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Preaching Past an Ornamental Peace

5 groups of people who hunger for peace this Christmas season.
Preaching Past an Ornamental Peace
Image: DigiPub / Getty Images


Like joy and hope, peace is one of those words that dissolves into Christmas white noise. We see it in on cards, ornaments, and home décor knickknacks. We hear it in songs and children’s holiday programs. And yes, we hear it and speak it in sermons.

If you’re like me, you can hear it so frequently it’s easy to drift into sentimental chatter, stripped of the gravitas peace demands. It’s as if we’ve come to settle for a two-dimensional understanding of peace; one that’s flat and thin. If there is ever a time people are hungry for a peace in three-dimensions, one that is guttural, tangible, and visceral, it’s now.

To get there, it’s imperative to acknowledge our desire for peace emerges against a backdrop of heartache, longing, and pain. I recently rediscovered Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Christmas Bells” a poem he wrote on Christmas day 1863. Wadsworth’s yearning for peace is personal. Just two years earlier, he lost Frances (his second wife of eighteen years) after she suffered fatal burns in a fire in their home.

In March 1863, his nineteen-year-old son Charles secretly left home to enlist to fight for Union forces. At the Battle of Mine Run, Charles was wounded when he was shot in the back. He arrived at his father’s house on December 8th to begin his long recovery back to health. So, two weeks later, when his father sat down to write his poem yearning for peace, his combat wounded son was convalescing in the same house. The anxiety, the trauma, the fear aren’t abstract for Longfellow. The absence of peace is a void that’s all too real.

In the first stanzas of the “Christmas Bells,” Wadsworth paints a scene where “peace on earth” is a sunny refrain sung and quoted by good churchgoing folk. Then he shifts to the horror that violence inflicts on those lives touched by the war. He writes,

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And 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 men!"

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 men."

Longfellow names our longing for peace, our lament over the absence of peace, and closes with a confident hope that, in and through God’s grace, peace is yet coming. The beauty of Advent is hope, a call to believe in a fulfillment of promises yet to be realized.

With that in mind, we can preach peace to five groups of people who hunger for it this season, those experiencing the turmoil of: crises, isolation, conflict, grief, and war.

Peace for Those in Crises

When I pastored a church in Detroit, our staff team had a Sunday morning refrain before our services: Never underestimate the pain in the room. No matter what we had planned, for the music, for the message, and all the other creative elements in the service, nothing spoke more loudly to some who would attend the service than their pain.

In July 2022, the U.S. government launched the “988” mental health lifeline. People experiencing mental health stress could simply call or text 988 to speak to a trained responder. According to a study, “Since then, 988 has received about 6.5 million calls, texts, and chats including more than 500,000 in September alone ….” That’s over 14,000 calls or texts a day.

I have the privilege of working for a Christian mental health agency in west Michigan. Although we’re not in a major metropolitan area, we can get as many as 300 calls a month, with about 60% of those calls representing children under the age 18.

If the biblical concept for peace is shalom, a state of wholeness and integration, then millions of people in and near or churches are hungry for a peace that speaks to their concerns and anxieties. John’s Gospel tells us that after the resurrection, when the disciples barricaded themselves in a room for fear of the religious leaders, “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’” (John 20:19).

This advent, when we preach peace, let’s declare a Christ who meets each of us in the fog of our fears.

Peace for Those in Isolation

While some people we preach to are wrestling with internal anxieties and stressors, others are struggling with a sense of spiritual rupture. For reasons they may not fully understand, they feel like God is far away. It could be uncertainty that accompanies honest doubt, or it could be the weight of shame they feel from a recent cycle of rebellion.

They feel like there’s a rift between them and God and they aren’t sure how to bridge the gap. For these, preaching peace means acting as an ambassador of reconciliation. It’s gently reminding prodigals that God’s kindness is drawing them to repent, return, and recalibrate.

There is joy in speaking the Aaronic blessing over them, a reminder that despite what they’ve done or where they’ve been, God has not abandoned them. He is, in fact, turning his face towards them to give them peace (Num. 6:26).

Peace for Those in Conflict

Every family approaches the Christmas holiday break with a sense of both joy and dread. Joy for the chance to experience the warmth and hospitality of being with family and close friends. Dread for the realization there is at least one relational dynamic in the family system that is strained. It could be a marriage under duress. It may be unresolved conflict stemming from wounds inflicted on an adult son’s wife by her in-laws. It might be yearslong simmering resentment between siblings.

For these, the proclamation of peace is the reminder that Christ sees, knows, and cares about the fractured relationships in their lives. It’s the declaration that peace is more than the absence of a volatile clash at the dinner table, it’s the possibility of true reconciliation which is available in a through the Prince of Peace.

Paul graciously tells the church in Ephesus peace is not a state or an event, but a person. “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility (Eph. 2:14-16).

Peace for Those in Mourning

Every church will include a family who is facing their first Christmas without a loved one, either to death or divorce. Matthew’s Gospel tells us God is not deaf to the cries of the grieving.

After Herod’s massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem, the Scripture says, “Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more’” (Matt. 2:17-18).

When I was a younger preacher, I tried to generate a wave of unbridled adrenaline and exuberance through the Advent season. Bright lights, big dreams, and bold hope were the order of the day. In time, I realized I wasn’t being fair or honest to families who grieve as others celebrated Christmas with wonder.

A few years ago, I lost my father at age eighty-two. While it wasn’t unexpected, it still left a gaping hole in our family’s life. The comforting message we needed, and continue to need, is the promise that Christ is both the resurrection and the life and those who die in him, yet still live.

Peace for Those in War

Years ago, my friend Bryon gave me an unforgettable Christmas ornament. It was from a craftsman in Bethlehem, in the West Bank. In his neighborhood, it wasn’t uncommon for the Israeli military to disperse regular protests with tear gas. This individual would go out to the streets of Bethlehem after these confrontations, collect the tear gas canister caps, clean and polish them, and thread a scarlet ribbon through a hole in the top to sell as Christmas tree ornaments. It was a reminder that modern day Bethlehem is not the sleepy town of our Christmas carols, it’s an active conflict zone.

To be sure, most of us are not preaching in war zones this Advent. Even so, many of our hearers sense deep concern over the current conflicts in Ukraine and Israel/Palestine. Churches in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Cana, and Gaza (Jewish and Palestinian believers alike) are longing for end to the hostilities that have ravaged their communities.

But even those us who are far beyond the scream of missiles and the roar of tanks, care about the reach and impact of war. In his reflection on war (he fought in World War I and survived World War II), C.S. Lewis writes,

What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent: 100 percent of us die and the percentage cannot be increased. Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason that cancer at sixty or paralysis at seventy-five do not bother us is that we forget them.

War forces us to acknowledge our own mortality and admit the futility of human violence. Both Isaiah and Micah, in identical verbiage, declare a future day when “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Is. 2:4/Micah 4:3).

When you preach this Advent, consider preaching peace with these groups in mind. And even if you don’t preach whole sermons on peace, consider how you might reclaim, recharge, redeem liturgical greetings of peace. Instead of perfunctory exchange tucked into a liturgical rhythm, use the exchange of peace to remind those under your care both the source of peace (“God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior”—Titus 1:4b / “Him who is, and who was, and who is to come.”—Rev. 1:4b) and the measure of peace (“May it be yours in abundance.”—1 Pet. 1:2b).

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 men."

Steve Norman is a preacher and writer residing in western Michigan. Over 25 years of ministry, he's served as a church planter, teaching pastor, and lead pastor within local churches in the Detroit and Grand Rapids areas..

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