“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.”‘
And so goes the third verse of the Christmas Carol, “I heard the bells on Christmas Day.” The words to that carol were written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1863 in the midst of the Civil War that nearly destroyed our country and even pitted believer against believer. That, of course, for me at least, sounds way too familiar for me to be comfortable, as we wend our way into 2023.
At that point in his life, Mr. Longfellow had plenty in which to be in despair about. Only recently, his wife, Frances, had died in an accidental fire. And to add to his grief, his oldest son, Charles, had enlisted, against his father’s wishes, in the Union Army that Spring. The boy had gone off to the Army without even saying good-bye to his father. Shortly after enlisting, Henry’s son wrote to his father in March of 1863, and said this, somewhat by way of apology: “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave, but I cannot any longer. I felt it had to be my first duty to do what I can for my country, and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good.” That Fall, in November of 1863, Henry’s son Charles was severly wounded and never fully recovered from his injuries.
And so, on Christmas morning of that same year, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow woke up in the bed that he once shared with his wife, and he heard church bells playing the familiar carols of Christmas. And as he listened to those carols off in the distance, he was disturbed by what he heard. The carols, as most carols do, were proclaiming the joy and wonder of Christmas, but also the glory of the promise of peace on earth. And as Mr. Longfellow pondered the message of these carols, and the tragedies of his own life, he concluded that there was no peace on the earth. The Civil War was raging, innocent Soldiers were dying every day, the Nation was torn in two ideologically, his wife was in her grave, and his son lay suffering from the ravages of war. “There is no peace on earth, I said, for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.”
And we most certainly would be inclined to agree with him. We live in a very troubled world. There are wars and rumors of war all over this planet. There are wars in which guns are fired and people fall dead, as in the Ukraine. And there are wars that are waged, because of our technological advancements, in cyberspace. There is potential now for us to not only fear the bomb that flies by day, but also the cyberattack that can cripple us by night. Hate is indeed strong. We have seen that hate at work most recently in the streets of our own country.
Racial tensions, fanned by the winds of hatred and misunderstanding have resulted in the unnecessary loss of human life and property. And, here in our own state, we have just read in the news about several murders, one of which was only seven days ago. This was the murder of a little girl, only three years old. Imagine, a child killled on Christmas Day, the day in which we celebrate the birth of another child, whose gift to us is life. This killing of little Mackinzlee on such a special day teaches us in no uncertain terms that we live in a very broken world. Hate is strong we never sing. They are reflective of the horrors of a war that was fought just about 160 years ago, but they seem to be very appropriate, even today:
“Then from each black, accursed mouth the cannon thundered in the South and with the sound, the carols drowned of peace on earth, good will to men.”
“It was as if an earthquake rent the hearthstones of a continent and made forlorn the households born of peace on earth, good will to men.”
So where are we? Are we drowning in the noise of war and loss? Is our Nation divided, once again, by violence and hatred? Is there no peace on earth? Is there no peace in our hearts? Perhaps.
On the night that Jesus was born, there were no church bells ringing out those old familiar carols, because there were no churches. There were no followers of the Messiah, there were no followers of the Prince of Peace. But there was war on the earth, and there was fear in people’s hearts. There has always been war on the earth and fear in people’s hearts since the day that Cain determined in his heart to slay his brother Abel. The human creature seems prone to the making of death and the creating of fear, and the waging of war.
In First Century Palestine, on the night that Jesus was born, the Roman military machine had overcome the people of Israel, and once again the people of God were living in captivity. Faithful Jews, believers in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, were struggling with fears and lost hopes. Tears were shed as they asked themselves, “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a land fully occupied and controlled by a god-less regime? How can we be the joyful and triumphant people of God when we are sorely oppressed by the military powers of another Nation? These are hard questions to ask. And sometimes, even living in the greatest Nation on the planet, we find ourselves asking those same questions. How can we sing the Lord’s song when no one wants to hear it? How can we sing the Lord’s song, when, increasingly, it seems as if the only place that we can sing the Lord’s song is within the confines of our own sacred places? These are questions with which we struggle, and often these questions bring serious sensations of fear to our hearts. But they are not new questions. God’s people have been asking them for millenia. But always, when the situation seems most bleak, when all seems to be darkness and loss, God has been answering those questions with promises of hope and joy. God has always carried his people through their darkest times with a song of hope and peace.
