During the American civil war, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the following words that would later become the 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!”
Earlier that year, Longfellow’s son had been seriously wounded in the Battle of Mine Run, and just two years earlier he had lost his second wife when an accidental fire in their home left her with fatal burns. Previously, his first wife had passed away following a miscarriage. Longfellow was someone acquainted with loss and sorrow.
And indeed, when we face sorrow and suffering in life, we too may feel like hanging our heads in despair. When we look around and see a broken world, when family and loved ones pass away before we had hoped, when our bodies fail us, when our careers seem stuck, and when things simply aren’t proceeding as we’d long hoped, we can be tempted to feel perhaps a little bit hopeless.
But friend, we have “good news of great joy”! As the poem continues:
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.”
Indeed, God is not dead. He does not sleep! He is the same God today who said to Moses:
“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey […]”
He has seen our sufferings and our afflictions. And indeed, at Christmastime we celebrate that He has come down to deliver us! The angels announced the arrival of Jesus, saying:
“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.”
And He came to deliver us from something far worse than even the ancient Egyptian taskmasters. He came to deliver us from our slavery to sin, to pay the penalty for our unrighteousness, and to give all who receive Him “the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). This is great news! Jesus is the perfect King, the prophesied “root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples” whose “resting place shall be glorious” (Isaiah 11:10). In Him we have a real, lasting hope that can enable us to “rejoice in our sufferings” (Romans 5:3). God’s not dead. He does not sleep.
Friend, this Christmas season as we reflect on Immanuel (God with us!), let us pray that God may “enlighten the eyes of our hearts” so that we may deeply know “the hope to which He has called us” (Ephesians 1:18) and that we may “rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2) no matter our present circumstances, with thankful hearts for all He has done and all He has promised. May he strengthen us to proclaim the great hope we have to the world around us.