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 2:13-14
Peace is always a theme of the Christmas season, sometimes in sermons, sometimes on doormats, often on greeting cards. There are wonderful accounts of literal Christmas-time manifestations of peace, like the famous one about World War I German and Allied combatants laying down their arms, exchanging cigarettes and rations, and singing carols together—only to resume their barbarous warfare on December 26.
I am not a blithe peacenik. Conflict is natural among human beings and will be until God institutes a new order in the universe. Wars will continue and physical violence will persist on every level of human relations. Still, this angelic pronouncement is not the wistful fantasy of a Pollyanna, but the express mandate of the Creator of all things, including of humankind, and it is a central tenet of the Gospel.
How then do we reconcile the ideal of God’s intention for peace and man’s rejection of it? How does the prayer for peace on earth jibe with the horrors being perpetrated by ISIS, the death of a teen in Ferguson, a 12-year old in Cleveland, an asthmatic in Brooklyn? For that matter, the hammer-beating of a St. Louis man, or the looting and arson of stores in protest of “police brutality?” None of this comports with peace or the pursuit of peace.
When I contemplate these seemingly irreconcilable realities, my mind often goes back to a simple and very human story. It was the early 1960s. One of my early ministry heroes, Rev. David Wilkerson, had arrived in New York City as a naïve young preacher with an outlandish vision to win violent street gangs to Christ. His first convert was a knife-wielding punk named Nicky Cruz. After Nicky gave his life to Christ he assisted “Brother Dave” in his frequent evangelistic rallies. During one of those rallies, one of Nicky’s rival gang members, Israel Narvaez, was present. A brawl ensued and Nicky had Israel on the ground with a blade to his throat.
“Say ‘Praise God’ man,” Nicky threatened. “Or I’ll cut your throat!”
Israel complied, crying, “Praise God, man! Praise God!” Nicky relented, got himself back in order, and led his rival to the altar. Israel went on to become an evangelist, like his nemesis.
What I love about this story (whether it’s embellished or not), is that it illustrates how peace and violence can coexist in the same person, often in the same moment. That’s true of the world in general. The presence of God brings peace, and the future plan and purpose of God results in eternal peace. These are points of ultimate hope and the means toward realizing true, lasting, spiritual, and temporal peace—even while, in the moment, the fullness of that peace eludes us.
The great gift of the Gospel is in its proof that peace is not only possible; it’s inevitable. The Gospel—manifest in the peaceful Christ Child at Bethlehem—is the cure for man’s hopeless surrender to violence. Of course, that peaceful birth was met with violence, too, as Herod unleashed his infant-murdering hoards. So, while our peace is disturbed in the moment, it’s assured in the future—the not-so-distant future.
This CHRISTmas my prayer for you is for you to know the hope that is Peace on Earth—and Good Will toward men . . .
Merry CHRISTmas to you and all yours.