“O ye heights of Heav’n, adore Him, Angel hosts His praises sing. Pow’rs, dominions, bow before Him, And extol our God and King. Let no tongue on earth be silent, Ev’ry voice in concert ring, Evermore and Evermore!”
“Silent night, Holy night…” Tradition has it that Christ was born on a cold and silent night. The Bible doesn’t exactly say when he was born. It does say that the angels appeared to shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks by night; and that the wise men of the East followed a star to find the newborn King. But the Bible doesn’t talk about the night being unnaturally silent or cold– these are details we’ve added to the story that may or may not be accurate.
But one thing is certain– whatever silence may have settled over Bethlehem near the time of Christ’s arrival; whatever lull in the hustle and bustle of the busy city’s streets–there was no silence among those who heard the good news of His birth. From the singing hosts of Heaven’s angels, to the excited voices of the shepherds, the inquiring whispers among the wise men, and the nervous recitations of the prophecies among Herod’s advisors, Christ’s birth was met with a symphony of reaction.
And so it continues–as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day approach, hymns will be sung, rich with words like “Hallelujah,” “Joy, ” “Blessed,” “Adore,” “Savior,” “Lord,” “Wonder,” “Glory,” “In Excelsis Deo,” “Redeemer,” “King,” and “Emmanuel!” From every nation, and in every language, praise and worship will erupt from homes and churches. And this is in addition to prayer and worship that rises in an unbroken stream around the globe each day, every day.
It fills me with wonder to think that at any given moment, someone, somewhere, is praying and praising our Wonderful God. But millions of tongues are silent– even on Christmas–in response to God’s Everlasting Love and Grace. There are millions, even billions of tongues that will greet Christmas Day without wonder, without hope, without joy. Billions who will grumble about the weather, or the outcome of a sporting match, or their family relationships.
Someday, “no tongue on earth” will be able to keep silent in response to the Messiah. “Every knee shall bow, in Heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:10b-11 NIV)
Can you imagine a choir made up of every single human being–“every voice in concert”– declaring the worth and majesty of God’s Holy Lamb?! This babe born to be the Prince of Peace; this Only Begotten of the Father; our Emmanuel– He is worthy of such a concert! Let NO TONGUE on Earth be silent! Let us Extol Him! How Great Our Joy!!
‘Tis the season for Christmas Music– hymns and carols, ancient songs and modern tunes celebrating the Advent and Birth of the Lord Jesus. Joyful, passionate, somber, or even a bit silly, such music can lighten our spirits, and remind us of the incredible gift of God– Emmanuel–His very presence among mankind.
Christmas lyrics often use wonderful imagery to retell this amazing story. The Bible accounts tell of shepherds, angels, wise men, and stars– the songs give us the immediacy of a dark night– “silent”, “still”, “earth as hard as iron; water like a stone”, “a midnight clear”, “half-spent was the night”…
Most of us live in a world that rarely gets so dark. If we live in a town or city, we are surrounded by street lights, security lights, even night-lights in the hallway. Even so, we have a feeling for how the midnight and early morning hours seem darker, colder, quieter, and more dreary than any other time. And there is a significance in remembering that Jesus came to earth in the midst of literal and metaphorical darkness, “when half-spent was the night.”
God is Omnipresent– it is not as though God leaves us when all is merry and bright– but His presence is often most keenly sought, and unexpectedly found, in darkness and distress. When all seems bleak, cold, and hopeless, Jesus comes silently, small and fragile as a baby, bringing light, hope, joy, and peace. He comes when the night is “half-spent”– when the darkness is deepest, the silence weighs heaviest, and the cold is most bitter; when hope and light seem lost.
Jesus’ Advent came after four hundred hears of silence. Prophets, such as Isaiah, Zechariah, and Micah, had spoken of Messiah rescuing Israel from captivity. But the years had passed, and Rome ruled the Jewish people with an iron fist. God had stayed silent, and hope seemed remote. Rome would continue to rule the world for another four hundred years. But when Messiah arrived, He didn’t come to break the power of Rome. He didn’t come at the end of that particular “night”; rather, He came when the night was “half-spent.” He came gently, quietly, and humbly. He came to deliver Israel from something much darker, colder, and deadlier than a foreign occupation. Jesus, through His life and death and resurrection, came to deliver Israel, and the rest of the world, from the power of sin and death.
