The message of Christmas is not peace. The message of Christmas is Christ.
Now, of course, you may well come back at me and say, “That’s true enough; but it’s also very trite, and not even cutely trite, but just trite. It’s not enough to just say ‘Christ’ over and over again. Rather you have to say what it is about Christ that constitutes the message of Christmas. And, of course, Christ was all about peace, so we can still say that the message of Christmas is, indeed, peace. Ha ha. So there!”
But that is just where the problem lies. Christ was not all about peace. In fact, in one of his most overlooked and enigmatic statements, and one for which some people have never forgiven him, he said, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division” (Luke 12:51), or as Matthew 10:34 records it, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword.” [By the way, one of my future posts will be entitled, “They Have Never Forgiven Jesus.” Stay tuned.]
Christ did not come to bring peace to every person or every home. In the passages quoted above, Jesus goes on to say that he has come to turn people in households against one another. And what is it over which these households will be divided? It will be over who Jesus is. This is indicated by the larger context of both passages; in particular, Luke 12:49-50; and Matthew 10:32-33, 37-40. Furthermore, when Jesus sent his disciples out on their first evangelistic mission, he instructed them to bring a greeting of peace to each house they visited. If they were not welcomed by the household, they were to leave—and take their peace with them.
To put this another way, yes, Jesus was about peace. But he wasn’t all about peace. The offer of peace was always conditional. None of this, “Well, if you won’t believe our message, we hope you have peace just the same.” Not even close.
In fact, this is reinforced in the Christmas narratives themselves. Most people should have noticed by now that the vast majority of modern translations, in their rendering of the angels’ message in Luke 2:14, have something like what the NIV has, “on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests,” rather than the older King James rendering, “on earth peace, good will toward men.” (With the NIV on this are the NRSV, ESV, NASB, NET, NLT, NJB, and a whole host of other translations; there are good reasons for taking this more modern rendering as the correct one; but I don’t want to go into them all now.)
So, there is a bit of a tension in that passage. On the one hand, the angels tell the shepherds that the message is for “all people” (Luke 2:14). Yet, we find that the message of peace and joy is really only for a subset of the “all people”—those on whom God’s favor rests.
So, of course, then the questions come, “Well, who are these people on whom God’s favor rests? And who are the people on whom God’s favor does not rest?” While this could easily lead into a Calvinist/Arminian discussion, I have no such purpose in this post. Rather, I want to gather some clues from the infancy narratives to see what we might be able to deduce from these clues. Notice the following:
(1) Zechariah is the first one to be given a message. Because he didn’t believe the angel’s message, he was struck with dumbness. At least initially, the message of Christmas brought him no peace.
(2) Mary, in her song, the Magnificat, praises the Lord, the one who has “scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts,” the one who has “brought down rulers from their thrones,” the one who has “sent the rich away empty.” Apparently—there is no peace for them.
(3) Zechariah, filled with the Holy Spirit, in his song, the Benedictus, emphasizes that the salvation and the redemption to be performed by the Lord is specifically for “his people,” the descendants “of our fathers,” the ones with whom the Lord is in “covenant.” The Lord will rescue them “from the hand of our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” Apparently, for those enemies, those haters of the covenant people of God—there is no peace for them.
(4) Simeon, moved by the Holy Spirit, comes to the temple courts, and finding Joseph, Mary, and the baby, takes the baby from Mary’s arms, and, among other things, declares that the child is “destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against.” Apparently, for those whom this child causes to fall, and for those who will speak against this child—there is no peace for them.
(5) Matthew, in his Gospel, sets up an opposition between Herod and the Jerusalem establishment, the ones who were trying to take the child’s life,” versus the magi, the “holy family,” and other people in the vicinity of Bethlehem. Herod was “disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” Apparently, for Herod and almost the entire city of Jerusalem—there was no peace for them that first Christmas.
(6) Finally, we have to add more one note to this list, and an ironic one at that. Sometimes, the peace is not all that evident even for those on whom God’s favor rests. The virgin Mary is one who is addressed by the angel as one who is “highly favored.” Yet, bewilderingly, this young maiden girl, this one whom God chose to be the mother of the Savior, this one whom God highly favored, is told by Simeon that not only is her child the one who will cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, but that “a sword will pierce your own soul too.” There are different suggestions by the commentators as to what this sword is. I, myself, believe that it refers to the fact that the division that will come into many homes over the person of Jesus will come into her own home as well, and that the sword is the pain she will feel when Jesus’ brothers regard him as crazy and want to put him away (Mark 3:21; see also John 7:5). Whether this is the right understanding or not, one thing is clear, because of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, because of Christmas, a sword will pierce Mary’s own soul. We might also note that the birth of this child also brought heartache for a set of mothers, those in the vicinity of Bethlehem who gave birth about the same time as Mary did (Matthew 2:16-18). A strange peace indeed.
If you feel the tension here, it is interesting to note that one of the most tension-filled statements that Jesus ever made is the one found in John 16:33. There, Jesus tells the apostles, “I have told you all these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Did you catch that? “I have come to give you peace. But you’re going to have trouble.”
But perhaps this last passage contains a clue for the solving of our enigma.
The peace the angels pronounced that first Christmas is not the peace that we usually take it to mean. It’s not about the end of war, ceasing from all strife, nuclear disarmament, the end of the sex and slave trade, liberation for all the people of the earth, the end of all poverty and hunger, social justice extended throughout the entire world. Oh, it is all that and more. But not now. Not for the last two thousand years. Not in our lifetime. And not in the foreseeable future. We can and should strive for these things. But we should also rid ourselves of the delusion that we will bring all these things about. That will only happen when Christ returns in power and great glory, puts down all opposition to his rule, and establishes his very visible, very physical, very tangible, eternal, everlasting kingdom.
Until then, the peace of Christmas is that which exists in the hearts of those whom God has favored. And who are the ones whom God has favored? Those who have believed. Those who have obeyed the Gospel. Those who are the descendants of Abraham; that is, the new Israel, the church of Jesus Christ. Those who are poor in spirit. Those who mourn. Those who are meek. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Those who are merciful. Those who are pure in heart. Those who are peacemakers. Those who, along with the Christ child, have been persecuted because of righteousness and because of their testimony that Christ is the Son of God, that he has provided an atoning sacrifice for our sins, and that he has been raised from the dead.
So, you see, the message of Christmas is not peace. The message of Christmas is Christ. And if you have believed on Christ Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, and have committed your life to him as your Sovereign Lord, then, amazingly, you get peace as well. But not the peace the world gives, and not even the peace the world dreams of, but a peace that passes all understanding, all human comprehension or devising. And this is the message of Christmas.
December 11, 2013