Peace on earth
Reading – Luke 2:1-14
St Michael’s Christmas Night 2014
If there is one thing that people wish for more than anything else at Christmas it is for peace. At a time when many of us are celebrating the birth of Jesus with our family and friends, it is only right and natural that we long for peace to extend across this beautiful but broken world. There are too many people this Christmas who are dying alone or caught up in warfare or suffering from hunger or neglect; too many people who are living in fear or want or poverty. Sheer compassion moves us to pray for a better future where there will be no child going to bed hungry, no family torn apart by violence, no country ravaged by famine.
And of course peace is at the very heart of the Christmas story. When the angels appear to the shepherds in those rocky fields near Bethlehem, what is the song that they sing? Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests (Luke 2:14). But that was two thousand years ago, and I guess if we are really honest with ourselves, we may well wonder in what sense the birth of Christ has brought peace. Yes, we may agree with the sentiments of the angels’ song, but aren’t these words just wishful thinking or things we would like to believe?
That’s a question we need to take seriously. Because if the Christmas story is just about things we would like to believe are true, then we need to ask what is the point and purpose of our celebrations. The birth of Jesus may be a lovely, sweet story but if it is nothing more than this, then it is just so much sentiment to cheer us up on a cold winter’s night.
So let’s think a little more tonight about what we mean by this word “peace”. It seems to me that in our reading from Luke’s gospel we find at least three different situations which might be described as peaceful, in one way or another…
First of all, we have the peace imposed by military and political domination.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.
Now whatever else you might think of the Romans, they were masters at running an empire. When Jesus was born, it was towards the beginning of a period of history known as the Pax Romana. For the next two hundred years this vast empire brought a period of stability and prosperity, the like of which had never been seen before in history. We still see its legacy today, in subjects as diverse as architecture or law or the very language that we speak. There is no doubt that the Pax Romana – the Roman peace – was a remarkable achievement and it is something that great nations have aspired to emulate ever since.
But for all the success of the Roman Empire, we have to question whether this period of history really was peaceful in the true sense of the word. After all, the Romans did not build their empire by quiet negotiation or skilful diplomacy. They came, they saw, they conquered. And when any dared to challenge their dominance, they were swiftly and brutally crushed, as indeed the Jewish people themselves discovered when they rebelled in the great revolt of 66-73AD.
So what is happening at the beginning of this passage is a great emperor imposing his will upon his subjects. He demands a census and one shall be taken. He has no thought for the disruption caused to the people involved; they are, as far as he is concerned, mere statistics who have to be assessed for taxation. Certainly he has no interest in someone like Joseph who was no doubt working hard in Nazareth to provide for his future bride, but must now leave his job to travel to Bethlehem.
Yes, this is peace of a sort, but only one that is imposed by force and fear, and it can never be a lasting solution to the problems of this world. That is why this empire and every single one since has crumbled and fallen, and why even a great figure like Caesar Augustus eventually fades into the pages of history.
So there is the peace imposed by others.
Secondly, there is also the peace of passive obedience.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
We have no way of knowing how Joseph really felt about being called to leave Nazareth in a hurry with his pregnant fiancé. We do know there were plenty of Israelites at that time who objected violently to the Roman’s presence in their country. There were the zealots who actively resisted the occupation and the sicarii – the dagger-men – who were prepared to murder any Jew who collaborated with the enemy. The time of Jesus was a time of revolution and ferment, often stirred up by radicals who claimed to be prophets sent by God.
But there were also plenty of others – the silent majority – who simply accepted things as they were and got on with life as best they could. And as far as we can judge, Joseph was one such person. He had a family to think of, and his work, and being a good Israelite he was unwilling to break the commandment, “Thou shalt not murder”. So he set out with such things as he could take with him, no doubt praying for a safe journey and trusting that his wife-to-be would not deliver on the way.
Joseph was a man who sought peace and tried to do the right thing. But this did not mean by itself that he had a true, genuine peace in his life. He longed like every other Israelite for the coming of the Messiah and freedom for His people. Outwardly he was obedient and did what was expected of him. But in his heart he was looking for a Saviour, and until that Saviour came, he could never experience real inner peace.