All the promise of deliverance and salvation that came in the middle of that bleak night so long ago, remains for us to celebrate– even in the middle of our “half-spent” nights.
We may not see the dawn in the middle of our struggles. We may not hear the angels singing or feel the warmth of the new day coming. But because of this “Rose e’er Blooming”, we can rejoice. We can find hope and peace in the present night, knowing that Emmanuel is with us!
There is a sickness in our world. Call it racism, or bigotry, or prejudice. Call it power, or oppression, or tyranny. Trace its roots to fear, to greed, to a lust for power, to pride, to hatred… Expose it as government overreach, police brutality, white supremacy, corruption, indifference to the suffering of others. Protest it with signs, looting, rioting, tear gas, lines of police officers in riot gear, shouting, and anger. Lots of anger.
There is not enough anger in the world to heal it.
Anger is a natural and even God-given emotion. God gets angry; even wrathful. It is right to be angry at injustice and hatred; division, greed, apathy, inequality, brutality, oppression, poverty, sickness, and death– they are unnatural, wrong, maddening.
But anger, even justified anger, cannot heal. It cannot build up, bind wounds, create peace. Anger feels powerful. It is active, dynamic, it tears down and threatens some of the powers that have, in their time, threatened us or those we love. It draws mobs that seem to share our anger– it looks like solidarity, even unity. It makes headlines. It creates “buzz.” It feels righteous and “right.” And it creates change. In the short term, anger “works.” Surging anger forces the oppressor to be quiet, go into hiding, make some small concessions…for now. Maybe they will pass legislation. Maybe they will give lip service to certain ideals. For now.
God understands anger– he even shares anger. Jesus even got angry. But God does not sanction letting our anger spill into vengeance, violence, and retaliation of sin for sin. Our anger does not give us the right to judge others, oppress others, steal destroy, or condemn.
The New Life 17 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 20 But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to put off your old self,[f] which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. 25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. 26 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil. 28 Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. 29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
If you have read this far, some of you will say that I am being unfair– speaking out against protesters, but not against the evil they are protesting. And if I have never spoken out against injustice, if I have never called upon people to seek peace, never lifted my hand to help my neighbors, never encouraged, never offered help, never shared in others’ grief, then I am the worst of hypocrites. Stop reading.
Anger asks us to act NOW– it asks us to abandon patience, prayer, and the promises of God, and take matters into our own hands–in our own power, in the moment, for the moment. And it tells us that we can and should act in the place of God to achieve what we believe to be His ends. Often, it asks us to act with little information, no time to reflect, and at the behest of others, who wish to use our anger to further their ends. Anger tells us that we can force evil people to surrender their power without being corrupted by it. And anger tells us that it has the only solution– the only action– that can bring peace.
Does this mean that no one should be angry? That we should do nothing active in the face of evil? ABSOLUTELY NOT! We should speak truth to our neighbors– not just the truth of our anger, but the truth of our hope for justice, our dependence on God, our love for our brothers and sisters, and our need for Mercy. We must not turn a blind eye to injustice, but we must work toward justice– not just vengeance. We must not sit silent in the face of bigotry, but we must love extravagantly– even those who seem unlovable and unwilling to love us in return. We must not silence those who are angry and hurt, but listen with respect and compassion–as we would wish to be heard.
And we MUST pray! Pray for the grieving; pray for our enemies; pray for justice; pray for peace. Pray even when we don’t have the answers– especially when we don’t have the answers. Pray–fervently, feverishly– pray on our knees and as we pace in frustration. Pray like we’ve never prayed before. Pray until we break a sweat; until we hunger and thirst for GOD’S presence on every street corner, and in every household, and at every riot, and every government office. Those who would silence our prayers and hold them in disdain are trying to silence the power of God Himself! They cannot win, but they can keep us from sharing in God’s ultimate victory by marching in a fake war, instead of defending the Kingdom. We must take our anger to God and let Him show us the path to justice, action, peace, and healing. He may ask us to step out in ways we never imagined–loving our enemy; sharing the gospel; standing in solidarity with those we used to fear; forgiving those who have hurt us; asking forgiveness from those we have hurt.
