This is a sermon for the midnight service for the Birth of our Lord. The Scripture it references is Luke 2:1-14.
It wasn’t a peaceful night.
Oh, it was probably pretty. The lack of electric lights would have meant the sky – even before the angels turned up – would have offered a starscape of glory and depth that you and I seldom see. And outside the small towns, the rolling hills and the fresh greenery of the rainy season would have had a certain charm, especially if you didn’t have to earn your living from them by the sweat of your brow.
But that’s not the same as peaceful. This was occupied territory. A foreign military held the power of life and death over every native inhabitant. That foreign power had no compunction about disrupting people’s lives and livelihoods for its own purposes, which is why Mary and Joseph were far from home, in Bethlehem, in the first place. Rome wanted to work out how much tax it could extract from this territory, so it ordered everybody to, in effect, line up and be counted, so it could work out how much it could manage to exploit them.
This census was not a peaceful affair; the residents of the area were so incensed and fearful about what it implied that there had been riots, violence, and the removal of Jewish leaders not adequately currying favour with Rome.
No doubt the shepherds had seen brutality; executions and the bodies left on display. Knew that doing or saying the wrong thing could come with deadly consequences, for them or their families. And knew that if they did, by some miracle, manage to lift themselves economically above a simple struggle for survival, their money would be forfeit to a government which culturally, linguistically, and religiously, viewed them as inferior, useful only as long as they were of some benefit to their rulers.
Grief, trauma, anxiety and exhaustion were far closer to being their lot, as they watched over their flocks, than peace.
But then the angels burst onto the scene. Well, first one angel with a message; and then a whole multitude singing; glory to God and peace upon earth.
This is not a throw away line, a platitude which sounds good in a carol but doesn’t have much in the way of practical implications. It’s more akin to a declaration of revolution.
Peace – God’s peace, the peace that was promised through Moses and Isaiah and so many others – was being announced in riotous celebration.
It helps us if we understand that peace, the way it’s meant here, isn’t just a word for “not being at war.” This kind of peace is an all-encompassing vision; it’s the absence of violence, yes, but also the absence of oppression; it implies power structures which serve and protect the most vulnerable and needy, and provide for the good of all. It’s about justice, and harmonious relationships in communities. It’s about health and welfare and – because it’s the ancient near east, after all – large families and the success of crops and the thriving of livestock. It’s about opportunity for everyone to flourish and experience all that is good in life.
This is not the peace that Rome brings, the peace that means everyone behaves because dissent is brutally crushed. It’s on a whole other level; peace and wholeness and wellness for the whole person, the whole community, the whole land.
Of course, that peace hasn’t arrived in its fullness yet. Christ was born into a brutal world which crucified him for offering a radical alternative. And Christians have long since come to terms with the idea that this peace in all its fullness is for the end of time, when Christ will return and all of creation will be remade.
The mistake we’ve often made, though, is to give up on peace in the meantime. We forget that, like the angels, our job is to announce that peace now. To claim it both as a real possibility and as a vision which should shape our priorities; personal, communal, and social.
You see, humans are social creatures. Our psychological make up means that we function in groups. Those groups can have a culture of violence, hatred and oppression; and we will tend to get caught up in those things because of the way we socialise. Or those groups can have a culture of peace, justice and openness to those who are outside the group (those who are “other”); and again, we will get caught up in those dynamics.
The church’s calling is to make sure that we are the latter kind of group. That we build a culture of peace, justice, openness; that we create those dynamics in ways which affect positively everyone with whom we come in contact.
And that is our calling because that is the nature of Christ, the one we follow; the one we worship as very God in the flesh.
We can’t necessarily fix everything, and certainly not all at once. But the important thing is that we actually do something; see the pursuit of peace as an integral part of our reason for existence as a church, and an indispensable part of our mission. Pursuing peace can happen at a number of levels; personal, local, national or international. They’re all valid, and all part of God’s all-encompassing vision of peace on earth.
The process of pursuing peace will not always feel good. It will make us angry, as we pay closer attention to all that is wrong in the world. It will hurt. Grief and anger are normal and healthy responses to a broken world and broken people. And being grieved or angry doesn’t disqualify us from being a people of peace.
The way forward is learning the art of constructive anger. It’s emotional energy which pushes us to act, to force change, to make a difference. To say that no child should die for lack of clean water; no community be devastated for the enrichment of individuals. It’s closely twinned to a passionate sense of justice.
“Glory to God, and peace upon earth,” the angels sang. We join them not just by singing the words but by being involved in making them a reality. Their song is a call to roll up our sleeves, to get our hands dirty, to put our hearts and our selves on the line. Christ is born; the oppressive forces are on notice; their day will end. The very creator of the universe will set things to rights; we cannot, in the end, lose. Violence and brutality will not have the last word. Instead we press on toward the final reality John recorded in his book of Revelation:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
Peace on earth, indeed. Come, Lord Jesus.