Well, I meant to post this at Christmas, but Christmas got in the way.
“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 KJV)
It’s such a familiar passage, and such a beloved one – the first Christmas angels’ wonderful, universal message of God’s peace for all people. For many it’s a timeless source of hope and comfort in a troubled world.
But I’m always here to complicate the simple and cast doubt on the blatantly obvious 😉
I really love this passage, but it raises some difficult questions for me. Where is this long-promised peace? Is it really for everyone? And does the peace Jesus brings look anything like the kind we expect and want?
Where is the peace?
So my initial and somewhat cynical reaction to the angels’ message is ‘Peace on earth? Fat chance’. Looking around at the world, the ancient promise of peace can seem pretty hollow – at best an idealistic pipe-dream that can never become reality.
Right now I see the unending tragic bloodbath of Syria’s civil war, in turn helping fuel an ever-worsening refugee crisis as well as terrible terrorist atrocities, in turn encouraging the rise of right-wing extremist parties in Europe. I see a divided UK post-Brexit, a divided US post-election, an unravelling Europe, a terrifyingly unstable Middle East, and a frighteningly autocratic and aggressive Russia.
And looking inward at my own heart and life I often see precious little peace there either. I see a legion of anxieties, fears, stresses, guilt and countless other things that make for un-peace.
So, over two thousand years since the Christmas angels first brought their words of hope, why are we still not seeing the peace they promised?
Of course, the promise could just be a lie, or perhaps a mistake – but I don’t really believe that.
It could be merely a salutation or greeting – the heavenly equivalent of “Hello” or Happy Christmas!” That’s more plausible, but I still don’t quite buy it.
Perhaps we’re simply still waiting for the promised peace to come.
Or perhaps – and I think this is most likely – we’ve simply misunderstood the peace the angels are promising and how to enter into it. Perhaps God’s peace has already come to us, but it’s not how we imagined so we miss it.
Who is the promised peace for?
In the King James translation it’s “on earth peace, goodwill toward men” – unequivocal, universal and inclusive. But have a look at the New International Version (henceforth the Not Inclusive Version):
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to all on whom his favour rests”.
Looking at this you’d hardly know it was the same verse of Scripture – in the NIV it has become a limited and exclusive peace only for those whom God specially favours. How do we make any sense of this?
I’m not a Greek scholar, but looking at other versions you get the impression the translators are struggling to make sense of an unclear clause which can be read in various ways. Some have a half-way version: “Peace to all men of goodwill (or men of favour)”.
So it’s either God’s peace and goodwill (favour) to all men, or it’s God’s peace to all men of goodwill (favour). And if it’s the latter, it could either be peace to the people whom he favours, or to those who embody goodwill.
This highlights to me one of the problems of relying on the Bible as our sole source of truth, because in some key places like this its meaning is unclear and ambiguous.
So which version is true? I think this is where you have to decide what kind of God you believe in. Is he a God who only cares for a limited few, perhaps only those who believe in him or follow his ways? Or is he a God whose mercy and grace are unbounded and for all?
For me it has to be the latter. It must be peace and goodwill for all, not merely a few. Perhaps not all will want it or accept it, but it is freely offered and available to all, always.
What is God’s peace like?
I’ve said that maybe we don’t see the angels’ promised peace because it isn’t the kind we expect.
Perhaps the peace Jesus brings is not an overwhelming peace that forces itself on our notice, a peace that everyone can see and that we cannot help but receive. Perhaps it is rather a quiet, hidden, even shy peace which we have to discover and nurture for ourselves, and within ourselves.
A little paradoxically, I also believe that God’s peace – shalom – is an active, living thing, the vibrant presence of his life and love and hope. God’s peace is not merely a passive or empty thing, an absence of conflict and strife.
Indeed, God’s peace is most present and active in the midst of our troubles. It does not take away the turbulence and turmoil of life on this earth but transforms and redeems it from within. “In this world you will have trouble”, says Jesus (none too comfortingly), “But take heart – I have overcome the world.”
Why do we not choose peace?
I also suspect that God’s peace may be something we have to welcome actively – it doesn’t always occur in us automatically.
But this can be hard. The path to healing and so to true peace often requires us first to open ourselves up to pain, perhaps the pain of acknowledging things about ourselves and our lives that we’d do almost anything to avoid facing. So we too often lock ourselves away in refuges which become prisons. God calls to us to come out, and until we do we are not truly at peace.
The other thing is that Jesus’ peace is not always obviously desirable. It can be deeply troublesome to any who have a vested interest in the current world order, the status quo. Perhaps this is how Jesus, the promised Prince of Peace, can proclaim “I have not come to bring peace but a sword”. His peace is paradoxical, sometimes problematic and even divisive.
God’s peace is available to all, but not all want it. I believe God is seeking ‘people of peace’, or ‘people of goodwill’; people who truly desire the kind of life and world that God offers and are prepared to work with him to bring it about. God excludes no-one, but perhaps we may exclude ourselves if we wish.
So in response to the angels’ message, I acknowledge that all too often I’m not a person of peace, and that too often I do shut myself out of the peace God wants to bring to the world. I pray that I – that we all – will be able truly to welcome God’s active, living, surprising peace within our hearts, our homes, our work, our worries, our weaknesses and problems, the whole messy reality of our lives.
And I wish you all a truly peaceful and happy New Year.