Peace on earth, goodwill to all


Scripture: John 1: 1-14 Nigel Bunce

Luke and John portrayed Jesus’ origins completely differently

Peace on earth, goodwill to all.  On Christmas Eve we always read Luke’s birth story.  Mary gave birth to a baby in a stable behind an inn in Bethlehem. Heaven and Earth came into intimate proximity as angels announced the miraculous birth to a group of shepherds on a hillside. They were the first outsiders to recognize the Messiah’s birth.

In contrast, John began his Gospel, “In the beginning …” Those are the exact same words that open the Book of Genesis. Christ, the logos, was in the universe even before time began.

For John, Jesus was divine, not a mere mortal. This is different from the Jewish Messiah, who was God’s to be human representative on earth.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made by him, and nothing was made except by him.” Long before the Trinity became a Christian doctrine, John viewed Christ as one and the same as God.

Then John gave us the first of many dualistic characteristics that we can find in his Gospel. The logos was the Light of the World, the opposite of darkness. But this Light is so bright that darkness can never extinguish it.

But who is Jesus? For me? For you?

We all imagine Jesus somewhere on a spectrum between exclusively human and exclusively divine. Personally, I find inspiration from Mark’s human and down-to-earth portrayal of Jesus. But this morning John reminds me once again not to forget Jesus’ divinity.

Of course, that is exactly what Christian teaching tells us. It isn’t either-or; it’s both-and. We must to think of Jesus as fully human and fully divine. We see this in the familiar carol, O come, all ye faithful.

Verse 1 calls us to Bethlehem. Verse 2 begins in John’s account. “God of God, light of light …” Then switches back to Luke’s story with, “Lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb. Very God, begotten, not created …”

“Sing choirs of angels …” and “See how the shepherds …” continue in Luke’s story. Luckily, St. John isn’t around to read or sing it. I imagine him being completely appalled at this mish-mash, standing with his hymn book open but refusing to sing!

Peace and earth, goodwill to all??

On the subject of song, Michelle sang Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s hymn I heard the bells on Christmas Day Longfellow wrote the hymn in 1863, during the American Civil War. Verse 2: Then 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 all.”

Longfellow thought it too hard to celebrate the birth of the Messiah at such a terrible time, with no peace on earth and no good will of one to another.

Like Longfellow’s 1863, the year 2020 has been difficult. Besides the pandemic, peace and goodwill have been in short supply. Protests have brought injustices of inequality and discrimination to our attention. The US remains tragically divided. Civil wars continue in Libya and Yemen. There were new civil conflicts in Azerbaijan and Ethiopia. Millions of Syrians are still refugees; many will never return home.

But Longfellow saw a ray of light pierce the darkness of civil war:
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 all.”

So let’s set aside our pessimism. Human ingenuity has brought COVID vaccines to reality in months, not years. There were other hopeful signs in 2020. President-elect Biden promises to govern for all Americans, not just those who voted for him. People have paid attention to injustices of race, poverty, housing. Maybe this time it will lead to change, not just talk.

Peace on earth, goodwill to all!

For Christians, Jesus’ life is a template for acceptance, tolerance, and generosity. Jesus showed compassion towards the unloved. He touched and healed lepers. He met and ate with sinners and prostitutes. His life and teaching form the moral foundation of ideas that we embrace today. Diversity; social programs such as universal health care, pensions, and unemployment insurance.

A century or so after the Gospels, Clement of Alexandria reputedly said, “God became human, that we might become divine.” At its best, the Christian story is one of ordinary human beings doing their best to emulate what Clement said. Christians have often got it badly wrong. Think slavery, colonial exploitation, writing off the poor as lazy.

But the Gospel – the good news – of Jesus Christ call us, ordinary people, to bring God’s kingdom (God’s righteous rule) closer. Most of us cannot influence matters on the world stage. Yet every day brings opportunities to show Christ’s face to the people we meet. Here, in our families and in our communities.

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to all. It was Longfellow’s hope; it can be ours too.

“God became human, that we might become divine.” May Clement’s recognition be as true for us this Christmas-tide as it was two thousand years ago. When John wrote, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. For we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth. Amen.