You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. – Psalm 23:5
Hope, joy, peace, and love are probably not the first words that come to your mind when you think of refugees. You've likely seen the images of men, women, and children crammed into little rubber boats attempting to flee the blood thirst of ISIS. Many of them, to their horror, land on foreign soil only to be turned away. They are not welcome.
Joseph and the nine-months pregnant Mary were similarly turned away when they asked for refuge at an inn in Bethlehem. So the child-king and Savior of the world was born, not in a palace, not even in a Motel 6, but an animal stable and placed in a feeding trough as a makeshift crib.
God is so often nearest to those who are most desperate.He was there in the stable with the postpartum Mary, although just a babe. Those in extreme situations recognize more quickly their need for divine assistance while affluence and material comfort blind many of us. But make no mistake; we are all in need of God's rescue. An unknown author captured this in the opening lines of a seventh-century Advent hymn:
Creator of the stars of night, Thy people's everlasting light, Jesus, Redeemer, save us all, And hear Thy servants when they call. – Creator of the Stars of Night, trans. John M. Neale
His prayer was not for Jesus to save only the poor, or only the rich, but to save us all. We all suffer under the weight of the Fall and sin's deadly consequences. You may have seen the images of children beheaded at the hands of ISIS and felt the twist in your gut at the severe injustice. If you experienced feelings of hatred and rage, you were not alone.
Many are migrating away from their homeland to escape the wrath of ISIS so their children will not end up in a photograph passed around social media to stoke the sympathy of the West. God is not unfamiliar with the threat. Jesus was not yet two years old when his mother and adoptive father had to flee Bethlehem to escape a similar fate. Herod, the dictator-king of Judea, took the life of every small boy in the area (Matt. 2:13-18). He takes this rough measure to secure his self-worship and prevent a child-savior from threatening his rule. The hymn continues:
Thou, grieving that the ancient curse Should doom to death a universe, Hast found the medicine, full of grace, To save and heal a ruined race.
Could you imagine being one of the families who lost their son at the hands of Herod? Some in Iraq and Syria don't have to imagine; it’s their reality. The curse is real, and the death it brings permeates our entire universe. If you've wondered where God is in the midst of the chaos, you are not alone.
The child who escaped the sword of Herod was later crucified and disfigured at the hands of sinful men. A gruesome act of man that doubled as God's most glorious act of rescue, for Jesus laid his life down of his own accord (Jn. 10:18). He will soon return for his bride. His grace will save and heal our ruined human race.
The arrival of the child, in the unassuming stable, brought hope, joy, peace, and love.
Thou cam'st, the Bridegroom of the bride, As drew the world to evening-tide; Proceeding from a virgin shrine, The spotless Victim all divine.
Our consciences, at their best moments, are outraged at the heinous acts of ISIS. At their worst, they excuse us for our own heinous thoughts and deeds. While it feels difficult to identify with ISIS, we have more in common with them than we do with Jesus. We have the blood of Jesus, the only perfect one, on our hands. It was our sin that sent him to the cross. He would undergo the worst injustice humanity has ever seen. That child virgin-born would never experience guilt from his own thoughts or actions, for they were perfect always. But he became one of us and experienced a separation from the Father, all to rescue those who forsook him.
At Whose dread Name, majestic now, All knees must bend, all hearts must bow; And things celestial Thee shall own, And things terrestrial, Lord alone.
That baby in a stable was peaceful and adorable. But when he returns a second time the ledger will be made right. Yes, those who punish his children will someday recognize his terrible majesty and might. No one will stand on that day—all will bow, things in heaven and on earth.
We like this—God returning to execute justice—so long as we are not on the receiving end. If you've experienced God's grace and mercy in the person of Christ, the debt you owe—the cosmic consequence of your sin—has been paid. But do you long for those exacting vengeance in the name of Allah to experience the same grace?
