by Christopher C. Thompson | 22 December 2020 |
This has been the weirdest year ever—and the competition with past years in my life isn’t even close. We’re ready for Christmas! We’re starving for some good news, good cheer, warm and fuzzy feelings, and a break from the bad news that 2020 keeps dishing out. We’re starving for good times and better days. We want to create new family memories—even if it means Zoom meeting gatherings and social distancing.
One of the workers at Lowe’s told me that they’ve never had Christmas decorations sell out this fast. People came in and just devoured them all! Basic decorative items were gone! Folks are really looking forward to Christmas.
I am too.
But with the return of the Christmas season, there are a few things that give us pause for sober-minded reflection. We can’t forget that we are celebrating Christmas against the backdrop of a deadly virus that is still ravaging our country, and a transfer of power in our nation’s highest office that seems unsettled. There’s so much happening around us, it feels like we’re on pins and needles this Christmas—and I’m not talking about pine needles.
The public announcement
This strange setting for Christmas has made me reflect a lot on the first public announcement of the birth of Jesus. There’s so much meaning in that little story that it often arrests me around this time of year—but this year I can’t get it out of my mind. This year has given it new meaning, and I see it with new eyes.
That first public announcement of the birth of the Savior of the world, the King of all Creation, was given by heavenly messengers enshrouded in blinding beams of bright white light. It was short and simple, but it came in two unforgettable parts. The first portion of the message was very simple, yet deeply profound. An angel encouraged the startled shepherds, saying:
“Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12 NASB).
Peace on earth, goodwill for all
After the initial announcement, the heavenly choir suddenly appeared to seal the grand proclamation. It’s such a short and simple song but it, too, is deeply profound. If we look closely at the chorus, we will find deep prophetic significance.
They sang to the shepherds saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:14 NKJV).
Now, the irony of this song is that while the angels proclaimed the advent of peace, the actual circumstances of Jesus’ birth were marked by uncertainty, discord, and injustice. The Jews were under the oppressive occupation of the Romans. Jesus’ parents were in Bethlehem because Caesar Augustus issued a census that was used to assess taxes and expand the military. Any student of history will tell you that Rome’s army was legendary in their brutality in the name of Pax Romana (Roman Peace). Shortly after Jesus was born, he was the target of state-sanctioned genocide. And these are just a few of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth.
It’s safe to say that the peace the angels were announcing was right on time.
There’s a deeper side to the promise, though. The word “peace” is eirēne in Greek. That word refers to national tranquility—to the state of political affairs. It speaks to the collective benefit of the masses that plays out in official, public spaces.
On the other hand, the word “goodwill” in Greek is eudokia. It means kindly intent, satisfaction. It has a more personal benefit. It speaks to one’s individual, private needs.
Notice: while peace is collective and political, goodwill is personal and relational. Ultimately, God has promised a comprehensive plan to deliver justice, equality, kind-heartedness, and care to all people—collectively and individually.
We could really use some peace and goodwill right now. We’ve been practically ravaged by 2020. The incessant stream of bad news, collective and political as well as personal and relational, has left us walking through the desert—severely dehydrated, withered and scorched. There is little to no indication that the government intends to provide collective benefits that provide for the tranquility of the largest number of people. Neither is there any shortage of disappointment and brokenness in the private and relational sense. We need God to send us relief.
For many of us, universal health care is a no-brainer. Making sure that the vast majority of Americans have access to quality health care is a noble political aim. It’s providing a basic necessity to the masses, especially in the midst of a global health crisis. That’s national tranquility.
Ensuring that cops who kill unarmed citizens will be held accountable should be a basic guarantee. It can’t be a good thing that a large subset of the national population doesn’t trust law enforcement. It would be great if police lights in the rearview mirror didn’t make a large group of American citizens deathly afraid.
Some might say, “If you don’t commit any crimes, then you don’t have anything to worry about.” However, the reality is that the former is an uninformed statement that I simply wish were true. What if everyone who was accosted by the criminal justice system were confident that justice would be served? That would be national tranquility. Nevertheless, on so many occasions it often appears that your access to justice depends on the color of your skin and the balance of your bank account.
National tranquility is going to the voting booth and never worrying whether or not my vote will be properly processed and counted, and never worrying whether it will make a difference at all. National tranquility is having political leaders that don’t cast aspersions on the election process and refuse to concede fair elections.
And also, goodwill
But what about the eudokia of kind-heartedness and kindly intent? Maybe it’s me, but it seems like relationships are becoming more and more taxed. Marriages are strained more and more. Maybe I’m just a bad driver, but it seems like road rage is on the rise. Violence is on a steady increase. I’m from a small town, but yesterday I learned of multiple young teenagers in this little town who have already committed multiple murders. Something is out of order.
There are more videos popping up on the internet about angry “Karens” demanding to speak with the manager. I’ve heard numerous stories in the recent weeks from retail and office workers who were at least verbally assaulted because they asked patrons to wear a mask when they entered the building. In a lot of ways people seem colder, less patient, more irate, more exacting.
I used to speak up for myself if someone was trying to skip to the front of the line, or being rude or disrespectful in a public place. I am much more careful these days. Don’t get me wrong; I do encounter kindness, but the rudeness I see seems a lot more ruthless than it used to be. Kind-heartedness and kindly intent are in high demand.
Yet, there is hope. I’ve been to Lowe’s more times than I can count in the last few days. On two separate occasions I was struggling to load very large items onto my cart without any assistance. And on both occasions a white female stopped and offered to hold my cart in place while I loaded the massive, heavy boxes. It’d take too long to explain why this is significant, but I’ll just say I was surprised.
I was also surprised and greatly encouraged by the diversity in the multitudes of protesters across the country and around the world as the world became inflamed with the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd and so many others. It was truly encouraging to see white women screaming at the top of their lungs and calling for justice for a black man. I think I can hear the angels singing again. They are blending with the protesters. Their voices are getting louder and louder.
The lowest of the low
Why didn’t the angels didn’t go to the priests, or kings, or any of the ruling class? Nor did Caesar or Herod see the star? I think it’s very significant that the angels came to shepherds first. You see, people didn’t trust shepherds. People didn’t even like shepherds. Even that great star was a signal to non-believing immigrants, whom we today celebrate as the magi.
Suddenly those who are least, last, and left out are privileged, exalted and lifted up. When those angels promised “peace and goodwill to all mankind,” their pronouncement had immediate meaning because normally shepherds would have been the last to receive important news like this.
At this moment in earth’s history, there’s a shift. It’s an upside-down world, but that’s exactly what Jesus came to do: turn the world upside down—or is it right side up?
Either way, today I look forward to his final work in this world, and for the full measure of peace and goodwill to all mankind.
Christopher C. Thompson is the author of several books, and is an adjunct professor at Oakwood University. He writes about culture and communication in ministry at thinkinwrite.com.