“Peace and the Sword”
“Now thy servant can depart in peace”
Lk 2: 34-5 “Simeon blessed them and said to Mary…a sword will pierce your soul…”
“Peace and the sword” – two verses from the start and end of Simeon’s speech in the temple –
I want to reflect this morning on peace- true peace and false peace.
False peace is a peace which avoids or ignores conflict –
it says “Anything for a quiet life”
It mindlessly drinks Nescafe as the poor of Ethiopia starve
It is not true peace - it is self-centred escapism.
It is the false peace of the unawakened conscience.
it is an active force at work within the world of conflict
It is the inner calm and certainly in the eye of the storm.
is death-defying peace we speak of in the funeral service when we quote John
“My peace I leave with you – my peace I give unto you – not as the world gives do I give”
is the peace which always seeks out conflict and offers itself to those who are
battered by life,
and says I come to heal you.
have true peace is to be deeply at peace with God within yourself,
and from that powerful inner peace to be able to offer peace in the very midst of conflict
is a mark of true inner peace that you inevitably become a peacemaker –
and there is all the difference in the world between conflict avoidance and peace making.
far from avoiding conflict, the true peacemaker can be very threatening to the
powers that be,
and can provoke the sword –
though never be ultimately defeated by a weapon that can kill only the body and never the soul.
So it is that the old man Simeon holds the baby
Jesus and says “Now can your servant depart in peace -
He has found in the Christchild the giver of peace in whose presence even death itself holds no terrors – and so he can go to the grave without fear -
he knows that the baby he holds is prince of peace prophesied by Isaiah of old -
the one of whom the angels
”Peace on earth, goodwill to all men.”
then this same Simeon turns to Mary, Jesus mother,
and says “a sword will enter your heart” –
In other words this child of yours will break your heart as you follow him to the cross.
peace he offers can and will defeat even sin and death –
but only after it has allowed sin and death to do their worst.
Peace and the Sword – Jesus brings both –
as a suffering Prince of Peace he reigns from a cross.
Amidst the 1001 variations on a theme decorating your Christmas cards
have a look and see if anyone has sent you a picture of the
Adoration of the Kings by Pieter Brueghel.
This is not a cotton wool snow Santa and sleigh bells version of Christmas – it has a real hard edge.
picture was painted at a time when Brueghel’s homeland in the Low Countries
had been overrun by the cruel soldiery of imperial Spain.
He paints the scene in contemporary terms.
and Joseph and the baby in the foreground are drawn as 16th Century
and the background is thronged with a crowd including menacing Spanish soldiers,
pressing close to the holy family.
Mary reaches out her had to the royal gifts of the three Kings,
her hand almost touches a crossbow, whilst a tall pike, held in a mailed fist, rises above her head.
Peace and the sword again –
Jesus the bringer of peace,
but cheek by jowl with Herod, the slayer of the innocents.
And as we look at the picture we know two things –
1. That the peace of God is more powerful than the crossbow of Herod
2. That the way of peace is that of a child in a
and that that will always be a dangerous and sacrificial way.
Today is the Sunday after Christmas, but it is also
December 29th –
the feast day of St Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.
Thomas was formerly a rich and worldly powerful
Chancellor of England.
But when Henry II made him Archbishop of Canterbury,
he discovered - like many other politicians before and since -
that his archbishop had not read the script….
Becket at once espoused the cause of the Church,
wore a hair shirt, and spoke out fearlessly against the King.
So much so that in December 1170 Henry uttered the famous words about his archbishop -
“Who shalt rid me of this pestilent cleric?” -
and four hotheaded opportunistic knights at once set off for Canterbury
- as self appointed hitmen.
we recall how on this very day, 29th December, in the year 1170,
chaos and pandemonium breaks out amongst the monks
as four knights with swords gleaming suddenly appear at the gates of Canterbury Cathedral.
Feet running everywhere - someone slams the sanctuary doors shut, leaving some monks inside, others out.
the calm gentle voice of Archbishop Thomas rebukes them -
“Unbar the door - This is a Church not a castle!”
so in a moment of mayhem the knights rush in and strike him down,
near severing his head from his shoulders.
· already he has offered the gold of his former life with its material wealth
· then he has taken up the life of prayer and meditation - the incense of a holy life of devotion -
· and now at last the final offering of myrrh – myrrh the symbol of death and suffering for God’s cause.
So, whether we turn to the
manger, or Simeon in the temple, or Thomas at Canterbury,
The sword is always there in the Christian story -
· The forces of Herod (or is it of Spain?) in the stable,
· The forces of Rome at the cross where Mary will weep,
· The forces of Henry at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral –
We could of course add so
many more were we to catalogue all the Saints and martyrs –
and there are leaflets for Amnesty International at the back of the Church.
if you would catalogue the latest excesses of Herod & his armies.
But at each point we reaffirm the eternal truth –
That following Christ means peace and the sword –
which can tear at a mother’s heart
but a peace which is ultimately stronger than sin and death and will conquer.
So let me leave you with just two points of application on which we might ponder in our situation.
The first is obvious.
It is about our current international situation.
Our new Archbishop of Canterbury, in many ways in the line of Thomas Becket,
spoke on Christmas Day about the Wise Men
and their initial folly in going to Herod’s Palace rather than the stable at Bethlehem –
a mistake which led to the massacre of the Innocents -
and his fear that our national leaders might make the same error
and look to the men of force and fear instead of to the weapons of love and peace –
and lead to the Massacre of Iraqi innocents.
We need to back all our Church leaders in proclaiming the way of the Prince of Peace.
The second picks up the theme of the family
on a Sunday when we particularly reflect on Mary, Joseph and Jesus,
the Holy Family as the model of family life.
Christmas is a family time –
and I know for many here it has been a very happy and affirming and joyful season.
For some perhaps less so –
I want to say a word to you if your Christmas has been lonely –
or worse if you have found your family a place of strife difficulty worry or discord.
If the swords have not been out literally,
maybe in some places you could as they say “have cut the atmosphere with a knife…”
Well if that’s you, remember the manger scene
with soldiers hovering in the background with their crossbows and pikes –
what a frightening and threatening family Christmas that was –
but because it is Christmas,
at centre stage lies the Prince of Peace,
who we know will ultimately bring the victory over the forces of evil.
So let us welcome the Prince of Peace into our nation, our Church, our families, our hearts –
He will not promise protection from the sword of evil and destruction –
But he does promise this –
that though the sword may kill the body, it can never kill the soul, -
Hail the Heaven born Prince of peace – born that man no more may die.
And then let Herod do what
he will even unto the heartbreak of the cross - -
”for now O Lord canst thy servant depart in peace.
for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”