Christmas in a Time of Violence

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about “cheap grace” in his classic book The Cost of Discipleship (1937). He defined “cheap grace” as –

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Most of us heartily concur, but there is a “cheap peace” as well that is no less insidious, and it gets widely promoted this a time of year in both culture and church.

The connection of peace with Christmas is one that the Scriptures clearly make.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!”

– Luke 2:14

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 For to us a child is born,  to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder,  and his name will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,  Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

– Isaiah 9:6

To create peace – peace with God (Romans  5:1), peace within ourselves (John 14:25-27), peace with one another (Ephesians 2:13-18), peace between the nations (Revelation 22:1-5) and peace in all of creation (Revelation 21:1-5) – is one powerful Biblical way of explaining the meaning of the Christ event, and this is a truth that we celebrate in the carols that we sing in worship.

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Hark! The herald angels sing,“Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise, Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’angelic host proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! The herald angels sing,“Glory to the newborn King!”

Silent night, holy night, All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and Child.
Holy Infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth!

Ricky Balthrop posted a provocative blog [https://rickysplace.wordpress.com] on “Peace and Christmas Songs” back in December of 2012 in which he contrasted the theologically thick lyrics of the church’s traditional Christmas carols with the sentimentally thin lyrics of the Christmas songs that are so popular in our culture.

I adore traditional Christmas music, whether it’s the Old English Christmas Carols or the non-denominational Christmas songs that began to the music market with Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.”  I’m as happy singing “O Holy Night” as I am singing “Here Comes Santa Claus.” Christmas songs give me a huge endorphin rush.

There’s one class of Christmas song, though, that just revolts me, and that’s the modern “Peace” genre. Those vapid paeans to navel-gazing peace leave me cold. It is true that the old Christmas carols also shared a vision of peace… but that peace is tied to a formalized religious doctrine that envisions both spiritual and behavioral commitments. In other words, this peace isn’t cheap. Jesus Christ made a terribly painful sacrifice to further this peace, and it is each Christian’s obligation to make that sacrifice a meaningful and essential part of his (or her) spiritual life and daily practices… There’s no guidance there and no belief system. The whole song is just a muddled assurance that peace will magically happen if we say that it’s a good thing…  Peace is brought about by vaguely proclaiming that you approve of peace.

The violence of recent weeks from Paris to San Bernardino shatters the illusion of “cheap peace.”  Peace will not be brought about by “vaguely proclaiming that you approve of peace.”  Something more sturdy is required, which is why I find myself turning to the steely-eyed realism of Henry Wadswoth Longfellow’s Civil War lament “I Heard the Bells of Christmas Day” this Christmas.

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.

I thought how, as the day had come, the belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song of peace on earth, good will to men.

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.’

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.’

Till 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.

This lyrical journey moves us from the familiar “thin” seasonal invocation of peace in the first two stanzas to the realistic acknowledgement in the third stanza of the violence that still plagues creation despite the coming of Christ to the renewal of a “thick” faith in the last two stanzas.  It seems to me that this is the perfect carol for Christmas for a year like this one that we find ourselves observing, and it’s the fourth stanza of the poem that demands our attention.

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.’

The author of the book of Hebrews provides us with our basic Biblical definition of faith. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).  This parallels Paul’s observation in 2 Corinthians that “we walk by faith and not be sight” (5:7).   Spiritually we get into trouble whenever we forget that God’s saving action in Jesus Christ is as of yet incomplete.

The South African Missiologist David Bosch noted in his magisterial work Transforming Mission (1991) that the saving work of God in Christ unfolds in a series of six acts –

1. Christmas – “The Word becomes Flesh and dwells among us” – The Incarnation
2. Good Friday – “Christ died for our sins” – The Atonement
3. Easter Sunday – “Christ was raised… newness of life” – The Resurrection
4. The Ascension – “Christ at the right hand of God the Father” – The Kingdom
5. Pentecost – His Spirit “poured-out” – The Empowering Presence
6. The Parousia – “And He shall come again in Glory” – The Second Coming

By this understanding, God has already done everything necessary “for us and our salvation” except for #6 – The Parousia – The Second Coming.  And as George Eldon Ladd put it, without this last Divine act our salvation remains “forever incomplete.”  Practically what this means is that we live in-between the “already” of Christ’s first coming and the “not yet” of Christ’s Second Coming.  The theologian Oscar Cullman, in his book Christ and Time, used the gap of time between D-Day (June 6, 1944) and VE-Day (May 8, 1945) to talk about what this means for the church and the world.

