Background Passages: Luke 2:1-14; John 14:27
The young man leaned against a boulder, resting his head upon his arms as his calloused hands gripped the shepherd’s staff held in front of him. The quiet of the night interrupted by the soft bleating of a ewe calling for his lamb. The nearby campfires set around the hillside illuminated the measured steps of his friends standing watch around the flock. He found comfort in their presence.
Without warning, an angel in radiant garments, appeared among them, night’s shadows chased away by the brilliance of God’s glory. Stricken with fear, the shepherds dropped to the ground. “Do not be afraid,” the angel said with a voice calm and clear. “I bring you tidings of great joy for all the people. Today, in the city of David, a Savior is born to you. He is the Messiah, the Lord.”
As soon as he made his announcement, a great host of angels surrounded them, singing praises to God of his unsurpassed greatness and declaring “peace to all on earth on whom God’s favor rests.”
From the moment the angel declared the birth of God’s own Son, we have longed for the promised peace. When we look past the tinsel and trappings of the season into the world around us, the angel’s words of good cheer and peace seem elusive at best. The fault lies not with the angel’s pronouncement, nor with God’s promise. Rather, the failure lies in our definition of peace.
Jesus’ birth did not usher in a time of peace. The savior was born in a region consumed by strife for hundreds of years. The Roman conquerors, just the latest in a long line of foreign rulers, kept a heavy hand upon Judea. Herod, the appointed king of Judea, feared any and every rival, eventually calling for the death of every child under the age of two. Jesus’ parents fled to Egypt. No, Jesus’ world was hardly a place of peace.
Throughout his life and ministry Jesus encountered suspicion and hatred, ultimately leading to his death on a cross and the persecution of his followers. Upon hearing of the declaration to the shepherds, the casual observer might ask, “Where is the promised peace?”
Nineteen centuries later, the world watched as the United States of America tore itself apart in a ugly Civil War, fought to end the enslavement of one people by another. During this brutal time, the eldest son of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the famed American poet, enlisted in the Union army without his father’s permission. Young Wadsworth suffered a severe wound at a battle in Virginia.
As a result, our poet wrote Christmas Bells, a poem later put to music and renamed, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. It begins with a declaration of the popular seasonal sentiment of peace on earth before decrying the reality of war and violence. The sullen lyrics proclaim, “And in despair, I bowed my head; ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said; ‘For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.’” The casual reader might hear the song and ask, “Where is the promised peace?”
Understand clearly, Jesus’ birth remains one of earth’s most amazing events and marks the beginning of the final expression of God’s plan for bringing salvation to the world. It did not then, and does not now, end the disharmony among men. Turn on the television and listen to the divisive conversations. See the reports of warfare and violence across the globe. The casual observer might ask, “Where is the promised peace?”
God calls us to live in harmony today with one another, to love our neighbors and our enemies, but this is not the peace of Christmas. God’s promised peace is not found in our external relationships. God’s perfect peace is internal…in the heart of every believer…and it is eternal…in the life everlasting he promised through his son, Jesus Christ.
As he prepared for his death on the cross, Jesus comforted his disciples. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” Then, he echoed the words of the angels to the shepherds, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
While the world’s discord ought to concern us and our lives ought to be about bridging those damaged and fragile relationships, we tend to live in fear of the anger that exists among us. God reminds us often in scripture, “Do not be afraid.” Fear is overcome by living as God desires us to live.
God loves it when we live obedient to his will. It pleases him. We find the peace and contentment he promised while here on earth only when living in the light of his will for our lives. It is not the absence of conflict as the best peace given by the world. It is the peace he gives us as his spirit lives within our hearts in the here and now.
The baby God sent to lie in the manger in Bethlehem, the one the angels proclaimed as the Messiah, brought God’s gift of grace and salvation to a hateful world so that those who would place faith and trust in him would find true peace…not just in the present day, but for all eternity.
In the end, Wordsworth’s expressed pessimism yielded to the promise of the baby in the manger. His last stanza declares our greatest hope. Where is the peace? It is found in these words.
Then rang 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.
Then ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day.
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
Listen to my favorite rendition of this Christmas classic by Casting Crowns.
God is still in control and his victory over all that is wrong is assured. In Christmas we catch a glimpse of what we can be. In Christmas we bury that which divides us to find a brief respite from the rancor that rules the year. In Christmas we find peace that only a life committed to Christ can find. Because of Christmas we rest in God’s promise of eternal peace.
This is my prayer for you this Christmas.