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by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
December 24, 2000
Scripture: Isaiah 9:2-7, Luke 2:1-14
“Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those of good will”
When I gave the Church office the title of this sermon, Carolyn asked me if there is not something of the spirit of “Bah Humbug!” about it. I assured her that there is not, but on further reflection, I have to confess that there is. I intend the title positively, to mean that Christ comes again and again to us, not just at Christmas, but whenever we will allow him, and that the spirit of goodwill and generosity that marks a good Christmas opens the door for him to enter our lives at any time of the year. I think of the service event called “Christmas in April” in which our church participates from time to time, and I offer the title in that spirit and wish that to be the chief message of this brief sermon.
But I cannot forget how often during the years that I have preached at Christmas, the little town of Bethlehem has been embroiled in war. Again this year it is at war; it is part of what the journalists call the “triangle of fire” because so many people are being shot to death in that vicinity. It is a cruel irony that the birthplace of Jesus, whom we call “prince of peace” and whose birth the angels proclaimed as a moment of divine glory and human reconciliation, should be a place of war, murder and insurrection, where people go and come in fear and where vengeance possesses the minds of many. I reflect on this irony every Christmas, because there is always war, murder and insurrection going on at this time of the year, as at all other times, and you my patient congregation wish that I could be more “upbeat.”
Sorry! I ask again for your indulgence this year, because I cannot avoid feeling this irony as a challenge to faith. If Jesus is the prince of peace whose birth brings divine glory and human reconciliation, why does that glory and reconciliation not appear at least in the place where he was born? Why is that place so constantly an example not of peace but of war, not of reconciliation but of vengeance, not of divine glory but of human shame? Could it be that the Gospel has got it wrong, and that Jesus is, like all the other founders of religions, a source of disagreement, cruelty, strife and bloodshed. Could it be that religion as such is a cause of war?
Well, we cannot pursue that question now but it is always on my mind, and I would be happy to discuss it with you whenever we have the time. Today I want simply to point out that the angels make peace on earth conditional on the goodwill of men and women. There are two translations of the Greek of Luke 2:14; one says “…peace on earth and goodwill to men and women,” making the birth of Jesus an expression of the divine benevolence; another says, “…peace on earth to men and women of goodwill.” My reading of the Greek supports the latter translation, and although I feel the force of the former translation, namely that God expresses his good and saving will in the birth of Jesus, I believe that the real meaning of the text is that God’s peace comes only to those of goodwill. ” No goodwill, no peace.”
This translation does not imply that God’s will towards us is not good; on the contrary, God’s good will to us is proclaimed in this very same text, in the offer of peace. God offers us his peace, and we might receive it, if we are willing to take God seriously, if we are willing to change our wills from bad to good. We must actively and intentionally receive the gift of God’s peace if there is to be peace among us on earth, but because so many of us prefer vengeance to reconciliation, prefer our self-centered will to the God-centered will that the Bible calls good, there will be no peace on earth. The fiery triangle around Bethlehem is profoundly significant; in my mind it is an intensification of the contest between the divine good will and the human bad will, to reconciliation on the one hand and to vengeance on the other. In the light of this fire we see that the battle is between the two wills, the will to life and the will to death. Bethlehem proclaims the either /or of the Gospel; either good will and peace or evil will and war.
Why does God not intervene and stop the violence? He does, he does! Christmas is the most joyous festival of the Christian year, more joyous even than Easter – it is after all the presupposition of Easter. It is most joyous because God intervenes and enters humanity in a new and powerful way. God’s goodwill is now deep in the flesh and bone of every human being, a great re-creative potential, a spring of good will ready to bubble up as peace, love and joy. Christmas celebrates the great divine intervention, so let’s pay attention to it. How does it happen?
God’s great intervention in our human violence and vengeance takes the form of the humble birth of a baby boy, and that fact tells us all we need to know about the good will that is able to receive the divine reconciliation and peace. Meditate on this fact this Christmas and again and again and again during the year. It is infinitely rich so I can barely begin to spread the banquet of its many levels today. Let this be beginning enough for now: the power of God in the face of violence is the humble love of his coming as a baby. This is a great and mysterious paradox, an irony more profound than the irony of violence in the birthplace of the prince of peace.
So if you want peace, practice humble love, and if you want humble love, call upon God in Christ, because without his divine presence in you there is no genuine possibility of such love. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those of good will.” Let us be of good will this Christmas, and again and again and again.