In years past at Christmas time you would see the phrase, “Peace on Earth,” quite a bit. It might be on a banner in a store window or on Christmas cards or decorations in someone’s front yard. We did get one Christmas card with the phrase, but not as many as in years past. As the years go by we are seeing more and more Santa and Rudolph and Frosty and less and less about peace on earth. But it was one of the proclamations of the angels when they announced Jesus’ birth, and something we still need very badly.
We just had the horrible terrorist strike in Mumbai, India.
There is ongoing civil war in the Eastern Congo.
The former Soviet Republic of Georgia invaded Ossetia not too long ago, only to see Russia barge in and push them right out again.
Iraq is slowly improving, but much of the improvement has come at the price ethnic cleansing, of one ethnic group pushing everyone else out of their neighborhoods.
In Afghanistan the government is controlling less and less of their own countryside.
Zimbabwe is an ongoing disaster. Inflation has so under minded the value of their money that one US dollar will now buy 200 million Zimbabwean dollars. We worry about our retirement accounts today after they have gone down maybe 35%. Imagine dividing your retirement account by 200 million.
And one police sergeant reported that a whole month’s salary had so little value that he couldn’t afford to buy even a quart of cooking oil.
And on top of that a cholera epidemic has already killed over a thousand people.
Do we still need “Peace on Earth?” If we could choose between actually meeting Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, or actually seeing the entire world at peace, we would all choose peace on earth.
If we could trade all the presents under our Christmas trees for peace on earth, we would take it in a second.
So, I want us to think together about “Peace on Earth” for just a few minutes.
Peace can have different meanings to different people. For a harried mother who has now had the kids home all day and housebound for several days of Christmas vacation while trying to finish all the shopping, decorating and cooking, “peace” might mean locking the bathroom door and just soaking in a hot tub for an hour. There peace means no more hassles. All interruptions of my tranquility are locked out.
We have some of that kind of peace tonight. The doors and windows are closed tightly to keep the cold wind out. We are surrounding ourselves with beautiful music and decorations to make things just as comfortable here as possible. The lights are dimmed. We want this service to be as peaceful and pleasant as possible.
Some of our traditional Christmas carols focus on this kind of peace, getting rid of anything unpleasant, as they go on and on about how still and peaceful Bethlehem was when Jesus was born. Think about that. If they were under Roman military occupation, and if the town was so swamped with people who had to come to be counted in a census that Mary had to put her newborn down in a feeding trough, I’ll bet it wasn’t peaceful at all. And really, I don’t think that is at all the kind of peace that the angels sang about was the purpose of the birth of Jesus. This wasn’t an event for running away from disturbing things. When Jesus was born, God was confronting the disturbing things of this world so that he could change them, not run away from them. (repeat)
So, when the angels talked about peace, what did they have in mind? Almost certainly they addressed the shepherds that night in the Aramaic language, which was very close to Hebrew. The word they would have used for peace was one you’ve probably heard before, “Shalom.” And shalom doesn’t have anything to do with running away from anything that disturbs you. Shalom refers to building wholeness in life, proper relationships, getting things straightened out to where they ought to be.
One of the real privileges of being a pastor is that you get to go through crises and major transitions with many families. Years ago I got a phone call one evening that Al and Evelyn Ames’s barn was on fire. Al and Evelyn were in their 80s, mostly retired as their son had taken over the farm. But that farm was their life. Old Al had built that barn with his father many years ago. His ancestor had been the first pioneer farmer to break sod and no one had ever worked that land except for Ames family members and those who worked for them.
As I pulled up to their house, the road was lined with the pickup trucks of neighbors who had arrived before me and come to help. I rang their doorbell and Evelyn let me in. Before long they were reciting the stories of other fires on the nearby farms, remembered over many years. The essentials of the stories were: who saw the fire first, who got their first, and what they were able to save.
It wasn’t long before Evelyn said how wonderful it had been to see me at the door. She said it felt like God was with them for me to arrive. And that meant that everything would be all right.
Now I know I’m not God. My mother used to tell me that I’m really handsome and very smart, but that day I was in the blue jeans and sneakers I had put on for a relaxed evening at home, and I really didn’t say much.
And I did nothing practical. The firefighters had the flames almost out. The neighbors had gotten Al’s prize dairy cows out of the barn safely and neighbors were moving them to their barns for safe keeping. I just sat and listened and care.
To be a pastor sometimes means that when I come, people find it easier to trust that God is there, too. And for God to be with us means everything.
Tonight we celebrate our savior, Emmanuel, God with us. He came into this world. He walks through it with us. And that makes all the difference.
Think back to a time when you felt stressed recently. Can you think of a time when you were very unpeaceful lately? Some of us might have to think back several months ago, but I’m sure that many of us can name a time even in the last few days.
What did you fear? Did you fear running out of time? Did you fear the failure of not being able to get everything done? Did you fear that people would look down on you if you didn’t get everything just right?
Now remind yourself that Jesus was with you while you were afraid. He loved you in that moment. He was patient with you. He was offering you his strength to get you through. He was offering you his wisdom to guide you through.
They called him Emmanuel, “God with us.” And having him with us makes all the difference.
Jesus came to bring peace between God and us humans. We don’t have to run from God and hide in chaotic, busy lifestyles anymore. We don’t have to worry about whether our sins can be forgiven anymore. We don’t have to feel doomed to always be falling short of what God expects of us anymore. Jesus came to fix all that, to show us God’s love, to make forgiveness for our sins possible, to show us just how good and loving God is, so that we don’t have to run away anymore, to show us what a Christian life looks like, to bring the Holy Spirit to fill us and change us from the inside so that we have the power to do right. Jesus came to bring us peace with God.
Certainly, much of the upset of this world comes from greed, people grasping and fighting to get more than their fair share. How different this Christmas might have been if we hadn’t had sub-prime lenders who were willing to take foolish risks in order to make a little more profit or buyers who had eyes for houses bigger than their bank accounts could handle, who were willing to try to buy a house that they really couldn’t afford! Two groups of people started a chain reaction of financial problems that will take months to sort out.
I’m very thankful this year for the legacy I received from my parents, who were careful to always live within their means, even to live below their means, so as not to be vulnerable to collapses like this. Following their wisdom, God’s wisdom, helps me find peace.
Certainly, there are more this year than last year whose peace is disrupted by worries about job security and paying the bills. Hear peace for those worries in the Christmas story. Mary and Joseph were very poor. But even as they had to adapt and stay in a place they wouldn’t have liked, a stable, God took care of them there. And even while they were so poor, he was working to bring the wise men from far with expensive gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh, which would support them for a while.
Whatever your situation may be, remember, the peace that Jesus came to bring on earth is not just from running away from problems. It comes from confronting the things that are wrong and making them right, in the power and wisdom and love of God.
Jesus has come, God on earth in human flesh.
On the cross he paved the way for the forgiveness of our sins.
He came to show us how to live in peace.
He promises to be with us to the end of time.
Jesus brings peace on earth.