Saturday, December 21, 2013

The meaning of Christmas: Restoring shalom to the world

The world has been celebrating Christmas for more than two thousand years. At first the group of celebrants was very small, but throughout the centuries it has grown astronomically until today it is celebrated almost everywhere in the world, sometimes even by people who have no connection at all with the Christian faith.

The meaning of Christmas is simply this: restoring shalom to the world. It has nothing to do with Christmas trees, gift giving, food, or the many other things that we associate with the season, but it has everything to do with Jesus Christ whose incarnation and birth are the real reason for the season.

We do not know the precise date of Christ's birth, except that it was probably not December 25. We do not even know the exact year of his birth. Yet his birth and later death and resurrection, are the most important dates in the history of the world, at least in the opinion of Christians. Christ was born to restore shalom to the entire creation.

Shalom is a Hebrew word meaning, among things, completeness, wholeness, health, peace, welfare, safety, soundness, tranquility, prosperity, perfection, fullness, rest, harmony, and absence of agitation or discord. The list can go on and on. All these English words are wrapped up in that very rich Hebrew word.

Shalom is the way God created the world. Shalom is how the world was before sin disrupted, and continues to disrupt, it. Shalom is the purpose of Christ's coming. He came to restore shalom to the world.

How and when sin entered the world is not the issue at the moment. All that matters now is that shalom has disrupted the world, and that it needs to be restored. In fact, Christ is already restoring shalom to the world.

This restoration has enormous implications for both Christian believers and for those who do not believe in him. For believers shalom means much more that just personal salvation. Shalom Involves God's care for the entire creation which needs to be restored.

Some Christians think of Christ's coming only in terms of personal salvation. Salvation is viewed as a lifeboat that goes around plucking believers out of the ocean of sin. The rest of the people in the world are thereby consigned to hell, and the world as we know it will be destroyed. An entirely new world will be created.

If this is why Christ came into the world, it would make his work on earth practically meaningless. Christ came to restore the entire creation, not just to save a few people. The Bible teaches us that God loved the whole world, not just a handful of believers. Of course, he loves people but he also loves the rest of creation. He wants to make all things new again by restoring them, not destroying them.

This restrictive understanding of Christ's work that some Christians have blinds them to see him at work in every part of the creation restoring everything. The need for such a restoration is immediately clear to anyone who reads a newspaper, or watches the news on TV.

A litany of horrors is presented on a daily basis. Syria, while it was pushed off the front pages for some weeks, has deteriorated into a disaster zone. The human cost of the civil war there, now in its third year, continues to rise. According to the United Nations, Syria now has the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

The U.N. estimates that the number of Syrian refugees, now already over two million, will swell to four million by the end of 2014. Other sources use figures that are slightly less. While within Syria, more than 6.5 million people are internally displaced -- most of them are beyond the reach of humanitarian aid. This has been described as perhaps the greatest human disaster today.

This is only one example. Tragedy after tragedy parades across our TV screen, and we feel helpless. Add to this the personal tragedies that we encounter: deaths, illnesses, loss of jobs, and so on and so on. That is not God's intention. When he created the world everything was good.

God wants to restore shalom, and he is accomplishing this through Jesus Christ. It may sound presumptuous to claim that Christ is already restoring the world, but that, nevertheless is the claim that all Christians can and should make. God uses people, believers and otherwise -- even those who have never heard his name -- to do the restoration. Christ's coming was decisive, but God is not limited in his use of many people everywhere, yet in his economy he does..

And that restoration is slowly taking place. Everyone who works for justice in this world is doing a little bit to make restoration a reality. The restoration of shalom is a long process because that shalom was seriously disrupted, But divine intervention has changed the course of history and has made restoration possible.

So, let's turn the issue around. What would the world have been like without God's intervention in the person of Jesus Christ? His coming has made the restoration of shalom possible. Even those who are not believers, but are concerned with the environment, are aiding in the restoration of shalom, whether they realize it or not.

The same is true of all peace-makers, even if they are not Christians. Everyone, indeed, who strives for peace and justice in this world is on the side of the angels, as it were.

That again may sound like a presumptuous statement. How can unbelievers be assigned roles in this divine restorative process without their approval? Yet that is the way God works. He even co-opts unbelievers in this enormous task. Everyone is enlisted if shalom is to become a reality.

Shalom is increasingly becoming a reality. I do not mean this in the sense of the world slowly becoming better through human efforts alone. The restoration of shalom is still, from beginning to end, God's project, yet he uses fallible human beings to help him to achieve this goal.

Christmas 2013 can be a meaningful celebration if we look beyond the tinsel and gift-wrapping to the person whose birth can be a reason for joy in a world that is still torn apart by war and conflict. But everything is not always as it seems.

Even in Syria there is a possibility of peace. After three years of fighting there is no resolution in sight. Is it not time for new ceasefire, starting this Christmas? Ceasefires in the past have not been successful. Is this such a crazy proposal? If you agree, please help  spread the word so that Syria may now enjoy a period of peace, even if it is short lived. Maybe that peace will become permanent. That would be appropriate during this season.

In 1914, in a series of truces on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day soldiers, who were mostly British and German, ventured into "no man's land," where they mingled, and exchanged food and souvenirs. They even played soccer. What was possible then should also be possible today.

Politicians of the world, please take note. A newly restored world is looming just over the horizon. They must do what they can to hasten that day, and not place impediments in its way. Syria is just one example. Many more countries can be cited. Instead of involving themselves in real politik, they should do what they can to promote shalom in this world.

Shalom will one day become a full reality again. Christ came into the world to restore shalom. Let us pray for that during this Christmas season.


  1. Very much like your remarks here. However, since "lifeboat personal salvation" has been the norm in evangelical circles for several centuries, how will that model ever be overcome?