There is not enough anger to heal the world. There is enough Love to save it!
In my last post, I talked about “When God Doesn’t Answer..” Of course, there are times when God seems silent, and I spoke about a couple of times when that was true in my life. God’s timing and wisdom are reminders that He is God– and I am NOT.
I want to revisit that theme for a bit. I was reading the post and realized that I spoke of the waiting and hoping and God’s faithfulness in sending an answer in the person of David, who became my husband. I spoke of God’s ways being higher and better than our ways– and they are. But I left out one aspect of God’s character. Forgiveness.
It is tempting, and I gave in to the temptation, to focus on my feelings, and my positive actions during those years of waiting– taking good advice and making good use of my time as a single to volunteer and serve. But I also did plenty of wallowing in self-pity, of questioning God’s goodness and His timing. I slipped into bad habits that I had to break as a married woman– selfish habits and indulgent thought patterns. And I find myself battling new bad habits, slipping back into depression and isolation, or taking for granted the blessings of married life.
I don’t say this to negate God’s goodness in answering my longing for a husband and family, nor to suggest that God’s long silence and eventual answer were any less gracious and loving. Instead, I want to thank Him for being patient with me, for extending both mercy and grace in His good time, and in spite of my bad behavior.
God’s mercy and his goodness surround us–especially when we don’t see them. When we doubt His presence, when we accuse Him of not caring, when we pout, and posture, and resent the road He has us traveling. God’s word is full of stories of people who waited– some patiently, some not so much– and people who wandered, and even rebelled. And many of them perished without ever seeing God’s answer or without repenting. But I cannot think of any instance where someone who sought God’s face or His forgiveness and was turned away– EVER. God followed the grumbling nation of Israel for forty years, His anger breaking out against them multiple times, but He remained faithful to His promise to bring them to the Promised Land. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Deuteronomy+1&version=NCV God went so far as to remove His Spirit from King Saul, but He allowed Saul to continue to reign, even when Saul tried to kill God’s anointed one and his own son-in-law. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+19-24&version=NIV God followed David from his days as a shepherd boy through his reign as Israel’s king– in spite of David’s sins, in spite of the drama and chaos of his household, in spite of betrayal by his own sons and generals.https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+kings+2%3A1-10&version=CSB God chased down Saul on the road to Damascus– after Saul had hunted and hounded faithful followers of the Messiah.https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=acts+8%3A1-3%3B+9%3A1-18&version=ESV
God is patient and faithful with us– whether we have grumbled at His timing, or turned our back on Him for a season, or actively rebelled against His sovereignty and kindness.
When God seems silent, we often forget that He also remains silent in the face of our grumbling. He withholds His righteous judgment, giving us ample opportunities to rethink, repent, and return. His silence reminds us that He is God– and we are not. He does not owe us an answer– nor does He owe us a second chance. But He will give us both in His time. Because He is God– in His sovereignty, in His boundless Love, and in His mercy–and I am not. I am not God. I am the (sometimes) grateful recipient of all that He gives.
May I be grateful today, not just for the blessings and gifts and answered prayers, but for the patience, grace and mercy I don’t deserve.
Prayer is a conversation with God. But sometimes it can seem like a one-sided conversation. We have pressing needs for healing, or strength to bear up under stress or oppression. Sometimes, we pray for our loved ones’ struggles against addiction or wrong choices. And God seems silent.
Sometimes, it’s better to get an answer we don’t like than no answer at all. When I was younger, I prayed for a family– a dream family with a handsome husband (preferably wealthy), three adorable and well-behaved children (I already had names picked out..), and maybe a beloved family pet, all living in a beautiful house with a big back yard, and maybe a small woods. I waited and prayed; prayed and waited. When I was in my thirties, still waiting and praying, I found out that I have several health problems– none of them life-threatening, but they mean that the chances that I would ever have had children are slim to none. I would never have the pleasure of watching my own children grow up; never know the joy of having a little voice calling me “mommy.”
