December 24 & 25, 2019
“Peace on Earth”
St. Luke 2:13-14
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!’” Luke 2:13-14
The words “Peace on earth, good will toward men” will evoke different responses from different people. People who go to church will recognize the words from the Gloria in Excelsis that has been sung in the church’s Sunday service for about 1,800 years. We sing about the peace between God and man that God established when he sent his Son into the world. It is the peace of God’s goodwill or favor. It is the peace of sin forgiven. It is a spiritual reality. We believe it. We rely on it. We celebrate it. But we cannot see it and sometimes we can’t even feel it. We know it is so because God has said so and God cannot deceive us.
People who don’t go to church and don’t know the gospel will hear the words “Peace on earth, good will toward men” and might think of a different kind of peace. Perhaps they’ll think that these words express a hope for peace between nations. That’s surely a noble hope. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if wars all over the world ceased forever? Or, folks might even imagine peace between Republicans and Democrats! When we take these words out of church and bring them into the world their meaning changes. The spiritual and eternal becomes social and temporary. Peace means one thing when we’re talking about our relationship with God through faith and it means something else when we’re talking about outward peace in this world. The peace of Christmas is eternal. It will last forever, after every nation in this world has fallen.
When God makes peace with us, he sets our hearts at peace. We know God in Christ. We look to the manger to see our God. We don’t see an angry Judge just waiting to nail us for our misdeeds. He bears no weapon with which to impose a peace settlement on recalcitrant subjects. He makes peace by humbling himself.
It is called the incarnation. God became incarnate. He became flesh. The incarnation brings glory to God in the highest heaven. God’s greatest glory is in becoming one of us. The eternal Son of the eternal Father becomes flesh and blood. He joins the human race. He becomes a little baby boy. He remains the almighty God. He who nurses at his mother’s breast rules over all of creation. As we sing, “The Word becomes incarnate and yet remains on high.”
The incarnation of God speaks of a peace without weapons of war. No swords, knives, or clubs are wielded. No guns or bombs or missiles are fired. God does not force peace. He makes peace. This peace is twofold. First, he makes peace with us sinners by becoming one of us. God climbs down Jacob’s ladder. He is incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and is made man. As true God and true man, he fulfills his own law. The justice he rightly demanded of us that we did not do, he did and he did it as the man who represents all of humanity. Thus God made peace with us. By obeying and by suffering, he fulfilled the requirements of his own law and made peace.
This peace is twofold. After making peace with us by that spotless and obedient life from the manger to the cross, he rose from the dead and poured out his Holy Spirit on his church. The Holy Spirit makes peace with us by his gracious word. The words we hear from God – words of his peace and goodwill toward us – bring to our hearts the peace of which they speak.
Peace is reconciliation. Those who were estranged from each other are now at peace with each other. It’s a two way street. God is reconciled to us and we are reconciled to God. Here’s how St. Paul explains it:
God is reconciled to us in Christ. We are personally reconciled to God when, by God’s grace, we believe the gospel of reconciliation. God is reconciled by the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of his only begotten Son. We are reconciled by the power of the Holy Spirit who elicits faith in our hearts by the gospel. By working faith within us, he brings into our personal possession the peace that God declared through his angels on that first Christmas. “Peace on earth, good will toward men” is a universal declaration of peace. When God persuades us that this peace is ours, that we have God’s good will, are sheltered by his grace, and all our sins are freely forgiven for Christ’s sake, then we are personally reconciled to God.
I ran across a song the other day that began with the words, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” I know what you’re thinking. “Why, Pastor, why do you have to do a theological analysis of every pop or country song you hear?” To which I will respond: “Why not?” So listen up, especially if you hum that song to yourself while preparing for church. If you think that peace begins with you, you will never be at peace with anybody. Only when the peace we seek is the peace of God’s incarnation, the peace of the manger and the cross, the peace and goodwill of God toward this fallen world, can we seek and find peace with others. When we have God’s peace, we can seek and find peace. We can live at peace.
The peace God establishes with us is the peace of sin forgiven. God does this. We only receive what he does. We don’t do it. We don’t achieve it. Peace on earth does not begin with us. It begins with God. When God establishes peace with us, then and only then can we seek peace with one another.
God establishes peace with us by forgiving us. Forgiveness and peace go together. To use the more technical theological terms, justification and reconciliation go together. Justification is the forgiveness of sins. Reconciliation is the peace that comes with the forgiveness of sins. When God forgives us, he is at peace with us. Peace is reconciliation. Goodwill is forgiveness of sins. Peace and goodwill are bound together as far as God is concerned.
So it is for us Christians. We cannot be at peace with those we refuse to forgive. When God set out to establish peace with us, he didn’t rely on us to do what needed to be done to establish it. The Father freely chose to send his Son. The Son freely chose to become incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary. God did it. He didn’t leave it up to us to do.
So it is with us. We don’t make peace with brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers with whom we are at odds by telling them what they must do to make peace with us. We do so by forgiving them. We do it. We do it unilaterally, without requiring any response. Only then is it genuine. Only then does it have any power to change the other.
If that unbearably sappy song, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me,” is wrong, it’s not because we can do nothing to promote peace. It’s wrong because genuine peace begins with God. But when God makes peace with me he thereby enables me to make peace with you. This is the great wonder of Christmas. He who lay in the manger comes into our hearts and makes his home within us. As we sing:
I cannot make peace with you until God makes peace with me. He must not only establish peace on earth, goodwill toward men in his incarnation, obedience life, crucifixion, and resurrection, he must establish peace in my heart so that I am personally reconciled to him. Then, and only then, can I make peace with you.
And I can! You can! Every Christian can! There is peace on earth. It begins in the manger. God has joined us. He has become one of us. “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” The peace God has declared to us in his birth in Bethlehem is the peace we declare to each other.
“Peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” That’s what the inspired text says. The text does not say, “Peace on earth to men of good will.” It does not say, “Peace on earth among those with whom he is pleased.” It is a gracious declaration that no one deserves. It is a universal declaration that excludes no one. This gracious and universal declaration empowers us to make peace with everyone we know. It enables us to forgive those who have done us wrong. It fills us with love that we can give to anyone who needs to receive it from us. God’s favor rests upon us. We enjoy peace with God. Our hearts are full of the treasures of God’s grace.
Rolf D. Preus