This Christmas, more than presents under a tree, we need the presence of the Prince of Peace to take up residence in our hearts and homes. As I drove home from the church at midnight the other day, after some quiet time reading by candlelight, I was overcome by emotion pondering the lyrics of some of the traditional Christmas hymns. The one that always chokes me up is “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The first four lines are serene and peaceful:
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
So far, so good—all is calm and all is bright in the first four lines. Many cooped up parents could use a deep and dreamless sleep about now. Then the key shifts to minor and the darkness of 2020 punches us in the gut as we sing of this present darkness:
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
As I drove under the streetlights of my town, I began to sing “O Little Town of Minneapolis” and replayed images of burning streets filled with violence and chaos from earlier this summer in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd by police offers. There’s been very little stillness in our streets and hearts this past year. And I don’t blame anyone for asking God, Where is that Everlasting Light we long to see shineth into the dark streets?
Still, the line that never fails to send a knot into my stomach and tears to my eyes is, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Have you ever seen a swearing pastor, screaming at God while singing along to Nat King Cole outside a Holiday gas station? Well, it happened this week. A surge of righteous indignation at all the world’s evil and brokenness erupted. A tidal wave of the world’s collective weariness pounded against my chest. The floodgates of hope-prolonged gave way to a torrent of tears as I drove by Culvers trying to craft the perfect Christmas Eve sermon to speak to how Christ came into this world to address “the hopes and fears of all the years.”
With Nat King Cole’s peaceful crooning in the background, I morphed into Isaiah the prophet for a moment as I screamed at God through tears: “If only you would tear the heavens open and come down, so that mountains would quake at your presence” (Isaiah 64:1)! What are you waiting for, O Lord? This year we need that thrill of hope that can make a weary world rejoice—to quote another song. We join with the saints in Heaven in crying out: “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood” (Rev 6:10)? If only you would tear the heavens open and come down, and let our mountain-sized fear and exhaustion quake and quiver at your presence!
This Christmas we need more than a sermon, more than words, more than a heart-warming thought that will dissipate by Christmas morning. We need the gift of Christ’s peace to fill our hearts—not a sentimental idea of peace, but a lived and deeply felt reality of Christ’s abiding presence. This brings us to the final Beatitude of Bethlehem: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (Matt 5:9).
When it comes to peacemaking, there’s no question who takes center stage in the nativity story. The shepherds were the first to hear of the great gift this child was born to give:
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth PEACE to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:13-14).
Jesus brings peace on the first day of his earthly life, and he leave peace with his disciples on the last day of his life saying:
“PEACE I leave with you; MY PEACE I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).
Let us ponder this peace that bookends Jesus’ life and ministry this Christmas. How can we move from merely sermonizing about it, to seizing and savoring it as a lived reality in our day to day life?
First, we need to remember that the peace the Bible is far more than just the absence of conflict; the peace Jesus speaks of is the presence of divine harmony, wholeness, stability and a deep restfulness. The Hebrew word is shalom and points back to God’s original creative work of establishing order by taming the primordial waters of the deep. He “rested” on the seventh day, not because he was tired and needed a nap, but because this “rest” speaks to the deeper shalom that comes by living under God’s good reign and in a world cooperating with God’s good order.
Of course, the world as we often experience it, is not cooperating with God. Many places and people are in active rebellion against God and His divine order. So, Jesus was born into a spiritual battle, and his ministry aimed at establishing a beachhead of Kingdom peace in the middle of a cosmic battlefield. The Beatitudes of Bethlehem, and Sermon on the Mount as a whole, are the marching orders and constitution of this Kingdom colony. The church of Christ is called to offer the world a foretaste of the coming Kingdom when Christ returns to “make all things new” (Rev. 21:5).
In the interval between Christ’s first advent and his second advent, one of the key tasks of the church is to show a hostile and conflict-ridden world how to make peace with one another. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they are the spitting image of their heavenly Father. Woe to those who cause division and stir up conflict, for they show that they are children of another father (cf. John 8:44).
Second, before we can get busy being peacemakers in this peace-deprived world, we first need the Prince of Peace to bring peace to our own restless and war torn souls. Let’s compare two people for a moment and ask you which one you want to emulate. The first can be seen driving free and unfettered, through the streets of town, with money in the bank and a full stomach. He’s enjoying a comfortable suburban life and on his way home to a loving family, a warm bed and a soft pillow. Still, he’s full of angst and screaming at God.
The second person is sitting in his own filth on a cold and damp dungeon floor, with shackles on his bruised and bloody ankles, no pillow for his head and a hungry belly. He’s far removed from every earthly comfort and loving friends. Yet his face is serene and his heart is calm, as a song of praise and thanksgiving goes up from his parched lips. One of these two has the peace of Christ inhabiting their soul and ruling in their heart, and the other is literally writing and preaching this sermon to himself this Christmas! If you haven’t guessed it yet, the other pastor is the Apostle Paul who wrote some of the most amazing words about the peace of Christ and the secret to being content in every situation while in a “lock-down” far worse than ours during this global pandemic.
I would like us to imagine ourselves back into a dark, first century Roman prison cell where Paul is celebrating Christ’s birth by writing a “Christmas letter” to a beleaguered church in need of encouragement. I want to introduce you again to Marcus, the Roman soldier tasked with standing guard over Paul day and night in his lockdown. Marcus is as baffled as I am at the depth of the peace Paul enjoys despite his miserable circumstances. I have stumbled upon Marcus’s private journal, where he has left a written record of his time with the apostle. Let’s open it up and read some excerpts to see if we can find the secret to Paul’s peace:
There he goes again! Listen to this madman singing his songs of praise from this putrid place…singing from one of the Jewish Psalms I believe:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice!
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice!
