Reverend Mel Baars
December 2, 2012
“Prince of Peace”
It is hard for me to believe that it has been two years since I was first assigned by our newly crowned Moderator of Presbytery, Pastor Sara, with preaching on the first Sunday of Advent. Back in 2010, when I had three or four less gray hairs, and still no clue from the Army on where in the world I would be going or with whom I would be going with, hope was my assigned word. When Sara asked me to preach this Advent, again on the first Sunday of the season, I had a fleeting thought that I would use that old sermon once more, and “hope” that no one had been paying close attention two years ago. After all, Sara has really put me to work this weekend. I had to preach yesterday at the Presbytery meeting and between the Chester River Chorale holiday concert on Friday night, which was a wonderful way to begin this holy season and other, various homecoming meals shared with dear friends, my social calendar has been full since I arrived in Chestertown. There was hardly any time for preparing a sermon. But, wouldn’t you know it, Pastor Sara, gave me a different group of words this year. There would be no sermon reruns.
As Pastor Sara mentioned earlier, for Advent this year we are singing a new hymn, adding a new verse each week. Today we sang, “Come Now O Prince of Peace, make us one body. Come O Lord Jesus, reconcile your people.” I will admit, I was a little miffed that I couldn’t reuse my hope sermon. Hearing the words of this first verse though, I know how appropriate it is for me to meditate on Jesus as the Prince of Peace. After my last year, I know, more than ever before, that Jesus is the only real hope for any true peace. Whatever your thoughts are on what is happening in Afghanistan or what has happened there over the past eleven years, most of us acknowledge that establishing a lasting peace there or anywhere for that matter, won’t come through military strategy. Every time I heard a disparaging story about some needless violence happening throughout the country, often involving harm of a young girl or boy, I would wonder to myself how anyone could survive their Afghan tenure maintaining any hope at all without holding on to Jesus and his promise of true peace.
As a chaplain, I don’t always get to talk about Jesus, at least explicitly. Now please don’t get me wrong. Of course, I am a Christian minister, and couldn’t never pretend to be anything else. But, like many who work for either the government or for the county as an educator, I, too, must to wear different hats. I am allowed to talk about Jesus during worship services and when I lead Bible Studies or have people drop by my office to discuss questions of faith. But, when I am in battalion staff meetings or asked to give an invocation at a military ceremony, in those moments, I am supposed to speak of God more broadly. This way persons from different faith backgrounds or who don’t have any faith at all will not feel excluded or that their right to exercise their own free religion is being infringed upon. There are some who worry that not talking about Jesus effectively takes Jesus out of the equation, that Jesus becomes invisible. Yet after a year in Afghanistan, I beg to differ. In fact, I think not being able to talk about Jesus all the time instead gives us more reason to work on acting like him.
Sometimes I think that I learned this, at least in part, from you and the ways that you ministered to deployed troops over this past year. I think of the blue Christmas cards which were mailed to each of my soldiers bearing four simple words, “And on earth, Peace.” Those letters written by so many of you, including members of our youth group and some even younger than that, found their way into the mailboxes of an extremely diverse group of people-- some Christian, some Jewish, some atheist, some Muslim. And, I did not hear one complaint because members of a Christian church had written a Christmas card to an individual from a different faith. And, trust me, as the chaplain, I hear all the complaints.
Instead what I heard were things like this said by one of my Jewish soldiers. “Chaplain, I got a letter from someone in your church. I just couldn’t figure it out. At first I thought it was from a family member because the woman wrote the letter to me-- personally. I even called my mom to find out which of our family lived in Maryland. Then I figured out it was one of your friends.” Or, the letter that found its way to one of my Afghan linguists who originally fled Afghanistan during the Russian invasion when he was a young boy. “Can you believe it,” he said. “I got a letter from your friends in Maryland. Come and see it on my desk. This is the first time that I have been included with the soldiers at Christmas. Please tell them I am also praying for peace.” And, then there was perhaps my favorite comment from an old sailor who was working as a civilian contractor with our unit. “Chaplain,” she said. “Your people are very sneaky. I don’t like Christmas and I don’t like church, but their card was the kindest thing I have received during this deployment.” I could go on and on, but perhaps the most telling thing I noticed was, ten months later, those blue cards, with their white doves and message of peace, still posted on computers and on walls and on desks. You could hardly walk around our unit without being reminded of Jesus and his promise of peace.
Of course, the Christmas cards were just one of the many acts of God’s love which this church extended across oceans and continents, all the way to Afghanistan. Whether it was the over 6,000 Christmas cookies that you baked which fed not only my unit but many others on our camp or the stockings or pillowcases that you sewed, whether it was the fleece blankets you cut or the knitted sweaters that you so lovingly made for the children we met at the Egyptian hospital, whether it was the backpacks that you helped create, the last of which I heard, just two weeks ago, were going to be given away when schools open again in the spring as a part of a new initiative by Operation Pencil to partner with the Afghan National Army and their version of a chaplain who has set a goal to make a positive impact on each one of the almost 30,000 children who are in the Bagram district. Whether it was the school supplies or chap-stick that you brought to Vacation Bible School, whether it was hours you donated to packing boxes or sewing or knitting or praying, especially praying, in all of these actions you practiced being Jesus rather than just talking about him.
Throughout the season of Advent, we prepare for the coming of Christ into the world. Yes, we are always supposed to be ready for Jesus’, but in these weeks, we do things to make even more room. As we light the candles of the Advent wreath or open our homes for traveling Jesus to come over and spend time with our children, we acknowledge that it is Jesus, Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, whose presence among us makes all the difference in a world which, at times, appears to only grow darker.
At the very end of our deployment, I had one-on-one counseling sessions with every member of Task Force Viper. None of them had to use their entire thirty minute time block, though many of them ended up going into overtime, but they all had to meet with me. My hope was that brief reflection on their deployment as well as conversation about the months of reintegration that were just over the horizon, would help them to be ready for the emotional highs and lows of returning home. One of the questions that I would ask during this session was for them to name their best deployment memory. When I posed this question to one of my soldiers, a Special Forces Ranger with quite a few other deployments under his belt, he first answered me, saying there wasn’t one good moment over the year, not in a place like Afghanistan. Before I could even respond, he held up his hand and said, “Wait... I take that back. There was one good memory. Christmas Eve, when we lit our candles and took the light out into the dark Afghan night. I will never forget how I felt then, that just for a moment, peace was really possible.”
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined (Isaiah 9:2).” Advent is here and with it a heightened awareness of the one promise which makes all the difference-- the Prince of Peace is coming. He will accomplish fully what none of us can do on our own. He will make us into one body and reconcile all his people, every last one of us. This promise of true peace is what we witness to our world when we act like Jesus, when we become his hands and feet wherever we are, here, on the other side of the world, and everywhere between.
“Come Now O Prince of Peace, make us one body. Come O Lord Jesus, reconcile your people.” Amen