Our Great Peace

Last week, we took a look at what the angel of the Lord said to the shepherds – “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all men.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:9-10)

            But, just a short time later, a whole host of angels made another announcement: “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!’” (Luke 2:13-14)

            Peace on earth, good will to men.  It’s one of the most cherished sentiments of the Christmas season.  But it’s easy to look around and say, “There is no peace on earth.”  And it’s not just this particular year.  For centuries, people have struggled with the idea of peace on earth.

            There’s a famous Christmas carol called, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”.  It was written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was a famous American poet who lived in the mid-1800s.

            This particular song was written on Christmas Day of 1863.  By this point, the Civil War had been raging for over two and a half years.  Over a million fathers, sons, and brothers would not be home for that Christmas – and many of those would never return.

            And so, on that Christmas day in 1863, Longfellow thought about the dismal state of the world in which he lived.  He had also experienced his own tragedies.  His first wife died six months into her first pregnancy at the age of 22.  His second wife died from severe burns after her dress caught fire.  And now, as the Civil War raged around him, Longfellow would spend this Christmas nursing his oldest son back to health after a Confederate bullet nearly paralyzed him.

            And as he listened to the church bells pealing forth their Christmas tidings on that Christmas morning, he struggled with the message of the angels as they proclaimed to the shepherds – peace on earth, good will to men.  Because, as Longfellow looked at the world around him, he did not see peace on the earth.

And so, this is what he wrote: 

I heard the bells on Christmas day

Their old familiar carols play

   And mild and sweet

   Their songs repeat

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Then from each black, accursed mouth

The cannon thundered in the South,

     And with the sound

     The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

And in despair, I bowed my head

There is no peace on earth I said

   For hate is strong

   And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men

            And you can certainly see his point. As the cannons and the gunfire drowned out the sounds of the Christmas bells, and as Longfellow looked around at the ruins of war and the ruined lives of the people he loved, it didn’t seem at all like peace on earth, good will to men.

            Even for us today, we’re not in the midst of a civil war right now, but we don’t have to look far to see that peace on this earth is not a reality.   

            I heard about a little girl who was working so diligently at her homework that her father became curious and asked her what she was doing.   She said, “I’m writing a report on the condition of the world and how to bring peace.”  Her father said, “Isn’t that a pretty big order for a young girl?”  She said, “Oh, no, and don’t worry.  There are three of us in the class working on it!”

            We smile because we know that anyone who has a plan for world peace is living out a pipe dream.  The world’s peacemakers have a terrible record.  The peace we get excited about today begins to collapse tomorrow. 

            Someone has cynically said, “Washington has a lot of peace monuments.  They build one after each war.”  Someone else has well said that “Peace is merely that brief glorious moment in history when everybody stops to reload.” 

            After World War II, the world wanted to develop an agency for world peace, so in 1945, the United Nations was created.  Their motto is this:  “To have succeeding generations free from the scourge of war.”  And since that time, 75 years later, there has not been one day of peace on this earth.  Not one day.

            A group of historians has calculated that over the course of written history, there have been over 14,000 wars in which almost 4 billion people have been killed.  There is no peace on earth.

            And it shouldn’t be surprising that there’s no peace between nations because we struggle to get along in our personal relationships.  Every relationship seems to be so fragile.  There are arguments in the family, fights at school, people snapping at each other at work.  Everywhere we turn we see quarrels, arguments and disagreements, and we don’t even have to turn on Jerry Springer to see it.  The sad reality is that sometimes we see it even in the church. 

            In fact, many of us struggle to find peace even within our own hearts.  Think about how many people battle with anxiety. Or depression.  Or addiction of some sort.  Or stress.  Or worry.  

            We are a people who are desperately looking for peace – but we’re not finding it.  We pour trillions of dollars into our military in the name of peace.  We spend billions on police officers and courts and judges and lawyers – all in a search for peace. We buy books on meditation and yoga, we hire psychologists and therapists. We spare no expense in hopes that we can find that one thing that eludes so many of us – real, lasting peace.

            And yet, some 2000 years ago, the angels gave us a promise of peace – a promise that came in the form of a little baby – born in a manger, in the city of David – a Savior who is Christ the Lord.

            The word peace, or variations of that word, is used in 26 of the 27 books of the New Testament.  Throughout the Bible, there are about 400 references to peace, and you could make an argument that the message of the whole Bible is peace.  God refers to himself as the “God of Peace”, Jesus is the “Prince of Peace”.

            And yet, there is no peace in the world.  It’s not that God doesn’t want peace.   God isn’t at war with man.  But man is at war with God and as long as things continue that way, there will be no peace.

