Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors! That’s what the angels said to the shepherds. That what the angels say to us tonight, we who are gathered here to celebrate the birth of Jesus. God’s usually-unseen messengers are all around us, and we hear in their ancient words, the announcement of truly good and astonishing news: the Creator and sustainer of the universe, the God of all time and the stars, the God of molecular biology and the human heart, has come among us, has entered fully into our human existence in the life of Jesus. Not that God, the divine, was absent from human life before this, but that in this birth in Bethlehem, God’s purposes for the world were coming clear, concentrated, boiled down, clarified in a way that could not be ignored.
But we need to step back a moment. We know the beautiful, serene Christmas card pictures of the manger; they capture the loveliness of birth, of new life. Certainly for any family, the birth of a baby is a time for joy. We all offer our congratulations and wish the child well, and the family happiness. The news of a baby’s birth puts a little extra spring in our step, touches a tender place inside us, maybe reminds us there is hope for the future. We bask in the family’s good news.
The birth of Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us, however, is about much more than the perennial joy of new life. The angels’ message to the shepherds proclaimed the great good news that God had - at last – begun the work God had intended from the very beginning: “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Christ, the Lord.” God’s plan from the start was that earth, humanity, and all creation should reflect the goodness, and love, and peace that exists in God’s realm and reality that we call heaven. But human free will took a different path and wandered into difficulty, danger, and sin. So the birth and life and crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus began a new chapter, opened for humankind a new pathway to participate in God’s plan, to walk in God’s ways. “God became man that man might become God,” said St. Athanasius of Alexandria way back in the fourth century; a little shocking to our Western ears, perhaps, but true, nevertheless. God always intended that we humans should be filled with God’s goodness and love and peace, and play our part in the divine plan for creation. It is no surprise that the first Christians ascribed to Jesus these words from Isaiah in the Hebrew scriptures: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Prince of Peace. We here at All Saints’ have been blessed this Advent to have with us the Bethlehem Peace Light, the flame in the lantern sitting on the Crèche table. It comes from the eternal flame that burns in the Church of the Nativity, the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. This flame has been shared throughout Europe and North America as a sign and expression of God’s Peace. It has passed from nation to nation, and from neighbor to neighbor. It came to us on December 12, brought by oil lantern by a friend in Peapack who received it from the Girl Guide troop at her Latvian church in Rockland County. We shared it with parishioners and neighbors last Sunday afternoon; they took it home, and shared it with their neighbors, friends, and churches. It has been burning in our church office fireplace – a sign of peace, a symbol of the “Light to enlighten the nations,” a real blessing.
Those who follow Christ are called to share in God’s Peace. That sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? After all, who doesn’t want peace – peace of heart, peace of mind, peace in your family, peace in the world? Well, there are people who refuse peace: those who are self-centered and want their own way, those who thrive on chaos and spin – and I’m sure we all know people like that, those who insist on their own ego, their own power, who find their purpose for living in raising themselves up at the expense and well-being of others. Remember, Peace is not just the absence of strife and discord, not just a live-and-let-live attitude. God’s Peace, God’s shalom, God’s salaam, encompasses wholeness, health, justice, the understanding that all whom God has made are in this life together, and that we depend upon one another, and have responsibility for one another as we are all made in the image of God and held by God’s grace and love.
So Peace is not just being quiet and still with God and within ourselves. Peace is not being left alone to do our own thing. True Peace is actively entering into God’s purposes for yourself, your family, your neighbors, your world. As we follow the One born in Bethlehem - day by day, year by year - we become Peace-makers, as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” We become participants in God’s reality on earth as it is in heaven, for now and for all eternity. In a little while we will light our congregational candles. The flame will come to you from the Peace Light lantern – a sign of the Peace of God which passes all understanding that comes to us in the birth of Jesus.
That is great, glad, good news, indeed! The world may not receive it; the world may question it, reject it, despise it, but it is still Good News. And we who follow Jesus our Lord, our Light, our Salvation, our Hope, our Joy are called to live and share God’s Peace at Christmas and each day, for Christ’s sake, for our sake, and for the sake of God’s world.
Let us pray.
Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of Peace, as children of one Father; to whom be dominion and glory, now and for ever. Amen. ~Book of Common Prayer
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Christmas Eve 2016