A hundred years or so ago Christians had a great deal of optimism. The Victorian era had been an extended period of relative peace worldwide. The prevailing "liberal" theology of the time was preaching that the Kingdom of God on earth was just around the corner. The theme was reflected in hymns written during that time, some of them our old favourites. How we loved to sing –
All shall be well in his kingdom of peace,
freedom shall flourish and wisdom increase,
foe shall be friend when his triumph we sing,
sword shall be sickle when Jesus is King.
The author, Charles Silvester Horne, died in 1914. We have had two World Wars since then and several major conflicts. We still like the hymn, but view its words differently now. We aren't nearly so sure of seeing the Kingdom fully realised this side of eternity – is that what Jesus promised us anyway? And we look much more seriously at the imperative of taking the gospel of God's saving grace to all people and calling them to repentance and faith.
And now we have a new date etched into our memory – 11th September 2001, the day terrorists crashed passenger jets into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC. Thousands of innocent civilians have been killed in an action condemned around the world.
As I write this, we know there will be some response, though at this stage it isn't clear what form it will take. We continue to pray for wisdom and restraint for President Bush and other world leaders. We want an end to all this violence, yet fear it might escalate further.
Listen again to the song of the angels – "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests" (Lk. 2.14). There is here no promise of automatic "peace on earth."
God's grace (or favour) was reaching out to all people in the birth of his Son, Jesus Christ. The offered peace could only be fulfilled where people welcomed and received God's gift.
This is clear in Jesus' instruction to the twelve as he sent them out two by two. God's peace would only remain on the people and towns who welcomed them (Mt. 10.12-15). In that same context we hear Jesus saying, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword" (v. 34). Jesus isn't speaking of the intention of his coming, but its result.
His disciples weren't to live by the sword (26.52). Yet they would face persecution and suffering wherever the message wasn't welcomed (5.11-12).
In the King James Version the angels were singing, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." That is the form of words we remember best – imprinted in our memories and embedded in our hymns.
It was Christmas Day 1864, in the middle of the American Civil War. The poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, sat down and wrote a poem, "Christmas Bells." He published it two years after the war had ended. It was later edited and set to music. Here are two of the stanzas -
And in despair, I bow'd 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."
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."
Peace on earth? In the past it has seemed easier to win a war than to win a peace. In some ways that has been the experience of the American nation across the years. The "free and democratic way of life" that has been brutally attacked by terrorism has fallen well short of the "peace on earth" that was heralded at the first Christmas.
As Jesus was preparing his disciples for his death, he said to them, "Peace I leave with you; my own 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" (Jn 14.27).
So there is peace on earth – the peace that Jesus gives. It doesn't depend on outward circumstances like the peace the world may offer. It is strong and unchanging because Jesus binds us to himself with his love and grace. We receive it when we receive Jesus Christ as our Saviour and Lord. Outward circumstances may disturb our "outward" peace, but – "Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid."
And all who have received his peace are called to be peace-makers. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God" (Mt. 5.9). We are to express in our lives the character of our heavenly Father. May we be true to our calling.
© Peter J. Blackburn, Link, October 2001