It was an interesting group to whom the angels gave this message: “Glory to God in the Highest; and on earth, peace to those on whom His favor rests” (Luke 2:14).
The shepherds were probably watching a temple flock destined for sacrifice in and around a tower called the Midgal Eder, the 'watchtower of the flock,' a lookout and a place of refuge close to Bethlehem for their flocks in case of attack. Shepherds brought ewes there to give birth. The priests maintained ceremonially clean stalls, and they carefully oversaw the birth of each lamb.
The prophet Micah had written years before: “As for you, O watchtower of the flock, (Migdal Eder)… kingship will come to the Daughter of Jerusalem.” (Micah 4:8) I don’t think it’s coincidence that angels announced Jesus’ birth to these shepherds. They were temple-trained; they knew the fulfillment of prophecy when they heard it.
But their watchtower was overshadowed by another tower. Herod’s mountain fortress, the Herodian, overlooked the town of Bethlehem.
- More than 200 feet in diameter, it loomed seven stories high, with an eastern tower that stood more than 40 feet higher.
- It contained a garden, reception hall, Roman baths, countless apartments.
- The lower palace included an enormous pool, a colonnaded garden, a 600-foot-long terrace, and a building more than 400 feet long.
- Its buildings covered forty-five acres of land and were surrounded by nearly two hundred acres of palace grounds.
- The Herodian’s circular upper palace could be seen for miles and literally overshadowed surrounding villages.
The Herodian was built on top of an artificial mountain that Herod had created specifically for this project. According to Josephus, there were originally two hills standing next to each other. Herod paid thousands of workers for many years to demolish one of the hills and level off the other. He built his massive and grandiose palace-fortress on top of the remaining hill. 
A little background on Herod is in order.
- Herod made his name when he broke the resistance of the rebels who were hiding in caves on the side of a cliff. Herod commanded his troops to make platforms with fires to be let down with ropes to the openings of the caves. The smoked-out refugees were pulled out with long, hooked poles and dropped down the sheer cliff.
- Herod also laid siege to Jerusalem. The soldiers raped and slaughtered the women and children, and the Jewish soldiers were tortured and chopped to pieces. Herod executed 45 of the 70 Sanhedrin members who resisted him.
- Herod executed his brother-in-law; an old friend who had given him his start; his wife; then his mother-in-law. Hundreds of friends and family members and citizens were slaughtered on the slightest of accusations. Countless members of his family and court were tortured, as were his own two sons.
- Herod went to Jericho to die in agony, hated even by his family. Truly mad and fearing that no one would mourn his death, he commanded his troops to arrest important people from across the land, lock them in the Hippodrome, and execute them after he died; if people would not mourn him, at least they would mourn.
Into this web of hatred and suspicion, "Magi from the east came… and asked (the Roman appointed King of the Jews), 'Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?”
No wonder that, when King Herod heard this news, he was “disturbed.” He was disturbed by everything. It’s really no surprise that he had the Israelite babies under two years old slaughtered.
It’s in this context, the angels said they were there to proclaim peace on earth because Jesus had arrived.
The expected Messiah was supposed to free the Israelites from bondage. That meant peace after a revolution, right? I’m sure they were encouraged later when Jesus said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). That sounded more promising. And yet he didn’t bring the kind of sword they were expecting. When he entered Jerusalem to a palm-waving crowd of Zealots who expected him to overthrow Rome, he wept because what they actually needed to have peace – the spiritual freedom that Jesus would bring– was hidden from your eyes (Luke 19:42).
While he spoke of a day when there would be circumstantial peace, he spoke and lived in a world in which circumstances were anything but peaceful in many ways. Jesus’ spiritual sword of truth didn’t displace the Romans; He didn’t come to bring that kind of peace. In fact, His message actually brought relational division between those who believed He was the Messiah and those who did not.
So what is this peace?
The absence of strife is a part of peace:
- Matthew 5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
- Romans 14:19: “Let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”
- 2 Corinthians 13:11 “Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.”
- Mark 9:50 “Be at peace with one another.”
One of the greatest promises of Scripture is that one day violence will end (Isaiah 11:6). Until that happens, God gives us the privilege of partnering with Him to make parts of the world better. “Pursue peace; aim for restoration”: those are action verbs. We have to invest some sweat equity into circumstantial peace. We are called to get involved through pray and action to bring peace where there is conflict. God will help us, but we must be faithfully present.
- Do we want peace between Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter?
- Do we want peace between immigrant communities and those of us who grew up here?
- Do we want peace at the Dakota pipeline?
- Do we want peace in our homes, our church, our schools, or our city?
