And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Luke 2:8-14 NIV
The inspiring words of the Luke the Evangelist are woven into the colorful Christmas tapestry that envelops us this time of year. And the wonderfully evocative word “peace” – such an integral part of the angelic declaration – is a common parlance in today’s world.
In Peter’s first letter to young, first-century churches, he quoted from Psalm 34,
Whoever would love life
and see good days
must keep their tongue from evil
and their lips from deceitful speech.
They must turn from evil and do good;
they must seek peace and pursue it.
(1 Peter 3:10-11)
With Christmas in the air, and hymns and carols declaring the arrival of the Prince of Peace, we are even more attuned to the word – but what does peace really mean? And how are we supposed to seek it?
As violence screams from international headlines and blood surges and pools across the face of the earth, the word peace often seems to be used almost promiscuously. We hear it frequently in phrases such as, “Peace envoy,” “Peace talks” and “Middle East Peace Process.”
Those of us who have seen several decades pass have been hearing about peace for as long as we can remember. The word emerged from the smoldering warzones of Vietnam, resounding in protest folk songs, in campus anti-war chants, and in the familiar “peace sign,” which appeared on T-shirts as a tie-dyed illustration of youthful hope.
Fast-forward some 40 years and we now hear the same outcry from the Middle East – and particularly from those who support “peace talks” to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Peace is a noble cause. It is a beautiful, if elusive, goal. And, in fact the Hebrew word Shalom – which both welcomes and bids farewell to guests – offers a deep blessing, evoking a state of completion and even of earthly perfection.
Today, however, the word shalom is often applied to redundant conferences and diplomatic dialogues; to a quest for compromise that will supposedly end tensions. A so-called cycle of violence is invariably introduced, to project moral equivalency onto both sides of the conflict.
Of course, the Biblical vision of hammering swords into plows, abandoning warfare and “pursuing peace” should never be taken lightly. But anyone who has lived in Israel for a prolonged period clearly recognizes that no one desires peace more than the Israelis.
Unfortunately, since the founding of the Jewish State in 1948, at least three generous peace offers from Israel have been turned down flatly by either Yasser Arafat or Mahmoud Abbas. CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy for Middle East Reporting in America) reported,
In 2008, after extensive talks, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and presented a comprehensive peace plan. Olmert’s plan would have annexed the major Israeli settlements to Israel and in return given equivalent Israeli territory to the Palestinians, and would have divided Jerusalem.
In the summer of 2000, U.S. President Bill Clinton hosted intense peace talks at Camp David between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli leader Ehud Barak, culminating in a comprehensive peace plan known as the Clinton Parameters, which was similar to the later Olmert Plan, though not quite as extensive.
The 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt … provided for Palestinian autonomy in the territories of the West Bank and Gaza. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat begged the PLO and Arafat to accept what he had negotiated with Israel, and to engage in talks with Israel. President [Jimmy] Carter also called on moderate Palestinians to come forward and join the Cairo conference. Unfortunately, Arafat refused and did everything he could to undermine Sadat and the Camp David Accords, with PLO gunmen even murdering West Bank Palestinians who supported Sadat’s approach.
Recent Middle East history affirms that achieving peace is more easily said than done. In fact, an interesting biblical statement seems to foresee this awkward use of language.
In Jeremiah 6:14, in reference to Israel, the prophet relates that others have prophesied falsely, then goes on to say, “They have healed also the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace.”
One of the most well-known “peace” groups in Israel is called Shalom Achshav – meaning, in English, “Peace Now.” The word “achshav,” or “now,” implies impatience, seemingly offering a quick reconciliation, and is usually based on offering land for peace.
It is curious that such notions still survive after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. This unilateral decision by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has provided a foolproof laboratory analysis of how unrealistic such peacemaking ideas really are.
The vacuum left by Israel’s disengagement from Gaza – the removal of some 8,000 Jews from their beautifully tended settlements, synagogues, schools and gardens – brought forth a tsunami of Hamas terrorists, who have continued to launch missiles at Israel ever since.
As if that weren’t enough, similar arsenals have also appeared in the Sinai Peninsula after Israel’s departure in 1982, and in Southern Lebanon after leaving in 2000.
The Gaza disengagement and those before it “healed the daughter of God’s people slightly” with its hopes for peace, but did not provide true peace. Why?
For one thing, the religious and nationalist negotiators for Palestine have made it clear that they do not genuinely want to resolve the situation. This is true for a number of reasons, including financial ones. As author Edwin Black has said in his book Financing the Flames, “Peace is not profitable for the Palestinians.”
By this, Black simply means that a continuous influx of massive international funding lines the pockets of Palestinian leaders (never reaching ordinary Arab citizens) and is also doled out in the form of salaries to imprisoned terrorists and the surviving families of murderers.
Another reason involves radical Islamist claims to the land itself. Because all of Israel was once under the authority of Muslim rule (most recently that of the Ottoman Empire), according to strict interpretations of Islamic Sharia Law, it cannot return to the hands of infidels – in this case, specifically Jews.
As we close our eyes, envisioning a star-lit Bethlehem manger, a royal visitation of Eastern kings bearing elegant gifts, and a dangerous flight to Egypt to shield the infant Jesus from genocide, we have to ask ourselves what “Peace on Earth, good will to men” actually means. How are we supposed to “seek peace and pursue it” in today’s war-torn world?
There are three thought-provoking ideas in the angelic declaration to Bethlehem’s shepherds – which, through the words of Scripture, are a declaration to us as well.
First of all, we are instructed not to fear. Those simple guardians of their flocks were terrified by the supernatural radiance that surrounded them, eclipsing their familiar pastures. Yet the first thing they were told was to rejoice and not to be afraid, even though they were in clearly unexplainable circumstances.
So we find ourselves today in unusual times, facing unfamiliar scenarios and unpredictable dangers. Yet the Bible’s message to us is repeated again and again, and remains the same today: Fear not! I am with you always.
Second, the shepherds were given the somewhat contradictory message that the Jewish Messiah had been born, but that he was swaddled in pieces of cloth and lying in a manger! What a mystifying revelation – perhaps more puzzling to those who heard it later than to the dazzled shepherds themselves.
The promised Messiah was to bring God’s rule and reign to earth, and to rescue the Jewish people from their unjust treatment. Christians believe that Messiah has indeed come in his first advent. But we also anticipate a second advent. According to an ancient creed, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
When? Then, as now, the timing of that glorious Messianic reign remains uncertain. But the promise is undeniable. And, as with most God-related matters, faith has to precede sight.
Finally, we have the familiar phrase, “Peace on earth, good will to men,” which is so beloved in Christmas lyrics.
More complex wording appears in the New International Bible: “and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests.” Or, as the Amplified Bible says, “And on earth peace among men with whom He is well-pleased.”
How can we possibly gain the favor of God, or please him? If we seek him with all our hearts, we will surely find him. And from the beginning to the end of the Bible, we learn that he is pleased and honored by our faith in him and by our obedience to his Word.
Can we bring peace to the Middle East? As individuals, probably not. But we can each play a part in changing minds and hearts by being informed about the facts and by speaking the truth. Some of us can serve as warriors; others can battle with words, informing those who are misled or otherwise deluded.
We can all watch and pray; trust and obey.
But for now, we can and should recall some wonderful old words:
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!