Out of the Darkness / Christmas Day

Isaiah 9:2-7

2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.

On April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, was assassinated by a well-known actor named John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln was the first U.S. president to be assassinated, with his funeral and burial marking an extended period of national mourning.

Occurring near the end of the American Civil War, Lincoln’s assassination was part of a larger conspiracy intended by Booth to revive the Confederate cause by eliminating the three most important officials of the United States government. Two conspirators were assigned to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward.

Another was assigned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson. Except for Lincoln’s death, the plot failed: Seward was only wounded, and Johnson’s would-be attacker became drunk instead of killing the Vice President. After a dramatic initial escape, John Wilkes Booth was killed at the climax of a twelve-day chase.

You may wonder what Lincoln’s assassination has to do with Christmas. I’m glad you asked. According to Dr. Ray Pritchard, the news of Lincoln’s death deeply troubled a young minister in Philadelphia named Phillips Brooks. When the slain president’s body lay in state in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Brooks went to pay his respects.

“A few months later,” according to Prichard, “hoping to lift his spirits, the church sent [the young minister] to the Holy Land. The itinerary included a horseback ride from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve . . .”

“Later that evening Phillips Brooks spent some time in the field where, according to tradition, the shepherds heard the announcement of Christ’s birth. Then he finished the day by attending the Christmas Eve service at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.”

Phillips Brooks was deeply touched by his experience in the Holy Land. Three years later he wrote a Christmas poem that reflected how much he was touched. Lewis Redner, the church organist, composed a melody to accompany Brooks’ poem. The result was a beloved Christmas carol that begins like this:

O little town of Bethlehem / How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep / The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth / The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years / Are met in thee tonight.

Imagine that! Out of a deep tragedy came a beautiful expression of faith.

Quite coincidentally, about that same time, in Germany, another favorite carol was being composed. It first appeared in a small Lutheran book of worship.  Shortly thereafter, someone placed the name of Martin Luther on the bottom of the page. This led many people to think that Martin Luther composed the hymn.  But Luther died two hundred years before this carol was written.  Still, it is a beautiful expression of faith. It begins like this:

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus lay down His sweet head.
The stars in the sky looked down where He lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay . . .”

But that is not the end of the story. It was during this same time that the noted poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow found himself in a state of deep despair.  It was Christmas day. But it was difficult for Longfellow to muster up any Christmas cheer. Not only was our nation involved in a bloody Civil War, but his wife had died a couple of years earlier in a household fire. He had tried to save her and was badly burned himself. Not only that but his son had joined the Union army without his permission and was severely wounded. Longfellow was nearly at his wit’s end. Yet it was on this day that he was able to write these profound words:

I heard the bells on Christmas day / Their old familiar carols play
And mild and sweet their songs 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.

Such was the effect of the Civil War on poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—deep dejection. But listen to Longfellow’s crowning refrain:  

Then rang 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.

Think about it, friends. Our nation was engaged in a terrible Civil War—brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor. And out of that turbulent time, some of our most beautiful Christmas hymns were being composed.

We worry about the divided state of our nation today, yet compared to that terrible time when an unparalleled amount of blood was being shed in our beloved land, that division is hardly worth contemplating. And yet, during that terrible time, the Spirit of God was leading men and women of sensitive spirits to write music that will forever warm hearts wherever Christian believers gather together to celebrate the Lord’s birth. There is a message here—a message of profound hope. Listen to the word for this day from Isaiah:

“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned . . .”

Then further on we read: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.”

Do you hear what the prophet is saying to us? No matter how dark the night, God will be with us. This is one of the great promises that God has made to His people. God is always with us in our times of darkness.

Have you ever been through a time of darkness? Most of us have at one time or another. This past couple of years has somewhat popped the balloon of some of us who are perpetual optimists. First, a pandemic, the likes of which we somewhat assumed we as a society were immune. More than six million dead worldwide thanks to the Covid virus.  We’ve read of the black plague, the pandemic that ravaged Europe between 1347 and 1351, taking a proportionately greater toll of life than any other known epidemic or war up to that time. But that was during the Middle Ages for heaven’s sake! Science, we thought, had taken us so much further than that.

We’ve seen documentaries concerning smallpox, the epidemic which is estimated to have killed up to 300 million people in the 20th century alone. It was a terrible time for humanity. But that was before a British doctor named Edward Jenner discovered that milkmaids infected with a milder virus called cowpox seemed immune to smallpox. And soon we had the first mass vaccination. And smallpox was stopped in its tracks. No one fears smallpox anymore.

We thought we no longer had to dread the possibility of a worldwide epidemic, but the Covid virus kind of sneaked up on us. Darkness has a way of doing that to us.

Of course, darkness not only comes to us disguised as a dread disease. Whoever dreamed a little over a year ago that, thanks to Mr. Putin, the fears of a new Cold War would be rekindled in Europe, after a half century of relative peace and tranquility. Though it never got that far, suddenly we were reminded of the specter of nuclear annihilation. We dared hope the days of training our children to hide under their desks in case we were attacked by our enemies with the most powerful weapons ever created, were forever gone. Suddenly that sense of security was taken from us.

Some of us might remember a story by the creative novelist Kurt Vonnegut titled Cat’s Cradle written in the midst of that tense time. First published in 1963 this story showed a physicist who helped create the atomic bomb visiting his laboratory during the Christmas season.

Office employees are all standing around a crèche singing Christmas carols. They’re singing the carol that Phillips Brooks was inspired to write after his visit to the Holy Land:

O little town of Bethlehem / How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep / The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth / The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years / Are met in thee tonight.”

Concerning this scene, Christian author Philip Yancey asked, “Do the carolers really believe that the hopes and fears of all the years—which will vanish in a moment if someone presses the wrong button—rests on faith in a Bethlehem newborn destined to live only thirty-three years?”

Yes, that is what we believe. The God of all creation came to a humble maiden

in an obscure village called Nazareth and told her that she would bear a child. That child is the hope of this world.

Of course, that child is not only the hope of the world; he is the hope of each of us gathered here this day.

Just a few years ago a devoted pastor named Ron Mehl lost his twenty-three year long struggle with leukemia.  He began his battle with this dread disease only seven years into a remarkable ministry at his church in Portland, Oregon. During the thirty years he was the pastor at this church it went from an attendance of twelve the first Sunday to a worshipping congregation of more than six thousand—at its height the largest congregation in Oregon. And did I mention that throughout his ministry, this devoted pastor wrote thirteen books, most of which were best sellers? Darkness can envelop all kinds of people—the righteous as well as those less virtuous.

A few years before his death, it became obvious the traditional cancer therapies were no longer working. Mehl’s doctors wanted him to try a new therapy that was still in the testing phase. It carried many risks. As Ron Mehl drove to the hospital in the early morning hours, he heard God speak these reassuring words to his heart, “Son, remember this. My promises are designed for the darkness.” Mehl held on to those words throughout his treatment. Before his death, Ron Mehl wrote, “Our hope is in God. He is awake; He is at work—and I would rather have His promises in the dark than all the lights of Las Vegas . . .”

“Here is the promise of Christmas, a promise made thousands of years ago, set in motion two thousand years ago, and a promise that will be brought to fulfillment someday when we least expect it: the Messiah has come to bring light to a dark world. He has planted the seeds of the kingdom of God in you and me, and in God’s chosen ones from every tribe and every nation. And someday, Jesus will come again to establish that kingdom eternally, and on that day there will be no more darkness because we will be the in presence of the Light of the world. ‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.’”