“And Joseph, with Mary his betrothed, went from Galilee to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem.” Luke 2:4
Peace on earth, good will to men. That’s the wild and sweet promise in one of my favorite Christmas carols, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. Peace on earth. Does that sound wonderful? Or just completely implausible?
Peace is the theme of the second week of Advent. Ironically, in some traditions we light the Bethlehem Candle on the Advent Wreath. Bethlehem was anything but peaceful the first Christmas. It was a crowded and cranky little village full of resentful people who came there only because an irritating Roman emperor ordered them. Even the mother of God couldn’t find a room, for goodness sake. There was no peace on earth in Bethlehem.
But that’s where the Prince of Peace made His entrance, right smack dab in the middle of chaos. That’s very good news for all of us who face chaos on a daily basis. The chaos doesn’t prevent peace. In fact, chaos is the perfect place for peace. Our chief problem is the we give chaos the final word. Let’s go back to The Bells.
Longfellow wrote the lyrics, and he told a story in the stanzas. In the first verse of the hymn he celebrates the ongoing message of Christmas. He hears the promise of peace and goodwill in the familiar carols.
I’m not sure I’ll hear anything new this Christmas. After all, I’ve lived through 58 of them. I’ve translated the story from its original language many times. I’ve studied it in seminary. Read whole volumes about it. I’ve preached a series of Advent messages, 4 a year, for 34 years (that’s 136 Christmas sermons…ok I did repeat some). Also I wrote columns and GraceWaves about Christmas for decades. The carols, and their message, are familiar.
But it’s so good to be reminded.
I asked a preaching professor in seminary what it was like to listen to students’ sermons week after week, year after year. His very gracious and honest response was “I’ve gotten something out of every sermon. However, there have been some close calls.”
No matter how familiar the carols and their message are, I truly believe I can get something out of that familiar story. Mostly what I get is a reminder of a beautiful promise of peace.
The challenge, of course, is not in the message, but in my hearing. Actually, the challenge is in my head. I don’t really know what to make of the lack of peace in the world today. Post-election, we’re an angry nation, of course, but the nation is composed of individual minds that lack peace. My goal, and I think my calling, is to try to bring peace to that little world between my ears. I can’t control the world at large. I have enough trouble controlling me.
Longfellow understood. He wrote this poem in 1863. Remember what was happening in our angry nation back then? In the grip of Civil War, it was a lot angrier, and far deadlier. Longfellow actually penned a verse that never makes it into any hymnbook I’ve seen about cannons thundering and forlorn households.
With that in mind he penned the penultimate verse: “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, goodwill to men.” Despair? Been there. And so have a lot of you. It happens when we allow anger, fear, resentment and other negative spiritual emotions to shout down the mild and sweet songs of peace. There may have been some event that has stolen your joy and silenced your song. In despair you bow your head.
Frankly, that’s where many people spend the Christmas season, in some degree of hopeless despair.
But Longfellow wasn’t finished and the carol is not over. The majestic final verse completes the story of hope. “Then pealed the bells more loud and sweet, God is not dead nor doth He sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.”
Ultimately, an individual’s faith is based on reiterated decision. Are you going to keep believing? Or are you not? God doesn’t beat us over the head with the truth and make us submit to it. He lays out the evidence of His love and grace, ultimately through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The fundamental claim of GraceWaves, however, is that God’s grace washes over us continually, like the waves on a seashore. Most of us live heedless of this spiritual ocean.
Christmas, the ultimate “thin time,” offers us an annual chance to believe again, and to believe more deeply. God is not dead. God is actively trying to bring peace to every fractured mind. We just have to set aside times regularly to be still and know that He is God. With the psalmist we have to decide and recommit ourselves to a sublime truth, “I trust in You O Lord; I say ‘You are my God. My times are in Your hand’” (Ps. 31:14).
In spiritual matters, the fundamental difference between all people is that some are aware and others are not. It takes a focus on love, grace, patience, awe, and a dozen other positive spiritual emotions to hear God’s offer of peace.
The promise of peace is not belied by the presence of conflict, either in the world or in our heads. The noise can simply be a reminder of the need for peace and God’s constant offer of it. You don’t have to wait until Christmas Day to hear those bells. They’re ringing right now. They never stop. And it’s never too late to start listening.
Dr. Terry Ellis
December 4, 2016