            Let’s take a look at this Bible Project video that tells us what biblical peace is all about, and then I’ll be back to talk about how we can all have this wonderful peace.

            Show VIDEO (Peace)

            Jesus truly is the Prince of Peace and we can find peace in him. That’s not just a promise for the future – it’s a promise for right here and now. We can find peace in Jesus today.

            Jesus said to his disciples in John 16, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

            It’s important for us to see that Jesus didn’t say that he would bring peace to his disciples by getting rid of their tribulation.  He said, “In the world, you will have tribulation.”  We have this misconception about peace.  We think that peace means living with everything calm and serene.  Our picture of a peaceful life looks something like this.  But our lives are rarely going to look like that.  There’s always some sort of turmoil.  There’s always some sort of a storm.

            I love a couple of quotes that you’ve probably heard before.  The first is this – “Real peace is not the absence of storms.  Real peace is the presence of God in the storm.”  The second is this – “Sometimes God calms the storm, and sometimes he lets the storm rage and calms his child.”

            A second misconception about peace is this — to most people, the absence of peace is a horizontal problem.  It’s the result of people not getting along with other people, either on an individual or a societal level.  If we could just break down the barriers of selfishness and strife between people, then we could achieve peace.

            In I Timothy 2, Paul said that we should pray for “for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life” (I Timothy 2:2), and I think we would all agree that we are very blessed for the peace we enjoy in this country.  But, even when our country is not at war, there are still tensions between us and other countries, and even tensions between different groups here in this country, and we always feel like we’re on the verge of things exploding.

            It’s a lot like marriage.  Would those of you who are married agree with me that it’s possible to live in a marriage without fussing and fighting, but there’s still no peace?  Sueanne will tell you that some of the tensest moments in our marriage over the past 43 years were times when there wasn’t a word being spoken!  So, real peace is more than just an absence of war.  And it’s more than just a problem between people.

            In the Bible, the problem of peace runs far deeper because it’s primarily vertical, between God and humanity.  Before we can have peace among the nations, before we can have peace in our families, before we can have peace in our in own hearts – first of all, we’ve got to have peace with God.

            In Romans 5, the apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we havepeace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1)

            Not just peace between countries, peace between neighbors, or peace at home, but peace with God.   Somebody may say, “What’s so important about having peace with God?  I didn’t know that we were at war.”  But we’ve all been at war with God. 

            Wars are all about who gets control – who gets control of a piece of land or who gets control of the government.  When it comes to God, it’s a fight over who gets control of my life.  And all of us, somewhere along the line, have said to God, “We’re gonna fight about this because I want control!  I want to do what I want to do!”

            And the result is that we spend a lot of time in our lives not knowing peace.  But through Jesus Christ, we have access to a peace in our lives that we’ve never known before, a peace far greater than anything we’ve ever experienced in this world. 

            I love the Hebrew word for peace.  Most of you know this word, even if you don’t know any other Hebrew, you can tell me what the Hebrew word for peace is – it’s shalom!  Everybody say that with me – shalom!

            The Jews use that word to say “hello” and “goodbye”.  When a Jew comes up to you, he says, “Shalom”.  When he leaves you, he says “Shalom” again.  Peace!  Shalom means “peace” but it means so much more than that.

            When one Jew says to another Jew, “Shalom”, he doesn’t mean, “May you not get into a fist fight on your way home.”  He means, “May you have all the righteousness and goodness that God can give.”  Shalom means prosperity, health, safety, rest, harmony, it means to be complete, to be whole.  In short, it means that everything is good.  May God bless you with “shalom”!

            In Numbers 6, there’s a very familiar blessing that God tells Aaron to give to the nation of Israel.  “Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them, The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:23-26)

            But the context of this passage is a bit ironic.  God told Aaron to bless Israel with peace while they were getting ready to go conquer the Promised Land.  If peace means “the absence of war,” then this doesn’t make any sense, because it won’t be long before they are in battle, fighting other armies.  But God was referring to a peace that was brought on by being close to God. That was the kind of peace that Israel needed!

            Let me share with you something interesting I learned.  Shalom is, of course, a noun.  The verb form of shalom is shalam.  Everybody say that with me – shalam!  Now it makes sense that if shalom means that everything is good, shalam means to make things right, to make it so that things are good. 

            And the interesting thing about this word is that is usually used in the context of making restitution. When one person has hurt another person in some way, it is the responsibility of the person who did the wrong to restore what has been broken.

            For example, in Exodus 22, the Law of Moses said, “If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall restore five oxen for an ox and four sheep for a sheep.”  (Exodus 22:1).  He shall “restore” the oxen or sheep.  The word that’s used there is the word “shalam”.  Here’s this guy who has messed things up in this relationship.  It is his responsibility to “shalam”, it’s his responsibility to make things right, it is his responsibility to bring about “shalom”. 