But God had not abandoned me. In my careers as a teacher and a children’s librarian (careers I had begun before I knew I couldn’t have children of my own), I had the joy of working with hundreds of children across a spectrum of ages, from nearly newborn through college! My memories are filled with a choir of voices calling me Miss Toney or Miss Lila (as I was known then). God had not closed the door on my dream– he had opened a window.
It wasn’t the answer I had hoped for, but it was an answer. However, I was still single. I didn’t want to be single. I didn’t feel it was what God wanted for my life, yet He didn’t seem to be listening or giving me any sign that He heard or understood. There was only silence. No promising relationships– only a few scattered dates over the long years–a few budding friendships, and many lonely days and nights.
There were many helpful friends and family with suggestions, ideas, advice, comforting thoughts, or “explanations.” “God is waiting for you to become more mature in your walk with Him.” “God is saving the best for last.” “You’re too picky (I was never quite sure what that meant in light of the scarcity of dates, but…)” “You need to ‘get out there’ more–have you tried on-line dating? (I did. It was ‘meh’..).” “You should change jobs– single men are not hanging out at the library.” “You should change churches– find one with more single men.” But God stayed silent through my thirties and into my forties.
I did take some of the very good advice I received. I signed up to do short term missions trips. I traveled when I could, with family and friends, and even on my own. I read and went back to college. I spent time in the woods and at the beach, meditating, singing, or just enjoying God’s nature. I got “involved” in various volunteer opportunities. I joined the church choir. And I continued to pray.
By the time I was squarely in my forties, I had decided to stop praying for a husband, to stop hoping, and praying, and seeking, and dreaming. And God said nothing. But I began getting phone calls from an old friend– someone I had known in childhood–in fact, the very first boy I had ever dated, nearly 30 years before! At first, I listened to his voice-mail messages, but didn’t return his calls. I was annoyed, and even a bit angry. After all this time, was God laughing at me? Did He really expect me to go all the way back to the very beginning and start over?
Finally, I let go of my pride, and my ancient dream– I decided to give David a chance. Maybe it would lead to another (renewed) friendship. Maybe it would be another disappointment. But it led to a new dream. It led to marriage, and a huge extended family, including David’s wonderful children, and three adorable (and mostly well-behaved) grandchildren. My husband is kind, and honorable, and Godly. He is a treasure. And God’s timing is perfect, even as it is mysterious. God didn’t withhold marriage as a bargaining chip to get me to “grow up,” or grant it as a “reward” for going on a couple of mission trips. God was silent–but He wasn’t absent. He saw every teardrop, rejoiced in every busy child-filled day at work, smiled at every snapshot of every natural wonder, every Teddy Bear picnic, every Bible School. He want along on every date, kept track of all the hundreds of books I read over the years, and hovered over the dinner table set for one every night. I committed my life to serving Him– whether I was single or married, alone, or surrounded by children. His ways are higher, and better, and wiser than mine.
I may never understand why God allowed me to travel the roads that have been set before me. And my roads could have looked much different. I could have married young, unaware of my barrenness, and ended up bitter and feeling guilty about my body for years before I was diagnosed. I might have had a child (or children), and become proud and controlling and fearful. I might have made idols of my “dream” husband and family.
I know many dozens of people who are praying into the “silence” and waiting for God’s answer. Some are praying for healing. They may pray for hours in the hospital, only to lose their loved one. They may pray for weeks or months, as their child battles chronic illness. They may pray for years as they battle depression and loneliness. God may seem silent. But He is never absent. His ways sometimes lead to a happy ending in this life. Sometimes, they lead to a legacy that we cannot see this side of death. He does not promise us the answer we want, when or how we want it. He doesn’t promise us an easy or “happy” answer. What He does promise is that He will never forsake us. Long after we have been tempted to give up, to doubt, to turn away, God will still be waiting– sometimes in the silence– for the perfect moment, the perfect justice, the perfect word, the perfect solution.
