Monday, December 24, 2012

Peace on Earth

Luke 2:14
Christmas Eve 2012
William G. Carter

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 favors!”

            I hope we have not heard the Christmas story so many times that we miss its strangeness. There are many strange details in this well-worn story.

            A virgin gives birth to a baby boy. An untouched young woman becomes pregnant and delivers. That doesn’t happen every day. It is strange.

            The king of kings is born among the farm animals. His first home is not in a palace, but the cattle’s feeding trough among poor peasants. This is not a rag-to-riches myth; for Jesus, the Son of God, it is rags to rags. That is strange.

            We do not know the names of the first visitors to the Christ child. They are anonymous. All we know is that they are sheep herders, members of a trade that was despised the religious people of Jerusalem. The announcement comes first to them, as outsiders. A Savior, Messiah, and Lord, is born for them. For them! He is freshly born, wrapped in cloth bands to keep his infant body straight, and harbored among people very much like themselves. Shepherds have a Savior? That is strange.

            But tonight, perhaps the strangest detail of all is the message that comes on the lips of a heavenly army: “Peace on earth among those whom God favors.”

            It is indeed an army. A “heavenly host” is a battalion of angels. It is a gathering of fierce soldiers with haloes and wings. They are the front line of God’s tactical mission. They are the first-responders sent to do God’s holy will. Tonight they are sent, not to wage war, but to wage peace. How incredible is that!

            After two thousand years of celebrating this birth, the human race is still fighting against the angels. We are a warlike species. We manufacture wars, we fight wars, we profit by wars. We picture peace on our Christmas cards in the most idyllic images, and then somebody tells our first grade teachers that they ought to ask Santa to put handguns in their Christmas stockings. Meanwhile heaven’s angels sing of peace on earth.

            It’s Christmas Eve. I was going to play it safe tonight and speak of love, joy, and wonder. But then, as I stood in line last Wednesday at the Chinchilla post office, I heard this lady at the front of the line work herself up in a shout. To listen to her words, she was on the verge of  “going postal” – Gotta arm the teachers, gotta give rifles to the principals, gotta put armor in front of elementary school windows. Those kids are sitting ducks. On she ranted, talked to nobody, talking to everybody. None of us wanted to hear it.

            It was clear she was having a hard time hearing the angels. And what is the first thing the Bible’s angels ever say? Fear not. Stop being afraid. And then an army of Christmas angels sing of peace on earth.

            It really is an army. The Hebrew word is “Sabaoth.” This is an intentional military word, indicating that God has battalions of heavenly servants who go forth to make holy peace. The heavenly host creates reconciliation. The heavenly host enforces forgiveness. The heavenly host is all about the work of God to eliminate strife between people, to teach them to get along.

            When Luke uses the “army” word for angels, he is offering an alternative to the world as we know it. In his own day, everybody knew how the Roman Caesar worked: by force and intimidation. The Roman army was the most brutal and well-armed in the world. When Caesar wanted something, his army had no regard for human life. At the time of Jesus’ birth, Caesar stationed soldiers in nearly every area of Israel, under the guise of “keeping peace.” But there was no peace. In one smooth move, Caesar Augustus created a census to find out where the peasants were, so he could tax them to pay for the very soldiers that oppressed them. That’s how the Christmas story begins. This is when Jesus is born.

            The good news is that another army comes, a strong and vocal army of angels. They serve the God who created every person. They are commanded by the God who made the world and loves it. They come to announce God’s mission to the whole human race: Peace on earth among those whom God favors.

            The strangeness of Christmas is that God offers another way for the world to live. This is the way of peace. Peace means a lot of things. Peace is tranquility between the nations and harmony between individuals. Peace is not the absence of conflict, but a certain stillness in the midst of conflict that is expressed in good will and reconciliation. Peace is the intentional choice that we will not respond to violence with violence; if that were God’s way, none of us would be left standing. But God comes to set us free from our war-like tendencies. God sends Jesus into the world to initiate peace.

            In a Christmas Eve sermon offered some years before he was shot to death by a gun, Martin Luther King Jr. said these words:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. . . Love is the most durable power in the world. This creative force, so beautifully exemplified in the life of our Christ, is the most potent instrument available in (our) quest for peace and security.[1]

            There is another way to live. A world perpetually at war will regard this as strange. But God sends an army of angels to announce that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, is born into our world. We are not left alone to our fear and savagery. God intervenes, and we have to decide if we can take part in God’s peacemaking mission to the world.

            It proceeds as someone has said: Believe – Behave – Become. “What we believe here, what we put in the forefront of our heart, is what drives our behavior. Our behavior shapes who we become. So if we put peace at the forefront of our hearts, not only is our behavior driven by that ethic, we are changed, our communities are changed, and our world is changed.”[2]

            Jesus is born. The angels announce peace. What are you and I going to do about that? Before anybody answers, I remind us of the third stanza of the carol we are about to sing: "No more let sins or sorrows grow / nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make his blessings flow / far as the curse is found." Merry Christmas. Merry, strange Christmas!

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Loving your Enemies,” Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, AL, Christmas 1957. Full text available online at
[2] Rev. Susan Sparks, “Wishes for the New Year,” Odyssey Networks, December 21, 2012

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