I want you to imagine your favourite nativity scene. Maybe it was one you had growing up, one you have now or one you wish you had. Take in the emotions of the scene. Peaceful baby with peaceful parents, surrounded by peaceful shepherds with their peaceful sheep. The entire scene is about peace.
Think about some of our Christmas carol lyrics:
“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift giv’n!”
“What child is this, who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?”
“The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.”
Is that really the way it was? I see no reason to think that Jesus was unlike any other baby and that he probably cried and made a fuss. It was a stressful time for all, including the shepherds who had just been overwhelmed by the appearances of angels.
Not only was the birth of Jesus likely not peaceful in terms of sound, it wasn’t peaceful in the sense of lack of conflict either. Probably one of our least favourite Christmas stories is the slaughter of the infants of Bethlehem by Herod. What about Joseph and Mary with baby Jesus having to flee to Egypt as refugees? Where is the peace?
We call Jesus the Prince of Peace, but how is that working out in our world? Did you know that 160 million people died in wars during the twentieth century? To put that in perspective, there are 35 million people in Canada. The entire population of Canada was killed 4.5 times during the twentieth century just through war.
Does the Christmas message have anything to say about this? One of the most memorable stories in any war was something that happened during the First World War. On December 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV suggested a temporary hiatus of the war for the celebration of Christmas. The warring countries refused to create any official cease-fire, but on Christmas the soldiers in the trenches declared their own unofficial truce. At numerous points along the front, soldiers on both sides came out of the trenches, played games, exchanged presents and wished each other a Merry Christmas. My question to you is, is this a beautiful story or a sad story. There is some beauty to it. But the next day, they returned to the trenches and continued the slaughter. The best that could be hoped for was a temporary reprieve from the violence.
That was supposed to be the war to end all wars, and yet that war ended in such a way that it basically guaranteed another world war within a few decades.
We live today in a world that may not fear a war on the scale of the first and second world war, but we live in fear of terrorist attacks. There are people who are not looking for conquest or even material destruction, but looking to create terror through attacks on civilians.
We as Christians need to ask two very important questions in this violent world. Does Jesus Christ have any peace to offer us? And what does that look like?
Peace of Christ
Jesus had a lot to say about peace and his Jewish audience was eager to hear about it. They wanted peace and they wanted a very specific kind of peace. They were already experiencing a kind of peace called Pax Romana. The Romans enforced peace across their empire which included numerous groups that hated each other. The Roman peace, Pax Romana, was be peaceful or we will completely destroy you. However, the Jews wanted a different peace. They wanted a peace that included the expulsion of the Romans and a renewed independence for Israel. They wanted this peace so bad that forty years after Jesus’ death, they fought the Romans for that peace. Sixty-five years after that defeat, the Jews fought Rome again and experienced an even worse defeat.
The Jews included their messianic hopes with their fight for freedom. In fact, in that second war, the leader of the revolt was declared the messiah by some rabbis.
Jesus knew all this and so when he offered peace, he needed to be extremely clear in what he said. Jesus had no intention of leading a revolt against Rome. Jesus’ plan was to submit to both the Jewish and Roman authorities, to die a painful death on a cross, to be raised on the third day and to send the Holy Spirit to equip and strengthen his followers. That is why Jesus explains that he gives peace not as the world gives peace. Truth be told, the world can’t give peace. It can break up the violence a bit, but that is it. Jesus can offer a peace that lasts. Jesus can offer a peace that goes to the root of our problems, Jesus can offer a peace that can exist even when the rest of the world is falling apart.
But what does that peace look like?
What Peace Looks Like
It is one thing to say that the peace that Jesus offers is not like what the world offers, but it is another to understand what it actually looks like. The peace of Christ has three components.
Peace With God
We looked at this when we looked at hope last week, that because of what Christ did on the cross, we have peace with God, not just the peace of God. We may not naturally think about the conflict that people have with God. It is not a pleasant thought.
To me, the clearest example of this hostility is with the new atheists. Even though I was an atheist in my teens and early 20s, I don’t even recognize the atheism of people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. My atheism was, “I don’t believe God exists and I’m going to sleep in on Sundays.” The new atheism says, “I don’t believe in God and I hate him!” There is a tremendous amount of anger toward God that they say doesn’t even exist.
It is not always about open hostility. Some times it is more like the cold war, a quiet separation with a high wall in between.
Because of what Jesus did on the cross, we have peace with God. This is not just an end of hostility, it is an adopting of us into his family as his sons and daughters. Being at peace with God can and should change lives.
Peace With Others
This one is rather complicated but it is very important. The peace Christ offers to us can bring peace between us and other people. But this needs to be explained carefully. Elsewhere, Jesus states that he came not to bring peace but a sword. But when we read that passage in context, we see that Jesus is saying something very specific. Jesus teaches that when we become his followers, this will bring conflict with people. The gospel is so radical that there will be people who hate us for it. I would never claim to have been persecuted, but I have been called nasty names and have had people give me a hard time over my faith. That will happen.
But in another way, Jesus does bring peace between us and others. The second greatest commandment is to love our neighbours. We are called to forsake hatred and bitterness. We are called to forgive all people, even those who have hurt us. In many cases, when we reflect the love has for us onto our other relationships, there will be a new peace. I really appreciate what Paul says: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18) There will be times, especially with those very hostile to the gospel, that conflict will continue. But as far as we are able, we should seek to be at peace with others.
Peace With Ourselves
Peace with God and peace with each other make sense. But there is another kind of peace that we don’t often talk about and that is peace with ourselves. I mentioned the second greatest commandment as loving our neighbours. The full command is to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. I have heard people ask what this mean if we don’t love ourselves.
There can be all sorts of reasons for there to be inner turmoil. There is abuse, mental illness, difficult family background, guilt, shame and so many other things. You might wonder if people would love you if they knew what you were really like.
The good news is that Christ wants us to have peace on the inside too. I’m not saying praying a prayer or coming to church will instantly make everything better. This is the area where it is hardest to experience peace. God will forgive us. Other people will forgive us. But will we forgive ourselves? There is a deep work that God wants to do in us. It won’t take just a day, but it can happen. Peace is possible.
There is war and violence all across our world. The Bible says that one day the swords will be beaten into ploughshares. But that won’t happen until Jesus returns. Until then, peace will not come country by country but rather person by person.
Jesus offers peace, peace not like the world offers, which is a temporary break in hostilities. Jesus can offer lasting peace. It starts with peace with God. It overflows into peace with others. And it goes deep into us to give us peace with others. All of this from the Prince of Peace. Peace is possible.