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!