Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Prince of Peace

Isaiah 9.2-7, Luke 2.1-14, Titus 2.11-14

The zeal of the Lord of Hosts versus the boots of earth-shaking armies on the march. It's a slight over translation but it's a wonderfully evocative image and if you went to the cinema, to see Schindler's List or the Lord of the Rings trilogy, then you'll have a vivid idea of the sort of clash which Isaiah has in mind.

In Schindler's List the confrontation is between an enterprising man and a group of Jewish prisoners on the one side, and the might of the Nazi war machine on the other, symbolised by a cohort of SS soldiers parading through the streets of Cracow. The whole street seems to shake as they march past the camera.

In The Lord of the Rings the confrontation is between Frodo Baggins and the Fellowship of the Ring on one side, and the huge armies of the dark land of Mordor on the other. As the vast column of soldiers heads for the battlefield where they will confront the forces of goodness, the whole canyon through which they are marching seems to shake with the echo of their footsteps.

But in Isaiah, of course, it is all of the armies which have ever marched anywhere on earth who are confronted by the authority vested in one tiny newborn child. He will be the Prince of Peace and the old ways of getting things done will be made so utterly redundant by his coming that they will be fit only to be burned up or recycled into something more appropriate for an age of endless or boundless peace.

The Gospel reading takes this amazing image, which is only an uncertain hope in Isaiah's prophecy, and anchors it firmly in history. Scholars have struggled, actually, to find any evidence at all that Augustus ordered an empire wide census. Nor is there any obvious reason why people should return to their home town from the place where they are currently living. After all, the whole point of a census is to record where people are living now - not where they used to live or where they might like to live in future. In 1901 my grandfather was recorded as living with his grandparents in Marshchapel in East Lincolnshire, and not in Grimsby with the rest of his family, because he must have been on a visit to them at the time when the census was taken. But he didn't go there deliberately. It's just where he happened to be on the night when the census enumerator called.

But Luke is doing his best here to anchor his story in a definite time and place. Not only has the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace finally been born on earth, but it has happened in a place called Bethlehem while August was emperor of Rome and Quirinius was governor of Syria.

Ironically, Augustus reckoned that he too was the living fulfilment of Isaiah's prophecy. Coins from his reign bear the inscription, 'Augustus Caesar, Son of God, Father of the Fatherland.' And not to be out done, he was also called the Prince of Peace. The Poet Horace says of him in one of his Odes, 'As long as Caesar is the guardian of the state, neither civil dissension nor violence shall banish peace.' But only when Jesus is born do armies of heavenly angels join in the chorus of acclamation, proving that he is the true leader destined to bring 'peace on earth to all in whom he delights'.

Christians are divided as to how exactly we should understand the story of the appearance of the angels to the shepherds. For some it's an historical fact just as real as the life and inflated claims to greatness of Augustus, and they go on pilgrimage to the Shepherds' Field outside modern day Bethlehem and photograph the very spot where the shepherds heard the angels sing. But to others it's simply a story included by Luke to underline the fact that Jesus' significance is eternal whereas Augustus will be emperor only for a fleeting moment in history.

And it's no coincidence, of course, that the message of the angels is heard by shepherds. Sometimes they symbolise the leaders of the nation, as we saw last Sunday morning when we were looking at the prophecy of Micah. But they also symbolise the most ordinary of people. Almost every family would have owned a few sheep, even families who did not own any land, and it was the duty of one of the younger children - usually, but not always, a boy - to take the sheep into the wilderness to graze, travelling to fresh pasture each day and often quite far from home. Only if a family did not have a child old enough to tend their sheep were they forced to look to a hired shepherd to care for them - and there was often a feeling that hired shepherds were less likely to defend your sheep against a wolf, a lion or a bear. Shepherds then were plucky, independent, used to living rough and being away from home, outside the normal bounds of society and yet, many people - as they were growing up - would have been through a phase of their life when they too were shepherds. So in this one story we combine an appeal to the people at the very centre of society - kings and community leaders - and to the people at its outermost edge, just as in the story of the wise visitors following the star to Bethlehem the Christmas message extends its reach to every point of the compass. The good news is for everyone.

The passage from the Letter of Titus brings into sharp focus the irony which has been unstated within our readings so far. In the prophecy from Isaiah we have seen the ironic contrast between earth shaking armies and a newborn child who is destined to be the Prince of Peace. In Luke's Gospel we have seen the contrast between the mighty August and the baby lying in a manger, who is acclaimed by angels. But only in the Letter to Titus is the full extent of the irony spelt out. The grace of God disciplines us just as Augustus had once disciplined his people to renounce their godless ways. The Poet Horace and said that Augustus had 'wiped away our sins and revived the ancient virtues', but he had done this at the point of the sword, by ruthlessly intriguing against or defeating his enemies and by ruling as a dictator, whereas the 'splendour of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ' appeared only when he 'sacrificed himself for us to set us free from all wickedness and to make us his own people, pure and eager to do good.'

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