My wife and I currently live in Switzerland, very close to the French border, so we regularly travel between the two countries. Despite French being spoken in our Swiss canton, there are lots of differences between France and Switzerland. (The Swiss – rather sniffily – would claim the standard of driving and condition of the roads are among the most obvious.) But the difference I personally notice the most is in the war memorials. In France, just about every village has a memorial to those killed in the two world wars. In contrast, in Swiss towns and villages, they are conspicuous only by their absence. Switzerland has guarded its peace; it hasn’t been involved in a major war for hundreds of years, and the people here have no memory of family members lost in war.
The prophet Isaiah wrote what to us is one of the most familiar Advent scriptures. The people to whom his words were addressed were more like the French than the Swiss, in the sense that they knew war deeply, and death; tyrants, and their violence. Like Switzerland in WWII, the people of Judah in Isaiah’s day were surrounded by more powerful warring nations; but unlike the Swiss, Judah had been involved in conflict for centuries. That’s the background to this passage Handel made so familiar through his Messiah.
“Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past, he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future, he will honour Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder. For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:1-6, NIV)
It’s easy to jump to verse 6 – “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” and skim over or ignore the earlier verses. Somehow, talk of yokes of oppression and blood-stained uniforms doesn’t seem to fit with the jolly atmosphere people expect at Christmas. But I wonder if those verses are crucial to appreciating Advent?
In a sermon on this passage, scholar N.T. Wright points out that these often-ignored earlier verses contain two promises that resolve two of the great problems that have plagued humanity: violence and tyranny. The promised child who will be the Prince of Peace will shatter the tyrant’s oppressive power and consign the results of violence – the wounded soldier’s blood-stained clothing – to history.
Wright goes on to say, “What is promised through the Prince of Peace is justice attained without violence; peace attained without accompanying tyranny. My friends, the world today is still wondering how to get to that result. And Isaiah says: ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; for to us a Son is given, the Prince of Peace.’ And we who live between the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and the final establishment of the kingdom he came to bring, the kingdom in which justice and peace shall be knit together at last and forever – we are entrusted with a mission. Not simply to save a few souls from the wreck of this world since God so loved the world and has promised to redeem it. Nor simply to tinker with the world’s own systems, merely to do things a bit differently here or there. No: rather, by prayer and courage, and holiness and hard work – and it will be hard work – we are called to discover the practical ways in today’s and tomorrow’s world of seeking justice without violence, of making and maintaining peace without tyranny.”
Often, talk about Advent focuses on a time of waiting; and this great prophecy of Isaiah’s should encourage us to wait – but to wait with a certain impatience and longing for the Prince of Peace to return and fully establish his Kingdom of Peace. We’re to long for the time when the Prince of Peace will reign over the world in a Kingdom characterized by justice without violence, peace without tyranny. A kingdom where, as in my little Swiss village, there will be no more need for memorials to war.
I say this tentatively, but recently I’ve been wondering if we as evangelical Christians in the West remember war too nostalgically and long for its consignment to history too little? Acts of remembrance so easily tip over the edge into celebrating a nation’s victories in war rather than reminding of the horrors of war.
Maybe Wright pointed us to the answer when he said that we who claim to live in the Kingdom of the Prince of Peace have been given a mission. We are to do more than remember the tragedy of war until peace is established. Our mission as the people of the Prince of Peace is more than simply passively longing for peace. Our mission, Tom Wright reminds us, is to work for peace, “by prayer and courage, and holiness and hard work – and it will be hard work… we are called to discover the practical ways in today’s and tomorrow’s world of seeking justice without violence, of making and maintaining peace without tyranny.”
I dare to suggest that Advent will have a great significance for our lives and our world if it motivates us to a commitment to do everything we can to seek justice without violence and make and maintain peace without tyranny.
Featured image courtesy Nicolas Hoizey via Unsplash.