One of the great classic Christmas carols, “The First Noel,” describes the night of Christ’s birth as a “cold winter’s night, that was so deep.”
It is dreamy and dramatic to think of Jesus coming into a cold, dark, dreary (and even snowy) world, bringing angels, glorious stars, kings bearing expensive gifts, and joyous songs.
In the past two posts, we’ve looked at Jesus as the Light of the World, and the Word of God; we’ve looked at Advent as a time of darkness and silence, in anticipation of the coming light and the Gospel. The idea that the world before the Birth of the Savior was cold continues the pattern of absence. Darkness does not exist independently. Neither does silence or cold. Each is the absence of something else– Light, sound, warmth–and it can only be known by the degree to which its opposite is reduced, distant, or absent. In contrast, the light, sound, or warmth is made more evident in contrast with its opposite–we may not notice a slight difference in lighting on a sunny day, or a slight difference in temperature; but a candle in a dark room, or a whisper in a silent auditorium has a dramatic effect.
We don’t actually know the exact date of Jesus’ birth, and while December falls during winter, that doesn’t always mean a cold night in every part of the world. If shepherds were watching their flocks in fields just outside of Bethlehem, it is not likely that the temperatures were below freezing, or that there was snow and ice all around. The Middle East is not known for icy winters, after all. Nighttime generally brings colder temperatures, and it may be close to freezing by the middle of the night if you have no fire or protection from the wind, but a “cold winter’s night” is more likely to be found in Minnesota or Finland, not in Bethlehem, and usually in the middle of winter– January– rather than the beginning of the season.
However, just like the darkness and silence, the cold of that first Christmas was spiritual in nature. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+1%3A9-12&version=ESV). Jesus entered a frigid world– a world of closed-off people, suspicious, oppressed, angry, sick, and world-weary. Hatred can be cold, but colder still is apathy and disdain and hopelessness. The world of Advent is a world desperate for the light and heat and sound of God’s love– not because God is absent, but because people have moved so far away from Him. The light becomes dimmer, the songs become a series of indistinct noises, and the cold and damp of night creep into our souls. Today, even with the hope and light of the Gospel story, we take our focus off of the true light of the world, and the true source of warmth and love, and too often focus on the lesser warmth of a new jacket, or the glittering lights of a shopping center, or the strident sounds of greed and envy.
Jesus may not have come in the cold of midwinter. But He came into a world of cold hearts as a helpless baby in a strange and unwelcoming land. And he was wrapped in rags and placed in a feeding trough– the warmest place that could be found. But even in this tiny, shivering baby, there was the warmth of Pure Love. And it was felt by all who came in contact with Him– shepherds rejoiced, Mary pondered, Wise Men knelt in adoration.
I love seeing candles and firesides at Christmas time– I love coming into a warm house, full of laughter and love, or singing carols on a cold night, and being invited inside to share the warmth. I love fellowship at church, and sharing a hug and a smile with those I meet. Imagine the warmth of God with us–All of the warmth and life of being wrapped in the arms of Grace, and held by the nail-scarred hands, never to be cold or alone ever again. Can you feel it? Can you anticipate it? Imagine passing that on to someone who has never known such warmth…on a cold winter’s night…
Christmas is a time of joy and light. But the time of Advent is often a time of somber reflection. We remember a time we have never known– a time before the coming of Christ the Messiah– a time before the mysteries of Heaven were revealed and before the victory of Salvation was accomplished. Advent reminds us of the spiritual darkness that existed before God, in human form, in humble obedience, and in sacrificial love, became the Light of the World, and the Hope of All Nations.
Before the bells rang, and the angels sang; before the kings brought gold and the shepherds ran to tell the news; before there were Christmas Carols, Christmas decorations, or Christmas pageants– there was solemn silence, fear, dread, and waiting. God had been silent. The prophets had been silent. The world had grown hard and cold.
Jesus stepped out of the unfathomable glory of the Highest Heaven– surrounded by armies of angels all worshiping Him and ready to do His bidding. In an instant, He became a helpless fetus inside a helpless young woman, a subject of the Roman Empire, and at the mercy of her culture. Her fiance could have repudiated her; her parents could have disowned her; her community could have had her stoned to death, along with her unborn child. No one, even those who were anticipating the arrival of a Christ, was expecting this tiny baby growing inside the womb to change the course of history.
