A Thrill of Hope, the Weary World Rejoices!

This article will be featured in the December 25, 2020 edition of The Manchester Journal, our local paper.

You don’t need me to tell you that 2020 has been a year that has made us weary. Whether your weariness is social, economic, physical, relational, job-related, screen-related, or a combination of all of these and other reasons, “wearisome” is probably an apt description of your 2020. Experts talk about “pandemic fatigue,” but we might not even read their articles because we are fatigued of thinking about fatigue. While I was writing this article, a news notification popped up, “Can you get coronavirus from Christmas cards?” Mercifully, the basic answer is no, but one year ago who would have ever thought we would have this kind of low-grade stress constantly in the back of our minds? However you are celebrating Christmas this year, you and I are bringing all of that into this holiday season. In the midst of this weariness, however, there is one Christmas carol line that keeps coming back to my mind: “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices!”

This line from O Holy Night is talking about a hope that is just as true and vibrant today as it was the night that Christ was born. The Bible tells us that two of the reasons that Christ came were to bring hope through personal peace today, and forever peace in heaven. We get wearied by our lack of personal peace. We wonder if there is a God who cares. We wonder if anything that happened in Bible times has anything to do with us today. Christmas reminds us that God cares, and God acts for us—today. The Gospel of Matthew explains the relevance of an ancient prophecy, written 700 years before Jesus in the book of Isaiah: “‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).”

The reason that Christians celebrate Christ’s birth is because we believe what the Bible teaches, that it marks the entrance of God into the world in human flesh. Jesus entered into our suffering world, and after living a perfect life of love, died on the cross at the time the Passover lambs were being sacrificed, as “The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) The Bible explains in Romans 5:1 why this matters today, after talking about Jesus’s death and resurrection:  “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is the gift of God to all who will receive it: our sins are paid for and we are accepted by God as our father. Because of Jesus we can live life knowing that God is for us and with us no matter what kind of suffering or what kind of year we are walking through.

But the message of Christmas doesn’t end with an earth that is so susceptible to viruses and suffering and sin. The thrill of hope isn’t just for now. The weary world rejoices because one day it will be made new. We celebrate Jesus’s first advent, his first coming, now, but the Bible promises that one day, he will come to earth again—his second advent. He will make all things new and create a new heaven and new earth where we will be safe from sin, and suffering, and death. This is God’s Christmas gift to us, encapsulated in the memorable words of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

On Christmas Eve in 1871, during the Franco-Prussian War, an unarmed French soldier jumped out of the trenches, walked onto the battlefield, and sang the first line from O Holy Night in French. After he sang all three verses, a German soldier emerged and sang a popular German carol, “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” The story says that both sides then joined together in singing an Austrian carol. The battle stopped for the next 24 hours in honor of Christmas Day. Temporary peace was initiated by O Holy Night.

Wouldn’t it seem too good to be true if peace were initiated not just for 24 hours but for today and for eternity? The gospel always sounds like the best news you’ve ever heard once you understand it. That is the truth Christians celebrate at Christmas, that Jesus came to bring personal peace today, and forever peace in heaven. That is the best reason for a thrill of hope, and for a weary world to rejoice. In the weariness of 2020, may you find peace in Christ this Christmas.

“Always Winter But Never Christmas?”: Finding Joy This Season

This article appeared in the December 20, 2019 edition of our local paper, The Manchester Journal.

“It is winter in Narnia, and has been for ever so long…always winter and never Christmas; think of that!” With these words, Mr. Tumnus the faun from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe captured the imagination of my children—and me. This winter, my wife and I have been reading them “The Chronicles of Narnia” for their bedtime stories. I had read the beloved classics, as perhaps you have, as a boy, but it had been decades since I last read them. This time, reading them as an adult and as a pastor, I have been amazed at the beautiful parallels with life and even the Christian life as Lewis’ allegory points to Jesus through Aslan, the lion.

But I have not been able to let that phrase go: “always winter and never Christmas.” We know that in one sense so many of us love winter or we would not live in Vermont. We love the skiing, we love the crunchy snow under our feet, we love sipping hot cocoa while watching the snowflakes gently fall. There’s nothing quite like celebrating Christmas in Vermont with snow on the ground. But if it was always winter and never Christmas, if there was no joy in the midst of the long winter, if six months of no leaves stretched into twelve months with no foliage, we would tire of the winter weather.

Lewis described our hearts without joy so well with his phrase, “always winter and never Christmas.” As we approach Christmas, I have been thinking about what we try to draw joy from around Christmastime. We see the word “joy” all over the place: in decorations for the season, in songs on the radio and in the stores. But joy can be elusive. The grandkids don’t visit. The cancer has returned. The toys were exciting for the kids for a couple of hours, but now they’ve moved on to playing with the boxes. Maybe for you the season brings back difficult childhood memories. In your soul, you feel like it is always winter, but never Christmas, even on Christmas Day.

Lift up your head. Aslan breaks the curse, and even heals our hearts. There is joy available that is outside of our circumstances, joy that can coexist with tears. It is a joy that is elastic enough that it can bring the joy of Christmas to both the young parent with the overwhelming list of things to do for the kids, and the elderly person in his or her empty home. It is a joy that stretches to magnify the best times of life and that quietly comes alongside of us to meet us during our darkest moments. This joy is a person who is so much more than a person. His name is Jesus. This is why Christians get so excited about Christmas.

The Gospel of John explains about Jesus, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.” (John 1:5, 12, 14) You see, Christians get excited about Christmas because we truly believe that we can’t work our way to God. The darkness is not only outside of us, it is even in us. But the message of Christmas is that God didn’t expect us to work our way up to him, but he came down to us to offer us free joy now and for eternity.

