We live in an uncertain world. We see this in many different ways. Politically, the so-called developed countries of the West seem to have lost their social and moral moorings and, in the name of progress and inclusivity, have even denied the pronouncements of the last great arbiter – Science. Our communities seem more fragmented than ever. The gap between the rich and the poor seems to be widening. There are, to use the words of the Bible, wars and rumours of wars. Natural disaster follows natural disaster with tidal waves, floods, earthquake, volcano, forest fires, rising sea levels, pollution all threatening our settled existence. Add to all of this, of course, the normal problems that we have to face, especially at this time of the year, as families try to come together, hiding the problems that have kept them apart throughout the year. Add, again, the additional burden of bereavement or sorrow over loved ones or the all too painful fact of homelessness – and the promise of peace seems at best ephemeral and at worst a cruel joke.
And yet the promise of peace is everywhere around us at this time of year. We see it in the windows of our broken homes, in the cards that we send one another, in neon lights. We hear it in our Christmas songs and, perhaps most incredibly, on the lips of our politicians – the very same people responsible for so much of the “dis-peace” in our countries and communities. The promise of peace lies at the very heart of Christmas.
And for those who also suffer from anxiety and depression, the confusion and alienation that the season brings can increase the suffering almost to breaking point.
in the Bible, we find the promise of peace most clearly in the Gospel of Luke. Luke, writing about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, tells us that an angel appeared to a group of shepherds who were looking after their flock one night, near to Bethlehem. The shepherds, unsurprisingly, were terrified. I often smile when I think about this. If you were to look at pictures of the angel appearing to the shepherds – you could find many on the internet – you would often see either a winged child, which is an image borrowed from Greek legends, or a woman in white robes. Either way, you would probably be left wondering who would be most scared of whom. We have to remember that angels are messengers sent from the very presence of God. They are, quite literally, terrifying beings. In the Bible, every time someone meets with an angel, they are terrified.
No wonder then that the first words the angel spoke were “Don’t be afraid!” Isn’t this something? Even here, we see one of the beings created for the very presence of God taking the time to prepare the shepherds to hear good news. The angel would not take the chance that the shepherds would be too afraid to hear and remember what he was about to say. But more than that: three words of encouragement. Don’t be afraid. I bring you Good News. And that Good News is a message of great joy. Not little joy, or just enough joy, or even just joy. Great joy – literally, mega joy! The greatest and most joyful news you could possibly imagine!
What was this news? It was news of the birth of a child; a child who was to be born in the nearby town of Bethlehem, known as the city of David. David was the best king that had ever reigned over God’s people. Samuel tells us that David was a man “after God’s own heart”. He was a man who had steeped himself in the promises and the Law of God until they were part of the very fibre of his being. He loved the things that God loved and he tried – not always successfully – to do those things that would delight God. David’s mind, his affections and his will were disposed to God. In a very real sense, this is what the word peace means in the Bible. Shalom – wholeness, completeness. God also made a covenant with David and promised him that one of his children would sit on his throne forever. It’s possible that some people thought this meant that there would always be a king in Israel. But that didn’t happen. Just over four hundred years later, the Babylonians conquered Judah and took the people of God into captivity.
But here, in Luke’s Gospel, we have the angel promising the shepherds that a child was born in David’s city. This would have piqued their interest. But the angel went further and told them that this child was to be a Saviour, called Christ the Lord. The word Christ is Greek. It translates a Hebrew word, Messiah. Messiah means the Lord’s anointed, someone God had set apart to do a particular job. What was his job? To be a Saviour!
Now, we might well ask, “Saviour from what?” And we might well conclude that Luke just hasn’t given us enough information in these verses to be able to answer that question. But if we did, we’d be wrong. We have to read these few words in the context of the first three chapters of Luke’s Gospel, which have given us plenty of clues as to who this child was to be. And if we put all these clues together, we can say that this Child, born in the city of David, called Christ the Lord, a Saviour, was the fruition of all the Old Testament hopes of God’s people. He was the Daystar on High, the One Who would bring light into the world. He was the One, True Shepherd, Who would gather His scattered people from the nations. He was the Wonderful Counsellor, the Almighty God, the Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace. He was Immanuel, God with us. He was great David’s Greater Son, the eternal king Who would reign on David’s throne forever. He was the promised Seed of Abraham, though Whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. He was the Seed of the Woman, the One Who would crush the head of the serpent, even the old enemy Satan Himself. He was the One Who was coming to overthrow all the works of the devil. He was the Servant, Who Suffered, put to death for our transgression, our sins. God, contracted to a span, born of the Virgin Mary. He was Jesus. The Lord saves.
Luke doesn’t just tell us all of this as though it’s a story with no setting. In Chapter 2, Luke begins by telling us that all this took place in the days of Caesar Augustus. Caesar Augustus was the Roman Emperor of Pax Romana fame – the Peace of Rome. During his reign, Rome knew a greater peace than ever before. Its roads were safer. Its sea-going trade routes were safer. Its borders were safer. There were schools and fresh running water and advanced sewage works. The Empire was civilised to a degree never before known. And Luke is quite deliberate here. He’s not slipped this in just as a piece of interesting trivia, or to make his account more believable. Not at all! No, Luke is setting up Caesar Augustus as the paradigm of Roman civilisation – the saviour of the world. Caesar, in a sense, is the anti-hero of the story, the very best that the world can offer.
The infant Jesus, a Saviour, born in the city of David, who was Christ the Lord, is the hero. He is very God of very God, taking the form of a man to die for men. How could this Jesus compete with Caesar? Well, Caesar could provide earthly things, earthly peace. But Jesus could provide eternal things, peace with God. Jesus could and would take away all the obstacles that get in the way of us having a relationship with the Creator God. All of them! The fruit of that peace with God is known to us who believe now – the peaceable fruit of righteousness. But of infinitely more value than this, the fruit of that peace with God will be known in eternity: fellowship with the Father and the Son and all the saints.
This is why the words of the angel were not left to stand on their own. Luke tells us that a multitude of the hosts of heaven appeared, praising God and singing. Our English translations often miss the point, here. What Luke wants us to imagine is a “host of the armies of heaven”. And again there is a deliberate contrast with Caesar Augustus here. Here, massed in the heavens, were the Legions of God’s Heavenly Armies, but a small part of the ten thousand thousand. This is The Host, the heavenly army that served the infant Jesus, the Saviour, Christ the Lord. Here they are, massed; but not to fight. No! Here they are pressed into service to sing, to praise the Saviour born. They come to remind us that whatever power the greatest power on earth could muster, it was nothing compared to the power vested in the infant Jesus.
It is this invincible, o’erpowering host that sings:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!”
The peace that came into the world with the incarnation of the Son of God in the person of the infant Jesus is an incomparable peace. And as we struggle to make sense of the world we live in, the politics and economics of our countries, the hostile and estranging communities in which we live, our broken homes and relationships, all the while surrounded by merrymaking and bonhomie, let’s remember this peace, promised to all who believe in the finished work of Christ: peace with God, now and for ever. This is the peace which passes all understanding, that defies all our human logic and longings. This is the peace that restores the brokenhearted.
24 December 2019 – S.D.G.