For the past two days, I've moped around, listening to the sadder tunes in the Hank Williams corpus about loneliness and grief. My whining about this makes me think about how much more persistently and dreadfully peaceful it must be for the homeless, the imprisoned, the orphaned. The sad peace around here also prompted me to consider the way the Incarnation, and Christianity itself, is often misinterpreted as the wrong kind of peace.
There are two very different kinds of peace pictured in Scripture, and in order to get to the one you've got to disturb the other. Jesus speaks of himself as one who brings peace (Jn. 14:27), just as the old prophecies and the announcing angels promised of him. But then he turns around and says, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have come not to bring peace, but a sword" (Matt. 10:34).
The way we tend to think of "peace" is in terms of a tranquility, a lack of disturbance. This is perhaps all the more in focus with our contemporary notions of what Christmas is all about, reinforced constantly by the marketers all around us.
It is more than possible to have this kind of peace in a Christless life. In fact, it's easier that way. The shepherds on the Bethlehem feeding grounds were probably experiencing a very "peaceful" night before the sky exploded with supernatural beings, beings ferocious enough to necessitate a command not to fear. The message of peace comes in the drama of disturbance.
Herod the King would have considered "peace" to be the continued prosperity of his reign, under his Roman overlords. When the Eastern magicians note the sign in the heavens of the Messiah's arrival, Herod isn't flooded with warm tranquility. He doesn't, to use contemporary evangelical jargon, "have a peace about it." Herod is "troubled, and all Jerusalem with him" (Matt. 2:3). Why? It was because he knew a Son of David was a threat to Herod's own rule. His peace was disrupted, and he drained the veins of all the possible rivals to his power.
As a matter of fact, the Christmas narrative just keeps disturbing everybody's peace. Joseph gives up his reputation and his economic security to marry a pregnant girl and adopt her child. This birth signals the beginning of a sword that will cut through Israel, starting with the heart of Mary herself (Lk. 2:34-35).
The sound of Christmas, in the biblical text, isn't the sound of sleigh-bells jingling, but the clanging swords and strangled babies and demon screams. It's awful.
But in the midst of all that horror, there's peace. This peace isn't tranquility and stillness, but the dynamism of the shalom of God's new creation. It is not merely the perfunctory "good will to men" but peace between the ruler of the universe and those "with whom he is pleased" (Lk. 2:14).
In the gospel, peace comes only through war. This isn't violence, the way we think of it, flesh and blood against flesh and blood. It is the Spirit of Jesus marching as to war against the principalities and powers in the heavenly places (Eph. 6:12). It is the blood of Christ silencing the accusations of the ancient dragon (Rev. 12:10-11). This is why the Apostle Paul can say, without contradiction, that the "God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet" (Rom. 16:20).
I find that, too often, I want a satanic peace, the kind that comes with Christlessness. I just want tranquility, to be left alone with the path in which I want to go. That's the kind of peace that comes with slavery, and it's attractive (Gal. 4:9). After all, peace with Pharaoh simply means making more stray bricks. Peace with the flesh simply means watching out for your own tribal loyalties. Peace with Satan simply means marching in rhythm with your desires toward a bloody grave (Eph. 2:1-3).
You can have a Christless pseudo-peace, for a little while.
But true shalom doesn't leave us alone, as though we were orphans (Heb. 12:8). Christful peace prompts us to struggle (Heb. 12:4), to scream out for deliverance (Rom. 8:15), to be nailed down in execution (Mt. 10:38).
Only in that kind of disturbance do we find the "peace that passes all understanding" (Phil. 4:7). In the gospel that uproots the powers of this age (including our own tranquil egos), we find "peace with God" (Rom. 5:1), as our consciences are cleansed before him. We find peace with one another as we find our identity in Christ who is our peace, and the old dividing walls implode (Eph. 2:14-17).
That's a sword-rattling kind of peace, and it's anything but calm, anything but quiet.