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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Peace on Earth: How Can It Be?

I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave new year
All anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear
They said there'll be snow at Christmas
They said there'll be peace on Earth
Hallelujah Noel be it heaven or hell
The Christmas you get you deserve

Emerson, Lake & Palmer - "I Believe In Father Christmas"

We guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why they are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus
Jackson Browne - "The Rebel Jesus"

Peace on earth, can it be?
Years from now, perhaps we'll see,
See the day of glory,
See the day when men of good will
Live in peace, live in peace again.

Bing Crosby & David Bowie - "Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth"

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." Sounds like Christmas time is time for people to be nice to each other. After all, Linus said it, didn't he? If Linus said it and Snoopy approved this message, then it must be true. Actually, I think we have misunderstood the message a little bit... most modern translations word it something like how it is worded in the ESV:
"Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!" (Luke 2:14 ESV)
The "peace on Earth" is not for the whole Earth, but specifically for those with whom God is pleased (NIV "on whom his favor rests"). Although we know God has called us to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), apparently Jesus knew that He was not going to have that effect on people as a whole:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. (Matthew 10:34-35 ESV)
So, I've been thinking about those things this December, as the songs quoted above and others have been swirling around me. The three songs I quoted are all actually big favorites of mine, both musically and lyrically, but something about each of them bothers me. The cynicism of the ELP song, the mild judgmentalism of the Jackson Browne song (covered this season by Bebo Norman, which is how I first heard it), and what I believe to be the misplaced optimism of the beautiful duet from Bing & Bowie (who may be the strangest Christmas duet combination ever, although Frank Sinatra and Cyndi Lauper on "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town" is right up there too).

I don't think there will ever be peace across the whole Earth... at least, not until Christ returns and we live under the rule of God alone. I do think that each of us has a job to bring peace to a small corner of the Earth each and every day; I can make peace with my next-door neighbor. Better yet, I can live in such a way that he sees peace in me, and comes to the source of that peace... being drawn ultimately into peace with God (Romans 5:1).

But we have to do this peacemaking in the power of the Holy Spirit, and that's the problem with some utopian Christmas songs. There is doing good things by our own human good will, and that's terrific but we clearly can't maintain that state forever without messing it up (see Isaiah 64:5-6). Then there is doing good things by the power and leading of the Holy Spirit, and that is infinitely sustainable because God strengthens us to perform the tasks He has called us to. The problem with "peace on Earth" without first becoming one "with whom He is pleased" is that it is probably impossible to maintain indefinitely. People get tired and frustrated eventually, and their base instincts rear their heads.
With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God. (Mark 10:27 ESV)

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