Peace on Earth

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"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 2:13-15 (KJV)

This must have been an amazing scene.  It is one of many moments in the Nativity story that I would liked to have seen with my own eyes.  But it’s also somewhat of a strange scene – the messengers, the audience, and the message itself.  I’ve always enjoyed Handel’s setting of this in Messiah.  It’s a tremendously epic chorus, but it ends as soon as it begins, and we’re left with just a few more bars of the strings by themselves.  While listening to the end, I always picture the shepherds staring blankly at the sky, completely and utterly dumbfounded.  There is something very poetic about the scene.  The grand announcement was not made to kings or religious rulers; it was made to simple shepherds without any sort of warning.

But I’d like to focus on the message itself; it’s a message that I have found difficult to understand.  From what little study I’ve done, translations other than the KJV come closer to the original meaning.

"Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
'Glory to God in the highest heaven,
And on earth, peace to those on whom his favor rests'" (NIV)

Notice that it’s not simply "And on earth, peace."  If it were, we'd have an incredibly hard time squaring that message with reality.  In the two thousand years since the coming of Christ, peace has not been one of distinguishing characteristics of life on earth.  If anything, the opposite is the case.  Such a pronouncement of peace would be tragically ironic, like Chamberlain’s own pronouncement of "peace for our time," a day before the German occupation of Sudetenland and less than a decade before more than forty million lives had been lost in the bloodiest war in human history.  "And on earth, peace," seems to be in direct conflict with Christ's own words: "Do you think I came to bring peace on earth?  No, I tell you, but division.  From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three.  They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."  Cheery words indeed.

It is peace to those on whom his favor rests.  Clearly, this is not a proclamation of worldwide peace.  Nor is it even peace between one person and another, as Jesus' own words make clear.  So what exactly is this peace?  It is peace to the individual.  It is not peace to all individuals but peace to those with whom He has favor.  Bruce Metzger explains it well.  "The meaning seems to be, not that divine peace can be bestowed only where human good will is already present, but that at the birth of the Saviour God’s peace rests on those whom he has chosen in accord with his good pleasure."

There are many false pronouncements of peace; in fact, most pronouncements of peace turn out to be entirely hollow.  Chamberlain’s was already mentioned, but there are many others.  The words of Ezekiel come to mind.

My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations.  They will not belong to the council of my people or be listed in the records of Israel, nor will they enter the land of Israel.  Then you will know that I am the Sovereign Lord.  Because they lead my people astray, saying, "Peace," when there is no peace, and because, when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash, therefore tell those who cover it with whitewash that it is going to fall.  Rain will come in torrents, and I send hailstones hurtling down, and violent winds will burst forth.  When the wall collapses, will the people not ask you, "Where is the whitewash you covered it with?"  … So I will pour out my wrath against the wall and against those who cover it with whitewash.  I will say to you, "The wall is gone and so are those who whitewashed it, those prophets of Israel who prophesied to Jerusalem and saw visions of peace for her when there was no peace, declares the Sovereign Lord."
As Metzger said, this peace is peace to those who have been chosen by God.  "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy."  But this peace is no guarantee of a peaceful life (notice how we're constantly having to say what this peace isn't).  I remember distinctly spending time at the Hudson campus of Christ Community Chapel in the wake of September 11.  Many were afraid, and many feared for the safety of their families.  Yet Pastor Colledge said something that jolted many; he said that no follower of Christ is guaranteed safety, neither for the believer nor for his family.  Look through the entire Bible, and no promise of physical safety is made.

Further, the circumstances of many a believer's life have been anything but peaceful.  One of my sister's roommates in college, for example, lost her fiancĂ© two weeks after they became engaged.  A mentor of mine and close friend of the family two years ago found out he has multiple myeloma, a cancer that is often terminal.  It destroyed one of his vertebrae, so he was in tremendous pain, and a long road of chemo and bone marrow transplants awaited him.  Such stories are hardly unique; the circumstances of life are often difficult and tragic, and it often seems unrelenting.

So what exactly is this peace that was pronounced by the angels to the shepherds?  It certainly isn't world peace, it isn't peace among neighbors or even among family members, and it isn't peace in our circumstances.  Can we even trust the Lord for whatever this peace actually is?  Without a doubt.  This peace is an inward peace, a peace available only to the believer, to those He has chosen.  It is no guarantee of an easy life, a life free of suffering; rather, it is a peace that is far more immediate.  One might say it is a peace despite all the hardships of life. 

