Back from college for Christmas and I was honored to preach in my home church – FBC Indialantic, Florida. When I walked to the podium, I stood there in silence…and just waited. No reading of my text, no words of introduction – just silence. It was awkward. Very awkward – but intentional. Soon the Christmas music began playing over the speakers – “Silent Night.” The congregation relaxed as they heard the familiar melody we all love, especially made beautiful by the soothing, blended voices of the well-known duo, Simon and Garfunkel. However, within a minute, the sound was garbled; we couldn’t understand the words. I knew everyone was probably thinking that our church’s new sound system had developed frequency interference problems because the news from the radio was now coming over our loud speakers and interrupting this beautiful song. Within a few seconds, we all got it – Simon and Garfunkel was sending a different message and that was that the bad news of race marches, murder, and war on the 7:00 PM news drowned out the Good News of “Silent Night.”
Fast forward a half century and the seven o’clock news is again over-powering the good news of Christmas. “All is calm, all is bright?” Not so.
- Not in many of the churches I serve and care deeply about; not in the lives of many of my pastors;
- Not in my country that has made progress but still erupts with flames and anger over race issues;
- Not in this world where children are murdered by terrorists and people are beheaded because they are Christians who will not bow to ISIS.
Yet, in reflection, we all know that peace has always been illusive and short-lived at best. Remember the 1864 words of another favorite Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”
I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
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, good will to men.’
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, good will to men.’
Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
These words reflect the heart of a man who was well acquainted with disappointment and death, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In 1864 the Civil War was still demolishing and demoralizing our nation: brother fighting against brother as Americans kept slaughtering each other by the thousands. If that wasn’t enough, peace had earlier disappeared from Longfellow’s personal life when his wife, Fanny, died in a horrible house fire in which he tried to save her and ended up burning himself so severely he could not attend her funeral. In fact, he wore a beard for the rest of his life because his burn scares would not allow him to shave. His diary records his broken heart: “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” And a year later on December 25th 1862 he wrote: “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.” If that wasn’t enough, a year later his oldest son Charles, an Army lieutenant, was severely wounded and the author was so heartbroken he could not bring himself to write one word in his journal on Christmas Day 1863.
Then Christmas 1864 arrived and something changed. Longfellow penned the poem that declared the reality we all know – there is no “peace on earth.” Yet, his perspective changed from the heartbreak of previous years. The last stanzas express another reality, an invisible reality of a sublime peace because “God is not dead nor does He sleep” even though it may seem so.“God is not dead nor does He sleep” even though it may seem so. Click To Tweet
This is the same peace Jesus promised: “My peace I give to you, not the kind of peace that the world gives.” This peace is far beyond tranquil feelings birthed in the cocoon of a trouble-free life. This is a peace that “passes all understanding” and does not deny disappointment and pain. Hear our Savior as he pours out his soul on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Agonizing words for sure, but not the end of the news from the cross! Like any good rabbi, Jesus knew when he quoted from King David’s prayer that these words of abandonment were David’s first feelings, not his last. Psalm 22 begins with anger, but closes with praise:
“I will praise you. …For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.”
How encouraging. How instructive. Longfellow, King David, and even Jesus, all refused to deny their feelings of anger, frustration and bewilderment with God’s silence. However, just importantly, they also refused to become bitter and allow their limited, time-restricted understanding of their present pain to hold them hostage and to rob them of deep peace and joy. They were liberated to experience the indescribable joy the angels heralded to the shepherds. So it was with the apostle Paul. He too had such a genuine “peace on earth” that while he was locked in prison, he could write to his Philippian friends about true joy.
This Christmas, I wish you joy and peace that only comes from Immanuel – “God with us,” even in the chaos and pain of tonight’s seven o’clock news.
PS Click here for Casting Crowns wonderful version of “I Heard the Bells”