He was born in obscurity, in ignominious squalor. He was the Lord of All Creation, wrapped in rags and laid in a feeding trough in an overcrowded city at tax time. There were no bells or carolers, no glittering trees or festivals of lights, no sounds of joy and celebration– not in that manger in Bethlehem. Instead, there were strangers pushing and shoving, shouting, and snoring in the inns and houses and streets, being watched by soldiers and pickpockets alike, as they made their way through narrow, unfamiliar streets and tried to lock out the worry and danger and dread. There may have been silence in the fields and valleys outside of town, but not near the stable where Jesus was born. No. The “silence” we sing about during Advent is the silence inside our own hearts– a call to “be still,” and know that this baby we celebrate is God Incarnate. He is the One to whom every knee will one day bow, and every tongue confess that He is LORD.
In the stillness and silence of Advent, in the darkness lit only by candles and faint hope, we being to understand the contrast. We re-imagine what came before the joy and hope and eternal clouds of witnesses shouting, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” We remember the days and years before the angels sang, and the star danced across the night sky– before the shocking crucifixion and the glorious resurrection of this still unborn Savior.
Let us spend these days of Advent preparing our hearts for the true wonder of Christmas. It doesn’t come in the wrapped packages under a festive tree, or in the feasting with friends or family. It doesn’t come with sirens and parades, or speakers at the mall blaring out favorite tunes. It doesn’t come in the majesty of a Cathedral ringing with the voices of a choir and organ. It comes when the silence and darkness of our sin and dread are pierced with the overwhelming glory of God With Us– Emmanuel is coming! But for now, for these moments, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.
1. 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.
2. For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above, while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love. O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth, and praises sing to God the king, and peace to all on earth!
3. How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given; so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.
4. O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; o come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
Words by Phillips Brooks
Micah 5:2 English Standard Version (ESV) 2 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.
God’s ways are not our ways. I grew up in a tiny village in Michigan, and when we used to sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” I always imagined a similarly tiny town, draped in silence in the dead of night, sleeping right through the most glorious and stunning event in history. It wasn’t difficult to imagine the same thing happening in my sleepy village– Christ could have come to any of a dozen sway-backed sheds or garages around town without fanfare as hundreds of strangers crammed into local houses and public buildings, eager to be done with a bizarre census that led them back to where their ancestors once lived. There is nothing special about my hometown to anyone but those of us who grew up there.
Bethlehem was just such a small town. Prophecy that a king would arise from such a backwater village was mostly ignored. Four hundred years had passed since the last mention of Bethlehem by God or any of His prophets. No one expected a miracle there, just as no one would expect a miracle in our little town today.
We expect big things to happen in big cities– bustling, surging, modern, energy-filled cities. This is where grand events are held– political rallies, sold-out concerts, championship sporting events, groundbreaking new developments in business and medicine, coronations and ceremonies. But God often works in the quiet spaces and unexpected places of our world and in our lives. He comes softly and silently into the dark corners and forgotten nooks filling them with His glory.
And He gives us the privilege of sharing in this miracle– wherever we are, whoever we are, whatever our circumstances. Christ did not spend most of His life on earth in the halls of power or the centers of commerce. He didn’t “tour” the university circuit giving lectures, or fill great auditoriums while His image was splashed across a Jumbo-tron. He walked humbly from small village to small town, spreading truth and love and drawing people to Himself, that they might believe and find true life. He modeled how we can extend His grace– starting with those in our own small towns or neighborhoods–with simple acts and earnest prayers like the ones in this song: “Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.” “Oh, come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”
George: You know what the three most exciting sounds in the world are? Billy: Uh-huh. Breakfast is served; lunch is served, dinner… George: No, no, no, no! Anchor chains, plane motors, and train whistles.
James Stewart (as George Bailey) in “It’s a Wonderful Life”
I’ve mentioned before that I love the old movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In it, the protagonist, George Bailey, is in despair and considers taking his life. As his family and friends pray, God responds by sending “an angel, second class” named Clarence, who shows George what life would be like if he had never been born (and how much impact his life has had on those around him).
