On that first Christmas night, so long ago, the shepherds fell to their knees as they beheld a wondrous presence. They bowed, with their heads so close to the ground that they could smell the rich dirt beneath their knees, and heard a host of angels crying out, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14) As the years have passed, these words have persisted at Christmastime. We print them on our cards, we sing them in our carols, we write them in our stories: “Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” “Peace on earth,” “Peace,” “Peace,” “Peace.” Yet, somehow, in the two thousand years since they were first proclaimed, the angels’ words have lost their power. They have come to be happy reminders of warm, cozy feelings that many of us associate with Christmastime, rather than signaling a powerful change that was taking place in our world.
When the angels’ songs pierced the cold, dark fields that night, they heralded the beginning of a life that would shake the very foundation of our existence in two profound ways: by His sacrifice and by His teachings.
First, because the baby born that winter night would offer himself up as a sacrifice to appease the wrath of a perfect God, the angels’ songs proclaimed that the time had arrived when the favor of God, which had been lost through sin, would be restored. The Bible tells us that when sin first entered our world, Adam and Eve heard God coming and hid from Him. In other words, their sin shattered the intimacy they once shared with God and the angels’s song so many years later proclaimed that men could again draw near their Creator. “Peace,” they sang, “peace to those on whom God’s favor rests.” They rejoiced before the shepherds: “Finally through God’s son, His favor can rest on you, unworthy though you may be.” The praise of the angels was an announcement that the sin of man no longer demanded that he was the enemy of God. Instead, unlike Adam and Eve men could again stand before God naked and unafraid.
But let us consider that moment when sin first entered our world again. Immediately after Adam and Eve found their relationship with God to be shattered by their disobedience, they discovered that their own relationship had been marred. While Adam had once loved Eve so deeply and intimately that he viewed her as part of himself (Genesis 2:23-24), after sin entered the world he became so detached from his beloved and so controlled by his fear that he turned on Eve in an attempt to deflect blame from himself (Genesis 2:12). God Himself identified this shift in their relationship when He told Eve that, because of her sin, “you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you” (Genesis 2:16). Because of sin, the selfless peace of right relationship that had existed between man and woman was lost. Not surprisingly, the Bible tells us that this disruption of peace spread beyond the relationship between the first man and his wife. The story that comes immediately after Adam and Eve’s descent into sin and their banishment from the garden, tells of the murder of their son by his older brother (Genesis 3).
Peace no longer dwelt with humanity. There was no peace with God. There was no peace between men.
Yet, in the fields outside of Bethlehem on a dark Christmas night, the angels announced the birth of one who would teach his children to live in peace with one another again. This little baby whose birth brought peace between man and God would also grow up to teach that the love of our neighbors was second only to love of God (Mark 12:30-31). The same child would one day proclaim that those who fed the hungry, quenched the thirst of the parched, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the sick or imprisoned are the ones on whom His favor truly rests (Matthew 25:31-46). This tiny baby, the one whose birth was celebrated by choirs of angels, came to restore all of the peace that was lost through sin. He came to bring man peace with God through His sacrifice and He came to teach peace between neighbors.
These past few years, though, it has been difficult to believe the angels’ promises of peace. Continued conflicts in the middle east, battles with ISIS, the threat of nuclear war with North Korea, the weakening of alliances within the European Union, the fear of Russia all remind us of the fragile state of peace on a global scale. At home, we have witnessed our leaders fighting with words that are banned from our homes and overlooking violence their peers have done to others for the sake of their own power. We have been forced to face the horrific resurrection of racism that we thought was dead. We have mourned for our brothers and sisters who are being killed on the streets, at concerts, in their schools, and in their places of worship. We have turned our backs on those orphaned and abandoned by addicted parents. We have blamed and neglected our own countrymen who suffer unimaginable losses. Even nature seems intent on seeking revenge for the years of abuse that we have battered it with and our determination to continue to take it for granted. In short, all too often, we find ourselves forgetting the song of the angels, and instead sing along to the words of Longfellow: “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, good-will to men!'”
Still, as we light our Advent candle this week, we are forced to remember the angels’ songs. We are reminded that Longfellow’s poem did not end in despair. Instead, we must sing along: “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; the Wrong shall fail,the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men.” As we are comforted by the knowledge that God is not dead and does not sleep and as we begin to hear again the song of the angels who proclaimed the birth of our Savior, we hear Jesus whisper to us, “I am here, Emmanuel, God with you. I have restored your peace with me. Now, go out and bring my peace into the world as I have taught you to do. Advent, the time of preparation has ended. Go now!”
*If you are interested in listening to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Poem, “Christmas Bells,” I highly recommend Casting Crown’s version of “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day.”