So there is the peace imposed by others. There is the peace of passive obedience. There is also the peace that comes in a moment of tranquillity and calm.
Take a moment to think of every nativity scene you have ever seen on a Christmas card or in a painting or on television. It is a wonderful picture of calm. There is the Virgin Mary holding the child in her arms, the baby either asleep or gazing in wonder at his mother. There are the angels hovering serenely in the background. There are suspiciously clean cattle and sheep quietly munching on the hay, perhaps with a shepherd or two nearby. And there’s Joseph, just like every other man in the labour ward, not quite sure what to do with himself, but lost in the wonder and mystery of the occasion.
It’s a beautiful picture of peace. And when you look at it, it’s easy to forget the hardship and danger of the journey (for all that the Romans occupied the land, there were bandits and thieves aplenty). It’s easy to forget Joseph and Mary’s search for somewhere to stay and their efforts to get comfortable in the stable, or as we should more accurately think of it, cave where the animals were sheltered. It’s easy too to forget the pain and agony of childbirth in a situation where there were few medical facilities and probably not that much help.
But we forget all these things because the final scene of this particular story is beautiful and quite rightly it has captured the imagination of artists, poets and storytellers ever since. Who can fail to be moved of this tale of a special child born against the odds to the most unlikely of parents? Yet we need to remember that this peaceful scene is only a fleeting moment. Soon no doubt people in Bethlehem were asking questions about this strange couple; rumours began to spread about the people who came to visit them; and then of course there comes the decree from King Herod ordering the death of all children under the age of two.
We all have special moments in our lives, but they are just that – moments. The peace we win for ourselves can all easily be disturbed by a change of circumstances, or events beyond our control. That’s why I think many people find the type of Christmas portrayed by all those expensive adverts rather difficult. Not everyone is going to come down on Christmas day morning to the perfect presents, a gourmet dinner and one big happy family, with or without penguin. We are just too exposed to what the old prayer book calls the changes and chances of this fleeting world.
So what is this peace that the angels are singing about? Let’s go back a few verses and listen to the message that they bring to the shepherds:
Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.
Now I expect that these are very familiar words to many of us here tonight, but I wonder if sometimes we are so familiar with them that we lose the impact of what they are actually saying. In Jesus we are promised a Saviour who can rescue us from the domination of others; who can meet the deepest longing of our hearts; who can give us an inner peace that can never be taken away. How? Because the story of Christmas is the story of God Himself entering into our beautiful but broken world. Not to come into judgement as we deserve but to rescue us from our own wrongdoing and to defeat the evil which others inflict upon us.
Of course this Christmas story happened many, many years ago. As we look at the state of the world, we may at times wonder what difference this birth in Bethlehem has really made. We hear stories in the West of the church in decline; we witness terrible atrocities being committed against believers in the Middle-East. Yet beyond the headlines what often goes unreported is the fact that across the whole world the church is growing. From this most unlikely of births in the most unlikely of places has grown a worldwide movement spreading out to every continent, reaching more and more people. The fact that we are here tonight is testimony to the truth and power of the good news which has endured and will continue to endure over the centuries. Jesus really has the power to save and to give a peace beyond human understanding, and His is a kingdom which will never fade away.
So what should be our response to this well-known story we hear year after year? Let me suggest there are two responses we need to make. First of all, we need to make sure we ourselves have heard the angel’s message and asked Jesus to be our Saviour and our Lord. Because, if we want enduring peace in our lives, we need first to have peace with God through Jesus Christ. That means we need to come to Him in faith, and like the shepherds offer Him our lives in worship and in praise as we marvel at the wonder of His saving love.
And secondly, we need to pray with believers across the ages: Your kingdom come, your will be done. Because as our psalm reminds us, one day: He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his truth. And on that day every empire will lay down its authority before him; every war will cease and all powers of evil will finally be vanquished. Because this Jesus who came once as a tiny baby in Bethlehem will come again, this time as king to establish a rule of peace and truth that will never end, and give to those who believe eternal peace.
So let’s listen afresh to the angel’s message tonight. Let us claim the peace of Christ for ourselves, and let us look for coming of His kingdom. So that by our lives day by day we too can proclaim that he is Christ the Lord, to the glory of His name. Amen.