We are a small Episcopal Church on the banks of the Rappahannock in Port Royal, Virginia. We acknowledge that we gather on the traditional land of the first people of Port Royal, the Nandtaughtacund, and we respect and honor with gratitude the land itself, the legacy of the ancestors, and the life of the Rappahannock Tribe. Our mission statement is to do God’s Will in all that we do.

Sermon, Christmas Eve, 2023 – “Peace on earth, good will to all people”

Peace on earth, good will to all people. 

Yet another war is raging in the Holy Land, a war that in a few short months has caused unimaginable terror, a war in which over 20,000 people have been killed.  The Christians in the Israeli occupied West Bank town of Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, have cancelled the usual Christmas celebrations, for celebrations seem out of place with so many people dying such a short distance away in Gaza. 

I’m willing to bet that every year since the birth of Jesus, violence and war have been going on somewhere on this earth, and that God’s peace seems like nothing more than a dream. 

So more than ever, we need this story of the birth of Jesus,  the story that I’m convinced is the most important story in the entire Bible.  This story reminds us that God likes to start small.   God uses the small things that we make available to do great things. 

This story  also gives us hope that in spite of all of human history, we can, along with Edmund H. Sears, who wrote  “It came upon the midnight clear” firmly believe that “when with the ever circling years shall come the time foretold, when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling, and all the world give back the song, which now the angels sing.” 

Luke puts the birth story of Jesus into historical context.  Ceasar Augustus, the ruler of the Roman Empire, and the most powerful person on earth at that time, is the first person to be named in this narrative, followed by Cyrenius, who was the most powerful person in the region of Syria.  The Pax Romana, the Roman peace, was not peace at all, but obedience enforced by fear.  And so, when the people were told that they had to be registered, or taxed, or whatever the command might be, the people obeyed the command.  And so Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem.     

Nobody in Bethlehem could make room for a woman about to give birth, although finally someone offered a small space that sheltered animals. And so the first living creatures to welcome Jesus besides his parents were the animals who were there. The animals shared not only their shelter but their food trough.  Mary laid her baby in their manger.

The angels did not hover over Jerusalem.  They did not appear to the priests, scribes and Pharisees who ran the temple and interpreted the laws.  The angels appeared over a hillside near Bethlehem, and they gave their tidings of great joy to shepherds, of all people. 

If we are seeking God, this story reminds us that God chooses to come to us in unexpected places, the small places that seem insignificant by the world’s standards and to people that we might look past in our lives.

And peace on earth will come, not from those like Ceasar Augustus and Cyrenius, the people in power.  God’s peace on earth will come in and through ordinary people, people like shepherds, people like an unmarried woman giving birth, people like the person who finally provided a shelter for Jesus’ birth, people like the British and German soldiers who stopped fighting in World War I in Flanders during the Christmas Truce, to sing Christmas carols together, including Silent Night.  People like you and like me, when we believe that God’s peace can be a reality on this earth and act on that belief by being people of justice and of mercy, people open, in spite of fear, to those who need to see and to experience God’s love. 

Peace on earth will come when people have food to eat, clean water to drink, safe shelter, and warmth in the cold.  Peace on earth comes when a person can call our church and say (this is summarizing), “My family is cold.  We need a kerosene heater for our trailer” and before the end of the day, Johnny Davis has gone to town, gotten a space heater, and delivered it to a shivering family, paid for by the money we all donated to the ECM for their Christmas work.   That’s peace on earth, good will to all people. 

Peace on earth, good will to all people—brought to life by people whose story appeared in  a column by Theresa Vargas in The Washington Post on December 23rd.  Three years ago, Susan Thompson-Gaines, who lives in Virginia, started a gift giving project out of her house.  She set up a desk in her front yard, encouraged children to write letters to Santa, and then made sure that the children got what they had asked for, nicely wrapped.  This was a neigborhood effort, but last year she expanded it to over two hundred children by creating an Amazon Wish List, and people around the country started pitching in.  Susan also runs a year round program which she funds through an annual yard sale to help people in need throughout the year.  She keeps a Little Yellow Free Pantry outside her house and she and her neighbors keep it stocked with food and toiletries.  That’s where the mysterious E. A. Raven enters.  E. A. Raven started sending items to the pantry through Amazon.  And her donations weren’t the usual peanut butter and pasta and tuna, but the food that people might not get otherwise, things like herbal tea, soy sauce, or cookies, always accompanied by a cheerful note to go with the item. 

