Posted by: gbake783 | December 20, 2012

Valley News Christmas Sermon

The Valley News graciously allowed me to write this Christmas sermon – the article appeared in last week’s paper. Merry Christmas!

It’s hard to imagine now, since even the most basic television packages feature a hundred or more channels, but in 1965 when A Charlie Brown Christmas debuted, half of the American viewing audience watched. The twenty-five minute animated special brought to the American consciousness Charlie Brown’s depression over the commercialization of Christmas, sponsored, ironically, by the commercial colossus Coca-Cola.

I had never seen A Charlie Brown Christmas until this year. I plan to watch it again, next time with my three-year-old in hopes of it becoming a tradition of our own. The film climaxes when blanket-toting Linus quotes Luke 2:8-14 from the King James translation of the Bible and concludes with, “And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” Truer words have never been spoken.

And, of course, Linus’s quotation includes the most well-known Christmas hymn, which was originally sung by an army of angels, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” Because of the enduring beauty of the King James translation and America’s Christian heritage, Luke 2:14 is easily the most quoted Bible reference of the Christmas season.

Yet, for its seeming ubiquity, a biblical understanding of that middle phrase, “and on earth peace,” completely escapes the modern American consciousness. The vast majority of Americans interpret the phrase to mean an absence of conflict, military or otherwise. The nativity of our Lord, the reasoning goes, ought to be such a joyous occasion that evil or national hostilities simply cease. But is this what Luke intended to communicate by quoting the angels?

Well … kind of. God is certainly concerned about the absence of conflict in His creation. But that’s a more distant goal and a topic for another article. God intends to make good on that angelic proclamation in the here and now. God wants peace, just not the way Americans typically imagine it. Luke is talking about a personal and theological peace brought by the child lying in the manger. Let me explain.

The word translated “peace” is the Greek word eirene, which has rich theological roots in the Hebrew term shalom. The noun shalom first appears in Genesis 15:15 and is used an impressive 267 times in the Old Testament. But even with that many occurrences, the noun represents a mere fraction of the other occurrences in verbs, adjectives, and so forth. Suffice it to say, shalom is a significant Hebrew term so valued by Jewish people that even today they use it as  both “hello” and “goodbye.”

Scanning the Old Testament uses of shalom reveals a much broader usage than our English gloss, peace. In fact, the term is used to describe wholeness, prosperity, well-being, success, and harmony. For example, in Genesis 29:6 when Jacob asks how his father-in-law Laban is doing, he literally says, “Is there shalom with him?” A more theologically significant use occurs in 1 Kings 15:3 where we’re told that King Abijam lacked shalom with God – his heart was not wholly God’s as evidenced by Abijam’s persistent sin.

Here the word’s true significance arises; we realize that shalom can be forfeited. The possibility of lost shalom makes sense. Why would the angels proclaim Jesus’s peace if it was already present? There’s nothing altogether special about peace if peace already reigns. We yearn most for peace, wholeness, wellness, and harmony when those blessings are absent.

So, how is it that the world came to lack shalom? The Bible tells us that it all began when Adam and Eve plunged our race into rebellion, alienation, and condemnation (Romans 5). In fact, the first few chapters of Genesis demonstrate just how sin led to a loss of shalom. Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden in Genesis 3 and one chapter later their eldest son Cain murders his younger brother Abel. In Genesis 5, Moses provides a timeline of significant men, but ends each description with the simple, cold phrase, “and he died.” Death, though absent in the garden, is now a universal experience. One chapter later in Genesis 6, God says that “every intention of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually” (v.5).  Rebellion, alienation, and death. From Genesis 3 forward, the Old Testament longs for a return to shalom.

But more than that, the New Testament teaches that sin forfeits shalom in a personal way – alienation from God Himself. Ephesians 2:12 says that people “are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.” God, in His transcendent holiness, no longer walks with man as He did with Adam and Eve before the fall. Sin plunges us all into disharmony with fellow man and estrangement from our God.

The situation confronting the baby lying among the livestock was daunting. How could this child repair something so broken?

Fortunately, the New Testament emphatically answers this question. The apostle Paul teaches that Jesus not only restores peace – the shalom that has escaped mankind from the start – but redeems mankind by “making peace through His blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:20). The apostle John says the same thing in a different way, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). In fact, the last phrase of those famous angelic words confirms the rest of the Bible’s teaching: goodwill toward man is chiefly manifested in the peace that Jesus brings through His death.

On that first Christmas evening, when the angelic voices pierced the cool Mediterranean night, the message was predictive of Jesus’s future ministry; this baby would restore peace, wholeness, and unity with God. Sinners would have hope, which Jesus would provide thirty-three years later by suffering execution on the cross.

And here is the true irony of the Christmas moment – Jesus was born to die that man might live. This new life of harmony is not gained by human effort. Indeed, any attempt to earn God’s satisfaction will end only in frustration and despair. Isaiah says that “all our righteous deeds are as filthy rags” (64:6). No, the peace that Jesus provides is rewarded only by faith. John 3:15 puts it rather bluntly, “whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” Faith in Jesus’s finished work is the remedy to spiritual death, despair, and a loss of shalom.

God wants everyone this holiday season to be at peace with Him – a peace not arrived at by effort, but by faith. Isaiah gives a model prayer for the Christmas season, “Be not so terribly angry, O LORD, and remember not iniquity forever.” Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, the bringer of “peace on earth,” took God’s righteous wrath and made peace available through the blood of the cross to be accepted by faith.

Perhaps the second-most watched American Christmas movie is A Christmas Story. Who can’t identify with Ralphie’s lust for the Red Ryder B.B. Gun? Ralphie’s mother, naturally, is concerned only about her son’s eye. Ralphie laments, “Was there no end to the conspiracy of irrational prejudice against Red Ryder and his peacemaker?”

That’s an interesting quote in light of the Bible’s teaching on peace, isn’t it? In this shalom-less world, the rifle maintains peace. Peace comes by having a more lethal stick than the bad guy. The threat of greater harm is the impetus to tranquility.

In God’s economy, peace comes through faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ. “Glory to God in the highest. And on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”

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