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Christmas December 25, 2016

Just recently, I heard a story about a Christmas during one of the World Wars. On Christmas Eve, the Germans and the Americans began a tentative truce to mark the season. They put down their weapons. They sang Christmas carols behind their respective lines, and then little by little they moved toward one another. They shared food and even played soccer for a while. Everyone knew that the next day they would go back to shooting at each other, but for the day, there was peace, the cessation of hostilities.

Caesar Augustus was famous for his “peaceful reign”, called the Pax Romana. He was called savior and lord for the cessation of hostilities he brought about. He was ruthless in his quest to bring civil wars in his empire to an end. He quickly put down any rebellion against the empire. People were glad about this break in the constant wars and hoped that the peace would continue, but it didn’t. After Caesar died, the empire went back to conflict and confusion as subsequent emperors failed to act in the way Caesar did. They didn’t have the power.

On Christmas Eve, my family experienced the peace of routine. We ate dinner at my aunt’s. Then we came home, put on our red and white footie pajamas, and listened to Mom read “The Night Before Christmas”. Then we went to bed with excitement, wondering what Santa would bring us. We slept – or at least stayed in our beds – until Mom and Dad came to get us on Christmas morning. It happened that way every year. We took comfort in it.

The angel appearing to the shepherds promised peace on to those whom God favored. The word is the same, but the meaning is not. The peace that Jesus – Lord, Messiah and Savior – brought was not the peace of power, of cessation of hostilities. It was not the peace of routine, of comfort in activities done over and over again. The peace Jesus brought was shalom, a feeling a wholeness and well-being. It was not routine; it was disruptive. It was not power but vulnerability.

When we sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” or “Silent Night”, we think of the peace of the manger, the quiet night of the shepherds. But Bethlehem was not peaceful. Nothing about that night was routine. The angel disrupts the shepherd’s routine of caring for the sheep. The angel not only disrupts the “peace”, it terrifies the shepherds. They don’t know what to make of this heavenly being. They don’t know why an angel had come to them, homeless people on the lowest rung of the social ladder.

Mary and Joseph do not have a peaceful time of it either. They have been forced by the empire to make a trek to Bethlehem to be counted by Caesar. Mary is so pregnant and the journey must have been so hard for her. And then Mary has a baby. I can attest from personal experience that childbirth is NOT a peaceful experience. And babies sleeping in heavenly peace are a fantasy. Jesus certainly cried to be fed or changed on a regular basis and ensured that Mary and Joseph would be up most of the night.

So when the angel says peace, it does not mean an easy routine life. It does not mean everything will go our way. It does not mean we can control our circumstances and keep everything running smoothly. It means our world will be disrupted because God’s peace will clash with the way the world sees peace. Peace does not mean power to win conflicts and stop hostilities. The scandal of Jesus’ birth was that the Messiah was not going to be a king like David, a warrior, a power in Jerusalem that would bring Israel to its former glory. The sign of peace was a baby in a manger, God human and vulnerable.

Peace is the gracious gift of God, but it is certainly a peace that the world does not give. It is better than any outer circumstances. It is peace brought about by inner circumstances.

Even though the situation would not appear so, there are the beginnings of peace in the hills of Bethlehem that night. Through the disruption of their lives and the appearance of the angel, the shepherds hear the good news proclaimed joyfully to them. They listen and their perspective on life changes. They are important enough for the angel to come to them. They are important enough for the angel to tell them what the sign is that would prove God had kept God’s promise to send a Messiah. Hearing the good news is a step toward achieving the gracious peace of God.

Then the shepherds go off to Bethlehem and find the baby and Mary and Joseph as well as a crowd of people in the streets. They tell them all that they had seen and heard – the angels, the proclamation of the fulfillment of God’s promise, the heavenly host singing. They share the good news they had received with others. Sharing the news is another part of receiving the peace of God.

Then the shepherds return to their sheep, praising and giving glory to God. Part of receiving peace is giving thanks for all the blessings you have received. The shepherds go back to their routine, but their lives were never the same again. They could not forget what had happened to them, and their lives, instead of being centered on their sheep, are now centered on the glory of God and God’s loving graciousness to God’s people.

And we mustn’t forget Mary. Mary agreed to bear Jesus into the world, to be his mother, to care for him and nurture him. After the shepherds come and go, she ponders what the angel’s announcement might mean – what does God have in store for her Son and for her? In spite of the unknown future she faces with the Son of God, her obedience led to that baby lying in the manger – the cause for great rejoicing. Bearing Jesus into the world is another factor in receiving the peace which passes understanding.

We all know peace is elusive. We may think we have it for a moment, but then it is gone. We end an argument with a family member, we get our list completed, we take a walk in the woods. We take comfort in the daily routines of our lives. These things give us happiness, but happiness is not peace. On the other hand we may feel totally out of control. We may be overwhelmed by health crises, difficult relationships, job loss and other financial troubles and we don’t have the power to feel peace in these situations. We feel fear or sadness or anxiety. We definitely don’t feel peaceful.

But God’s peace is more than happiness, and God’s peace trumps our troubles. God’s peace is centered in that baby in the manger. Jesus disrupted lives and was ultimately crucified through the power of the state. He said he came to bring not peace but a sword, to bring division. But Jesus was the very example of God’s peace. He knew the good news, he proclaimed the good news, he thanked and praised God and he brought God’s will to the world. He had shalom – the peace that comes from following God’s will, from centering one’s life on God.

What good news it is that a Savior is born to us. What good news it is that the sign is a vulnerable baby. What good news it is that human beings can be saved not in our strength or in our ability to keep a routine and control things, but in our weakness. We need the Savior that comes to us tonight. We need our routines disrupted, our weakness acknowledged. God brings the gift of peace to us in hearing and proclaiming the good news of Jesus, of bearing Jesus into the world and of giving glory to God. Rejoice. A Savior is born and we have peace at last.

Amen

     -- Rev. Ann Barker