As always, this Christmas was a wonderful, magical time.
Services that were both peaceful and joyful, combining the beauty of music, the inspiring grace of the Christmas story, the solemn power of stillness and light, the promise of hope in the eyes and voices of children, the unity of all generations gathering to honor the creator, redeemer, and sustainer of life.
The Christmas spirit of peace and love has shown through in so many ways and so many places in our little corner of the world this year.
In all of this we hear the resounding echo of the great heavenly chorus in Luke, who sang, “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth, good will to all people.”
But then it’s over, and it’s back to work.
This year, we didn’t even have the luxury of a transition. Just one day after proclaiming the miraculous birth of Jesus, we got slapped in the face by reality.
As we were ready to bask in the afterglow of this joyful celebration, the story suddenly turned dark and ugly. Right after we were contemplating the coming of peace on earth, goodwill to all, we read of the horrific slaughter of innocent children. One minute we’re welcoming the arrival of Jesus and peace on earth. The next minute, we’re averting our eyes from man’s cruelty to man.
Wow! “Peace on earth, good will to all” didn’t last long.
Just what were the angels singing about to those shepherds in the hills? Was this Christmas gift of God-With-Us really a world-changing event? Or was it more like a 24-hour truce, where the opposing forces take advantage of the lull to retrench, rearm, reposition, and then go at it again.
The truth of the matter is that the peace of which the angels sang about isn’t easy.
The Christmas story does not just come in and sweep away everything that is wrong with the world, with life, and with us. Just because the story of God’s decision to be with us starts so wonderfully well does not mean that we immediately go into the “and they lived happily ever after.”
Clinging to our celebratory mood, we long for an alternative next chapter to what we find in Matthew.
How about when the Magi reach Herod with their news about the star, the old king realizes what is happening? Herod understands that someone has come who has the power to accomplish far more than he could in his wildest dreams. He sees that this new arrival can bring new life and lasting peace. So Herod repents of his ways and decides to follow Christ.
The Magi go home, and because they are men of wealth and influence, they spread the news of what has happened far and wide. The message of Christmas sweeps through the world, and peace on earth, good will to all people becomes not just a slogan but a reality.
Why couldn’t we get that kind of follow-up?
This jolting text that ushered us into the New Year begs the question, what difference, if any, did Christmas make?
The good news is that Christ came into the world to save it, to bring peace on earth, good will to all, salvation, and eternal life. Christmas is the most joyful, wonderful news ever to come our way.
The bad news is that God never said it was going to be easy. Not for Jesus; not for us. Peace on earth, good will to all did not arrive at Christmas ready to play, right out of the box. Some assembly is required. Actually, a lot of assembly.
Christmas was not the first version of peace and good will. It was introduced many times, centuries earlier, in the writings of the Old Testament. How do you get peace and good will? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself.”
How do you get peace and good will? “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”
The Christmas package of peace and good will came with a new set of directions. You might say it was the updated, improved, more user-friendly version of the peace & good will program.
It still isn’t easy. But it will come. Christmas makes a difference because we now know that God will find us and rescue us from the destruction we cause when this peace and goodwill stuff gets too hard for us.
It’s not going to be easy, but thanks to God, we’re going to get there.
The Christmas story gives us hope, and that is worth celebrating. But hope is never a done deal. Hope does not eliminate the now. It does not eliminate death and loss and sorrow and pain and struggle.
Hope is what gets us through those things.
Hope does not turn life into an endless party any more than the Christmas season is a celebration that never ends. But what Christmas can promise, and what hope can promise, is that there will be more parties.
In the meantime, we roll up our sleeves and enter the New Year knowing there’s plenty of work for the working preacher to do.