Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom [God’s] favor rests.
– Luke 2:14
Funny thing about this verse. It is quoted in Christmas cards and in Christmas carols. Its words are imprinted on all manner of Christmas-related stuff: ornaments, banners, trees, plates – you name it. The phrase “peace on Earth” is probably the most widely recognized biblical saying relating to Christmas. It epitomizes the warm, sentimental holiday buzz that we all like to get about this time of year.
The tidings of peace that were announced to the shepherds on that day have yet to be fully realized. God, it seems, offered peace for our world – but we have flatly rejected it. Jesus would later say something quite the opposite of the angelic greeting that coincided with his own birth:
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Mt. 10:34).
The following verses make it clear: Jesus will be a dividing force in the world, ripping apart even the most intimate of family relationships. And an upheaval of violence is expected to follow the arrival of his Kingdom.
It seems that we have been given a choice. We can choose our own way (that is, the way of our own “little kingdoms”) or we can choose the way of peace (that is, the way of the Kingdom of God). The two can’t coexist. They are like matter and antimatter, two Betta fish in the same tank, or – to be more biblical – light and darkness. Where they meet, violence follows.
To be sure, violence was exactly what followed Christ’s birth. The violence of a thousand male babies, butchered and silenced. The violence of the mob that tortured and crucified Jesus. The violence of the stoning of Stephen, and the repeated attacks on the apostles who brought the “good news” of God’s kindgom into a wider world. The violence that martyred Peter and Paul and sent Christians to the lions den or which burned them alive to light up Rome during the night.
In that sense, the incarnation of Jesus was the most revolutionary political event in human history. It announced the beginning of a different way. A way that says “we’re all in this together” rather than “I’m on top, and you’re not.” A way that seeks to serve rather than conquer – to love rather than use and abuse.
And it wasn’t welcomed.
When faced with the prospect of the beginning of God’s kingdom of peace and justice and, hence, the end of their own, the Kings, Emperors, Dictators, Prime Ministers, yes, and even the democracies of the world can still react as Herod, the Sanhedrin, and (later) Rome did many years ago: use the sword (or any other “weapon” – the pen or the law or economic influence) in a vain attempt to destroy the kingdom of Peace.
But it never, ever works. And history, it seems continues to inexhorably plow toward the day that the powerful instinctively dread:
Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Rev. 6:15-17)
Peace may be the promise, waiting at the end of the story. But until then, the revolution of the Kingdom of God can expect draw all of hell to itself.
Far from a pleasant, fuzzy, etherial event that immediately changed the world, the incarnation of Jesus was unabashedly and unapologetically political in nature: challenging the authority of every Kingdom that men had (and were yet to) establish on the earth.
Our calling, then, is not so much to bask in the warm, sentimental glow of the holidays – assured that God wants peace in the earth. The implications of the incarnation reach much, much farther than that.
How much farther? Stay tuned.
Next: Why Jesus’ ascention was only the beginning of incarnational life on earth.