[Christmas Eve, the day after I presented this sermon on “God’s Gift of Peace” the city of Rochester tragically entered international news headlines when firefighters were ambushed responding to a deliberately lit fire. You can read the story here. Two firefighters were killed by gunfire and another two were shot and injured. In addition eight homes were destroyed by the fire.]
Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” Luke 2:13-15 (NLT)
Jesus was born into a period in world history of relative peace. The Roman Empire provided a lot of stability. But if you talked to the Jews of Jesus day, many of them would have resented the presence of the Roman military in their country. They longed for the return of independence and their own king upon the throne in Jerusalem. Caesar might have brought peace, but he maintained it by having such a strong military that no one dared challenge him. Peace in this environment is defined by the absence of conflict, but it doesn’t mean anyone’s happy.
In contrast when the Bible, which was written by Jews, talks about peace, it talks about a concept deeper than just the absence of conflict. The Hebrew word Shalom also has a sense of wellbeing or completeness. It even holds a concept of justice. When Shalom is present the world is as it should be, as God intended it.
Shalom takes us back to the very beginning of Creation, to God walking with Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden. Certainly there’s an absence of conflict, but there’s also a close relationship. Everything is whole. Then sin enters the picture and decay begins. Sin erodes humanities relationship with God and with each other. By the time of Jesus violence was a natural part of life. Israel’s history for hundreds of years was earmarked by battle, defeat, captivity and destruction. And now they faced violence from Roman armies. Violence from Jewish revolutionaries. Violence from thieves and bandits on the roads. But the peace Jesus offered wasn’t relief from violence, it was Shalom, the restoration of wholeness. The restoration of relationship with God. Surprisingly, he offered a more significant peace than Caesar.
Not only did the nature of peace differ between Jesus and Caesar, but the means of achieving peace also differed drastically. Instead of crushing all opposition to eliminate resistance, Jesus told his followers to live as proactive peacemakers. (Matt. 5:9)
Rather than responding to violence with greater violence. Rather than adopting the attitude of an eye for an eye he instructed his followers to break the cycle of violence by turning the other cheek, and even taking the extreme step of “loving our enemies and praying for them.” Yes, this baby in a manager, this king in the cattle trough, brought the gift of peace to the world, but he wrapped it in some surprises.
When we hear the promise of peace it’s easy to look around the world, see the conflicts in every corner of the globe and mock the angels’ declaration. But it’s important to read the whole verse. The idea of giving glory to God is connected to the declaration of peace. The people on whom God’s favor rests, are those who accept the kingship of Jesus. The world will never experience peace until it submits to God’s rule.
God’s peace isn’t just the absence of conflict, but the restoration of wholeness. That’s our gift. It’s also our gift to give.