December 4, 2022
It's been called "one of the most beautiful Christmas carols ever written." But there is a tragic story behind Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." Grief silenced him as he saw his country divided by civil war and his family torn apart. Right now, it is a new movie out in theaters telling the true story behind the beloved Christmas carol and its author.
It's a poem but it's really a diary entry about Henry Longfellow, and his whole journey of faith. A man who had it all, lost it all, and had it come back again and be redeemed through the symbol of a bell ringing out more loud and deep: God is not dead, nor does he sleep." Longfellow’s poem is all about his struggle for hope and peace not only from war but in his own heart.
When we look at the first proclamation of Christmas that came from heaven to earth through the voices of angels speaking to the shepherds, we are reminded of the eternal search for peace that all of us long for in the midst of our chaos and confusion: “A great company of the heavenly host appeared . . . praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests’” (Luke 2:13–14).
One angel explained this good news of great joy for all people: that the Messiah had been born in Bethlehem. It’s important to understand that the peace the angels proclaimed was not a proclamation of world peace or a declaration of the end of strife and war. It was not a direct announcement that we can now get along with our neighbors. It’s actually much bigger and much more important than any of that.
Through Jesus, the barrier of sin has been removed. Now we have relationship and peace with God! The peace on earth Jesus brings is foremost the peace that we can have with God through Christ. This peace comes from faith in Jesus and the forgiveness that follows. We see an example of this in the woman in Luke 7 who “lived a sinful life” (verse 37). She washed Jesus’s feet with her tears and her hair. In verse 48 Jesus tells her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then in verse 50, Jesus concludes with, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Because of the forgiveness of sins, we have peace with God. No wonder the angels proclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest!” The angels declared that this peace belongs to those on whom God’s favor rests. The Lord’s favor rests on those who receive the truth and forgiveness of Jesus. As a result, they pass that truth along to others. The angels wanted the shepherds and us to continue to pass the peace.
Because Jesus brought us peace with God, one of the greatest responses we can have to the amazing news is to become peace proclaimers in all our Christmas traditions, preparations, and celebrations. The truth is, most families experience relational
pressure and difficulties during this season. Nearly every family gathering has at least one relative who requires extra grace. For many families, Advent and Christmas actually bring more strife and conflict rather than less.
As the ones who have received peace with God through Jesus, we have a special opportunity to proclaim peace in our families in a similar way to how the angels proclaimed peace to us. In Matthew 5:9, Jesus tells us, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” This passage shows us that those who count themselves to be children of God join Him in the work of proclaiming His peace and making peace with others. Peacemaking is not the same thing as peacekeeping. When Jesus brought us peace with God, He didn’t create an uneasy truce; He brought us back into unity and harmony with God. Jesus didn’t tolerate us; He restored us. He didn’t make a way to endure being with us; He made a way to be near to us and develop a love relationship with us.
During this year The United Nations had sixteen peacekeeping operations around the world. This is how the United Nations explains these operations: “Our peacekeepers help prevent conflict to reduce human suffering, build stable and prosperous societies and enable people to reach their full potential.” We all hope they’re moving toward peacemaking, but peacekeeping is just preventing people from acting out on the hate that’s in their hearts. It tries to prevent conflict and keeps people from destroying each other.
Peacemaking goes much deeper. Peacemaking is what God did for us through sending Jesus. Peacemaking restores relationship. It brings harmony. It goes beyond just avoiding and separating conflict and brings restoration, relationship, and unity. Jesus made lasting and restorative peace between us and God. Aren’t you glad the angels didn’t proclaim, “And on earth tolerance to those whom He decided to endure”? Aren’t you glad the angels didn’t proclaim, “And on earth God puts up with those on whom His favor rests”? Instead, He brought a true peace with God.
For many of us, the Christmas season is a reminder of the lack of peace we have in our families and our lives. Many of us have conflicts with parents, children, brothers, and sisters where we just want to survive the holidays without the same old fight and antics we experience every year. Many of us are struggling to keep it together and try to cling to whatever peace we can hold onto in our own hearts until it’s over. My friends there’s more for you than that this Christmas season. As a son or daughter of God brought to God through Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection, you don’t have to be a peacekeeper who has to try to survive the holidays. Instead, you can proclaim the good news of Jesus by being a peacemaker who lives, brings, and proclaims a peace that transforms and lasts.
This is the difference between peacekeeping and peacemaking. Peacekeeping tries to appease, patch together, and keep everyone satisfied or just quietly disgruntled. Peacemaking deals with the underlying issues and brings healing and restoration. That’s what God’s Son did for us. What better way to proclaim and demonstrate what He’s done than to do the same in our families? We are all looking for A Deeper Peace
One of the dangers of this season is getting so caught up in our traditions and so wrapped up in trying to create the idyllic holiday that we forget our real mission. James 3:17–18 reminds us, Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.” This season we should be more concerned — not less concerned — with proclaiming the peace of Jesus. We should be centered on living out the Gospel with our friends and family. We all will make connections and have conversations with people that only come around during this season. Now is the time to pray for wisdom in those connections. Now is the time to consider how we can proclaim Christ through what we say and how we act. Now is the time to be wise as James describes it right before 18: to be pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and sincere.
