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Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward All...

On Christmas Eve 1914 during World War I, according to well-attested legend, German and British troops sang Christmas carols and participated in an unofficial cease-fire. On Christmas morning soldiers crossed the trenches, shaking hands with their enemies and exchanging simple gifts. This expression of peace and goodwill is commemorated as an example of the Christmas spirit that not even a world war could destroy. Even today, when fewer people in the western world espouse a commitment to Christianity, Christmas remains a popular festival and a time for demonstrating the best of humanity. Setting aside the scandalous commercialization of Christmas that compels people to spend more than they can afford on arguably useless gifts and overwhelming gluttony, even the most hardened cynic will find themselves on the outer if they cry “Bah, humbug!” too vociferously. To many people, Christmas means family, friends, rest and celebration; giving and receiving gifts, even altruism, all in the Christmas “spirit.” Relatives we would not normally associate with become essential guests at our table, and we strive to ensure we adequately reciprocate in the giving of gifts. Animosity is to be set aside and we are to be reconciled to each other in the spirit of “peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” Perhaps this idea of reconciliation, the Christmas truce, if you will, most adequately embraces the secular, 21st century concept of Christmas in the western world. The problem is, it doesn’t last.

So, what does “peace on earth, goodwill toward men” actually mean? Was it part of the original Christmas message, and if so, how is it relevant today? Is it a mere platitude, dependent on our willingness to set aside differences for a season, and tolerate each other in a quasi-spiritual abundance of benevolence? The thing is, the reconciliation at the heart of Christmas, the “peace on earth, goodwill toward men” is no more sustainable today by our efforts than it was for a brief respite in 1914. By the 26th December, the trench warfare had resumed, and went on for four more bloody years. Likewise, our benevolence toward annoying relatives, adversarial colleagues, people in need and the world in general may be difficult to sustain once the Christmas lights are extinguished. What do we learn each year, and does it even make a difference? Is that all that was achieved by the birth of a baby in Bethlehem two millennia ago?

To understand the far-reaching and ultimate meaning of reconciliation at Christmas, we need to peel away the trappings of tinsel and holy, winter wonderland scenes, sumptuous feasts and lighted trees, benign as they may be in themselves. Also, with all due respect to centuries of Christian tradition, we need to peel away a few well-meant misunderstandings of the original Christmas story. You can read the two parallel gospel accounts in Matthew 1:18–2:18 and Luke 1:26–38, 2:1–20. Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral town, as part of a Roman census (Luke 2:1–7). This is hugely significant, because Jesus was a descendant of the great Jewish king David of Bethlehem (Luke 1:30–33). The “stable” was almost certainly a room off the main house sleeping quarters rather than a remote barn or shed. There is no specific record of what animals, if any, were in the room along with Mary and Joseph. It’s unlikely the shepherds would have been out in the fields with their flocks if it was winter (Luke 2:8); the 25th of December was a date later appropriated as the official Christmas feast. Whilst the shepherds were certainly on the scene the night of Jesus’ humble birth, the wise men or magi came much later, when the little family was in a house and Jesus was one or two years of age (Matthew 2:1–2, 7–11, 16). Although they brought three gifts; gold, frankincense and myrrh, there is no record of how many magi came. The visit of the shepherds is recorded in Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth; Luke was particularly interested in writing about Jesus’ interactions with the poor, the outcasts, with women and children, those at the bottom of society at the time; shepherding was a low profession. Matthew’s gospel records the visit of the magi, because Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ royal Davidic ancestry and his fulfilment of many ancient Jewish prophecies, particularly the extension of God’s grace to all nations. The gifts they brought, which are not typical of today’s baby showers, symbolize Jesus’ work as prophet, priest and king. What is particularly significant is that the magi, wise men from Babylon, were Gentiles, not Jews, and yet they recognized the significance of this Jewish baby according to the ancient scriptures. The humble circumstances of the birth of King David’s descendant, the visit of, on the one hand the dregs of Jewish society (shepherds) and on the other, foreigners outside the Jewish covenant community, typifies the reconciliation at the heart of the Christmas story. It is in this context that we hear the angels proclaim peace and goodwill.