And so it was on the night that Jesus was born. God answered our toughest, most difficult, most fearful questions in the person of a tiny, helpless new-born baby. And I really like the way that God did it. God did not reveal the coming of salvation to this world to the religiously elite. That, of course, is the way that I would have done it. I would have revealed this good news of great joy to the Scribes, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. I would have done it in Jerusalem, right under the nose of King Herod. But you know what the religious elite would have done with that good news? They would have over analyzed it, pondered it to death and turned it into a meaningless metaphor, and salvation would have died in the sacred halls of the Temple. It would have gone out with hardly a whimper. That is, sometimes, sadly, what we religiously elite prefer to do with great and timeless truths. We like to neuter them into a state of powerlessness.
And so instead, God revealed this great mystery to a lowly band of shepherds, out in a field, in the dark, far away from the center of religiousity. Shepherds weren’t much on the scale of human distinctiveness. It was about the loneliest job a person could have; not a lot of dignity in being a shepherd. Shepherds were often the usual suspects in petty thefts, they were the source of a lot of dirty jokes, and because of the nature of their profession, they hardly ever made it to Synagogue services. But, more important than anything else, while they weren’t anyone’s favorite kind of people, they were God’s kind of people. And they were God’s kind of people because they needed a savior.
And so that night, an angel of the Lord appeared to them and answered their questions and the questions that all of us have been asking. The first is the question of fear. And the answer is “do not be afraid.” Now granted, a quiet night with the sheep, interrupted by the presence of an angel of the Lord is indeed a fearsome thing. Angels in real life are not those cute, harmless looking, Cherubic, pleasant creatures that we put atop our Christmas trees at this time of year. In real life, they are fearsome, other worldly creatures who strike terror in the hearts of all who encounter them. And so it is necessary for angels to command all those who witness them to dispense with their fears. And that night, the shepherds were terrified at the sight of the angel.
But the command, “do not be afraid” is universal. It is God’s ever abiding word to us, and it always speaks to every one of our fears, no matter what those fears are.
The second question that God answers in the birth of Jesus Christ is that of despair and hopelessness. I don’t know if shepherds struggled with despair and hopelessness or not. I don’t know if they worried about peace, or the lack of it in their lives. But I do know that we do battle with those feelings, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his carol described those feelings for us perfectly, because he struggled with them himself. And yet, in the coming of Jesus Christ to this earth, those issues are resolved for us. The angel that struck terror in the hearts of the shepherds was joined by a multitude of the Heavenly Host. That multitude of the Host of heaven proclaimed first of all, glory to God, and then the gift of peace. Hear their words: “glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” Who does God favor? All of his creation. God favors shepherds and God favors us. We have the promise of peace. This is peace in our hearts, and most importantly it is peace with God.
And we have peace in our hearts and peace with God, because we have a savior. This is the final question that all of humanity struggles with, and it is the ultimate question that God answers for us. Who will rescue me from my despair and loss, who will rescue me from my fears and feelings of dread? Who will bring me true joy and true hope? Those questions are answered for all of us in the message that the angel gave to the shepherds: “for see-I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
We have a savior. That is all we need. We have a savior who turns our sorrow and despair into joy, we have a savior who turns our fears and dread into hopeful anticipation, and we have a savior who rescues us from all of these things and who promises us an eternity with him.
And this is what Henry Wadsworth Longfellow knew deeply and strongly in his heart, in spite of his misgivings, fears, and despair. He knew he had a savior, and that put all of his fears and doubts into a clearer perspective. And so he also wrote these words: “yet 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” “then ringing, singing on its way, the world revolved from night to day a voice, a chime, a chant sublime of peace on earth good will to men.” Those bells kept ringing the good news of peace on earth-they were consistent in their message. There is peace on earth. It has come in to our hearts in the person of Jesus Christ. And so like the bells in Mr. Longfellow’s carol, we too, will keep on ringing out the message of peace on earth, for there are many who need to hear it, ourselves included.