The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 12/24/01
Text: Luke 2:8-16
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Christmas Eve, 1914.(1) A strange quiet had settled on the Western Front. It was a welcome respite for a group of lonely English soldiers who had become all too familiar with the roar of cannon and the whine of rifles. Even though the war was only five months old, some 800,000 men had already been wounded or killed.

As they reclined in their trenches, each man began to speculate about the activities of loved ones back home. "My parents are just finishing a toast to my health," a lad from Liverpool said slowly.

"I can almost hear the church bells," a stout man from London said wistfully. "My whole family will soon be walking out of the door to hear a concert of the boys choir at the cathedral."

The men sat silently for several minutes before a thin soldier from Kent looked up with tears in his eyes. "This is eerie...but I can almost hear the choir singing."

"So can I," said another puzzled voice. "I think there is music coming from the other side."

All the men scrambled to the edge of the trench and cocked their ears. What they heard was a few sturdy German voices singing Martin Luther's Christmas song:

From heaven above to earth I come,
To bear good news to everyone;
Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To all the world, and gladly sing.

When the hymn was finished, the English soldiers sat in silence. Then a large man with a powerful voice broke into "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen." A dozen voices joined..."Let nothing you dismay." Then more and more..."Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day." By the time the carol was finished, the entire regiment was singing.

The song was over and once again there was silence. Then a German tenor began to sing, "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht." This time it went on in two languages, a chorus of nearly a hundred voices echoing back and forth between the trenches, "Silent Night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright..."

"Someone is coming!" shouted a sentry. It was a single German soldier who walked slowly, waving a white cloth with one hand and holding several bars of chocolate in the other. Carefully, men from both sides eased out into the neutral zone and began to greet one another. In the next golden moments, each soldier shared what he had with the others - candy, cigarettes, even a bit of Christmas brandy. Most important, the soldiers showed the battered but treasured pictures they carried of loved ones.

No one knows whose idea it was to start the soccer match, but with the help of flares, the field was lit and the British and German soldiers played until they and the lights were exhausted. Then, as quietly as they came together, the men returned to their own sides.

On Christmas Day, men from both armies again joined together, even visiting the other's trenches. The German soldiers, wishing to avenge the previous night's torch-lit soccer loss, organized another game. This time they won: 3-2.

I heard the bells on Christmas day,
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet, the words repeat
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.(2)

In some places, the spontaneous truce continued the next day as neither side was willing to fire the first shot. But finally, with the arrival of fresh troops who had not experienced the remarkable interlude of Christmas peace and the orders of the High Commands of both armies saying that any further "informal understandings" with the enemy would be punishable as treason, the cannon once again boomed across no-man's land and the rifles were again heard in the trenches.

And in despair I bowed my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men."

Tonight, from Kabul to Kanduhar, from the caves of Tora Bora to the streets of Bethlehem, mothers wail and children weep because the peace of Christmas, 2001, what there is of it, is so fragile and fleeting. One of my friends e-mailed new lyrics to "O Little Town of Bethlehem" last night:

Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie;
Above thy deep and restless sleep, a missile glideth by.
And over dark streets soundeth the mortar's deadly roar
While children weep in shallow sleep for friends who are no more.

How silently, how silently their hope has gone away.
No laughter rings; no choir sings in shepherds' fields this day.
The angels in the heavens are hushed in sad lament.
Messiah's home has been burned down by those to whom He was sent.(3)

Perhaps we should not be surprised. After all, the gospel account of that blessed birth is surrounded by reference to a ruthless Roman Caesar and a vicious paranoid puppet king who orders the murder of baby boys.

December 28, 1914. The fighting had resumed. But for many in the trenches, it was now different. The enemy was no longer a nameless, faceless foe, but a friendly fellow who played soccer, ate chocolate, and carried a tattered picture of a pretty young wife and two blond-headed boys wanting their papa to come home. How do you casually kill someone like that? You don't.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;
God is not dead nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, goodwill to men.

Some years ago, just before Christmas at Princeton Seminary, a group of students and their families gathered in the chapel for evening devotions - carols, prayers, and scripture lessons. The high point of the service, of course, was the reading of those familiar words from Luke's gospel describing the decree of Caesar Augustus, the journey of Mary and Joseph, the wonder of the shepherds, the song of the angels. The lesson was read by Glenn Perica who is now the Pastor at Central Church in Longmont, Colorado but back then was simply a second-career seminarian who had come to school with his young family. As Glenn read, his little boy sat quietly at his feet, a study in single-minded concentration...not on the text, but on the task of firmly tying together his Daddy's shoelaces.(4) What a parable! The angels proclaim "Peace on Earth," but as we try to share that good news of great joy...even with enemy soldiers...we trip over our own feet. The miracle of Christmas is that God was willing to come in human flesh and join us in our stumbling estate.

He joins us again tonight. He invites us to his special Christmas meal. And he offers the peace of Christmas to one and all. God bless us everyone.


1. William R. White, Stories for the Journey, (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988), pp. 119-121

2. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

3. Don Hinchey, Littleton, CO

4. Theo Gill, "Notes from the Periphery", Monday Morning, 12/18/89

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