I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.
Most days I feel a desperate need for peace. The world we live in is full of words that fill us with fear and anxiety and rob us of peace. It is commonplace to hear of terrorist attacks, homicide bombs, famine, disease, war, genocide, hurricanes, tsunamis, recession, debt, school shootings, unemployment, cancer and layoffs. We face political uncertainty, financial unrest, and a felt loss of safety. Pain and heartache are all around and peace often seems out of reach. Where is the peace?
It is temping to hear the account of the shepherds in Luke chapter 2 and see the nativity scene as something sweet and peaceful. To all accounts, it looked to be the very personification of peace on earth. But look beyond the manger scene and you’ll see that peace at that time was just as elusive.
The nation of Israel had returned to Jerusalem after 70 of years in captivity. They were back in their homeland, but were oppressed by the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans. By the time Jesus is born in Bethlehem, the mighty Roman Empire controlled the entire region and ruled with a firm hand. Not wishing to be so heavily taxed or controlled, resistance fighters kept the more remote areas in constant turmoil. They faced political unrest on a constant basis, with no voice to choose who would lead them and no protector to save them from unjust and cruel leaders.
The birth of Jesus would do nothing to change that. In fact, this birth set off a chain of events far removed from peace. In just a short time after the angels announced the birth of the savior and the shepherds made haste to welcome the child, Herod would have all baby boys under the age of two years old put to death to keep his throne secure from the threat of a coming messiah.
Thirty years later, Jesus would begin to proclaim his role as the messiah and was mocked, challenged and eventually put to death. And his followers wouldn’t avoid hardship either. In the next thirty years Christians would be mocked, persecuted, hunted and killed in an effort to stop the spread of the gospel. The birth of Jesus did not bring physical peace to the world. In fact, it appeared to have escalated the turmoil.
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 goodwill to men.
It is easy to view the message of the angels as nothing more than a peaceful wish but their message was not one of good wishes – it was one of announcement. They were making a proclamation. They weren’t there to wish the world peace. They were there to tell the shepherds that peace had arrived.
If we think of peace as a time without the fears and anxieties of our day we miss the message of peace altogether. True peace is not and has never been a circumstance. The peace the angels were proclaiming would never be found in an event or a time free of turmoil. This peace was bigger and more lasting that that. This peace is strikingly different than our understanding of the word.
Jesus acknowledged to his disciples that this peace was far from the norm. In John 14:27 he said “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” He knew his peace was not what they were looking for. But ohhh – it was what they needed.
The little baby in the manger would grow up to become Jesus the Messiah, the one who would choose a martyrs death to reconcile us with God. The people who walked the earth with Jesus didn’t understand this message of peace. They were looking for peace of a different sort. They wanted rescue and favorable circumstances. He offered a peace that no one recognized. The message of the angels “ Peace on Earth” was lost amidst the politics and chaos of the day. And we miss it too.
Isaiah 9:6-7 is a familiar passage at Christmas. It reads, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulders and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." Here is the first inkling that we’ve gotten our definition of peace all wrong. Isaiah refers to Jesus as the Prince of Peace, it is his title – a description of who he is.
In another familiar passage in Micah chapter 5 we see that expanded on as he writes “But you, O Bethlehem, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. . . And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace."
The peace the Angels proclaimed, the peace we so desperately long for today was never a circumstance –it was a person! The Son of God who became man and died for us is the peace of the world. He is our peace.
Isaiah 53:5 tells us that Jesus was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace.” He came to earth to restore our relationship with God and we have peace with God through his sacrifice. He is our peace!
Paul states this clearly in Ephesians 2:12-14 as he writes “Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace.”
