Peace on Earth

Christmas is a joyful season– for most people. And it is a giving season; a busy season; a bright and noisy season. But for most of us, it is NOT a peaceful season. Our small city had a lighted parade the other night. It was festive and bright; there were a lot of happy people cheering on marching bands, floats, dancers, decorated fire engines and tractors, horse-drawn carriages, and other entries. People were eating, drinking hot cocoa, enjoying the entertainment, and even singing carols. The whole downtown was decorated with brilliant lights and banners and festive plants. But before the parade started, and after it ended, there were angry drivers trying to find (or leave) parking spots, bawling toddlers, rowdy people who had more to drink than just the cocoa, and several others who were just tired, and cold, and overstimulated.

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While parades and festivities, parties and pageants have become part of the seasonal celebrations in many parts of the world, they are not what Christmas is really about. Jesus did not come to the world to bring “fun.” He did not come to bring toys or games, parties or feasts. He did not come to bring cheerful songs and fragrant holiday decorations, or hot cocoa and cookies. The angels who announced His arrival did not bring good tidings of candy canes, flying reindeer, or twinkle lights.

We sing about “Peace on Earth.” We talk about it, send greeting cards about it, and pray for it. But what do we MEAN when we talk about Peace on Earth, Good will to Men (Humankind)? For many, it is a wish or a prayer that wars would end, or that the petty differences between rival political factions or even rival churches would end. We speak of global peace or universal peace– peace between men (and women). And it is good that we should want such peace. But is that really the kind of peace Jesus brought with Him? He didn’t put an end to wars and disagreements during His ministry here. He didn’t “settle the score” for those who experienced oppression– the Roman Empire remained; the tax collectors still took more than their fair share; there was still slavery and abuse; greed and adultery and murder did not cease. And the world has been noisy, and messy, and angry and depressed in the two millennia since. And yet…

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There IS peace on earth–it is the profound peace that comes with “Good will to Men.” God’s good will found its ultimate expression in the gift of the Savior. There may still be wars and pestilence, angry drivers, bad hair days, injustice, confusion, grief, and pain among people. But there is power to be at peace in the midst of it all– the power of a Peace that passes all understanding (Philippians 4:7); the power of Peace with God (Romans 5:1).

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Jesus came to a world that knew only the rumor of such peace. Even King David– a “man after God’s own heart,” a man who wrote songs about peace and safety and joy in God’s presence–knew this kind of peace as something that had been promised. David could know the immediate peace of God’s forgiveness; he could know the blessings of obedience and the restoration of the joy of salvation (Psalm 51:12). But the everlasting Peace that has been accomplished by the Advent of the Christ– David, Moses, Abraham, and all the prophets had longed to know it; to experience it from within.

And THIS Peace we can experience– not just during the Advent and Christmas Season, but throughout our lives. Chaos, loneliness, grief, separation, injustice– it HAS BEEN defeated. It has no power to separate us from God’s Good Will or from His Loving embrace! The noise and anger and clutter and abuse is still real. We should not ignore it, and we certainly must not contribute to it or sanction it. But we no longer have to live without hope; we no longer have to fret and live in constant fear or defeat.

There is no parade tonight as I write this– there are still lights and occasional noises downtown– a door closing, a dog barking, a car passing. But there is Peace within– no matter how loud or bright, how festive or even forlorn things seem.

God Is Not Dead, Nor Doth He Sleep..

It was almost 160 years ago, during the darkest days of America’s Civil War, that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem “Christmas Bells” that would become the Christmas Hymn, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” His son had been badly wounded in battle; his wife had died just a few years earlier, and the nation was in ruins and chaos. No one knew how much longer the war would continue or what the final outcome would be; Longfellow did not know if his son would live, or if he would be paralyzed for life. As he listened to the bells of Christmas ringing from church towers, he poured out all his doubts and fears in verse. Yet he concluded, “The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Christmas is not just a celebration of “comfort and joy” that comes from tinsel and lights, cozy fires, or gifts under brightly lit trees. Christmas is about Hope in times of darkness. It is about promises kept; prophesies fulfilled, victory assured, even when it looks as though the Enemy has the upper hand.

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It is horribly tempting in troubled times to wonder and question God’s ways– does He hear? Does He see? Is He asleep? Does He exist? How can a “good” God allow such suffering and pain? And like Longfellow, we listen to our circumstances, and they seem to drown out the message of Christmas– “For Hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men.” The cannons of yesteryear may have been replaced with 24-hour news cycles or Facebook news feeds, with protests and lock-downs, COVID counts and contested elections, but the noise is still the same. There is hatred, deceit, destruction, and doubt in our world–it was present during the Civil War; it was present during the Roman occupation at the time of Christ’s birth. But that birth brought a singular hope– one that has become so familiar, and so casual as to be almost forgotten amidst the immediate urgent noises of the day.

