As many of us prepare to light the Bethlehem candle tomorrow celebrating the second Sunday of advent, it is particularly appropriate to consider its meaning. Traditionally, it has represented peace and the following portion of the scriptures is often read aloud,
“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. 3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth;then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. 4 And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. 5 And he shall be their peace.”
The people living in Israel today have not felt much peace lately what with all the missiles being launched in their direction. During the recent unrest, we got word that the disturbances had actually reached Bethlehem where we have a friend who runs a Christian bookstore. There was chaos in the streets just outside her doors and tear gas in the air. What a frightening experience that must have been, but also one that many in this part of the world live with on a daily basis. It certainly does not seem like the peace described in the verses above is a reality in the birthplace of our savior.
Recently, I have been reading the books of Acts and have been struck by the reality of what it must have been like after Jesus went to be with His father again. The disciples had been instructed to wait for power from on high that they would experience on the day of Pentecost. They had been given their mandate to go and make disciples of all nations and been assured that He would be with them to the end of the age. I think that many of them may have missed that last part that He would be with them to the end of the age or thought that He would return during their lifetime. They kept badgering Him right up to the end of His time here on earth about when he was going to free Israel and restore their Kingdom.
It was easy to experience peace in the presence of the risen Lord and even to have a sense that things were going to be all right as long as He was coming back pretty soon and the Kingdom they wanted was going to be restored. That is not what He promised them. Instead, He promised them power through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and that He would be with them until the end of the age. As this truth became evident on the day of Pentecost and the incredibly exciting days that followed, it was still probably fairly easy to feel that things were headed in the right direction. Then they got arrested.
In the years that followed, Christ’s followers were persecuted, ridiculed, mocked and even killed. Tradition holds that some of the apostles were in fact crucified for their faith in the end. Paul lived life on the run from city to city as he preached the gospel, planted churches and then was often run out of town. Many of his letter were written from prison and he experienced so much suffering for the Lord he served that is is amazing he lived as long as he did.
Despite these facts, the church grew, lives were changed and the world would never be the same again. The power that had been promised was spiritual, not political. The kingdom that was being built was not going to restore Israel to its rightful place in the here and now but was so much bigger and more expansive than they could have ever imagined. The peace that had been foretold would take place in the midst of the worst circumstances some of them could imagine. Not only was the temple destroyed in the years after Christ died, but many of the Jewish people were scattered around the known world searching for a place they could call their own. Those that followed Christ took with them a new message of hope for a world that did not understand or accept them.
I cannot imagine what it must be like to be martyred for your faith or even have difficulty breathing because of tear gas outside my bookstore. While I have experienced my fair share of frightening moments (especially during hurricanes in the Caribbean where I grew up), none of that compares to what some of my heroes of the faith like Corrie ten Boom and Watchman Nee had to deal with. Amazingly, their writing is filled with confidence in the God they served and peace that is incomprehensible.
As I prepare to celebrate this second week of advent, I am reminded to pray not just for the safety of my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ around the world, but that they will be filled with the Holy Spirit anew, have power from on high and know the peace that passes all understanding. My grandmother once said, “The safest place you can be is in the center of God’s will”. I will ponder that truth once again this year while I also pray for the return of our savior knowing that he has promised to be with me to the end the age.