Someday, they will rightly see the divine power and glory of Christ. In obedience to Christ, we should be praying that day occurs before judgment, the terrible day when:
O Thou Whose coming is with dread To judge and doom the quick and dead, Preserve us, while we dwell below, From every insult of the foe.
Those deplorable actions of Herod and ISIS, they are but the last death throes of the one who came to kill and destroy (Jn. 10:10). That babe in the manger has crushed his head, and while his heart still beats, he is as good as dead.
Jesus has not yet returned to balance the scales of justice, so hope is alive for those within the ranks of ISIS (and it wouldn’t be the first time he’s converted a terrorist for his glory Acts 8).
While we dwell below we may not be protected from all the Enemy's blows, but we do rest firmly in the hand of the Savior and King. Our hope is in the one to which we sing:
To God the Father, God the Son, And God the Spirit, Three in One, Laud, honor, might, and glory be From age to age eternally.
In him, we find our hope, despite the injustice in this world. In him, we find our joy, despite the violence that tries to rob us. In him, we find peace, despite those that insist on war. And in him, we know love. That’s why we can love our enemies because Jesus died for us when we were his enemies, and he now sends his Spirit to dwell within us.
As we reflect on his first advent, we see the creator of the world erupting into human history, taking on flesh, and dying for us as a substitute. His first advent has shown us that nothing is impossible with God. We wait, patiently, but expectantly for his second advent. We say with the Apostle Paul:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:31-39
Paul contrasts the love of God in Christ against the backdrop of almost every possible human suffering we could face. The words are timeless as we head into Advent. If our heart is never heavy due to the pain of the world, we are not paying attention. But if our heart is faint because of these woes, we have not reflected enough on the gospel’s victory. Paul, commenting on his own trials, referred to himself as "sorrowful, yet always rejoicing" (2 Cor. 6:10). This same attitude should mark us as we prepare our hearts for Advent.
Some head into this season with very little. They long for something simple and material: a hot meal, a warm bed. Thoughts of hope, joy, peace, and love are far from them. But God has given up his son for us all; will he not then give us these intangible desires? Some have lost their children; God knows what it’s like to watch a child die. Multitudes of people are afraid of God's condemnation due to their sin; he justifies. Not because of what we've done, but because of what Christ did. The hearts of many are so busy they do not know how to approach God and feel ill prepared for this season; Jesus is interceding for them. In some places radical Islamists may separate people's heads from their bodies; they cannot separate a Christian from the love of God. God is for us. God is with us. This is the meaning of Jesus' name, Immanuel. Through him, we are more than conquerors.
It’s possible for an army to win a war but suffer tremendous loss of lives. Conquering comes, usually, at a great cost. Not so with those who trust Christ. While everything in this world may be taken from us, our lives rest solely with Christ who will raise them up again. He's already demonstrated that by raising up his own.
Jesus Christ is our hope (1 Tim. 1:1) and he has overcome the world that stands against us (Jn. 16:33). He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Is. 53:3), so that we could have joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17). He will soon return with a sword coming out of his mouth to silence his enemies (Rev. 19:5), but for those who trust in him he is our peace (Eph. 2:14). The people of God have a multitude of enemies standing against them, but the hope of spiritual Israel is in the God who is love (1 Jn. 4:8).
Hope, joy, peace, and love. The themes may seem foggy. The words intangible. But when we cast our gaze upon Jesus these words take on flesh as he did (Jn. 1:14).
Sean Nolan (B.S. and M.A., Summit University) is the Family Life Pastor at Christ Fellowship Church in Fallston, MD. Prior to that he served at Terra Nova Church in Troy, NY for seven years and taught Hermeneutics to ninth and tenth graders. He is married to Hannah and is about to be a father for the second time. He occasionally blogs at Hardcore Grace.
Editor: In advent, there’s a natural sense of restlessness in our world which only Jesus’ presence can bring peace and resolution to. Our desire is to drive our hope toward the incarnate Savior during this season. Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth.