I’m Dreaming of a White Harvest
I don’t celebrate Christmas any more. I decided to stop when I walked into the home of some Muslim friends and discovered the Christmas tree in their living room. “If Muslims can celebrate Christmas,” I said to myself, “I can’t.”
TAKE CHRIST OUT OF CHRISTMAS
I reject the secular and capitalist trappings of Christmas, and dislike the holiday music played on the radio and in all the retail outlets. A party game listed online recently caught my attention. It is called, SANTA vs. JESUS and is described as a hilarious epic Christmas party game (even more hilarious after a few Christmas sherries) in which opposing sides determine who rules Christmas—Santa or Jesus. The team with the most “believers” at the end, wins. If this is Christmas, stop the sleigh and let me off! Perhaps we shouldn’t try to put Christ back into Christmas. Instead, let’s put Him where He belongs, which is just about anywhere else.
My wife and I do commemorate the incarnation of Christ, even though there is no biblical reason to do so. We enjoy being with our families when it’s possible: eating together, giving and receiving simple gifts, playing games and picking at holiday leftovers. We listen over and over to the great choral works related to the birth of Christ—especially Messiah by Handel, and Bach’s Weihnachts-Oratorium and Magnificat. The pleasures of a walk in the snow and hot cocoa by a roaring fire are not lost on us. But these have nothing whatsoever to do with why Jesus came.
CHRISTMAS IS MISSIONS
A number of years ago, a pastor called me during the summer to see if I would be available to speak at a missions conference at his church in Maine. I looked at my calendar and had to tell him that the earliest I could come was right before Christmas.
“Traveling to Maine in December can be a little sketchy,” I said. “And people aren’t thinking about missions between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. I’m not sure how much interest there would be.”
A week later, he called me back. “I polled our people, and the consensus is that there’s no better time in the year to have a missions conference than just before Christmas.” I went, and it was the start of a great relationship with a wonderful congregation. They were right—there is no better time in the year to think of missions—or to preach about missions—than Christmastime.
Christmas is missions.
BEHIND LOCKED DOORS
The twentieth chapter of John’s gospel would seem to be more about Easter than about Christmas. After all, the action in the first twenty-three verses takes place on the day Jesus is raised from the dead. We’re familiar with Mary Magdalene’s arrival at the empty tomb, the footrace between John and Peter, and Jesus’ encounter with Mary Magdalene after they go home. We’re also well acquainted with her report to the disciples and of what transpires behind locked doors when Jesus appears to them that same evening. It is to this event, and particularly to the words of Christ, that we will direct our attention.
PEACE OF A DIFFERENT KIND
The disciples are frightened. They had fled from Jesus when he was arrested, knowing the risk of any association with him. Witnessing his ghastly demise three days earlier, they did not want their lives to end the same way. Now, his tomb is empty, even though it was sealed and guarded. A false report would quickly circulate—perhaps they have already heard it—that Jesus’ disciples had stolen his body. This conspiracy, hatched by the chief priests to protect their own stature (Matt. 27:6266; 28:11-15), would no doubt have put sketches of the eleven remaining disciples on every light pole in Jerusalem. When Jesus appears to them (all of them except Thomas), peace is not exactly flooding their souls.
The sudden appearance of one who looks like the Christ—zap!—just like that—must scare the daylights out of them. So his first words, “Peace be with you,” are welcome, indeed (John 20:19). After Jesus lets his disciples examine his scarred hands and side, reassuring them that he is indeed the Lord, he repeats his opening remarks: “Peace be with you” (v. 21).
Why is the word, “Peace” significant, and why does Jesus use it twice?
On the surface, he is simply being polite. “Shalom” was and is the conventional greeting among Jews, both coming and going. Jesus had used it in farewell on the night of his arrest (John 14:27), and now he is using it as a greeting. But there is more to it than that.
Isaiah predicts the birth of Messiah and gives him the title, “Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6). Ezekiel and Haggai make peace one of the distinctives of the millennial kingdom (Ezek. 37:26; Hag. 2:9). Zechariah assures the people that their future King “shall speak peace to the nations” (Zech. 9:10).
Psalm 29 is a fascinating text. It is unusual in that it is addressed not to the people of God, but to “heavenly beings”—angels—directing them to ascribe glory to the LORD (v. 1), and after an eloquent depiction of the “voice of the LORD” as a storm shrieking through the land of Israel, it ends with these words: “May the LORD bless his people with peace” (v.11)! Do you remember the words of the angels on the night of Jesus’ birth? “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased” (Luke 2:14)! The angels were simply following instructions.
Just a few nights earlier in the upper room, Jesus had said that the peace he was leaving them was not like the peace the world gives. I can think of several reasons for that.
