On the night of Jesus’ birth, the angels declare good news of the Savior's birth to lowly shepherds, shouting “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors” (Luke 2: 14). I want to consider the nature of this peace they proclaimed because the word shalom (the Hebrew word for peace) is not just the absence of conflict, or a warm cozy feeling. Like the three vertical lines in its first letter, the letter shin (resembling the English letter w ) it represents wholeness in three dimensions: wholeness of relationship with God, with others, and with the earth. For followers of Y'shua (Jesus), shalom is a world-invading, world-shaping reality made real and personal in the Messiah.
“Peace on earth” describes tbe One who came to us in humility and weakness. Shalom is more than a word, it’s a person who came from heaven to earth; who came from the highest place to the lowest place. Peace had to come to this earth…because real peace is not of this earth. Real peace on earth is by definition an alien invasion - from beyond the stars of heaven to the dust of the earth. It's Emmanuel (God-With-Us) who came down. God came down to walk with us in the garden. God came down to speak with Moses in the burning bush. And God came down when the Son of God was born in Bethlehem’s stable to bring us his peace. People demonstrate for peace, they work for peace, they even fight for peace, but true lasting peace, shalom, does not orginate from the earth or its indigenous population...it is the fruit of a relationship with the Living God through Christ the Prince of Peace.
Now some have understandably asked: if Christ led 'the peace invasion,' why was the world not reduced to instantaneous peace upon his arrival? Good question. The obvious answer is that Christ came into this world as a tiny baby; weak and totally dependent upon others for survival. He came in humility, not with a sword. His power (revealed in the humility of a tiny baby, in his selfless life, and his atoning death) reminds us that lasting peace does not come by force. Certainly, if God wanted to force this world to be “peaceful," if he wanted to eliminate war and its causes, compel nations to work together on reducing greenhouse gases, feed the starving in Africa, eliminate human trafficking, or eliminate any number of problems, God could do so at any time he wanted – and many expected the Messiah to do just that. But God’s sovereign will seems to be that we freely love him, and freely love each other – which is the only way that true shalom is really possible.
“Peace on earth” is the promise of God’s inevitable triumph over evil. When the heavenly host (lit. "an army of heaven") declare “Glory to God and peace on earth” with the coming of the Messiah; they do so not as those presuming victory before the battle has been won; but as those who have been told the outcome. The angels give a victory shout because they know how the story is going to end. They know that the birth of the King means the evil one has already lost. They know that at the cost of his own life this tiny baby would show us how to live as God’s people; bear our sins on the cross, and rise from the dead in victory.
Of course, when Christians speak of the victory which Jesus has brought to us in his life, death, and resurrection…it’s not surprising that there are skeptics. What can one person do…let alone a baby born in a hillside cave, to usher in world peace? I read about a Palestinian baby a few years ago, who was found abandoned at birth in a roadside heap of trash. She was rescued by Palestinian doctors, cared by a group of nuns in Bethlehem and had her heart repaired by an Israeli surgeon. Palestinian doctors noticed she was turning blue and losing weight, and the baby was taken to a Jerusalem hospital. “She was skin and bone and that’s it,” said Israeli doctor Eli Milgalter, who operated on the baby’s heart on January 24th. The nuns raised nearly $11,000 to pay for the hospital costs, and Milgalter performed the surgery without accepting payment. She has made a full recovery, doctors said.” The article mentions that “the baby has become a rare example of the region’s usually fractured and clashing peoples working together to save a life.” And her name? Salaam: the Arabic version of Shalom, which means safe, secure, and forgiven[Citation: “‘Peace Baby’ Touches Mideast Enemies,” Associated Press (2-25-02)]. When people scoff at what one man or woman can possibly do, I remember what one Peace Child did…. which brings me to my last observation about the angels' announcement of peace.
