She strides across the stage to eager applause. Her sequined gown flashes in sync with her too-white smile. As she plants her feet smartly on her mark, the evening’s host points a microphone squarely at her perfectly farded face. The Miss America contestant – the state from which she hails irrelevant here – takes a deep breath as she awaits the interview question.
“What’s the one thing you wish for the most?”
It’s one of the stock question for which she has rehearsed her answer hundreds of times. You don’t leave something as important as this to chance. With a lilting laugh that combines amusement and excitement, she exclaims, “World peace.” There’s more to the answer, of course, but this is the cliche on which we must focus.
Money, success, fame, recognition, a national platform … and world peace. It’s the American dream.
Two years ago on Christmas morning, after the business of present opening had run its course, I retreated to my upstairs study with the newspaper. And there, on top of all the after-Christmas sales inserts and bowl-game reports, was the front-section headline: “Peace Still Elusive, Remains Frequent Christmas Wish.” The mother and daughter cuddling together during a local Christmas Eve candlelight church service provided the ideal accompanying photo.
The lead article featured the thoughts and opinions of several religious and political leaders in our community, each one lamenting the lack of peace on our globe and sharing advice on how best to achieve it. The underlying theme of the reporter’s efforts was the ubiquitous “Peace on Earth” emblazoned on church sanctuary banners, tree ornaments, and throw blankets in every town in America from Thanksgiving weekend until New Year’s day.
Presents, hearty feasts, carols in the snow, visions of sugarplums … and peace on earth. It’s everyone’s Christmas wish.
And it so utterly misses the point.
I can recite it from memory due to sheer repetition – the sublime minute in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in which Linus, blanket in hand, recites the Christmas story from Luke 2. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill towards men,” he warbles in that unforgettable voice.
Peace on earth. There it is, right smack in the New Testament, at the beginning of the gospel story. “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” Who are we to argue with Linus, the smartest Peanut of them all? It’s the payoff moment on which the entire story builds. Charlie’s angst over commercialization, his sister’s bald-faced greed, the garish lighting display on Snoopy’s doghouse, and (good grief!) aluminum Christmas trees! All of it washes away in the glow of peace on earth.
We hear those kids sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” to their organ accompaniment, wash down our last bite of sugar cookie with cold milk, and turn off the TV feeling a warm satisfaction. It just feels like Christmas, this peace on earth. But why? What is it, really?
That multitude of angels surrounding those shepherds keeping watch over their flocks – what sort of peace did they come to proclaim, anyway? Did they herald the commencement of the swords-into-plowshares kind of peace? Did they tell the shepherds to “Fear not!” because of the inauguration of a global disarmament treaty?
Not if the bloody twentieth century was any indication, it wasn’t. What sense would Luke 2 make if it was? We couldn’t watch the Peanuts special each December without a painful reminder of the abject failure of such a promise. Even Charles Schultz knew this wasn’t the case, having created his magnum opus as our nation was becoming entrenched in the divisive Vietnam conflict. “Peace on earth” while Napalm rained down on Southeast Asia?
What if the peace of Christmastime isn’t really the kind that comes with an exit strategy? What if it’s the sort of peace we can experience while pinned down in a foxhole, weighed down with cancer, or dragged down by the seeming meaninglessness of everyday life?
When Paul wrote his masterful letter to the church at Ephesus, he explained with grand Greek words just what Christ had done for those who place their faith in Him as Savior and Lord. After showing how Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection are the remedy for our separation from God due to sin, he offered this:
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:13-19, ESV).
And the same Luke who provided the best part of Schultz’ script also wrote this about the cost of discipleship:
Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:27-33, ESV).
The angels announced the coming of peace to the earth because the One whom they heralded – that baby in the manger – was Jesus the Peacemaker. He would grow up to become the Messiah who would tear down the dividing wall of hostility between man and God. He would become the master Carpenter who possessed the skill and resources to erect the perfect tower by which we might ascend to heaven. He would become the delegation who would go on our behalf to the great King and settle terms of peace.
He tore down the dividing wall with every trampling step on His way to Golgotha. He nailed every beam of that tower together as surely as Roman soldiers drove nails through His hands and feet. He signed our peace treaty in His own blood.
That is the peace of Christmastime – peace with God. Peace, on whom His favor rests. Peace, in the midst of war. Peace, not like the world gives, but like the Peacemaker made for you.