Peace on Earth?

I’ve been exploring some of the themes related to the Advent. But what happened afterwards? There is a curious and violent story related to the visit of the Wise Men– before they found Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus, they visited the palace of the ruling King of the Jews, Herod. Herod was intensely curious about the baby– when and where the prophets said Messiah should be born. But unlike the worshipful wise men, Herod wanted to destroy this heaven-sent King; one who could pose a threat to his own power and rule.

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Jesus escaped Herod’s plot. Joseph had been warned in a dream, and had taken Mary and Jesus to Egypt for safety. The Wise Men, also warned in a dream, had failed to report back to Herod the information he wanted. In his anger and fear, Herod ordered the slaughter of all the baby boys in the region, up to two years old. This “Slaughter of the Innocents,” as the event is known, seems to come in direct repudiation of the message of the angels at Christ’s birth. There was no peace in Bethlehem as soldiers dragged innocent babies from their mothers’ arms and killed them. There was wailing and anguish, instead.

How could a loving and wise God allow this to happen? It was no unforeseen accident, either. This event had been predicted by the prophets hundreds of years before it happened, just the same as the prophecies about Jesus’ birth. God could have sent angels to protect Jesus from this slaughter; He could have confounded Herod’s plans and stopped the soldiers from reaching Bethlehem; He could have struck Herod dead before the plot could be carried out…so why did He let it all happen?

I don’t have any definitive answers. But I can share some opinions, based on what I’ve learned of God’s character. I don’t think God was in any way indifferent to the suffering and injustice of this tragedy. But I think there are a few lessons we can take from this strange and disturbing incident:

  • First, Jesus came to share a very human fate. Jesus was not spared the indignity of being born in a cattle shed and laid in a manger. His life was not supernaturally easy or safe or comfortable. It was God’s perfect will that Jesus was vulnerable to attack, and in need of protection– even when it meant fleeing His home.
  • At the same time, He WAS fully God, and as such, posed a danger to men like Herod. Jesus, even from birth, had an authority greater than any king or emperor who ever lived. But He did not come to earth to exercise that power over other people. Instead, He came to serve and to pour out His life for others. It was not His mission to overthrow the existing government, or to challenge rulers like Herod. It was His mission to fulfill the Law, set an example of obedience, preach the Gospel, and offer Himself as atonement for Sin.
  • Herod had the earthly power to do good or evil as a ruler. He had the unique opportunity to join the Wise Men in worshiping the arrival of God’s chosen one– an event that had been anticipated for hundreds of years. Yes, God could have forced Herod to bow before the Newborn King, but Herod could also have chosen wisdom over fear. We have the same opportunity to welcome Jesus as our Savior– or to wage war against Him. Jesus invites us to follow Him, but He doesn’t stop us from making the same destructive choices that Herod made.
  • Jesus did not come to bring a worldly peace, but an eternal “Peace that passes understanding.” Even now, after His death and resurrection, there is still war and slaughter, crime and injustice in our world. But, because of all Jesus did, and is doing in and through those who follow Him, we see that tragedies can be redeemed; hope can survive where there seems to be no hope; and death is not the final victor. I don’t understand why these particular families had to face the tragic consequences of Herod’s rage and fear and ambition. But I understand that God is bigger than Herod; and more powerful than all the chaos and pain that he caused.
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The world is not at peace today. Innocent people– even babies–are hurt and killed in our world. God knows. He aches for our grief and pain. But He also knows His plans. He knows how the story ends– He knows all that has happened, and all that is happening, and all that will happen. Even in the glory of Christmas, He wants us to know that reality. Someday, Jesus will return in all of His authority and power. He won’t just end the reign of evil rulers like Herod– He will render their legacies useless. He will redeem injustices– even genocide and slaughter–and wipe out even the memory of their grief and terror.

Holy Terror

It’s the end of October, and tomorrow will be Halloween. Stores and houses around the neighborhood are decorated with frightening figures of skeletons, witches, ghosts, and gravestones. Some of my friends love this time of year, and they look forward to binge-watching movies about zombies or vampires– anything scary, spooky, or terrifying.