The message to the shepherds is the same message to us today – Peace is here. Don’t miss it! Don’t look for it in a circumstance, nor wait for it to magically appear. A cozy cabin in the woods away from cell phones and noisy neighbors won’t bring us peace – it’s not a location. Oprah’s 12 steps to inner peace won’t work either – it’s not a recipe. The latest gadget or technology to make our days run smoother or manage our time better won’t bring peace – it’s not a possession. There is no secret formula for peace, no self-help book that will bring it and no guaranteed plan to create it in our lives. True peace is a relationship with God made possible by the Prince of Peace, our savior and messiah. He is our peace.
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor does he sleep.
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, goodwill to men.
And yet . . .
Our belief and acceptance of the true peace doesn’t mean our circumstances change. Just as it was for the shepherds, Jesus, and the early Christians, knowledge and possession of true peace doesn’t mean the fear and turmoil of the world will pass us by. We are not exempt from pain, disease, broken hearts, recession, war, natural disasters, uncertainty and death. As Solomon points out in Ecclesiastes, blessings and sorrows befall both the good and the evil.
Possessing true peace in the person and work of Jesus Christ in our lives should make us stand out in the world, but it won’t be through our circumstances. Just as the writer of “I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day” discovered, the greatest evidence of peace in our lives will be in our mental shift away from our fears and troubles and toward the reality of the power of God. He still rules this world with authority and one day he will bring physical peace to the world. Until that glorious day appears, our goal should be to keep our focus firmly planted on that promise and not expect Him to rescue us from all trouble and pain.
Then ringing, singing on it’s way
The world revolves from night to day
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
As night becomes day, today becomes tomorrow, and tomorrow becomes next week, we must remember that while life can be hard and circumstances can shake us, peace can be found. And when the Prince of Peace becomes the focus of our lives, we can chant with the angel’s chorus, peace on earth, goodwill to men!
There are many reasons for reading Scripture, but I think we often get the main reason wrong. Some time ago, I was meeting a woman every week to read the Bible together. While she professed to be a Christian, she did not attend church and had little understanding of the Bible. She grew frustrated with our time together because she just wanted to jump to the passages that told her what to do. She wanted three steps to a better marriage or four things to do when life throws you a curveball. She had little time for or interest in understanding the whole of Scripture as it tells one story about God's redemption of man. She just wanted her life to be better and she thought the Bible could tell her how.
While she wasn't wrong exactly, she skipped a very imporant reason for reading the Bible. The main purpose is to tell us who God is. The Bible tells us about his character, how he works in the world around us, how he has chosen to work in the lives of his people in various generations and how he is moving in our own world today. At it's heart, it's a letter to us from God about what he wants us to know about himself and what's he's doing in the world.
While we can - and should - learn from the characters of the Bible as we read their stories, all of these stories point to God and tell us something important about who he is and how he acts. Tim Keller writes "These Gospel naratives are telling you not what you should do but what God has done."* The danger from looking at them only as moral stories to guide our choices is that we usually fail to grasp the cultural differences of the time these stories took place. Often the way they chose to behave was dictated by culture and prevailing attitudes. And often, God made promises to certain groups of people that don't pertain to all believers as a whole. When we focus on reading Scripture to only tell us what to do, we can easily misinterpret the purpose the stories were included in the first place.
Another reason it's important to read the Bible first and foremost as a way to learn about God is that obedience through action becomes much easier. If your mother tells you to eat your vegetables you take her advice more kindly than if the waitress tells you to do so. Why? Because you know your mother and that relationship gives her the right to meddle in your business. And the same is true with God. When you know his character, you are more willing to obey his commands.
When you learn about how loving and gracious God is, it is easier to ask him for forgiveness when you fail. When you realize that God always keeps his promises, you are willing to trust him when all hope seems lost. When you understand that God is always good, your realize that whatever he allows in your life will ultimately be good as well. If you jump right to obedience before you understand who he is, it will always be more of a struggle to obey.
Everything in Scripture tells us some aspect of who God is. It's the best way to get to know him. Next time you're reading the Bible, instead of jumping into your normal study, pause a moment to ask, "What is this passage telling me about God?"