            And here’s what I find so fascinating about the peace we enjoy with God.  We were the ones who messed up, we were the ones who did God wrong.  It should have been our responsibility to “shalam”, to make restitution.  But God said, “No, I’ll make things right.  I’ll pay the price.”  And the result of what God did through Jesus Christ is that we can enjoy “shalom”, peace with God.  Sins are forgiven, everything is all right.

            The Bible describes how we, because of our sin, were enemies of God. We separated ourselves from him.  We were created to be in fellowship with God and to live in the very presence of God – but our sin prevents that. And this separation from God – this lack of peace with God – is the root and the cause of all our lack of peace with everyone else. As long we have separation from God, we’re going to experience a separation from everyone else as well.

            There’s a bumper sticker saying that you might have seen:  “No God? No peace.  Know God – know peace.”

            And that’s truer that we probably realize.  Until we have peace with God, we simply will not be able to know peace in the other areas of our lives.

            Listen to Paul in Colossians 1: “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.” (Colossians 1:19-20).

            And it’s not just peace between us and God, but peace between us and everyone else.  In Ephesians 2: “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.” (Ephesians 2:14).

            Peace is not just stopping war.  Peace is creating righteousness that brings enemies together in love.  There’s a big difference between a truce and peace.  A truce says you don’t shoot for a while.  Peace comes when the issue is settled, and the parties embrace each other.

            In Ephesians 2, Paul is describing what the world used to be like before Jesus came.  It was a world divided into two very large groups who didn’t have much to do with each other.  There were the Jews, the people who could trace their heritage back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Then you had the Gentiles who were composed of everybody else.  And the Jews and the Gentiles had nothing to do with each other, other than fight.

            But here in Ephesians 2, Paul says that Jesus “is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.”  It’s not just that Jesus got the Jews and the Gentiles to lay down their weapons and stop fighting.  No, he brought true peace and he made those two groups – Jews and Gentiles – to come together into one group in the church.  That’s what God’s peace is all about.

            And it’s not just peace with others.  God also gives us a peace in our own hearts.  Because once we have peace with God, then Jesus gives us the peace of God.  This is a peace that that simply doesn’t make sense outside of a relationship with God. If you’re not at peace with God, you’ll never know the peace of God. In Philippians 4 we read:

            “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)

            This is a peace that comes from knowing God and trusting him completely.  When you can understand and accept that the all-powerful, all-knowing Creator of the Universe who is completely sovereign over all his Creation – and that that Creator is madly in love with you and he cares about every detail of your life – when you get that….

            You don’t have to worry about anything. You can just pray about everything – tell God what you need and thank Him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.

            Now that doesn’t mean that life’s troubles will go away.  We’re still going to experience hurt and pain and suffering. I don’t want to gloss over the hurts and suffering that we all go through – because they are very real and very difficult. But there is a peace we can have when we recognize who God is – how good he is – and how much he loves us.

            Jesus has conquered sin and death. While we may have to endure many hardships for a time, we have the confidence that it will not last forever.  In Revelation 21, we read about a day that is coming soon when Jesus “will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

            This is the hope we all have. And having that hope gives us an incredible peace – even in the face of sickness, sorrow, suffering – or even death.  Our hope in Jesus enables us to have a peace that passes all understanding.

            Peace on earth.  It won’t come through political or economic initiatives.  It won’t come through education, technology or contact with space aliens.

            But, in fact, it has already come, entering the world with the announcement of the angels at the birth of Christ.  And it will come to full fruition at his return.  That’s a Christmas hope worth celebrating throughout the year, every year.

            And I think that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow understood that peace. Even though he had lost two wives, nearly lost a son, and was surrounded by the pain and suffering of war – I think he recognized that there was hope – there was a peace that could only be found in God.

            At the beginning of this lesson, I read the words to his carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Morning”.  The last verse I read said,

And in despair, I bowed my head

There is no peace on earth I said

   For hate is strong

   And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men

            But there’s actually one more verse to that song. 

Then pealed the bells, more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

    The wrong shall fail,

    The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good will to men.”

            And that’s a good reminder for us all today. Despite the wars we see on TV, despite the violence we read about in the news, despite the brokenness we see in families all around us, despite our own personal struggles with pain and suffering – God isn’t dead. He’s not asleep. And he has set in motion a plan – centered around a little baby boy – born in a manger – the Prince of Peace – who has already defeated sin and death and will one day soon return to establish peace for all time. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men.

            “May the Lord of Peace Himself give you peace always in every way. The Lord be with you all.” (2 Thessalonians 3:16)


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