Christian Persecution

#ChristmasMeans anything but peace on earth

 

Today marks the official  start of the Church of England’s #ChristmasMeans Twitter campaign. Church congregations and clergy are being encouraged to get out their smartphones to let the Twittersphere know the joy and meaning of Christmas.

I’d like to be able to say that #ChristmasMeans a chance to meditate on the incredible moment that God became incarnate, revealing His character to us through the birth of Jesus Christ. However, like many parents, since the schools broke up, #ChristmasMeans trying to keep the kids from winding each other up, the house under some sort of control and trying not to get incredibly stressed out by having to do that last shop at Tesco along with what seems like half of the country.

At least the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has his mind on more important matters:

John Sentamu ChristmasMeans

I have to agree with the Archbishop here. I never get bored of hearing or singing ‘Hark the Herald’, and Charles Wesley’s beautiful words never fail to lift my spirit. Having said that, ‘Peace on earth’ feels like a somewhat empty statement right now. I’m not feeling a lot of peace in the run-up to Christmas as I try, with limited success, to make space for Christ the everlasting Lord.

I really can’t complain, though. This has been a dreadful year for the followers of Jesus around the world. I might be annoyed by the distractions, but at least I can go to church and celebrate the birth of Christ without fear of harassment or arrest. As we know, Christians in Iraq and Syria will once again be unable to enjoy this Christmas, but so too will vast numbers in Iran, Nigeria, Sudan, Eritrea, Pakistan and many other countries. For them there will be no ‘peace on earth’. Nor was there much for Mary and Joseph.

The Christmas story has become so sanitised in Western culture that we forget how disturbing and traumatic it must have been. Mary would have been ostracised for becoming pregnant outside of wedlock; her 70-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem whilst carrying her unborn child cannot have been comfortable or easy. She had to face the indignity of having nowhere safe to give birth and having to use a food-trough for a crib. Later, Joseph and Mary had to flee under cover of darkness from their home in the dead of night to escape the authorities. They avoided the murderous butchering of their son, unlike the families they has left behind. Instead they embarked on a long journey that would leave them aliens and political refugees in a foreign country where they would have known neither the language nor the culture.

Jesus had very little peace in his life, especially during his ministry, where he was regularly ridiculed and hated to the point of being killed by the corrupt authorities. His followers have gone on to share the same treatment ever since. The words that Jesus spoke, warning that this would be the case, have been proven. To be a Christian comes with a cost that can remove all chances of a peaceful life. Yet Isaiah prophesied that Jesus would be the Prince of Peace. How can this be right when he neither experienced nor promised it?

As the Jewish nation waited for its Messiah, a belief grew that the Anointed One would establish the Throne of David once again with physical power and might; the Roman oppressors would be defeated and Israel would become a great nation. Their understanding of Old Testament prophecies was nowhere close to being correct, so much so that even John the Baptist was left questioning whether Jesus was truly God’s Son.

There is a similar misunderstanding of God’s peace that enters into our nativities. We turn the events of Jesus’ birth into something saccharine to make Jesus sweet and docile. This is far easier to deal with than the truth. This sanitised Jesus, who neither cries nor vomits, lies in a warm and clean manger, happily wearing the title of ‘Prince of Peace’. But this is not God’s peace.

In the Hebrew, Isaiah’s ‘Prince of Peace’ is sar shalom. Sar is better translated as ruler or leader, and shalom means far more than just peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. It is the binding together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight. For mankind, shalom means a deep flourishing and wholeness wrapped in the love of God.

Prince of Peace works nicely as a piece of alliteration, but fails to convey the full meaning. Jesus is not the ‘peaceful ruler’. Instead he is the ruler of shalom, restoring and making good the relationship between us and God. Charles Wesley understood this when he wrote ‘Peace on earth and mercy mild (which results in) God and sinners reconciled’. For it is in God’s mercy through Christ that we find our salvation and purpose.

There is one thing that strikes me time and again when I hear Christians living in places of extreme oppression talking about their situations. Their experiences have not driven them away from their faith or caused them to question God’s existence. Instead their experience of God’s shalom has become even more real. It is the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, that keeps them strong despite the incredible hardships they endure for the sake of following Jesus. Their desire to hold tight to God does not let up because the blessing that has been received from Him is too precious ever to be abandoned.

This is what #ChristmasMeans. God has freely made His shalom available to us all through Jesus Christ. His peace can be ours at Christmas, even amongst the crap that gets in the way if we choose to accept it. And once we have it, the greatest of all presents is ours to keep for ever.

Hark the herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled”
Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim:
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ by highest heav’n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris’n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”