“Peace on earth” is the sign of those who receive Christ personally. The angels cry of peace on earth “among those whom he favors” means God’s shalom, his wholeness, is given to those whom he chooses. How do we know that we are favored? First, we have welcomed the message of the Savior and received him personally. Secondly, we find that we have a passion for making peace, for bringing shalom, and wholeness to this broken world one person at a time. Peace is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (cf. Galatians 5:22). Sadly, there has been much done in the name of Christ which has not contributed to shalom on earth...actions which must certainly grieve God's heart (e.g., The French Inquisition, twisting Scripture to justify slavery in America, or the German national church's weakness in the face of Hitler). There have been, however, many examples over the centuries of those who have carried on the work of shalom as Christ's followers.
- In the ancient world, infanticide was not only legal, it was commonly held that sacrificing one’s own children could be an act of beauty. It was the early Christian church that ultimately brought an end to this terrible practice.
- In the ancient world, women were considered the property of their husbands; somewhere between slaves and freedmen. Yet Jesus warned against the mistreatment of women, he elevated them as full members of society, and had many women among his original followers.
- In the first century church of Rome, we know that Jews and Greeks, slaves and freedmen worshiped together as equals before Christ. While it is true that many Christians did own slaves over the course of history, it was finally Christians like William Wilberforce who turned the tide against the international slave trade. Indeed, two thirds of the abolitionists in 1835 were Christians.
- I continue to be struck by the story of Gary Haugen, president of IJM, whose life was changed when as a gov’t worker, he was sent to Rwanda following the war between Hutus and Tutsis that led to the deaths of millions. As a result he dedicated his life to rescuing the most vulnerable members of society from slavery and violent oppression. In a speech delivered to the White House, one of his co-workers said this: “While there are millions of girls and women victimized everyday, our work will always be about the one….The one girl deceived…The one girl needing a rescuer To succumb to the enormity of the problem is to fail the one. And more is required of us.” (Cited in Terrify No More, by Gary Haugen). Let me say it again: Those who know Christ personally have a passion for making peace, for bringing shalom, and wholeness to this broken world one person at a time.
This is Christmas, and I’ve been talking about the gift of peace, of the shalom that Christ came to bring us. But I want to impress upon you that this gift of peace is more than a simple cry to be more socially engaged in the problems of this world. We should be, but it's going to take a lot more than that. Real peace requires, as I said earlier, an alien invasion. We need a Peace from beyond this world, a supernatural Spirit to guide and redirect our thoughts toward Christ-like ends…which is why I want to end this Christmas meditation on "peace" by telling you about the Kohanim blessing....For those of you who are not Trek fans, you may or may not be familiar with the Vulcan greeting (Live long and prosper!) and its hand sign. It was invented by Leonard Nimoy based upon the Kohane blessing that he witnessed in the synagogue of his youth. The Kohanim are the genealogical descendents of the original priests who served in the Jerusalem temple. A remnant of the Temple service lives on in what’s called the Kohane blessing. Now worshippers are not supposed to look at the priest as he is performing the blessing (some children believe they will go blind or something bad will happen to them if they do); but Leonard snuck a peak and what he saw was two hands formed together to make the Hebrew letter shin – and this is important: Because shin is the first letter in the word “shaddai” (Almighty God) and “shalom” (peace). Nimoy later modified this into a single hand gesture. Here is the blessing:
The LORD bless you, and keep you:
The LORD make his face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you:
The LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and grant you peace.
That blessing, like the words of the heavenly host, bring Shaddai and shalom together: it reminds us that there is no shalom on earth without Shaddai; that “PEACE on earth” grows as we give “glory to GOD” for the Son he sent to save us…the Savior who is Christ the Lord. And so we pray not only for peace on earth...but that the Prince of Peace might truly reign in the people of the earth.
Jesus, I admit that I have longed for peace in my life, but avoided the things that would make for peace. Please cleanse and forgive me. I know that only by your grace can I turn from the darkness of my anger, resentment, selfishness, and pride. I therefore kneel before your humble manger, in the shadow of the cross where you died to make me whole, and pray…
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
Prince of Peace, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
Amen. [A Prayer for Peace (adapted from The Prayer of St. Francis)]