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The trappings of Christmas sometimes hide the very Glory of Christ’s Advent. God CAME. He LIVED AMONG US. He was humble. He felt the cold and heat of long days and nights; his feet got dirty from walking. He laughed and cried. And, He DIED. He felt agony and shame and fear as he gasped for breath, naked and bloody and facing sneers and anger from the crowd. But God IS NOT DEAD–He conquered death; He rose again victorious. And He did it so that our suffering is not in vain– our suffering is not the end of our story.

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GOD IS NOT DEAD. Hope is not in vain. Nor does He sleep–even in the silence of our lonely nights, even in the noisy chaos of life in 2020–God has not stepped off His throne; He has not turned His back on mankind. “The Wrong shall fail–” though it may seem strong and strut arrogantly through the streets, shouting and threatening–God is the final authority. Nothing is hidden from Him. He sees every injustice, every secret sin; He hears every lie, every twisted truth, every deceit. And He has no favorites– there is no excuse, no “religious” exemption– ALL have sinned, and all will be held to account.

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EXCEPT– because of that one birth and death and resurrection–the debt is already paid. “The Right (shall) prevail with peace on earth, good-will to men.” For those who listen beyond the noise of battle, the bells of Christmas ring “more loud and deep” with the hope and joy and strength that overcome our pain and struggle. Longfellow found that truth– and I’m so glad he shared it. I hope his words will continue to remind us to listen through this season for the true message of Christmas.

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I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day


I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play;
In music sweet the tones repeat,
“There’s peace on earth, good will to men.”
I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along th’ unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
And in despair I bowed 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 does He sleep,
For Christ is here; His Spirit near
Brings peace on earth, good will to men.”
*When men repent and turn from sin
The Prince of Peace then enters in,
And grace imparts within their hearts
His peace on earth, good will to men.
O souls amid earth’s busy strife,
The Word of God is light and life;
Oh, hear His voice, make Him your choice,
Hail peace on earth, good will to men.
Then happy, singing on your way,
Your world will change from night to day;
Your heart will feel the message real,
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Words by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with alterations and *additional text by Harlan D. Sorrell.

Some Christmas Carols are the joyous outpouring of Christmas cheer, filled with the laughter of wonder of the season.  Others are forged in pain and doubt that has been turned to the light of hope and renewal.  Such is the story behind this hymn. http://suvcw.org/mollus/art005.ht

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The famous American poet, H. W. Longfellow had lost his wife in a tragic fire just three years before he nearly lost his son in the horrors of the Civil War.  When his son was severely wounded in battle, Longfellow went to the military hospital, and, when he could, he transported his son home, knowing the journey would be painful and the outcome might not be a happy one.  (His son lived, but never recovered fully– see the article above.)
As he sat with his wounded son over the Christmas season, he could hear the bustle and chatter, and the bells ringing from the church steeples, announcing the good news of Christmas.  As his pain and bitterness churned, he wrote about it, and about how his heart was turned from bitterness to hope. (See the original poem here:   https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Poetry/christmas_bells.htm

Photo of C. A. Longfellow

Christmas is a time of warmth and good cheer for many–the ringing of bells, the singing of merry tunes, the tinsel and glitter of decorations–but for others, it is a time of deep soul-searching.  “My life is a mess.  I have suffered greatly.  There is no Peace On Earth!”  Yet, the hope and promise of Christmas rings out greater than the darkness and the blast of gunfire, the angry outcries and the weeping of those in grief.

How can this be?

Christmas reminds us that our circumstances, though very real and very painful, are confined to this time and space.  They are temporary– not in the sense that we will forget our pain or loss– but that we can still experience hope and joy  and healing in their midst.  “The Wrong shall fail”–there will still be evil in the world, injustice, hunger, abuse, sickness–wrong will still exist, but it does not have the power to define us, to enslave us and take away our ability to do good.  “The Right, prevail”–God’s promise of Messiah (among several hundred other prophetic promises!) has been fulfilled.  God is Faithful.  God’s word endures.  God’s Justice Will Be Done, and there will be “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men.”

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Christmas also reminds us that it is just in those very small things– the tolling of bells, being able to hug your child,  to share memories of loved ones who are no longer here, being grateful for small gifts, giving a word of encouragement–that hope and joy are spread like ripples of water and echoes of sound.  Christ’s birth was humble, but it was heralded with the hosts of angels from the highest heavens. 

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My prayer today is that we would listen for the true message of Christmas, and that we would echo and repeat the message– even if it seems that we are being drowned out by sirens and protests, or silenced by those who are hurting and cannot hear the sweetness in the music of the season.

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