It was no silent night: animals mooing – “lowing” if you’re singing “Away in a Manger” – and bleating, and clucking. A teenage girl screaming as the contractions get closer and the pain gets more intense. The cry of a newborn baby. A group of rough, smelly, and probably loud shepherds, stopping by to see this child.
A pretty noisy, chaotic entrance into the world for the Peacemaker. But that’s just like Jesus, isn’t it – to drop into a messy situation and bring peace?
The Genesis reading tonight was the “First Gospel” – the first Good News: that Jesus would come into a very messy situation. Sin had come into the world and had corrupted God’s “very good” creation. From that point on, surviving would take hard work. Thorns and thistles would try to choke out what humans tried to grow. Childbirth would be excruciating. People became enemies of God. And death would eventually claim every living thing.
In the middle of that mess, God promised Adam and Eve that someone in their family would destroy Satan – but would suffer in the process. That Someone would be Jesus – who would come to make peace between God and human beings, to set us free from sin, and to give us eternal life.
In Isaiah’s prophecy that we read God’s words of comfort for the people of Israel and Judah – people who suffered through a series of invasions and conquests. If you were here this morning, you got the detailed list – so you know that the Hebrew people experienced very little peace between the time of Isaiah and the time of Jesus.
But Isaiah’s prophecy was that God would come to His people to correct the inequality between the rich and powerful and the poor and oppressed, to give His people justice. And He would come to restore peace: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”
Jesus, who called Himself the Good Shepherd, came into the chaotic messiness of Roman occupation and the polarized politics of the Jewish faith to restore peace for God’s people. And it started with those shepherds out on the hillsides with their sheep. At first, they were terrified because of the angel and the intense glory of God, but the angel quickly reassured them that he had come in peace:
“Do not be afraid, for I bring you good news of great joy:”
“Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” Christ – “the anointed one” – the Messiah promised in Genesis 3 and Isaiah 40 and in countless other passages of the Hebrew Scriptures. Just referring to the Baby as “Christ the Lord” would have brought up all of God’s promises of redemption and freedom and peace the shepherds had learned about as children.
The last words of the angels’ song were, “on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” Some other versions say, “on earth peace among men.” At first, they sound like two very different concepts – but they are not.
If God’s peace is given to people – in the form of forgiveness and reconciliation between God and His people, then there should be peace among people. If we are God’s people of peace, then we should work for forgiveness and reconciliation with and among others.
Sadly, that has not always been the case for Christians. Theological squabbles have divided the Church over and over again. Catholics have persecuted Protestants and Protestants have persecuted Catholics – and one of the few things we have agreed upon was we both persecuted the Anabaptists. Wars and revolutions, massacres and assassinations, car bombings in Northern Ireland are all part of our sad history.
Pogroms against Jews, Crusades to take the Holy Land back from Muslims, slavery and Jim Crow Laws, broken treaties and re-education efforts to obliterate First Nations culture – these are blots on our heritage. As a nation, we have had only 43 years since 1776 without some sort of military conflict.
I hope we all believe that Jesus will come into this chaotic mess and bring peace – when He establishes His eternal Kingdom of Peace at the end of time. But we need peace now – and we look to Jesus to give us peace.
But what did Jesus teach about peace in His Beatitudes? “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” Right there, He tells us that we are responsible for working for peace. Jesus brings about peace often through us. While we are not in a position to bring an end to the conflict with North Korea or Islamist terrorists, we can work for peace in our families, our church family, our workplaces, and our communities.
Ken Sande is the founder of Peacemaker Ministries and the author of The Peacemaker. On the one-year anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, he wrote about how forgiveness and reconciliation are vital to peace, and how we cannot afford to put them off:
When the two jets hit the World Trade Center one year ago, thousands of people instantly realized they might not survive. As flames rose around them, many of them grabbed for the closest telephone, hoping they could speak one last time to their loved ones. Some got through and had a few precious moments to exchange final words. Others could only leave poignant messages on answering machines or with emergency operators. Desperation stripped away the empty, superficial words used in normal conversations. Three words were used again and again to say the only thing that really mattered in these final moments of life: “I love you, I love you, I love you…”
In some cases these words undoubtedly carried a special meaning. To some couples they may have meant, “I’m sorry I was selfish and insensitive last night,” and “I forgive you for forgetting our anniversary.” Between a father and son, I love you may have meant, “I’m sorry I yelled at you about your grades this morning,” or “I forgive you, and I think you’re the best dad in the world.” To sisters who hadn’t spoken in months, these words said, “I’ve been so wrong to be bitter toward you,” and “That’s all behind us–I just want to see you again.”
Through these brief conversations, many wrongs were quickly and completely forgiven in the few short minutes before the Twin Towers collapsed. The resulting reconciliation cannot bring people back to life, but it undoubtedly eases the pain of those left behind.
Unfortunately, many people did not have time to exchange these priceless words. Some died instantly in the explosions. Others spent their final minutes helping the injured or frantically seeking safety. And many dialed their phones repeatedly, but never got through.
As a result, there are many people today whose hearts carry a double burden. In addition to losing a loved one, they grieve that they were not able to apologize for or forgive unkind words or actions that had come between them before tragedy struck. It is a grief they will carry with them until their dying day.
It’s not too late for us. Today is the day to make peace and be reconciled with those we have offended or refused to forgive. Whatever the wrong, God’s grace is more than sufficient to enable us to reach out and seek reconciliation.
To that, I would add: And what better time to do it than the season in which we celebrate the coming of the Peacemaker – who came into this chaotic mess we had made of things to make peace between us and God?