December 24, 2011

And On Earth Peace (Christmas Eve)

Passage: Luke 2:13-14

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,  ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

I readily understand that one of the last things you want to be given on Christmas Eve is dieting advice.  Notwithstanding, I read a dieting tip you may appreciate: “If no one sees you eat it—it has no calories.”

We like to tell ourselves all kinds of fictions, do we not?

One recent Sunday morning as I ate breakfast (no one saw me so zero calories) I was watching a church service broadcast; the preacher gave an engaging sermon about how Christ calls Christians to serve the hurting people in our world, to serve without regard to race or creed, to serve without calculation of what is in it for them.  Following the broadcast the television station screened the typical disavowal of the content of the broadcast; “the views expressed are those of the authors of the broadcast and not those of (fill in the blank) television network”.  Immediately following this was an advertisement for Oil of Olay products claiming to have “anti-ageing” properties.  I noted that no disavowal of the content of this ad was deemed necessary by the television network.

It is amazing that the reality the world needs to embrace the world brackets with question marks and at the same time hardly raises an eyebrow at many fictions.  Our world brackets the story of Jesus’ birth with all kinds of question marks—a virgin conceiving, angel chorus in sky, a guiding star.  Many think that an essence can be extracted; an insight for humanity that the story was told to promote—like say “on earth peace”. The story is then seen as some sort of annual reminder that people should get along with one another, give peace a chance.

Let me ask—how is an annual reminder of the importance of peace working out for humanity?

But the gospel story is not so easily tamed.  Again and again the gospels insist that the peace the angels announce will never be known apart from knowing the One who is peace himself—this One born in Bethlehem

Everyone (everyone, that is, except the manifestly unbalanced) craves peace. We long for peace among nations, peace within our own nation, peace within our family, and, of course, peace within ourselves. In our psychology-driven age it’s the lattermost, peace within ourselves, that’s the pre-eminent felt need. The pharmaceutical companies have profited immensely from our preoccupation with inner peace.

The reason that the angels can exult “on earth peace” is because “to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour”.  The good news of great joy to all people insists that humanity needs saving; saving from their rebellion against God, from their heart corruption that doubts the goodness of God.  Annual reminder to pull up our socks and be a bit more peaceful overlooks the corruption of the human heart that denies that God’s goodness leads to peace.

The peace the angels announce is first peace with God; this is to be rightly related to God in a relationship of trust, love and obedience.  The apostle Paul writes, “Since we are justified (right relationship) by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  This faith is not faith in the popular sense of “belief”; faith, rather, in the Hebrew sense of “faith-fullness”, faith’s fullness: faith’s full reliance upon his mercy, faith’s full welcome accorded his truth, faith’s full appropriation of his pardon, faith’s full love now quickened by his ceaseless love for us.

Knowing and enjoying peace with God, Christ’s people are now blessed with the peace of God. The peace of God is that peace which every last individual desires. The peace of God is that “eye” of rest at the centre of the hurricane, the oasis in the midst of the desert storm, the calm in the midst of convulsion, the tranquillity that no turbulence can overturn ultimately. The peace of God is that peace which God grants to his people as they face life’s assaults.

To his fellow-Christians in the city of Philippi Paul writes, “The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”  This peace of God “passes understanding”. In fact, it passes “all understanding.” It passes understanding inasmuch as it isn’t natural; it isn’t generated by anything the sociologist or psychologist or neurologist can account for; it isn’t circumstantial. In a word, there’s no earthly explanation for it. Peace of mind that arose in the midst of peaceful circumstances would be entirely understandable and therefore entirely explicable. On the other hand, innermost peace in the midst of turbulence and treachery; this is peace that occurs for no apparent reason.

Frenchman Noel Regney was born in 1922; a brilliant musical career seemed assured having studied at leading music conservatories.  Then came the Second World War; France was overwhelmed by Hitler’s German troops; Regney was drafted into the German army. He hated the Nazis occupation; Regney secretly became a member of the French underground.

Noel believed that the horrors and destruction he had seen during the Second World War would wake folks up to the futility of war.  Then the Korean War began.  When the peace accords were signed, he hoped that humankind had finally wised up and that peace would reign.

By 1962, Regney now living in the United States, the Cuban missile crisis seemed the brink of war between nuclear superpowers.  Vietnam was in the headlines.  The safe and secure life he had built for himself in the United States was on the verge of ending.

War scenes depicted on the nightly news caused Noel to spiral into periods of depression.  He was haunted by flashbacks of his time of the battlefield.  Unable to sleep, Noel go up one night and tried to focus on something other than the awfulness of war.  Picking up a pen, he tried to write a poem about love—thoughts of lovers divided by war brought the nightmares back to him.  He tried to pen something humorous—nothing came.

He turned his thoughts to the first Christmas.  Inexplicably an idyllic peace flooded his heart as he considered the nativity.  Through the story of this child’s birth he was able to escape the nightmares that had been ruling his life.  The poem that emerged from his pen that night his wife, Gloria Shayne, set to music.   Here is what he wrote:

Said the night wind to the little lamb,
“Do you see what I see?
Way up in the sky, little lamb.
Do you see what I see?
A star, a star,
Dancing in the night,
With a tail as big as a kite?
With a tail as big as a kite?”

Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy,
“Do you hear what I hear?
Ringing thru the sky, shepherd boy,
Do you hear what I hear?
A Song, a song
high above the tree,
With a voice as big as the sea,
With a voice as big as the sea.”

Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king,
“Do you know what I know?
In your palace warm, mighty king,
Do you know what I know?
A Child, a Child
Shivers in the cold,
Let us bring Him silver and gold,
Let us bring Him silver and gold.”

Said the king to the people ev’rywhere,
“Listen to what I say:
Pray for peace, people ev’rywhere!
Listen to what I say:
The Child, the Child
Sleeping in the night,
He will bring us goodness and light,
He will bring us goodness and light.”