Peace is elusive. Who doesn’t want peace? Who actually has it? Isaiah wrote, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” Isa. 52:7). The world longs for peace. Yet, even if peace were simply the absence of war, the notion of worldwide peace would be laughable. Several websites* catalog global conflicts in the last century or so—and these are only the wars. Never mind street crimes, mass shootings, rapes, murders, riots, protests, domestic violence, schoolyard brawls, and all manner of brutality and chaos that reigns on the planet. Jeremiah castigates the spiritual leaders of Israel for shamelessly promising peace when there is no peace (Jer. 6:13-15). In 2 Timothy 3:1-5 Paul describes the last days, and the picture is the antithesis of peace. The armed forces here in Canada pride themselves on being peacekeepers. The problem is, there’s no peace to keep.
Just today we heard on the CBC an interview with Tareq Hadhad, a Syrian chocolatier whose family relocated to Nova Scotia after several years in a refugee camp. He has established a new chocolate business and calls it, Peace By Chocolate. Mr. Hadhad said in the interview, “Peace is the noblest value on earth.” 3%-5% of their annual net profits help to fund their foundation, the Peace on Earth Society. One of the company’s products is the 46-gram Peace Bar. The wrappers of this chocolate bar contain the word, “Peace” in several languages. Currently, they are French, Arabic, Mi’Kmaw, and Punjabi. My wife was living in Israel when we were married, and these products first caught her eye when she saw the Hebrew word, “Shalom” on the wrapper. I noticed that the company no longer carries the Hebrew version. Shortly after the CBC interview today, a newsfeed from the Jerusalem Post flashed across my computer screen saying that Syria was firing rockets into the Golan Heights. The chocolate doesn’t seem to be working.
Peace is exclusive. It is possible, but only through the Prince of Peace, who “leaves it with us.” None of the world’s formulas for peace—not even chocolate—have worked, nor will they. Peter tells Cornelius and his household that God sent a word to Israel, “preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:36). The peace Jesus gives came by way of gruesome violence and an infinite cost: he made peace “by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20). Worldwide peace will not exist until he ascends his throne. In every one of Paul’s epistles, he wishes his readers “grace and peace.” He understands that peace only comes by grace.
Peace is enigmatic. Not only can the world not give peace, it cannot even understand it. Neither can we, really. I have experienced the peace of God amid feelings of profound grief and loss. Paul is right—the peace of God “surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:7).
SENT, NOT BORN
Few people seriously question the fact that Jesus was born. Denying the existence of Jesus of Nazareth is not a thoughtful perspective on history. But Jesus was not simply born. He was sent.
Many people who acknowledge that he was born fail to realize that he was sent. To do so is to understand that he is the second Person of the Trinity, God in flesh, El Shaddai, the member of the Godhead whom one can see and still live. To understand that he was sent is to acknowledge his deity, his perfection, and his purpose: “The Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world” (1 John 4:14). The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was the greatest apostle, “the apostle and high priest of our confession” (Heb. 3:1).
An apostle is one who is sent. The Greek verb, apostello, in its evolution from classical Greek, through the Septuagint, came to involve not only the sending itself, but the sender’s purpose for sending the one sent. Jesus speaks often of his sent-ness. John, whose reason for writing his gospel is to demonstrate the deity of Christ (John 20:30-31), records more of these references than any other evangelist. We have neither time nor space to explore them all, but this passage in John 20 is one of them. In a sentence, Jesus makes the connection between Christmas and missions crystal clear:
“As the Father has sent me”—that’s Christmas—”even so I am sending you.” That’s missions.
John uses the two common verbs for, “to send” in the same verse: apostello and pempo. Many commentators view them as synonymous (Luke seems to use them this way) and in this text, the use of the word, kathos (“as,” “just as,” or “in the same way as”) makes this apparent.
As we have already seen, John tells us in his first epistle that Jesus was sent to be the Saviour of the world. But in John’s gospel account, Jesus’ many references to his being sent are almost always related to his relationship with the Father, the source of his power and authority, and his commitment to obeying the One who sent him.
In the same way, Jesus’ final words to his disciples on that night show us that his intention for them is the same. Breathing on them, he signals the impending arrival of the Holy Spirit to indwell them, and then says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (v. 23). The best way for me to understand what Jesus is saying is to consult 2 Cor. 5:16-21. Paul explains that God through Christ did the work of reconciliation, but he gave us the ministry of reconciliation and entrusted to us the word of reconciliation. That is why, when we implore people to be reconciled to God, it is as if God Himself is speaking through us. We carry the authority of the One who sent us.
Before he ascended to rejoin the Sender, Jesus commissioned his disciples to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19,20). In the same way he obeyed the One who sent him, he wants us—and the disciples we make—to obey him.
In recent years I have told several people who have asked that I don’t celebrate Christmas, but I do celebrate the birth of Christ. I think I’ll amend that further and tell them I commemorate the sending of Christ. And maybe that I’m dreaming of a white harvest.
All Scripture references are from the English Standard Version, Crossway, 2001.
*Statistics related to global conflicts:
 Gerhard Kittel, ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman Publishing Company, 1964), 1:398-406.