D-Day was when the Allied forces landed in Normandy and established a beachhead. The strategizing generals on both sides recognized that the outcome of the war was decided on that fateful day in June 1944. They understood that if the Nazis had driven the Allies back into the sea, they would have won the war. But because the Allied armies prevailed at Normandy, they sealed the eventual doom of the Nazi cause.

But between D-Day and V-Day—marking the surrender of the enemy and the Allies’ liberation of all of Europe—there’d be many months of suffering and struggle. There’d be horrendous battles as the Allied armies, little by little, pushed back the Nazi forces.

The Cross and the Resurrection were God’s D-Day. God in Jesus fought and won the decisive battle. [And now] Christ, through the church, is driving back the forces of darkness. God’s V-Day isn’t yet here. But because of God’s triumph on D-Day, we know how it all will end. (http://www.christianitytoday.com/moi/2007/002/april/after-d-day.html)

And this is what gives the last stanza of Longfellow’s poem both its context and its content.  Its context is eschatological – the final saving acts of God in Christ at the close of the age, and its content is ethical – how then we are supposed to live.  Because we know “how it will all end” – with the restoration of God’s “Shalom” in the new heavens and new earth through Christ the “Prince of Peace” – we start acting like it as Christians and working for it right here and now.

In his 1974 book The Jesus Hope (IVP), the British New Testament scholar Stephen Travis listed six implications for Christian living that arise out of our awareness that “the end is not yet.”  This list gives us some guidance for our “peace-making” and our “peace-keeping” mandate as Christ’s disciples (Matthew 5:9).

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  1. A Life of Prayer

If God’s final kingdom is something which He Himself will bring, and not something which we will achieve on our own, then the most significant thing we can do to prepare for its coming is to pray.   As the Lord’s Prayer puts it: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be dome on earth as it is in heaven.”  When we pray like this we are saying, in effect, “…We long for the day when your kingdom of righteousness shall finally be established, and people shall love to do your will.  This is something that only you can bring to reality.  But we believe that, as we live in dependence on you, we may experience in part the blessings of your final kingdom.”  God will not receive the full honor of which He is worthy, nor will His will be perfectly done, until Jesus comes again to establish His final kingdom. And in all our prayers we will experience this tension.  When, for instance, we pray for peace between nations …while we know that our prayer will be completely answered only when Christ returns… we (nevertheless) trust God to restrain people’s hatred and national aggression (now).    (103-104)

  1. Spiritual Warfare

Secondly, to live as a Christian…in a world where there is no final victory until Christ comes again…  means that we will be involved in an unceasing struggle with the principalities and powers (Ephesians 6:10-20). …If we know that this struggle is underway, (the) we will be better able to understand some of the things we are experiencing …this tension of “living between the times.”  …It’s like the pain we feel when we come from a walk in the frosty air into a warm room.  Our ears and hands tingle as cold confront warmth.  The sensation is not pleasant, but we endure it cheerfully because we know it’s better to be warm than cold. (104-105)

  1. A Life of Faith

That brings us to a third point: the Christian life is a life of faith.  That may seem obvious, but it needs saying because we all have a natural craving to escape from the uncertainties of faith into the comfortable security of sight.  …(But) to know the future and to know the answers to all our questions is less vital for us than to be known and loved by God, who holds our future in his hands. (106)

  1. A Life of Evangelism

The gospel of hope is a message to share… A church that is dedicated to mission… is open to the powerful blessing of the Holy Spirit (and it is the Spirit who makes visible and present the future that God has promised). (107-108)

  1. A Life of Service

God’s mission doesn’t just mean inviting people into the kingdom.  It means serving and caring about people of all kinds – just because they are people whom God created and loves. (110)

  1. “The world will make you suffer”

One final thing about living in the present age: Jesus promised suffering for His church. “When Christ calls a man,” wrote Bonhoeffer, “He bids him come and die.”  Becoming a Christian doesn’t lead to a superficial happiness and an instant solution to all problems.  It leads to costly obedience and a life which involves suffering instead. …If we genuinely aim to become like Christ in this world we shall inevitably find ourselves getting into hot water as He did… we shall find it coming to us if we really seek to follow Jesus in every area of our lives… But in this we will be “in union with Christ Jesus,” and this will be our deepest consolation. (112-113)

And this is where the fifth stanza of Longfellow’s poem “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” gets concretely lived out.  The angel’s song of peace on the first Christmas is not just a promise the fulfillment of which we hope for at the close of the age (eschatologically), it’s a challenge for our living here and now (ethically), a reality to be taken into consideration in the choices that we make each and every day. DBS+

 

 

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2 Comments

Filed under Soundings, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Christmas in a Time of Violence

  1. Cindy Worthington

    Beautiful words, Doug…God bless you….

  2. Joyce Riggs

    This is just what I have been needing to hear.

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