Talking about peace at Christmas can seem like an oxymoron. All you need to do is to walk to the local shops to see people frantically running around, buying gifts, and doing the things we often think are so important in the attempt to have ‘the best Christmas ever.’ We are not immune in the church, as we set about planning and doing the many things we think are necessary to bring the message of our Saviour’s birth at Bethlehem to the world. All the while, calendars get full, stress levels rise, and the peace we talk about at Christmas seems more and more distant.
Is it possible to find a real sense of peace at Christmas?
Like last week’s text from Isaiah 64:1-9, these words from Isaiah 40:1-11 were written for God’s people in exile after their homeland, their temple and their freedoms had been destroyed by the Babylonians. God tells the Prophet to comfort his people with a message of peace. In order to prepare for this coming peace, the people of God were encouraged to ‘make a straight road through the wasteland’ (v3b NLT). Isaiah is telling God’s people that he wants them to remove everything that might be an obstacle to the peace God was bringing so that when it came, nothing would stand in the way.
As a person who enjoys riding a motorcycle, I understand that some people find straight roads boring and would prefer to take the longer, windy, more scenic route when travelling. We do the same thing in life, especially at Christmas, when we run from this to that, busy with a lot of things that our society, our church culture, or even our families think are so important. However, what they end up doing is getting in the way of the peace God promises. We can be so busy trying to fulfil other people’s, or even our own, expectations that Jesus can get lost and we end up being tightly compressed balls of stress rather than experiencing the peace the Prophet promises and the angels proclaimed.
Sometimes what we need to do is to ‘fill in the valleys, and level the mountains and hills, straighten the curves and smooth out the rough places’ (v4 NLT). We begin to do that by remembering and focusing on what Christmas is all about, and removing what gets in the way of that focus. It might mean buying less presents, having a simpler Christmas lunch without all the trimmings, not trying to see all of our relatives on the one day, or giving the most valuable thing we have to the people who mean most to us: our time.
Because none of these things are really what Christmas is about. As the church, we should know better, but we still get sucked into the busyness and pressure of Christmas that our society expects. Instead, we should know that the reason we celebrate Christmas is the coming of God’s peace through Jesus and live every day with that as our focus and guide.
What’s significant about these words from the Prophet is that this highway through the wilderness was not for the Jews to return to their homeland. Instead, it was for God to join them in their exile. In verse 9 the Prophet brings the good news that ‘Your God is coming!’ God was coming to people who were exiled, rejected, broken and lost to give them something better. He was coming ‘in power’ to ‘rule with a powerful arm’ (v10 NLT). The Prophet tells us that when comes, God will use his power in this way:
He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will carry the lambs in his arms, holding them close to his heart. He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young. (v11 NLT)
The Prophet is telling us that God comes he will take care of all our needs in his grace, to hold us close in his love, and to lead us home. This is where we can find peace. In the middle of the stress, anxiety and uncertainty of life, we can find peace in God’s promise to us that he will feed us, protect us, and lead us.
God fulfils this promise in Jesus, which is why the angels sang ‘Peace on earth’ when Jesus was born (Luke 2:14). Jesus comes to us in the craziness, busyness and unpredictability of life to feed us with his promise of forgiveness and mercy, to hold us close to his heart as he becomes one with us and shares in our humanity, and to lead us through life to our heavenly home by his Spirit. No matter what our circumstance might be in life, we can find a deep sense of peace through faith in Jesus and his all-conquering love for us.
Why would we put anything in the way of this peace he offers?
To clear the way and straighten the road so God’s Spirit can bring this peace to us is often easier said than done. We all live with pressures, expectations and stresses in our lives, especially at Christmas. Clearing some of them out of the way so we can find the peace Jesus comes to give us is not always easy. However, that is the challenge the Prophet gives us in this reading.
When I’m teaching my kids to ride a bike, I tell them to look where they’re going because they will go where they are looking. Maybe it’s the same with clearing the way for the peace Jesus brings. When we focus on Jesus and his birth for us at Christmas, we will no longer be distracted by all the different things pulling us in one direction or another. Doing this will help us to straighten the path, clear the way, and prepare for the peace Jesus brings.
More to think about:
- Do you generally prefer to drive on winding roads or straight? Why do you prefer them?
- What do you usually find more of at Christmas: peace or stress? If Christmas is a stressful time for you, what are the main sources of stress or worry for you?
- If Jesus comes to bring us peace, what gets in the way of you experiencing peace at Christmas? In your life generally?
- What might you be able to do less of in order to clear the way to finding a greater sense of peace this Christmas?
- What difference might it make in your life if you trusted the words of Isaiah 40:10,11 that God uses his power to feed you, hold you close and lead you through all the circumstances of life, both good and bad?