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Well, the Mayan’s deadline of Dec. 21 has come and gone, and we’re still here. Perhaps surviving yet another false prediction of the end of the world caused you to celebrate Christmas a little more enthusiastically this year. Indeed, for most of us there was a great deal to celebrate.
A well-known song (and popular consensus) proclaims Christmas to be “the most wonderful time of the year.” And what’s not to like? A festive season filled with special events, halls decked with boughs of holly, holiday food (like mom’s homemade peanut brittle and caramel corn), bells on Bob’s tail that make people’s spirits bright and presents that magically appear under the tree on Christmas morning all add up to a holly-jolly time for everyone (and about 5 to 10 extra pounds, but I was trying to stay focused on the positive).
Of course, this year Christmas took place against the backdrop of the recent school-shooting tragedy in Newtown, Conn., and significant worldwide economic uncertainty, including the looming “fiscal cliff” of our own making here at home. Contrary to the sentiment of the familiar carol, the reality is that all of our days are not “merry and bright.” In fact, when taking an honest look at the world around us, the third verse of the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” seems more fitting.
My guess is that most of you are familiar with the first verse of that song:
“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, their old familiar carols play; and wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth, good will to men.”
But you may not be as familiar with verse three:
“And in despair I bowed my head: ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men."
In light of recent events, it certainly does seem that the forces of hatred make a mockery out of the idea of “peace on earth.” Several years ago I saw a T-shirt that said “Visualize Whirled Peas” (say it out loud). The shirt made me smile, because sometimes the actual state of things does more closely resemble “whirled peas” than world peace.
Just a quick look at the news on any given day tells us that, in fact, there is not peace on earth – at least as most understand peace.
Without doubt, one of the most well-known parts of the Bible is the account in Luke 2 about the birth of Jesus. But what did the angel mean when he told the shepherds, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people”? And what did the angelic choir mean when they sang, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men”?
Many people, especially at this time of year, are conflicted – trying to reconcile how things are with the way things should be (or at least the way they would like them to be). Sometimes in our thoughts and prayers we are the like the young boy who had just begun to understand the difference between the Santa story and the Nativity event but hadn’t quite figured it all out.
Wanting a new bike for Christmas but unsure sure that Santa could pull it off, he decided to go straight to the top. So in the first week of December he sat down to write a letter to Jesus. He began: “Dear Jesus, I’ve been really, really good this year, and I’m hoping you’ll bring me a brand new bicycle.”
The boy thought about it for a moment and, knowing he had overstated his good behavior, wadded up the paper and threw it away. With a clean sheet of paper, he started over: “Dear Jesus, I’ve been pretty good this year, and I was hoping that in your mercy and grace, you might bring me a new bicycle.”
Still feeling like he was pushing his luck, he threw that letter away as well. After further contemplation, he walked into the family room, reached up on the mantle and got the statue of Mary down from the Nativity set. Carefully wrapping it in a towel, he put it in the bottom drawer of his dresser and then went back to his letter.
This time he began: “Dear Jesus, if you ever want to see your mother again...”
What about it? Is God a god with whom we must bargain (or even try to blackmail) in order to receive good things? Does God really intend to bestow “peace on earth” or is “whirled peas” the best for which we can hope?
The answer, I believe, can be found in the Christmas story – an event so incredible that it literally changed the course of history and has the power to change the course of eternity.
Christmas is the powerful reminder that God has not left us on our own in the world. It is the eternal God stepping into time; God in heaven becoming “God with us.” It is the Prince of Peace entering a chaotic, sin-filled, war-torn world to offer the opportunity of real peace between man and God.
As John Stonestreet recently said, when God looked down on the chaos and brokenness of this world, he didn’t just hand us a book to read or give us moral truths to follow – he came himself.
Through Jesus, God made Himself known as a God willing to enter the suffering of his creation. The miraculous birth of Jesus was God’s emphatic answer to those who would question His love for us. And, as a perfect, loving father, he longs for us as his children to receive the gift that he gave once and for all on that first Christmas.
While he walked on the earth, Jesus acknowledged that there would be trouble in this world and that physical peace would be elusive. God didn’t promise to remove us from the chaos, but the story of Christmas proves that God will wade into the chaos with us.
It says that eternal peace can be a reality, and that emotional and spiritual peace can be found in spite of the chaos of our “whirled peas” lives. That is the good news about which the angel spoke. That is the true meaning of Christmas.
For sure, as dozens of families in Connecticut understand more painfully than most, in this life there will be incredible heartache and questions that don’t seem to have good answers. However, the story of Christmas assures us that one day God will set everything right, proclaiming for all time the truth of the fourth verse of our earlier hymn:
“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, With peace on earth, good will to men.’"
That will be a welcome day, indeed. In the meantime, I say “let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”
And bring on the peanut brittle.