My message from yesterday’s worship…
The Sunday after Thanksgiving I gave a message called Surviving the Holidays and we heard a testimony from Rick Richardson. Rick had lost his wife several years ago and one of the things he talked about was the difficultly of the holidays. It was a topic that touched to a lot of people. Christmas is supposed to be a joyous season, but for many it’s also a painful season. Rick’s testimony unearthed some of those hurts and opened my eyes to the pain people experience around this time of year. That lead me back to a story that I discovered last year about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow was one of the most famous American poets and he wrote a poem that’s pretty popular around this time of year.
The poem was written on Christmas of 1864 during a period of great difficulty. If you’re familiar with your history then you know that our nation was in the fourth year of a long, bloody civil war. The war had a devastating effect on our country and there was not a single family unaffected by its misery. It was a dark period and a time of despair and hopelessness. The same year the war began, 1861, was also a year of personal tragedy for Longfellow. His wife and the mother of his five children, Frances, had died in a house fire.
Longfellow kept a journal and his entry on Christmas Day of 1861 said “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” A year later on December 25th of 1862, Longfellow’s journal entry reads: “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.” A year after that, in 1863, Longfellow received word that his oldest son Charles, a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac, had been severely wounded in battle and would be crippled for life. On Christmas Day of that year he couldn’t find the words and his journal was silent.
Then, on December 25th of 1864 his journal entry contained the words to a poem titled “Christmas Bells.” It originally contained seven stanzas, two of which were taken out later. The rest were slightly re-arranged in 1872 by John Baptiste Calkin who put the words to a song that we know today as the Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” As you read through the stanzas of the song you can follow the story. It’s a very dark period in Longfellow’s life. He had suffered personal tragedies and there was no end in sight to the lingering war. But as he walked out in the streets that Christmas morning he heard the bells. And despite his despair, they told of a coming peace and reminded him of the words the angels spoke to the shepherds on that first Christmas. He writes in the first stanza…
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!
The bells remind him of the promise of Christ. That the arrival of the Messiah brings peace and hope. But then the reality of his situation sinks in and he writes in another stanza…
But 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!”
And then in the midst of his hopelessness the bells ring out again. The song continues on, the bells keep playing and he discovers that the message remains. So he proclaims in the final stanza…
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.”
I don’t know where you are today. I don’t know what wars rage in your life. I don’t know what personal tragedies you’ve endured or what despair you’re fighting to overcome. I know that sometimes it seems that the holidays just pile on top of the already pressing burdens. But if you’ll look past the material aspect of this season and look to its spiritual meaning, you’ll hear that the bells are still ringing and they carry the same song of peace and hope. The message of the angels to the shepherds in the field is still the same to us today…
”Fear not, for I bring you tidings of great joy, for all people. For unto us is born, in the town of David, a Savior which is Christ is the Lord. Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill to men.”
Our worship today is designed to carry that message forth. Through familiar carols and hymns we’ll proclaim the message of Christmas. Regardless of where you are today spiritually, we invite you to reflect on that message. Jesus has come and there is now hope in the midst of despair and peace in the midst of turmoil!