Bethlehem was for a long time a very small and unremarkable place.
It’s amazing that this out-of-the-way little town has played such a significant role in world history.
Even ancient prophecies about it’s role in the Christmas story highlight its smallness:
“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” (Micah 5:2 ESV)
The significance of Bethlehem in Jewish history is that it’s the town where King David came from. The promised Messiah was understood to be one in the line of King David and, as the prophecy shows, would come from Bethlehem. When the magi came to King Herod it was this prophecy that pointed them to the right destination.
Today Bethlehem is a very different place to the one of King David’s day, where he was a shepherd like the ones in the Christmas story.
Today it is a part of the Palestinian territories and a few years ago was the scene of a Christmas siege when the then leader of the PLO, Yasser Arafat, was at the centre of the world’s media attention as a violent confrontation between Israeli and Palestinian forces centred around this ‘little town’. It seems Bethlehem is forever destined to feature on a global stage!
That first Christmas night the sky was lit up by angels proclaiming good news to a group of lowly shepherds.
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men!” (Luke 2:14)
When the shepherds entered Bethlehem they took with them this message of peace and good will for all men.
It is tragically ironic therefore that 2,000 years on Bethlehem is a place that is central to one of the most complex and intractable conflicts, and absences of peace in the world. This year has been marked once again by violent confrontations and killing between Israelis and Palestinians and it seems that ‘peace on earth and good will among men’ is not what people are getting this year for Christmas.
For too long the word peace has been misused and abused in relation to this and other conflicts around the world. Too often ‘peace’ is no more than a limiting of conflict where someone else is holding the gun. ‘Peace walls’ are erected to keep people separated and segregated and end up fomenting more conflict by concentrating the agitators into more enclosed space on their respective sides of the divide.
The world into which Jesus was born was one dominated by the Roman Empire. This empire had what they called the “Pax Romana”, a Roman Peace.
It worked very simply: If you live a quiet life, and follow the law, and keep your head down then you will live in peace. If you rebel, or cause disruption, or challenge the authority of Rome then we’ll crucify you and lots of others to make an example of you.
The Pax Romana was peace by the sword and the cross. But a ‘peace’ enforced by weapons is no peace at all.
Like Rome, it’s possible to enforce external ‘peace’ by limiting more and more freedom and with increasing threats and more dire consequences, but this has little or no positive effect on the inner peace which is in the human heart.
When the angels announced peace and good will they weren’t announcing the end of the Roman Empire, which would remain for several centuries more.
They were announcing a peace not based on enforcement but on freedom. They were announcing a peace that can exist in the midst of war and conflict and which will ultimately win over them.
This is the peace of God which surpasses understanding because it has this amazing power to transcend and break through conflict and bring it to an end.
The reason there are wars is because the human heart is not at peace.
Unless and until we have that inner peace there is no possibility of there being an external peace in the world. And unless and until we have peace with God there is no possibility of us having that inner peace. This is the message of Christmas; the one the angels proclaimed.
Jesus has come into the world as the “Prince of Peace”. He has come with a ministry of reconciliation to break down the dividing wall between man and God and to make peace where before there was conflict (see 2 Cor 5:18-19 and Eph 2:14).
When we are reconciled with God we too become reconcilers and peacemakers because that real peace is now in our hearts and drives our external behaviour.
When we lay down our arms against God then we can lay down our arms against each other. There is no weapon more powerful than love to subdue an enemy and it’s a tragedy that too many people discover this too late once the trigger has been pulled, or the missile has been launched.
In Northern Ireland there is a ‘peace wall’ which divides the community and reinforces an identity of separation as much as it prevents direct conflict. These walls are famously daubed with graffiti about the cause and the war for each side, glorifying those who take up arms in the ‘struggle’. Recently someone added a small graphic which put a crack in this huge, indestructible wall. The graphic simply says, “Love will win”.
This advent may you know that peace on earth begins with peace with God.
May you know that Jesus has come into the world as the Prince of Peace to give you that inner peace which surpasses understanding.
May you know that as you receive this peace you become a peacemaker in this world and hope for the future of Bethlehem, Israel, Palestinian territories, Syria, the whole of the Middle East, Northern Ireland, North Korea and all the other places where peace in men’s hearts mean a lasting peace on earth and good will for ALL men.