As these donations from E. A. Raven kept coming, Susan and her friends became curious about this woman.  She sent her thank you notes through Amazon, and they could learn nothing more about her than her name.  And then one day a package arrived with a message saying that E. A. Raven was going to have a medical procedure so that the donations would stop for a while, but would resume when she was better.  For a month, no donations came, and Susan and her friends became worried.  As Susan put it on her blog, “it wasn’t the donations that were missing, it was our friend, our far away, never before seen, mysterious, magical friend.”  The donations resumed briefly and then Susan received an email from E. A. Raven’s sister.  Betty Raven had died, and her sister wanted the group to know why the donations had stopped.  After Susan stopped crying, she wrote a blog about how this complete stranger, who turned out to be from Indiana had meant so much to a community in Virginia. 

Peace on earth, good will to all people. E. A. Raven is one who heard the angels sing and took action. 

I’ve been blessed to go to Bethlehem twice, to walk through Manger Square and then stoop to go through a small doorway into  the fourth century Church of the Nativity, which contains within it the grotto that marks the traditional place of Jesus’ birth.  Those who want to go to the grotto wait in line with people from all over the world.   At last it’s time to go down some stairs and into a small stone grotto, whose rock walls are lined with tapestry.   Here, in the crowded, candlelit space, is a silver star with an opening in the center.  Reaching down into the opening, you can place your hand on the rock that marks the traditional location of Jesus’ birth.  Both times I’ve placed my hand on that rock, I have felt a deep connection to every person who has ever placed a hand there—people who have somehow been touched by the story of Jesus’ birth and have had the desire to pray, to touch, to connect to his birth in some physical way, to touch peace and to carry it out into the world. 

Peace on earth, good will to all people.  

Maybe some of you saw this article by Allison Champion in The Free Lance-Star on December 23.    The Peace Light of Bethlehem has come to Orange County.  “A flame originating from oil lamps burning for more than 1000 years at the Grotto of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem came to the Gordonsville Baptist Church,” Champion reports. 

The Peace Light of Bethlehem Project started in 1986 in Austria as a relief effort for children in need. The light is usually flown each year from Tel Aviv, but because of the war, this year the light flew out of the country of Jordan in a special compartment in an Austrian Airlines flight to New York.  From there the light has spread across the United States.   Boy and Girl Scouts help to lead the project.   Cut Scout Pack 12 and BSA Troop 12 got the light to Gordonsville Baptist Church in a lantern carried by Cubmaster Daman Irby. 

This is what Irby had to say about the light. “There is no special power in a little flame in and of itself, but for each of us it is a reminder of the light Jesus brought into the world.  Like the light, each person can bring peace to the world right where they live, in their own neighborhoods, to strangers in the line at the grocery store, to friends and family. This light was lit from that eternal flame in the grotto where Jesus was born.  It didn’t go out … it has been going all this time.” 

At the ceremony, Irby lit the first candle from the flame in the lantern and then the light spread through the crowd.  Many planned to keep candles burning with this light through the season. 

The light shines in the darkness.  Even though Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem have been cancelled this year, the light burning and shining at the site of the birth of Jesus, not far from where the angels sang so long ago, has still been sent out into the world, and has even reached Orange County, here in Virginia, thanks to the Cub Scouts.      

Peace on earth, good will to all people. 

Look for God’s peace.  We will find it all around us if we look.    

Hear the angels sing, for they are singing all around us, and we will hear them if we listen. 

Be people of peace.  Keep being people of good will. 

And hope. 

Hope in the unexpected.  Hope in ordinary people like you and like me, hope in the light and the simple gifts of bread and wine that we’ll share in peace tonight. 

And even when peace seems impossible, remember that God starts small, as small as a baby in a manger. Hope in small things.  And keep hoping that someday  the peace that was born that night and that is born in us will become that  “peace  which shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling, and all the world give back the song which now the angels sing” the peace that passes all understanding.