ON EARTH PEACE
A Sermon for Christmas Eve
Based on Luke 2:1-20
Richard L. Jeske, Vicar
It is a story we’ll never get tired of hearing. We know it well – hear it every year on Christmas Eve – maybe we’ll read it again when we get home. We certainly get Christmas cards with bits and pieces of the story emblazoned on them. But when we hear it read in church again it’s like we’re hearing it for the first time. It reads like poetry, or like a mystery novel where you don’t know what’s going to happen next. In it things happen for the first time: the first imperial census; having to get yourself registered in your own hometown; a rugged journey with a pregnant woman from sleepy Nazareth to backwater Bethlehem; a birth of her first child out in a stall because of all the “no vacancy” signs; sleepy shepherds on night shift getting blown away by an extra-terrestial figure telling them to get into town; a blinding heavenly chorus singing for the first time something that will be sung in church every Sunday forever; they – the shepherds – became the first missionaries, the first to tell the story about the birth of the Messiah; and for the first time the words “on earth peace” started ringing and kept ringing in their ears.
“On earth peace….” What a global message! Not just peace to you shepherds, peace on the way from your fertile fields, peace there in the stable, peace in Bethlehem, not peace in Judea – but “on earth, peace.” Do you think the shepherds had a concept of “earth”? I don’t. But the story makes us confront it. After all, the story got started by a decree from Rome, from the Emperor Augustus, winding up on the desk of the governor of Syria, who got the word out to everyone in his jurisdiction that they should get registered. Matthew adds to the story: three star-gazers from the Eastern part of the Empire come to give gifts to the newborn child – another sign that the whole earth is involved; and then politics gets involved when the Judean king gets nervous and the child has to be taken to Egypt for safety. Again, it’s a whole earth story, designed for God’s peace to start.
Old Isaiah longed for it. He sat in the arrow-sights of the Assyrians, old Iraq kicking up its heels again. Assyria wanted to make itself great again, and trampled over the kingdoms of Syria and Samaria and Gaza down the coast to Egypt, and now Israel was surrounded by a hostile warring nation. They were sitting on the edge of darkness; they had watched “the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood.” Time to give up? Not for Isaiah: he saw light piercing through the darkness, because he had hope in God. God doesn’t want war for people; he wants peace. And this time it would all start with a child, maybe born already, Isaiah thought; and that child offered a future filled with promise, because “the Lord of hosts will do this,” he said. That child would be given names: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority would grow continually, and there would be endless peace…, and he’ll bring justice and righteousness….” “God would get this done,” he said: “the Lord of hosts will do this.”
So that’s what the song of heaven offered that night over Bethlehem’s fields: “on earth peace among those whom God favors.” And whom does God favor? The answer is: everyone. In the Greek original the expression is far clearer than in the English translation: literally it read “on earth peace to those whom God’s grace is given.” That means everyone, starting with you and me. You and I have experienced the grace of God, and that’s why we are here this evening, to receive it again. We know those times when we are sitting at the edge of darkness, those times when we’ve had tragedy enter our lives, those times when we’ve done tragic things to other people, those times when we’ve thought there’s no way out from the cloud of hostility that hangs over us. We’ve been in those times of depression, only to be reminded that we’ve been given an important gift, the grace of God, a light through our tunnels into the justice and favor of God. And we come here again to receive it through water, and bread and wine. And we can sing the song of heaven again, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom God’s grace is given.”
But Christmas is not just for us. That’s what Luke’s story tells us in bold detail: it’s a world event, and we are not allowed to see ourselves as apart from that world. Fifty years ago next year – in 1968 – the Apollo 8 astronauts gave us the first picture of the earth itself, a beautiful blue sphere hovering alone in space against the backdrop of a darkened cosmos. It gave us a sense of our home – that’s plural, our home, our planet, ours together with everyone else on it. God has favored us to live together on this one planet, and he offers peace to everyone on it.
On earth peace – the Christmas story reminds us of how interconnected we are with others on this planet – from a Roman emperor to Wise Men from the far-off East. On earth peace is what is offered, but God always gets his work done through the people he has created. Can we really love the Christmas story without understanding how connected we are to everyone else on this earth? Does Christmas mean then that we can think of ourselves first and leave others in the dust behind us? Does Christmas mean we think only of our own industries and forget about the effects they have on the world’s environment? When other nations work for peace do we withdraw because of our own interests without considering theirs? Does the peace that God wants for us let us be OK with leaving 9 million children off health insurance in this country? Does Christmas allow that of us, when we want to celebrate the birth of a child in a meager stable, a child whom we want to call our “Prince of Peace”? Or does Christmas ask us to learn from that child, who grew up to become “the man for others” and who asked us to come and follow him? He gave himself, so that we could.
Christmas is not just about presents and cards and smiling faces and family dinners. They’re all good. But what they represent is the joy of togetherness, the joy of giving, and the joy of loving others around us. And it all began when a child was born with God’s messengers offering “on earth peace to those whom God’s grace is given.” And once that grace and that peace take hold of our hearts, we’ll want to share that grace and that peace with others.
-- Richard L. Jeske