Luke 2: 1-19
In the cold and muddy trenches of World War One Europe, on December 24, 1914, British soldiers heard something peculiar from the other side of no-man’s-land. They looked and saw it was German soldiers singing Christmas hymns and setting up Christmas trees. The Allied soldiers started signing too and the two sides joined together. Then someone shouted that tomorrow (Christmas Day) they would not shoot each other. They agreed and the next morning soldiers exited the trenches and shook hands with their enemies. They crossed over no-man’s-land and exchanged gifts with each other. Some took pictures that you can still find online. In at least one area British and German soldiers even played football (what we in the US call soccer). This event became known as the World War One Christmas Truce. It didn’t happen everywhere. In some sections of the trenches the armies still fired at each other like any other day. But in some sections across the many hundreds of miles of trenches, soldiers decided they wanted peace on Christmas.
The Christmas Truce occurred in 1914, the first year of the war. It would not happen again. Many of the higher ups on both sides were not happy about the truce. They believed it “conflicted with the patriotic aggression” necessary to win the war. Governments on both sides had gone to great extent to demonize the other side; so they were none too happy to hear about their young men fraternizing with the enemy and seeing that they were human. But even though the truce did not last, the Christmas Truce of 1914 has an enduring legacy. It shows us that those young soldiers did not really want to kill each other. It was the powers that be who instructed them to fight. Leaders who weren’t present on the battlefield, giving them orders to kill. The Christmas Truce shows that, sinful though we are, most humans do want peace. And the Christmas Truce exposes the sinful power structures, the national war machines, that led these young men into the trenches in the first place.
The Christmas Truce highlights the human longing for peace and the power of Jesus Christ, the prince of peace, to bring peace into the most violent situations, even if just for a moment. Of course Jesus didn’t descend from the clouds and demand they lay their weapons down. Rather, the soldiers were so touched by the prince of peace alive in their hearts that they chose to risk practicing nonviolence and trust their enemies to do the same.
Wars are, of course, nothing new. The Bible is full of them. Any writings that try to give an honest account of the human condition cannot avoid including war and violence. The Bible describes wars between Israelites and Canaanites, Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans just to name a few. From the time Cain killed Abel to the crescendo of the Babylonian exile and destruction of the Temple, the terror of war and human cruelty is ever present in the biblical narrative. And while most history was written by the winners of wars, the Old Testament was written from the perspective of the losers. Something very unique, making these stories valuable to people of faith and secular readers alike.
And in the midst of all the wars and battles and corruption of kings, and prophets preaching against corruption and injustice, all the while, a whisper of peace is growing. Throughout the biblical narrative, prophets offer a promise of peace. The biblical vision of a new heaven and a new earth. The prophets speaking of God one day giving humanity new hearts with God’s law of love written on them. A coming time when we beat swords into plowshares and God’s vision of shalom is realized. Where all peoples live in harmony and there is peace on earth.
All the world religions long for this state. And the Hebrew prophets declare that this is indeed the world’s future. This divine promise became personified in the expectation for a Messiah who would save humanity from our sinfulness and establish peace on earth. Real peace, shalom in Hebrew, which is not just not fighting, and means being truly at peace with other people, within ourselves, and with God.
The birth of this promised Messiah is what we celebrate this night. Over 2000 years ago Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem. Into this war torn world God incarnate was born. Into the messiness of it all. Into the violence and confusion and sin of this world. Not because God was angry with the world for being so broken, but because God so loved the world and desired to heal it. Jesus came not to punish the world but to redeem it. To bring humanity true peace. To lead the way for us to shine our light in the world, to manifest the divine image that we are. To free us from sin and lead us into a world that reflects the divine realm. Where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
The incarnation of Jesus Christ is the pivotal event of human history. But we must understand properly what that means and untangle Christ’s message from centuries of manipulation by the powerful and the bad theology of imperial Christianity.
True Christmas theology, and thereby true Christian theology, is less about Jesus coming so we can escape this broken world to experience peace in heaven, and more about the divine realm being made manifest in the physical: bringing the peace of heaven to earth. That’s not to say we won’t experience peace in the afterlife; we will. But the reason God became flesh was to bring heaven to earth. When Jesus taught us to pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” this is what he meant.
