Dear God, in this season of joy and gladness, we are thankful for your goodness to us, especially for the coming of the Christ child who is the Prince of Peace. Help us to remember that the birth of this child was the greatest sign of your love, which makes for peace. Help us to become makers of peace. Help us to remember that peace is more than just a word at Christmas; it is your will for us always. Amen
This was the prayer I was asked to offer for our 1983 Christmas play at First Presbyterian in Miles City. It captures the vision my minister wanted to share about Christmas. So, I wanted to share that vision of peace with you. Because there is something about peace that comes through so vividly in our scriptures.
6 For a child has been born for us…the Prince of Peace.”
This is not a vague hope of peace by a comfortable people but a desperate response to the conditions Israel faced at the hands of the Babylonians who had conquered Israel during the time of Isaiah. It’s hard to capture what that meant for Israel, but this passage approaches it:
“For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.”
Israel’s hope and God’s intentions is for a reign of peace, as expressed by Isaiah
500 years later, Israel was controlled by the Roman empire. And they were no better than the Babylonians. As Calcagus a British general describes it:
You find in the Romans an arrogance which no reasonable submission can elude. Brigands of the world, they have exhausted the land by their indiscriminate plunder. The wealth of an enemy excites their cupidity, his poverty their lust of power. Robbery. Butchery, rapine, the liars call Empire; they create a desolation and call it peace. Our loved ones are now being torn from us by conscription to slave in other lands. Our limbs are crippled under the lash of our oppressors. We are sold into slavery anew every day.
The Gospel of Luke speaks of a different kind of peace. Let me quote the KJV
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
This vision of peace is not simply a dream. For those who find themselves vulnerable to state power, it’s a need, a requirement that makes for life, for well-being, for salvation. Most of human history is one of conquest, the powerful taking from the powerless using violence. Where human life of the oppressed means so little.
Christmas presents a very different story. As Howard Thurman puts it:
“There is a strange irony in the usual salutation, ‘Merry Christmas,’ when most of the people on this planet are thrown back upon themselves for food which they do not possess, for resources that have long since been exhausted, and for vitality which has already run its course. Nevertheless, the inescapable fact remains that Christmas symbolizes hope even at a moment when hope seems utterly fantastic. The raw materials of the Christmas mood are a newborn baby, a family, friendly animals, and labor. Christmas says that life keeps coming on, keeps seeking to fulfill itself, keeps affirming the margin of hope in the presence of desolation”
That hope is not in Rome, it’s not in Herod. That hope is found in the story of a teenage mother and father and of a baby, of no room at the inn, of shepherds, of animals it’s the story of those not counted for much, of nobodies fulfilling the divine drama that would make for peace. And the angels tell us just this “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
And while Christmas story tells us of God’s good intentions for our world, where everyone has value, the nobodies are lifted by God, where there is peace, where nobody needs to fear violence, we still live in a world marked by violence and not near enough peace.
So, what do we do with this Christmas story of peace on earth and goodwill to men?
The first is to treasure the Christmas story. We need stories that remind us God’s good intentions. We need stories of the powerless enacting God’s will on earth. We come back again and again to the Christmas story though it never changes because it gives us permission to dream of a world of peace and good will.
For lo!, the days are hastening on, By prophet bards foretold, When with the ever-circling years , Comes round the age of gold, When peace shall over all the earth, Its ancient splendors fling,, And the whole world give back the song, Which now the angels sing.
Second, we’re responsible to give back the song which now the angels sing. If we dream of peace, we give ourselves the challenge to make the world, more peaceful, more reconciled, more just. If we see the star, we must follow that star if we are to become a people of peace. That is our task
Or as Howard Thurman writes
When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.
Third, this work is so big, for any one of us to do alone.
So, we need one another if we are to add some peace to God’s world. We need Bethlehem Lutheran; we need the sacraments and scripture and the stories like Christmas, so we are reminded of God’s good intentions. We need the connections with the ELCA and other ecumenical bodies that allows good to be done here in Billings and around the world. And we need trust in God to take our work and build something with it into the future.
As Reinhold Niebuhr writes
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing we do can be accomplished alone; therefore, we must be saved by love”.
May this sacred night remind us of God’s love and salvation for us and our world, as we celebrate the birth of the child, the Prince of Peace, Amen.
Dwight Welch is the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at Montana State University Billings