Many non-Christians become annoyed or even angry when we believers try to tell them about our Lord Jesus Christ. Perhaps they feel threatened by the idea of an all-powerful being who demands their allegiance. Nevertheless, they seem to relent a bit at Christmas time, perhaps because a story about angels and a sweet baby in a rustic setting of animals and shepherds poses no menace.
Even when the unconvinced and uncommitted respond positively to the Christmas story, they regard it as just a saccharine legend couched in lullaby music. They label it not to be taken very seriously” and prefer to file it away, along with stories about Hansel and Gretel and Puff the Magic Dragon, in a folder marked “fables for children.” They see its chief value as the sentiment of “peace on earth, good will toward men,” a soothing thought to contemplate before drifting off to sleep.
But surely anyone in this day and age who thinks we have peace on earth and good will to men is asleep—to reality! It is painfully apparent that if the angels’ song of “peace on earth” meant anything like the imminent cessation of wars, selfishness and prejudice, Jesus failed to accomplish his mission, either in his birth or in his adult ministry.
After almost two millennia Israel, the nation to which he came—and whose salutation upon arriving and departing is “shalom” (peace)—still has not found lasting peace. Universally the “bad guys” still seem to be winning. The rich get richer and the poor keep multiplying, and no one seems to care much about anyone. Our planet is more crowded than ever. Families are fragmented. Cities are anything but civilized. World-class cities like Beirut have been reduced to rubble. Countrymen war against countrymen, and brothers war against brothers.
At Christmas pilgrims flock to Bethlehem singing, “Peace on earth, good will toward men”—and the killing goes on and on and on. The hatred never stops, and the teeth of anxiety continue to gnaw at our innards. In the face of all that, slogans like “Peace on earth, good will toward men” seem to make as much sense as the mantras Hindus chant to hypnotize themselves into an illusory state of wellbeing.
But there is hope!
To outward appearance it remains the same old world of wars, selfishness, famine and pain. Yet there is peace on earth to be enjoyed now. There can be good will toward men now. An alternative translation of the angels’ message of “Peace on earth, good will toward men” reads, “Peace on earth to men of good will.” When the will in us chooses to serve the Lord, to stand for him and to voice his truth aloud, we have peace with God. His Spirit also brings us inner peace and a peaceful disposition toward others.
The Incarnation does make a difference. The ugliness of this world need not remain unchanged. Because Jesus came, God offers humanity victory and the power to change. Because Jesus came—and lived and died for sin—the perverse and the twisted can become straight.
In my ministry I see this time and again. Not long ago I preached to a congregation in Southern California where I had conducted an extensive ministry 30 years ago.
Afterwards a man approximately the same age as I approached me. He said, “Do you remember me?” I searched his face, not recognizing him until he told me his name. Then slowly it came back to me. Thirty years earlier, when I had first met him,”Ted” had been one of the “pretty boys,” a denizen of Hollywood Boulevard.
At thirty, Ted had been a confirmed homosexual. His father, a rabbi, had done his best, but religion had not kept the young man from his vice. Ted was miserable, but in ten years of psychotherapy he had received no help to change. Finally the therapist had told him, “You are a homosexual, and that is all you ever can be. You may as well come to terms with it.”
Even with the benefits of a moral ancestral religion, an excellent education and the best psychiatric help available, Ted had been helpless to change. Worse yet, despite the best the world could offer him, Ted was at a point of total despair when we first met. Then he prayed with me to receive Christ. For a while he attended our Bible study, but then he suffered a moral lapse and stopped attending. I moved from Southern California to take up a missionary post in New York I City and heard no more about him. Yes, now I remembered Ted, and until that moment at the church I had considered my ministry to him a failure.
Ted interrupted my reverie by introducing me to his wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. He was not ashamed to say in their hearing that in Christ God had set him straight and had given him the victory over a besetting sin. He said, “Don’t let anyone ever tell you that they were born gay, like I used to say about myself. When you’re born again, you have the power to be whatever God wants you to be.” What a victory! That encounter certainly made my day.
Another heartening experience again emphasized to me Christ’s power to change hearts and lives. A few months ago I attended an international meeting of mission leaders and evangelical spokespeople. A large crowd of delegates came from all over the world, many of them from nations that had been fighting one another. Traditional enemies by virtue of their nationalities, those delegates convened under the same roof, as brothers in Christ with a common goal. For me, one of the high points of that conference was an unofficial prayer meeting between Christian Palestinians and Christian Israelis. Not a word was uttered about politics or the rightness of either side. There was only exultation in the righteousness and power of our Lord Jesus Christ and in their mutual submission to him. I heard one prayer expressed repeatedly: “Lord, let me be killed before I ever kill another.”
Christ came to earth to bring salvation and power. He personally demonstrated the power to die. When individuals are willing for Jesus’ sake and by his power to be killed rather than kill others, evil has no hold on them. No despot or dictator can truly enslave them.
Jesus is the only one ever born on this planet who chose to be born. He chose to be with us for a time to show us how to live, and the ultimate purpose for his birth was a horrible and agonizing death. By his altogether unlovely death we gain the power to become the children of God, to live forever and to defeat evil and death itself.
Jesus, that baby born in Bethlehem, did bring peace, but the nature of his peace was not universal or even national. In his earthly ministry Jesus was very careful to say that he had not come to bring peace as the world gives peace. In this world full of prisons—with the poor living in the streets and people passionately opposing one another—there is no peace. Until the Prince of Peace returns to establish his kingdom, the “peace on earth, good will toward men” of Christmas is merely an individual possibility, not a worldwide condition.
The peace that Jesus brought is a peace that passes all understanding, whereby the individual who submits to him receives his power to endure the worst kind of adversity. As Christians we have power over pain because we have the promise of a new body. Committed to God in Christ, we have the Holy Spirit to remind us of who we are in him and of his ultimate plan, and that gives us the patience to wait for world peace.
No, the peace of Christmas is not in nations or nationalities, but in individuals and their personal lives. Through the Incarnation, God focused his salvation on the individual, and even now through the telling of the Nativity account he flashes his message of redemption for those who still might recognize and respond to it.
The Nativity and the Incarnation cannot be separated. As we consider the Nativity, we must remember the Incarnation and its purpose. We humans do not choose to be born, and we die because we are born in sin. Yeshua chose to be born in order to die—for us. To those who draw the meaning of life solely from their own birth, the birth of Jesus is merely a fascinating fable. But to those who allow the account of his birth, life, atoning death and resurrection to bring about the new birth in them, the Nativity becomes the factual foundation of their existence. It produces not only peace with God, but also peace toward others and a purpose to life.
Yeshua came to this earth as a baby in an ignominious fashion. Throughout history he has been rejected, despised, feared and ignored by many. Yet the Nativity account and all that followed the event is true, as God himself is true.
In II Peter 1:16 the Apostle wrote: “For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.…” Neither have we who believe him today staked our lives on a child’s tale.
Jesus is the Prince of Peace now to those who have given him their hearts and lives. When he returns every knee will bow to him, and every tongue will confess that he is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Then peace truly will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. That is the hope, the power, the glory and the full meaning of the angels’ song!