St. Werburgh Church, Wembury 

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Peace in our time?

If Christmas brings the glitter, then January brings the gloom. The decorations are consigned back to the loft, the cards crammed into the recycling bin, and the bills start to roll in. It is back to work, back to routine, back to the everyday. Perhaps for that few days of Christmas celebrations we have been able to put aside the outside world – a world seemingly beset with danger and threats. A world that is broken by wars, terrorism, violence, oppression, abuse, ethnic cleansing, militant extremism, division, and fear.


A major focus of the Christmas message is ‘peace on earth’. The prophetic proclamation of the child to be born at Bethlehem, is that he will be called, ‘Prince of Peace’ [Isaiah 9:6]. His birth at Bethlehem, as announced by angels to shepherds on the nearby hillside, carries a promise of peace: “Glory to God, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests” [Luke 2:14].

In the reality of the world around us, you may wonder where that peace is? Is there, can there be, peace on earth? I don’t have any easy or glib answers to that. I am, however, always deeply encouraged by examples of people who have found great peace even in the midst of great tragedy. One such example is found in the Christmas carol, ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day’, a carol based on the poem "Christmas Bells" by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It tells of his despair, upon hearing Christmas bells, that "hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men". The carol concludes with the bells carrying renewed hope for peace among men. Longfellow wrote the poem, on Christmas Day 1863 during the American Civil War. His personal peace had been shattered when his wife of 18 years, to whom he was devoted, died in a fire, and he had just received news that his son had been severely wounded in battle. The poem, and carol, conclude with these words

"There is no peace on earth," I said;

"For hate is strong, and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men."


You can access the carol and full words at https://youtu.be/F756Mjxxrvc

 

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I find another inspirational example of peace amidst tragedy, in the hymn ‘It Is Well With My Soul’, written by Horatio Spafford. The opening line commences ‘When peace like a river, attendeth my soul’. Then, throughout the hymn, there is a refrain of ‘It is well, it is well, with my soul’. It is hard to imagine the traumatic tragedy in 1873 that gave rise to him penning those words.


He had planned to travel from America to England with his family on the SS Ville du Havre. In a late change of plan, due to a last-minute business commitment, he sent the family on ahead. He arranged to follow in a few days’ time on the next available ship. While crossing the Atlantic, the SS Ville du Havre collided with another vessel and rapidly sank. His wife survived but their four daughters drowned. Shortly afterwards Spafford travelled to meet his grieving wife. As his ship passed near to where his daughters had drowned, he went out on deck to pray, then returned to his cabin and wrote the words that conclude with, ‘whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well, with my soul’


You can stream an excellent rendition of this at https://youtu.be/KjR3GvEwV5Y {This video has since been removed by the user}


Both of these two examples may seem historic and the wording dated. My apologies that they pre-date inclusive language. However, the words I would like to offer you as we journey into 2018, are even older, almost 2000 years older. They are words that echo down through history, will never be dated, and will always be inclusive. They are the words of Jesus, addressed to his follows, prior to his journey to humiliation, beatings, and then crucifixion:


‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid’. [john 14:27]


Wishing you every blessing and a peace filled year ahead, Martin