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I don’t like Halloween. I don’t like scary movies. But I believe in the value of fright. Life is filled with things–natural and supernatural– that fill us with real fear. And that is as it must be in a fallen world. Sin and death, evil and darkness, fires, earthquakes, violence and plague–they are real and should produce both fear and caution. The Bible is not silent or dismissive of such things. God’s laws warn against evil spirits, calling on the dead, consulting with witches, fortune telling, even giving in to anger, envy, and hatred. God’s laws also provide for hygienic practices to ward off disease and plague.

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And yet, the Bible also gives hundreds of warnings against giving in to fear and letting it control our lives. We are to be cautious and wise where fear is concerned. Over all, we are to remember that God is bigger and more powerful than our fears. God can calm storms, put out fires, even conquer disease and death! There is no power, no force, no terror, that can overwhelm God, or touch those under His protection.

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Terror holds no power in God’s presence. Therefore, if we know God, we can experience no true terror. But where there is no God, terror will reign. It’s like the saying: “No God; No Peace–Know God; Know Peace”. Terror comes with darkness, with chaos, with lawlessness and loneliness.

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There is only one other kind of terror– a Holy Terror. We can be terrified by the awesome Holiness of God. It is altogether more powerful and alien than anything we can even imagine. Even for those who know God, there is the knowledge that God is GOD, and we are not worthy to look on His face or enter into His presence on our own. Normally, when we think of terror, we think of things that are very unholy–evil things; supernatural forces of darkness. Yet Holiness can also inspire terror because it causes us to see our own unworthiness; our own sin and failure. I am reminded of the “face-melt” scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark– Nazis, who have been fearlessly and relentlessly pursuing the Ark of the Covenant, believing that it holds supernatural powers they can use to gain power over life and death, are suddenly and horrifically destroyed when they gaze inside–as they come in contact with the very Glory of God, their terror is absolute, and they are destroyed by its presence.

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This season, may we celebrate that God, in His awesome and mighty power, constantly reminds us that we can “Know” Him without fear; instead of running, cowering, or melting, we can come to Him with confidence and joy! And in doing so, we can face any other terror, knowing that God is with us, and for us, and even filling us with His peace! We need not be filled with Holy Terror– instead, we can be filled with the Holy Spirit!

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Thy Rod and Thy Staff, They Comfort Me

I don’t know about anyone else, but this phrase always made me feel uncomfortable. Growing up, I thought of rods and staffs (staves?) the same way I thought of the teacher’s wooden paddle at school– something to be avoided at all costs. They didn’t comfort me one bit; instead, they inspired fear and loathing. “Spare the rod and spoil the child (Proverbs 13:24)*,” meant that someone was due for a spanking. Spanking was in fashion when I was young, though my parents used it extremely rarely, and the dreaded teacher’s paddle never touched my tiny terrified tush. A rod, staff, switch, paddle, or hand– all were threats of punishment– sometimes inspiring fear and even resentment.

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And yet, in all my youth, I never stood in fear of my parents. They never beat me, or spanked me without cause, or withheld loving forgiveness and reconciliation. Their discipline, which rested almost exclusively with other methods, was for my benefit– teaching me to respect just authority, recognize the limits of my will, and develop patience, compassion, and responsible behavior.

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God does not hold the rod and staff as instruments of terror. God’s love and wisdom are infinitely greater than the love and wisdom of human parents. And God’s sovereignty and authority are infinitely greater than that of any ruler or earthly power we know. God’s rod and staff are not weapons to be used against us. Instead, they are the symbols of authority and tools of our Good Shepherd. His staff is like the scepter of the King of Kings, or the staff of a warrior. He will gently use the rod to direct our steps or keep us from going off the path. And he will use the staff to protect us from the advances of the enemy. He has the authority to use these tools, and the grace and wisdom to use them for our good.

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During times of trial and confusion, the Shepherd’s authority should bring us enormous comfort. When disease and fear are closing in, when we travel down the valley of the shadow of death, when evil seems to be prowling, stalking, and ready to pounce– we have a Shepherd who has every resource to keep them from devouring us. Circumstances like the current pandemic are not sent by God to terrorize us. In fact, God holds the rod and staff in hand– He has set the limits of COVID-19; He has provided (and will provide) opportunities for us to learn many good lessons and see many astonishing developments– treatments, protocols, cooperative efforts– that will be for our ongoing benefit; for those who do get ill, suffer loss, or even die from COVID-19, He gives grace and peace to those who seek Him. He comforts us in ways that go beyond our natural understanding.