We should pray for peace – and get involved where we can to bring about that peace. Blessed are the peacemakers. That should be pursue peace and aim for the restoration that begins in Jesus and flows through us. But that’s not the deepest, or primary, meaning of peace. As important as it is to be peacemakers, that circumstantial peace will only be a helpful Band-Aid if it doesn’t find its foundation in a different, deeper kind of peace.
When peace entered the world in the person of Christ, it did not mean that all the sources or circumstances of strife were suddenly neutralized. Herod was still there; the taxation was still going to happen; the Jewish community was still divided along political lines. The Prince of Peace showed up to change the world, but not in a way people expected.
Not much has changed in 2,000 years. Just look at the past year.
- Every election leaves about half the population without political peace, and this one was no exception.
- The attack at Ohio State reminds us of the ongoing reality of violence and terrorism.
- The recent shootings by and of policemen and the protests and riots in the streets before and after the election remind us that the violence has not left the world even though Christ entered the world.
- Hurricanes and other natural disasters devastate the lives of people who are impacted.
- The shadows stretch into our personal lives as well. How many of you in this past year have felt the impact of pain and suffering of some sort? How many of you have had inner turmoil or even despair over things happening to you or around you?
There’s always a shadow from a tower of death that reminds us why it so important that a light has come into a dark world.
When the angels came and announced that peace had arrived on earth, it was not because Herod was dethroned, or because the Jewish people agreed on who the King of the Jews really was, or because the world is exempt from tragedy, or because we would never cry or mourn again. They announced that peace had arrived on earth because Jesus had arrived. The circumstances didn’t look much different the day before he was born vs. the day after – and yet in the most important way everything had changed because Jesus had now entered into those circumstances.
Years later, Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you…not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27)
You don’t have to say, “Don’t be troubled and afraid” unless there are reasons to be troubled and afraid. Jesus spoke these words in the middle of the most tumultuous and violent events of his life.
- Judas Iscariot was hatching a plot to betray him.
- The crowds were in an uproar.
- The chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees were disturbed and fearful, hatching their own plots to rid themselves of this menace to their power and position.
- And then he was killed, which did not bring what we think of as peace to his disciples.
Yet in the midst of all this, Jesus talks about peace.
The peace Jesus brought is not merely the absence of strife, though when that happens we are reminded there will be a day when that kind of peace characterizes the New Heaven and Earth. The peace Jesus brought is not defined by the lack of something. A fuller definition has to involve the presence of Christ:
“Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For he himself is our peace, who has…destroyed the dividing wall of hostility… 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. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.“ (Ephesians 2:12-17)
For us, peace is found when we are in right relationship with Christ. The blood of Christ brought us near, and we have access to the Father by the Holy Spirit. As a result, because Jesus is our peace, our hostility with God is resolved. Real peace begins in us when our war with God ends.
Every Bible verse I quoted that was not from the gospels was written by Paul. Paul was jailed, beaten, shipwrecked, and chased; people tried to kill him; he had his infamous ‘thorn in the flesh’ that God refused to take away so that Paul would understand God’s grace was sufficient. Yet Paul clearly believed he was one who had experienced the peace that Jesus brought.
Peace begins in us when our war with God ends.
The holidays are often stressful. It’s not just schedule; it can also be reminders that our families are far away or full of pain. Holidays can make loneliness worse; they can be a reminder of what you don’t have or what you have lost.
May I encourage you with this reminder: Our deepest, eternal hope for peace is not found by having everything in our life just like we want it (though that would be really nice J). And once again – all the times that we live in peaceful circumstances are glimpses of the day God will bring about a New Heaven and New Earth that is peaceful in every possible sense of the word. However, our hope is that no matter what happens, Jesus has brought our war with God to an end, and we can still experience spiritual and everlasting peace with God because of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ongoing presence within us.
Many other kinds of peace may well follow as Christ works within our surrendered lives, but the foundation and the focus of our peace is always and only Jesus Christ.
 What better area for someone to be born who was the Lamb of God, destined to be a sacrifice who takes away the sins of the world? (John 1:29)
 It is likely that when Jesus talked about the kind of faith that moves mountains (Matthew 17:20) he was within eyesight of the Herodian. There is probably more to unpack from that passage than we see on the surface.
 Another way of thinking about this: you don’t need to be a Christian to bring circumstantial peace to the world. There is a lot of ‘conflict resolution’ that happens all over the world with invoking the name of Jesus. And if you don’t need to be a Christian to bring about better circumstances in this manner, then I don’t think that can be the kind of peace that only Jesus can bring.