“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’ When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’

(Luke 2:7–15)

The peace and goodwill announced by the angel was not a warm philanthropic congeniality towards our fellow human beings, occasioned by the heartwarming birth of a child who would one day proclaim, “love your neighbour” and “do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Jesus came to do much more than that. The peace and good will announced by the angel was nothing short of the reconciliation of God with humanity. Since the first humans rejected the moral authority of God in Eden, humans have been in rebellion against their Creator. By seeking to be like God, determining good and evil for ourselves, we brought sin into the world. Sin has totally corrupted our nature, our motives, our words and deeds. Sin brought death and destroyed our relationship with God and each other. Sin underlies all the suffering of the world. It is this sin which Jesus Christ came to destroy. Jesus was not only the human descendant of David through his mother Mary and legally through his guardian Joseph, he was also the Son of God. He was conceived in Mary by the action of the Holy Spirit, not by Joseph or any other human male (Luke 1:26–35, Matthew 1:18–23). In the conception of Jesus, a unique and extraordinarily gracious event occurred; God the Son took on humanity. He entered into our human state, was born, lived, died and rose again. He experienced all the joys, sorrows, temptations and limitations of human life, yet without sinning, in order to bear our sins to the cross and destroy them. God saw our helpless, rebellious state, our inability to repair our relationship with him and our relationships with each other. Rather than treat us with the contempt our sins deserve, he reached down in love and grace.

The prophet Isaiah wrote in anticipation of this; “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:4–6). Baby Jesus did not grow up to become just a good moral teacher, he came with all the authority of God. He came to seek out and save the lost, from the poorest most despised, to people of every nation. He came to reconcile us to God, to bring us peace with God, because only then can we be reconciled to each other. This is what it means to be “the Saviour, Christ the Lord.” The name “Jesus” means God saves (Matthew 1:21). “Christ” is the Greek word for the Hebrew “Messiah,” meaning the anointed one, the one who would be king. And Lord, “the Lord,” means no less than God himself. His other name, “Immanuel, means “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). The apostle Paul describes Jesus and his reconciling work in Colossians 1:15–20.

In Jesus “we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities; all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together... For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

On that first Christmas night, God entered the world in the person of his Son, the very fulness of God dwelling in flesh, Creator and created, “God with us,” in order to reconcile all things in heaven and earth to himself. We can rightly marvel that God should treat his undeserving creatures this way, and yet God created humans in his image to glorify him, and his purpose will not be thwarted. One day all creation will be filled with the glory of God, and true justice will be achieved.

There is nothing that we sinful humans could have done to reconcile ourselves to God. “But God shows his love for us,” wrote Paul, “in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).he apostle John wrote, “This is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). God didn’t send Jesus because he needed a reason to love us, he always loved us, but God needed a means of reconciliation. True love, true reconciliation does not ignore the sin and wrong-doing that fractures a relationship; true reconciliation means dealing with that so there can be true healing. That’s what Jesus Christ came to do. He lived a perfect life, restoring the image of God to humanity, and then took our sins away. Paul goes on to explain in Romans 5:9–11, that we have been saved from God’s wrath by Jesus’ death, reconciled to him and now saved by his life. Earlier in verses 1–2 Paul wrote that since we have been justified (made right with) God by faith in Jesus, we have peace with God through him. Once separated from God by our sins we now have access to God. We have become his children, through his gracious gift of reconciliation.

The peace on earth, goodwill to all promised by the angel proclaiming Jesus’ birth, is not merely a warm fuzzy feeling, a “Christmas truce” that we barely sustain for twenty four hours before it’s business as usual. We cannot make lasting peace with each other, we cannot sustain good will by our own efforts; thousands of years of human history prove the naivety of such a goal. But God can bring peace and reconciliation, first with himself and secondly with each other through the work of Jesus Christ. Empowered by the love of God we can show love to our fellow humans, the gracious, self-giving love of Jesus. This is the Christmas spirit, the true meaning of Christmas; this is the greatest gift of all, this is the source of peace on earth and goodwill to all.

Glory to God, in the highest.

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