like we did. (There are, however, international aid agencies through whom you can support such refugees.)
Yet, in our communities, there are those without shalom because of illness, job loss, financial hardships, addictions, crime, abuse, and a host of other problems. Let's remember those we do know who are without peace Let's be sensitive to signs of distress among those with whom we interact this Advent season. Let's honor Christ by committing ourselves to be peacemakers in this troubled world. As we seek to bring peace to those around us, we may just experience God's gift of peace for us!
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra