“Sleep in heavenly peace”
This seems to be such quaint expression. It conjures up images of the cute little baby. Heavenly peace suggests an ‘awww moment.’ We can almost imagine the shepherds queuing up for a selfie with the baby in the manger.
That’s the risk with Christmas Carols, we can simply create a sentimental feeling. Christmas can become escapism, a romanticised escape from the hard realities of a long dark winter. This gives an altogether false impression of the gritty realities of that first Christmas. Luke sums it up in this very understated way.
“They laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7).
The inn here could refer to a guest house or simply to the inner part of the house where the family should live, often on a raised platform with the animals sharing living space but on a lower level of the house. The point in the end is the same. There was no room for Mary, Joseph and Jesus among the normal house guests. The place was crowded and they were driven to find makeshift arrangements. The child is born amongst the smell and “squalor” (to use the word of another Christmas song) of the animals. There’s nothing cute about a make shift bed in a feeding trough. So we want to say that Heavenly peace is much more than that rose tinted image we have pictured.
This year we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1st World War. This was the War to end all Wars. It was also the war that was meant to be over by Christmas.
However, on Christmas Day 1914 the war was nowhere near finished. But something special happened that day. The opposing forces agreed a truce and famously, the men met in No Man’s Land for an impromptu football game. The ceasefire ended and the artillery recommenced its bombardment. Peace did not last and the war continued for 4 long, gruelling years with huge casualties on both sides.
The peace did not last because the job wasn’t done yet. There was still an enemy to fight. The battle went on. And as we’ve just alluded to, even the end of the war did not bring war itself to an end because there are still enemies out there and evil continues.
The peace this baby brought was different. This heavenly peace lasts. How come? To answer that question I want to pick up on another line of the carol.
“the dawn of redeeming grace”
Christmas tells us that “It is started.” God has acted. Jesus came not just to a messy animal enclosure but to a messed up World. This world is messed up by sin. We see the mess in war, terrorism, greed, violence, abuse, racism. These are all aspects of sin. The Bible says that “we have all sinned.” We are the cause of the mess.
Easter tells us that “It is finished.” Those were the words Jesus uttered on the Cross – in other words, “job done.” Sin means that we are at war with God. We try to live by our own rules for our own pleasure. Sin means trying to live as though God does not exist or as though he does not really care. So the just penalty or punishment for sin is death. Death in the Bible does not just refer to the point when our lungs and hearts stop functioning. Death means to be separated from God’s loving presence.
On the Cross, Jesus stepped in and bore this penalty for us. “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities…and the Lord has laid on him the iniquities of us all.” (Isaiah 53:5-6). He died so that we could have life. “the punishment that brought us peace was upon him.” (Isaiah 53:5).
…that we are reconciled to God. The image is of enemies who are invited to come and share in the victory to be welcomed to eat at the victor’s table. Peace with God is not just for Christmas Day, it is permanent.
…We now have a foretaste of what peace with each other will be like. It’s seen now in the church as people from every tribe and tongue are able to become part of the same community. People from different and often opposing backgrounds find that they have unity that overcomes all barriers.
…A day is coming when Jesus will return and make an end to all war and conflict.