Before the spring thaw comes, my kids and I will be reading the seventh book in the Narnia series. We will read these words in The Last Battle that I hope will ring true to your heart this Christmas season so that for your soul it will not be always winter and never Christmas: “‘Yes,’ said Queen Lucy. ‘In our world too, a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.’”

Talk about joy to the world!

For Those Who Need Hope (All Of Us)

the-hope-of-christmasA shortened version of this post appeared in The Manchester Journal.

I love everything about Christmas. The decorations. The lights. The snow. The music. And yes, Christmas movies. My wife and I began a yearly tradition of watching White Christmas when we were first married fourteen years ago, and two years ago we watched it in Vermont for the first time, after I became a pastor here. “Vermont should be beautiful this time of year, all that snow…” But the last two years Christmas has been snowless just like in the movie, except without the surprise snow on Christmas Eve. Maybe this year will be our first white Christmas!

I have noticed over the years that there is one recurring theme in every Christmas movie, even if it has nothing to do with the Christmas story from the Bible:  HOPE. In White Christmas, it is the hope of snow and true love on Christmas. In It’s a Wonderful Life it is the hope of finding purpose and joy in life again. In How the Grinch Saved Christmas it is the hope of even the most depraved person finding their heart and caring for others again. We could go on and on. Hope–in every one.

I think this is because innately, people know that things are not the way they should be, and if a miracle is ever going to happen, a miracle that changes things, then why not on Christmas?

Pushing Back the Cultural Haze
There are so many messages in our culture about what the basic meaning of Christmas is: love, giving, a warm feeling, family, or friends. Christmas means lots of things to lots of different people, and all of these things are good things. But since Christmas began as a holiday to celebrate Christ’s birth, we need to push back the cultural haze to see clearly what the Bible says Christmas is all about. What is the most basic meaning of Christmas? The angels can tell us.

Mary was startled to learn from the angel Gabriel, “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” (Luke 1:31-32a)

Joseph had his moment of clarity from an angel of the Lord in a dream: “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)

On the night that is now known as the hinge of history, the fog was really pushed back when an angel of the Lord appeared to shepherds in a field outside Bethlehem and assured them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)

Don’t Let Christmas Be Stolen From You
The Bible boldly proclaims that the greatest miracle that ever could happen already happened on Christmas. Jesus is the reason for Christmas. God was in the manger that night. God entered into our suffering world, physically. God himself appeared in the flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ. God is not “out there,” God is here. Jesus is Immanuel–which means, “God with us.” That is why we celebrate Christmas, because Jesus didn’t just give us hope in the past; Jesus’ salvation and presence today give us hope today.

This is good news. If Christmas is mostly about love, then Christmas will be stolen from me if I don’t feel like loving others, or if I am hurt by someone I love. If Christmas is mostly about giving, then Christmas will be stolen from me if I am ever in a tough situation and can’t give. If Christmas is mostly about a warm feeling, Christmas will be stolen from me if I wake up on the wrong side of the bed on Christmas morning. If Christmas is mostly about family and friends, Christmas will be stolen from me if I am ever far from my family and find myself with few friends. But if Christmas is not about what I can do or what my circumstances are any given year, but about God himself coming to me, then I can be joyful each and every Christmas. Jesus is for those who need hope–and that is all of us.

Jesus Is the Hope of Christmas: Our 2016 Advent Sermon Series

I love everything about Christmas.  The decorations.  The lights.  The snow.  The music. And yes, Christmas movies.  My wife and I began a tradition of watching “White Christmas” when we were first married, and last year we watched it in Vermont for the first time.  “Vermont should be beautiful this time of year, all that snow…”  Nope, just like the movie, it was 70 degrees on Christmas Eve.

I have noticed over the years that there is one recurring theme in every Christmas movie, even if it has nothing to do with the real Christmas story:  HOPE.  In “White Christmas,” it is the hope of snow and true love on Christmas.  In “It’s a Wonderful Life” it is the hope of finding purpose and joy in life again.  In “How the Grinch Saved Christmas” it is the hope of even the most depraved person finding their heart and caring for others again.  We could go on and on.  Hope–in every one.

the-hope-of-christmasI think this is because innately, people know that things are not the way they should be, and if a miracle is ever going to happen, a miracle that changes things, then why not on Christmas?  But as Christians, we know that the greatest miracle that ever could happen already happened on Christmas.  He is the reason for Christmas.  God was in the manger that night.  God entered into our suffering world, physically.  God Himself appeared in the flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ.  God is not “out there,” God is here.  Jesus is Immanuel–God with us.  That is why we celebrate Christmas, because Jesus didn’t just give us hope in the past, Jesus’ salvation and presence today gives us hope today.

Our community and our world need hope, and Christmas gives some unique opportunities to share true, lasting hope–even gospel hope!  I will be preaching 3 sermons leading up to and including Christmas, to prepare our hearts as we seek to celebrate the Savior:

  • Jesus is the Hope of Christmas Because God Always Keeps His Promises
    (December 11, Matthew 1:1-17, the Genealogy of Jesus)
  • Jesus is the Hope of Christmas Because He Will Save His People From Their Sins
    (December 18, Matthew 1:18-25, the Birth of Christ from Joseph’s perspective)
  • Jesus is the Hope of Christmas Because He Offers Eternal Joy For All People
    (December 25, Matthew 2:1-12, The Visit of the Wise Men)

I can’t wait to celebrate Jesus with you–the true hope of Christmas!  And yes, I am hoping for a white Christmas.