THE SADNESS OF CHRISTMAS

People grieve at Christmas. When we flip our calendars over to December, whatever difficulty, grief or trouble we’re dealing with doesn’t suddenly disappear in honor of the season. The parties, feel-good movies (here’s looking at you, Hallmark), and decorating can actually intensify feelings of sadness. Our reality doesn’t match what we’re “supposed” to be experiencing.

In Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, we find a tragic, horrifying event. “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under…” (Matthew 2:16). Some time after the miraculous coming of the Savior, Herod, in his lust for power and his determination to remove all rivals, ordered the killing of innocent little boys. Not thousands, as has sometimes been claimed; in the small community of Bethlehem, it was likely no more than thirty or so. But that is thirty heartbroken mothers and fathers. The pain of a few is no less than the pain of many.

This is the part of the Christmas story that doesn’t make it into the Christmas carols or the children’s pageants. There was no joy to the world for these stricken families. It wasn’t a triumphant, happy morning. In fact, their lives had just gotten much worse. The parents of these murdered babies and toddlers, who most certainly had heard about the angels announcing peace on earth, must have felt that a cruel joke had been played on them. Their lives were turned upside down, and everything they thought they knew about God was now suspect. Matthew quotes a lament from Jeremiah: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more” (Matthew 2:17-18).

If we’re honest, we identify with these weeping mothers. Yes, we know that the world hasn’t yet been made right. We know that we live in a world of rebellion against God, and that innocent people suffer. But still, joy to the world feels elusive.

The problem is that we fail to separate the trappings that have come to define our celebration of Christmas (food, family, fun, cozy feelings, all our dreams come true) from the essence of Christmas – the Son of God coming to live with us. The trappings aren’t the problem exactly, because none of them are bad things in themselves. But their presence or absence can take center stage, making us forget that Christmas is about giving us what we really need, Jesus Himself. Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

That description gives us tremendous hope. It should make us sing. But Jesus is also a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, his own grief and ours. He came to a world of pain in order to redeem and remake it. This should comfort our bruised, hurting hearts and free us from the idea that we have to be happy clappy in order to celebrate Christmas properly. We can hold both things at the same time – the sadness and the hope.

Because a Merry Christmas isn’t a matter of denying our sadness, but a matter of the bedrock truth of God With Us. In that truth we can rejoice, even as we weep.

NOW THANK WE ALL OUR GOD

I saw this the other day – “It’s not happy people who are thankful, but thankful people who are happy.” Great line. What does it mean?

“Now Thank We All Our God” comes to mind, the classic Thanksgiving hymn. The writer must have been thinking of bountiful harvests, a healthy family gathered around an overloaded table, a beautiful landscape of fiery-colored trees and peacefully grazing cattle.

If that’s what you’re picturing, you’d be wrong.

Martin Rinkart, the German author of these lyrics, lived through the Thirty Years’ War in Europe (1618-1648), three decades of bloodshed, famine, starvation and disease. He was a pastor in Eilenberg, a walled city overcrowded with political and military refugees. Several waves of a deadly plague swept through the city, reaching its height in 1637. There were four ministers in Eilenberg – one moved away to somewhere safer, two died of the plague, and Martin was left to conduct between forty and fifty funerals a day, for a total of nearly five thousand. His generosity to refugees was so great that he often had trouble feeding his own family during the famine that followed the plague.

In 1637, while the world was literally falling apart around him, Martin sat down to write this:

Now thank we all our God
With hearts and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom His world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms
Hath blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love,
And still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God
Through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts
And blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace,
And guide us when perplexed,
And free us from all ills
In this world and the next.

All praise and thanks to God
The Father now be given,
The Son and Him who reigns
With Them in highest heaven.
The one eternal God
Whom earth and heaven adore-
For thus it was, is now,
And shall be evermore.

At our Thanksgiving tables we typically thank God for family, home, health, friends and food. For Martin, all five of those were disappearing.

We have to ask, what exactly was he thankful for?

If you carefully read the lyrics, you will find that Martin was content with God himself – God’s love, peace, grace, guidance, and sovereignty, “the one eternal God, whom earth and heaven adore.” Life was excruciating, but God was enough. Certainly Martin prayed for outward circumstances to change, but his faith was anchored in the God who was present in the incredible human suffering that surrounded him. You could say that in the midst of disaster he was happy.

This Thanksgiving some will have a Hallmark experience, but many others will not. “Now Thank We All Our God” reminds us that nothing can take God from us. Not conflicted or broken families, not financial reversal, not a political and social world in turmoil, not illness, nothing. In our joy he smiles with us, and in our pain and grief he tenderly surrounds us with himself. He is an unshakeable resting place.

“The Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love” (Psalm 147:11).

It truly is thankful people who are happy, not the other way around. Thank God for his faithful servant, Martin Rinkart, who showed us how it’s done.

Listen to the hymn here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=321FkZJnP1c

HOW OLD ARE YOU?

Lately my five-year-old grandson has become fascinated with numbers in general, and with my age specifically.

“How old are you, grandma?” begins most of our conversations. He knows the answer; he just thinks it’s amusing to keep asking. He has made the solemn observation that I’m pretty much the oldest person he knows.

The questions are getting more complicated. “How many years until you’re a hundred?” Together, we figure it out. The practical implications of me reaching that level of ancientness dawned on him a couple weeks ago. “What happens if you get to a hundred?” In his mind this is a very remote possibility, but we better talk about it.

“Then it’ll be your job to throw me a big party,” I told him. “I want a parade with a marching band and dancing elephants.” He’ll be well into adulthood by then, with children of his own who will regard him as impossibly old. I hope I’m around to see that.

Whether I’m still here for the dancing elephants or not, I’ve always operated under the assumption that my life will go on for a good long time to come. I’d say we all think that about ourselves. But my church congregation has experienced several unexpected deaths in the last few months, and the assumption of living to a ripe and healthy old age has been revealed for what it is – an admirable goal with no guarantees. It’s not wrong to aim for a long and healthy life, hopefully with body and intellect both functioning well. Life is a gift, and we’re expected to take care of it. But we are reminded that healthy people die, young people die, and that life and death are unpredictable.

We are shaken and grief stricken. Our God understands this and grieves with us. One of the most poignant moments in the life of Jesus is when he stands at the tomb of Lazarus and weeps. He experiences and sympathizes with the pain of losing a dearly loved family member and friend. Sin has unleashed the unnaturalness of death, and it’s heartbreaking.

Maybe “How old are you?” is the wrong question. A better question is “How Christlike are you?” Or “How full of faith are you?” Or “How committed to advancing God’s kingdom are you?” The number signifying your age doesn’t matter, only what you do with the days and weeks and years that are given to you by the sovereign God who holds life and death in his hands. The number is his business; the quality of joy and obedience is our business.

Dear grandson, your youth is a gift to me. I love your bright spirit, your endless (exhausting) curiosity, the way you skip along ahead of me when we walk at the lake. You’re in love with the world, filled with joy.

Guess what? I want to be like you, here and now, and for the rest of my life. However long that turns out to be.

Oh God, you are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you,
my body longs for you,
in a dry and weary land
where there is no water.
I have seen you in the sanctuary
and beheld your power and your glory.
Because your love is better than life,
my lips will glorify you.
I will praise you as long as I live,
and in your name I will lift up my hands.
I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods;
with singing lips my mouth will praise you.
Psalm 63:1-5