But where is this Lord he rejoices in over and over again? His Lord seems to have abandoned him in this dark, rat-infested cell where he’ll likely face execution in the end. Still he sings. Were it not for the iron shackles and a guard posted at the door, you would think he was the freest man on earth!
For several weeks I have been trying to make sense of his unsinkable joy and ever-present peace. Bored myself, from long hours standing guard by this apparently harmless jailbird, I decided to pass the time by assuming the role of a detective trying to uncover the mysterious source of Paul’s contentment. Fortunately, the explanation was not far away. For when he was not singing and rejoicing, or receiving occasional visitors from among the local Christian sect, he was busy with his letters.
Those letters are his pride and joy, his sole passion and preoccupation. From what I can see, sending and receiving these letters is the thing that sustains him. So, playing the detective one day, I decided to sneak a peak at one of the letters while he was away from his cell for a rare bath. The answer I was seeking stared me right in the face in the first section I read:
“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Phil 4:11-12).
Boy, was that an accurate statement! Paul’s secret is stated simply and clearly in the next sentence:
“I can do everything through the Messiah Jesus, who gives me strength” (v. 13).
Wow! He claims to be getting his strength from that Jewish prophet who was crucified 20 some odd years ago! Madness! This guy is completely nuts! But I had to keep reading:
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6-7).
There’s that phrase again—“the peace of God.” Every time he uses it I can’t help but wonder if he’s subtly trying to mock and upstage Caesar whose imperial slogan is all about “the peace of Rome” and is celebrated throughout the empire on plaques, statues, monuments, coins and other imperial propaganda. The Nazarene’s followers hailed him “The Prince of Peace” and now his most vocal supporter, twenty years later, writes about a certain kind of peace stemming from this Jesus that exceeds all understanding. He writes about the peace of God that flows like a stream from the headwaters of trusting prayer! Then he sings and tells others about a peace that is capable of washing away worry and flooding out anxiety. And if the stories circulating about the crucified Jew are true, this peace is even capable of calming a raging sea to rescue his disciples from peril.
I scrolled my eyes further up the papyrus roll and continued. The next line jumped off the page—as it seemed to be a direct jab at me as the one ordered to stand guard over Paul day and night. Listen to the sly dog: “Then his peace will stand guard over your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:7). Did you catch that? Every single hour of every single day for the past several months, I thought I was standing guard over Paul.
Paul sees things quite differently. He sees the Peace of Jesus standing guard over his heart and mind—always on duty fighting back worry and anxiety, discouragement and doubt that threaten to break in and steal his peace. More intriguing is that he speaks about this peace of as if it were…um…well…how should I put this…as if this peace were a person! As I pondered this thought, I began to have an eery feeling that there has been more than just the two of us inside this little cell all these months.
I was still holding Paul’s letter when he appeared with the other guard catching me reading his mail. “What do you think? Is it ready to send?” he said with a wry smile. I decided it was finally time to shoot straight and just ask him to explain himself—the secret to his contentment, the source of his ever-present peace. He listened patiently as I demanded an explanation. He smiled compassionately and reached up toward the papyrus in my hand, and pointed to four simple words that held the secret to his inner peace:
“The Lord is Near!”
“The Lord is near, Marcus!” Paul said with a countenance glowing like the sun. “I can focus on everything good thing that lies beyond my reach in here, or I can embrace the precious gift that can never be taken from me. Why should I worry about all the earthly comforts I lack, when all I need stands so near to me. The Lord is near, Marcus. The Lord is near. In fact, the Lord is here; he is always with me.”
I stood there pondering his heartfelt testimony. He believed every word, and would live every minute of every day drawing strength and comfort from the Peace of Christ’s presence he believes shares his cell with. Then he asked me, “Do you know what the prophet Isaiah prophesied concerning Jesus many centuries before his birth?” “Of course I don’t,” I replied. He went to recite by memory the ancient prophecy:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isa 7:14; cf. Matt 1:22-23).
“Marcus, the greatest gift ever given to this world is found in that wonderful name—Immanuel,” Paul said.
“What does it mean?” I asked. Paul didn’t answer. He was deep in thought as the sun set outside the small hole-like window of the dungeon, and darkness once again devoured the apostle’s frail frame. After lighting the oil lamp on the wall outside the door, I watched as Paul’s shadowy figure assumed once again that oh-so-familiar posture. On his knees, he turned his head and eyes upward, opened his palms as to receive another shot of that invisible strength and peace from above. His face shone inexplicably and a palpable peace fell over him like a warm blanket in a cold breeze. He finally spoke:
“The Lord is near!”
“Peace is a person, Marcus, and his name is Immanuel.”
“Immanuel, O sweet Immanuel—it means ‘God is with us!’”
And if God is Immanuel—always with me—then nothing can separate me from the love of Christ. My task is simply to let the peace of Christ’s presence have full reign over my heart moment by moment; and let the peace of Christ stand guard over my thoughts and feelings just as you stand guard over my body.
For who will separate me from the love of Christ? Will trouble, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8). Peace is a person, Marcus, and his name of Jesus.
Christmas offers more than heart-warming words and sappy sentimentality. Christmas is the invasion of Heavenly Peace coming to take up residence in a human souls. Christmas is more than presents under a tree, but the presence of the Prince of Peace standing guard over our hearts and minds. You see, God answered Isaiah’s prayer 2,000 years ago when, in the town of Bethlehem, God ripped open the heavens and came down into a war torn world so we could receive Christ and sleep in Heavenly peace.
Blessed are the peacemakers, yes. But even more blessed are those who know the Prince of Peacemakers personally and, like Paul, enjoy his peace-giving presence continuously. Now let us heed our calling as the children of God and go bring this peace to others!
“Let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful” (Col. 3:15).