That is finally something that makes sense.

But here – at least for me – is where the trouble begins.  This peace has been promised to me, yet much of my life has been filled with anxiety and frustration, rather than peace.  And I hardly imagine that I am alone.  So what is the issue?

The peace of which the angels spoke is a peace for the believer, for those who believe in the saving power of Christ’s death.  But I don't think we can say that this peace didn't exist before the time of Christ; the writings of David and others make it clear that this peace existed before Christ, as those before Him looked forward to the salvation of the Lord.  In fact, the words of Isaiah have probably helped me more than anything else in understanding what this peace is, and why I often find it lacking in my own life.

"The steadfast of mind You will keep in perfect peace,
Because he trusts in You.
Trust in the Lord forever,
For in God the Lord, we have an everlasting Rock."
-Isaiah 26:3-4

So the issue is trust.  While many of us believe in the saving power of Christ's death and resurrection, trusting in Him on a daily basis is another issue altogether.  Clearly, the two should go hand-in-hand; but for some reason, trust is often an issue in the life of the Christian.  In my own life, my own desires tend to be barrier to trusting Him.  For years I spun my wheels in a vain attempt to race after my desires; the results were lots of noise and tire smoke (especially inwardly) but – predictably – no results.  Trusting Him is not simply trusting that He'll bring about what one desires, but a willingness to let Him do away with those desires altogether.  When your will and His will are one in the same, there really is no friction.  The fact of the matter is that I am much more confident in the goodness of my own desires than in the goodness of the unknown plans of God.  It should be the other way around.  I’ve always liked the maxim, "Let go and let God," but I think we often let go in order to let God bring about what we want; and that really isn’t letting go at all.

One last analogy; it's probably a terrible one, but I'm going to run with it.  There's a piano being tuned not far from where I'm writing, so this is the analogy I happened upon.  Our lives are somewhat like pianos (or another instrument, if you prefer, but the tuning process for a piano is probably the most involved).  We tend to be obsessed with getting to the magnificent, romantic, adventurous, thrilling, and epic sonata, while God seems to be content in tuning the same stinking note over, and over, and over.  And when He's done with that note, He'll move on to tuning the next over, and over, and over.  If you've never heard a piano being tuned, it's about as enjoyable as skinning a cat.  But the reason any piano is tuned is not for the tuning itself, but for the result.  Hearing a sonata on an out-of-tune piano can be simply dreadful.  So let God tune the piano.  And don't be surprised if He then plays an entirely different sonata from the one you expected.  There always seems to be an underlying understanding or expectation in Christian writing that if we hand over our lives to God, our lives will be wonderful.  In some sense this may be true (the inward life, our relationship with Him), but it is simply not the case that the circumstances of our lives will be wonderful.  Reading Jim Elliot's journal, it's clear that his life was full of joy and confidence in the Lord; but he endured many hardships, and he was dead by age 28.  C.S. Lewis more or less stumbled into a wonderful relationship and marriage with Joy Gresham, but she died only four years into their marriage.  Lewis' A Grief Observed is perhaps the most harrowing account of personal struggle I have ever read.

I don't think we can trust in the Lord for the circumstances of life; what I mean is, if we trust for a good job, a wonderful marriage, and a healthy life, we may be sorely disappointed.  And if such things are the foundation of our trust, when bad things happen – losing a job, losing a spouse, learning of a disease – our confidence in the Lord may be shaken or even shattered.  Our trust in the Lord must be rooted in our salvation, in the ultimate ends in His working in our lives.  The completed work of which Paul spoke.

I’ll end with a quote from Focus on the Family Radio Theater's production based on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  I don’t think it’s actually a quote of his, but I think it does him justice.

Psalm 85:8  "I will hear what God the Lord will speak.  For He will speak peace unto His people and unto his saints."  How does this peace come about?  Is it through the machinations of men or their politics or their economics?  Perhaps it comes from power, from rearmament.  No, man-made efforts towards peace brings about a temporary feeling of safety or security but not real peace.  That’s because we often confuse peace with safety.  They are not the same.  Peace is a great venture; it is a dare to trust God completely.  Peace requires us to give up our illusions of safety and security, our schemes and plans, in order to rely on Almighty God alone.
Peace to those on whom His favor rests.
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