One of my favorite stories is The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkein. In this saga, the wizard, Gandalf, always carries a staff. It looks harmless enough– a walking stick in the hands of an old man. But when faced with an enemy, or when members of the Fellowship are threatened, Gandalf uses his staff effectively to chase away shadows, defend his friends, and battle the most fearsome of monsters. Gandalf is no threat to the frightened Hobbits, or even to the mad king Theoden. But to the traitorous Saruman and wicked steward, Denethor, he stands in fearless opposition. That doesn’t mean that the Hobbits never face danger or that Gandalf fights all their battles for them. And, because Gandalf is not all-powerful and omniscient, he cannot guarantee their ultimate victory. But his presence is enough to instill hope and comfort wherever he goes.

God will let us see uncertain days– days when things look grim and we don’t see how anything good can come of our circumstances. But one thing is certain–our God is ever-present, and more than able to bring us hope, peace beyond understanding, joy, and comfort along the way– no matter, where; no matter what!

  • Note–If we see the “rod” and “staff” only as instruments of punishment, we are missing the point of this proverb. If we “spare” the rod of authority– never providing discipline and correction or teaching respect and responsibility– that is when we spoil the child. And whatever one’s views about corporal punishment, it should never be used to promote terror or abuse.

Holy Terror

All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, brings out the fearsome, garish, gory, scary, and macabre in many people.  Movies, costumes, and stories concentrate on death, mystery, nightmares, ghosts, and terror.

I am not a fan of horror in any of its forms.  I don’t like to be scared, startled, tricked, haunted, or frightened.  I don’t like seeing others being terrorized, tortured, or hurt.

So it is with great interest and some surprise to find that the Bible tells us to fear.  Of course, it also tells us NOT to fear– several times, in fact.  We are told that we need not fear the future (Matthew 6:34), struggles, battles, or long journeys (Joshua 1:9), shame or disgrace (Isaiah 54:4), terror, evil, and the “shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4),  actual death, angels or demons (Romans 8:38), or anyone at all (Psalm 27:1; Psalm 188:6).  But there is one fear the Bible does nothing to dispel.

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There is a Holy terror that comes from the recognition that God is Holy– and we are NOT.  There is a very real, very terrible chasm separating us from an eternally sinless and perfect God.  There is nothing we can do on this side of the chasm to close the gap– no way to escape the eternal. hopeless and horrific state of being separated from all that is good, and noble, and peaceful, and joyous.  In life, we get glimpses of glory–flashes of amazing grace at work in the world around us.  Even though we live in a fallen world, we do not live in a place rejected or abandoned by God.

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This should cause us to have a healthy “fear” of God– a soul-deep awe of His “Other-ness”, His Authority, and His Pre-eminence.  And it should give us a terror of remaining in separation from Him– especially as He offers the very restoration and renewal we can never achieve for ourselves.  And He offers it as a free gift to ANYONE who will receive it!

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Far from trying to “scare someone into Heaven,” sermons and admonitions about Hellfire and eternal damnation are meant as very real warnings with real and eternal consequences.  No horror on earth can compare with an existence devoid of all joy, peace, love, light, help, and hope–and filled with the knowledge of “all that might have been.”  Zombies, vampires, ghouls, and monsters can terrorize in the movies for an hour or two, or in books for a week or more, but what makes people willing to entertain such horrors is the latent hope that we will close the book cover, exit the theater, and wake up from the nightmares presented there.  The idea that Good will eventually triumph; that order, peace, and justice can be restored; that love conquers all, and “something” will survive, re-emerge, and carry on into the future.  All of these hopes are possible because God exists and is eternal.  When we reject God’s authority; His sovereign direction and His call to salvation, we reject all that comes with it.  While we live on His earth, we will still see the glimpses of glory– we can pretend that it is enough for now, or choose to settle for false “hope” of emptiness in death.  But we cannot escape the search for meaning and purpose that drives us to build and plan for a future we have never seen; nor can we know the peace that comes from looking forward and seeing more than darkness, doubt,  and destruction.

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