The incarnation of Jesus Christ is about redeeming and healing our world, bringing peace to earth and establishing peace in our hearts. We need not wait for a time when Jesus returns with armies of angels to fight the devil in a huge battle and magically make all our problems go away. That’s not good theology. A theology of Christmas focuses on the incarnation making the divine realm manifest in the physical world. Jesus, God incarnate, was born to manifest this reality, and invites us all to do the same—to fully embodying the divine image we are and to be the Body of Christ in the world today. That is the calling of the church, the calling of every Christian—to be the Body of Christ in the world today. To be Emmanuel “God with us” in the world today.
Edward Hayes wrote a modern psalm called Emerging Emmanuel. Emmanuel means “God is with us” and the psalm describes how each of us is called to be Emmanuel ourselves:
“Emmanuel not only comes down,
but also comes forth and emerges.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
come forth from deep within me
with Christmas luminous beauty.
For my heart has become the sacred crib,
the birthing place of God among us.
Peace on earth and justice for all
will only become manifest in our lives
when enough of your sons and daughters
awaken to your divine design
that has made each of us
an emerging Emmanuel.”
Indeed, Christmas should remind us that each of us is an emerging Emmanuel. With this theology of Christmas, we are invited into the spiritual journey of Christ being born in our hearts. Not because we have to in order to make God love us, but because we’ve been so touched by God’s love that we want to grow up into mature Christians who live in alignment with the divine. In the words of O Little Town of Bethlehem the hymn we’ll sing in a few moments: “Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.”
When we understand that Jesus was born to heal our broken world rather than condemn it, the way we see things changes. When we understand the theology of Christmas, we realize that our calling is to manifest the peace of heaven on earth. We understand that Christ calls us to follow him and that our purpose in life is to be Emmanuels too. We understand that the mission of the church is to be Christ in the world, to embody the divine way of being on this physical plane. And when we put that theology into practice it looks like devoting ourselves to prayer and meditation and spiritual growth. It looks like serving our neighbors in need and living with kindness and compassion. It looks like standing up for justice and advocating for peace even when it’s uncomfortable.
In the midst of the current war in the Holy Land, Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac who serves as pastor at Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, calls for peace between Israel and Palestine. And he calls on American Christians in particular to reconsider what it means to be truly prophetic Christians. He recently said:
"The irony for us Palestinian Christians is that evangelicals, with their overemphasis on prophecy, have lost the capacity for being truly prophetic. You want to prove the Bible is right? You don’t do this by pointing to self-fulfilling prophecy or pointing to world events as prophecy fulfillment. This is not how you prove the Bible is right. We prove that the Bible is right by radical obedience to the teachings of Jesus—by proving that Jesus’ teachings actually work and that they make the world a better place. Let us love our enemies. Forgive those who sin against us. Let us feed the poor. Care for the oppressed. Walk the extra mile. Be inclusive, not exclusive. Turn the other cheek. And maybe, and only maybe then, the world will start to take us seriously and believe in our Bible.” -Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac
Pastor Munther’s words show how theology has real world implications. And he reminds us that we are called to follow Jesus in practicing peace and love and forgiveness. By practicing peace in our own personal lives and by being advocates for peace on the national and international levels.
The peace of God came to earth in the baby born in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. And the peace of God desires to be born in us every day. This is not something we have to do in order to be loved and accepted by God. God already loves us completely. Rather, it’s something we get to do because we’ve been so touched by the peace of God. We get to be Emmanuels in the world today because God’s love has drawn us into radical peacemaking. We get to dive deeper into the spiritual journey because we have been so touched by the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. Real Christmas theology invites us to be partners with God in the healing of the world. To be the Body of Christ here and now. Bearers of God’s image. Devoting our lives to God’s mission and manifesting the divine realm on earth, making this biblical promise of peace a reality. The Christmas story is about God becoming incarnate, being born into this world, in order to bring peace and harmony and love. Bringing the peace of heaven to earth. And so, the Christmas story is still happening every time Christ is born in a new heart and every time peace manifests. And so, we celebrate God’s gift to us this night: the gift of Christ born in Bethlehem and the gift of Christ born in us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Brian, Christmas Eve 2023