This season I am praying that God will give you and me the wisdom of the Holy Spirit as we interact with friends and family. I am praying that God will show us how to best proclaim the good news of Jesus by showing us when we should speak and when we should let things go. I have learned that just because you’re right doesn’t mean you’re being righteous.
I am praying that this year you can proclaim His peace to your family and friends like you’ve never done before. If you typically have relational struggles during this season, remember that most people aren’t born annoying, rude, opinionated, and cruel. Despite how he acts, even your cousin Eddie was made in God’s image.
Remember that people become that way because of what this world throws at them and how they choose to respond to it. The one thing we all share is brokenness. The one thing we all need is grace. Remember that everyone is fighting a battle that we don’t know. We all choose to become better or bitter from the if in life.
A peacemaker who is working to proclaim Jesus will try to get beyond the rough exterior. A peacemaker will show mercy, remembering that even more than our opinions, everyone ultimately needs Jesus. Certainly, love can be tough. But sometimes love is quiet and just listens.
In the midst of all the traditions, celebrations, and connections this season, don’t forget how precious people are to God. Even the most belligerent, difficult, and draining people are precious to God — so much so that Jesus came to earth so that they could also have peace with God. And before you proclaim peace, you first need to possess it No one expects you to be perfect. However, it’s difficult to proclaim the message of God’s peace when we’re stressed out, overwhelmed, and exhausted. Our proclamation must first begin with us accepting and embracing the peace we have in God. What a rare individual it is who knows what it’s like to be fully accepted for who they are just as they are. Yet that is our very condition simply because, in Jesus, God’s favor now rests on us.
Despite all the talk of peace and grace in Christian circles, how few of us feel like we can just receive the love of God rather than needing to work for it or prove our worthiness of it. In the angels’ proclamation, we find nothing of our own effort to obtain peace with God — only the grace of God. We didn’t reach our Savior by going up to Him; rather, in Luke 2:11, the angel says, “A Savior has been born to you.” We didn’t earn His favor; His favor rests on us only because we accept it by putting our faith in the cross.
In order to better proclaim the peace God brings to others this season, I encourage you to guard your own peace as well. In order to walk and remain in the peace Jesus brings, we need to be disciplined in where we allow our minds to go and the things we allow ourselves to think about. When it comes to living in peace and proclaiming peace, it’s possible to lose the battle in our mind before our interaction with others has even begun. Have you ever had a fight or disagreement with a relative or friend that took place completely in your mind?
If you are trying to win your arguments before they even get started, how can you possibly hope to bring and proclaim peace when you spend actual time together? Peace proclaimers use wisdom and patience instead of jumping to conclusions or quickly misinterpreting other people’s actions or intents. Peace proclaimers refuse to take offense when they feel slighted. They refuse to allow their own thoughts to turn a careless or insensitive comment into a personal attack. Peace proclaimers always hope, always believe, and always endure!
When he was sixty-three, Alvin Straight got in a disagreement with his brother, Henry. Separated by 240 miles, the two never spoke or met again for ten years. When he was eighty years old, Henry had a stroke. When Alvin heard the news, he decided it was time to reunite with his brother before it became impossible to do so.
At seventy-three, Alvin’s sight was too poor for him to get a driver’s license. So, Alvin loaded up a trailer with gasoline, camping gear, and food. He hooked the trailer to the back of a riding lawn mower and set off to see Henry. At a top speed of five miles per hour, it took Alvin Straight six weeks to make the 240-mile journey from Iowa to Wisconsin in order to make peace with his brother. One month later, Henry recovered from his stroke and moved back to Iowa to be closer to his family.
We all know that you can’t make anyone change. You can’t make anyone do much of anything. But you can proclaim peace. How far are you willing to go to share the peace you have in Jesus with the people you know? Are you willing to take the first step? Are you willing to take a stand this Christmas for peacemaking?
The final words of I Heard the Bells are peace on earth, good will to men. And those words are not original to Henry. They are original to scripture. And they are the reason we celebrate Christmas, because Christ really did come to give us peace on earth. Alvin Straight went 240 miles over six weeks to be a peacemaker, and his relationship was restored. Jesus crossed the chasm of heaven to make peace with you.
The angels came to earth to proclaim the news of “peace on earth to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). In the midst of all our traditions, celebrations, and even obligations, will we put in the same effort? Will our lives make the same proclamation? Will you please pray with me?
God of Creation, we thank You that You sent Your Son so that we can have peace with God. We ask that You increase our peace and pour out Your peace to others through us. This season let us be peacemakers who point others to the peace of Christ. In Jesus’s name we pray, Amen.