Over the first 35 years of my life I had an uncle who was a very simple man. I saw him frequently, as his business shared the same driveway and property as the home in which I grew up. There were times I worked for him, especially in summers.
I later finished school and came home to that community as a pastor, and my uncle attended the church. In one of my Christmas musical productions that I had planned, I had one of the choir members act like he was angry after a happy sort of song. He threw his book down and said, “I’m sick of all this joy and cheerfulness and happy this and happy that. The world is a mess, and we’re singing about joy, joy, joy.” And he went on to elaborate, illustrating about some global problems, etc., after which I pretended to settle him down in front of everyone … asking him to just consider the big idea of the next song — some version of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
I certainly thought it was pretty clear that the whole thing was a skit. But seeing my uncle the next day, he said, “Wow, that guy at church last night was really upset and made a scene; what’s his problem?”
The skit was lost on him!
But you know the song, and you likely know the feeling. A verse of the 1863 poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow says …
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!”
There are several other verses of the poem that have never made it into hymnals — verses that speak specifically of the Civil War in particular, being written in the midst of that national upheaval.
Life is tough. The invasive nature of evil and injustice pretty much annually bring God’s people to have to ponder the celebrating of the joy of Christmas in a context of known miseries and despair.
Jesus knew it would be this way for his followers in a sinful world yet awaiting the final restoration of all things into a new heaven and new earth. As he neared his final act and pending return to the Father, he said to the disciples (Luke 16) …
16:1 — “All this I have told you so that you will not fall away. 2 They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God. 3 They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me. 4 I have told you this, so that when their time comes you will remember that I warned you about them. I did not tell you this from the beginning because I was with you, 5 but now I am going to him who sent me. None of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6 Rather, you are filled with grief because I have said these things. 7 But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.
Wow, doesn’t verse 2 sound like some of what is going on in the world today? The past two millennia have been replete with such times as these — times where evil abounds and wars increase and suffering multiplies.
But even so, there is a bigger picture. The joy of Christ’s incarnation and earthly ministry would later bring the sorrow, turned to joy, of the death and resurrection of Christ. His ascension to the Father made possible the great resource of the Advocate — the Holy Spirit — to come and indwell and sufficiently help us through our years and sojourn in a sinful world.
And the greater truth is that which also finished Longfellow’s poem — “The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.”
Until that final restoration which is our hope, we have these final words of John chapter 16, verse 33 … “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”