One of the key events in George’s life happens when he is 12 years old. He dives into a freezing river to save his brother from drowning, but in the process, he loses the hearing in his left ear. This hearing loss weaves its way through the rest of the movie. As a young man, George designs an indoor swimming pool under the gym floor for his high school (the movie makes no direct link to the earlier event, but it might be presumed that his experience caused him to think of ways to keep active kids indoors during winter months…) His bad ear (and his need to help his dad at the Bailey Building and Loan) keeps him from playing football in high school. It later keeps him from fighting in the war, but leaves him stuck at home coordinating scrap drives and air-raid drills–“safe” but less-than-honorable positions for a young man of his day.
There are many things George cannot hear, but three things he listens for– Anchor chains, plane motors, and train whistles! George spends much of the first part of his life longing to leave Bedford Falls (his home town), to travel the globe. While his friends travel to exotic places and build successful careers in big cities, George gets tangled up in financing small houses for ordinary people in his small town. All around him are bitter reminders of the life he dreamed of leading. His brother becomes a pilot– a fate denied to him. His best friend makes a fortune selling plastic parts for fighter planes, and takes cruises and fancy vacations that George cannot afford.
There is a dramatic change, however, when Clarence turns George’s life upside-down. One of the first things George notices after Clarence declares that George has gotten his wish (and never been born) is that the hearing has “returned” to his left ear. He marvels at this simple but profound change, but attributes it to his recent encounter with more freezing cold river water. Soon other changes capture George’s attention–his brother is dead because George wasn’t there to save him; his mother is destitute and care-worn because George wasn’t there to save the Building and Loan after his father’s death; none of the houses he helped finance were ever built, and dozens of families are living in squalor and being over-charged for rent by the evil Mr. Potter. And the peaceful town of Bedford Falls has been transformed into a noisy hotbed of crime and filth, anger and greed.
After George has a change of heart and is “returned” to his wonderful life, the hearing loss is back– this time, George laughs in gratitude as his “disability” confirms that all is back to normal. He no longer listens for plane motors or trains whistles– instead, he eagerly listens for the sound of his kids as he returns home, and the breathless call of his wife as she returns home with help and hope in the form of neighbors and friends. The sirens and screaming of his earlier nightmare are replaced with joyous music and laughter.
One of the last shots of the movie shows a tiny, tinkling bell on the Christmas Tree. Zuzu says that her teacher has told the class that every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings, and George, hearing the bell ring, simply says, “Atta boy, Clarence.”
What are we listening for in life? Are we consumed with the sounds of excitement and adventure? Or are we listening for the important sounds of lonely people softly crying, children giggling, birds singing their morning worship song, or raindrops dancing on the sidewalk? Are we listening for the Spirit’s whisper in the wind, or God’s voice in the thunder? Exciting sounds can sometimes deafen us to important sounds. God calls for us to “be still” and know that He is God (see Psalm 46:10)–what we hear in the stillness and silence is rest and peace for our souls. And that is one of the best sounds of all!
I like to know things–I like to solve puzzles, figure out mysteries, learn trivial facts. I want answers. So when I go before God in prayer, I often ask questions. Why is this person suffering? When will their suffering end, and how? Where were you in this disaster (as though God had stepped out for a minute and wasn’t aware of what happened)?
God stays silent.
I can grow frustrated in the silence or I can learn to trust. That doesn’t mean that I no longer want answers; just that I am willing to wait on God’s sovereign timing. It also means that I am need to more about God’s nature–God doesn’t keep secrets or withhold knowledge because He wants to torment me, or frustrate me, or play some cosmic mind game (though some people accuse Him of doing just that). God withholds full disclosure of His plans, His reasoning, and His nature out of love and compassion. Suppose I could see into the future, even give out warnings, but had no power to stop disaster from coming. Not only would I be haunted by the disaster itself, but by the full knowledge of its coming. Suppose I could see a miracle in advance; know when and how it would unfold. There would still be joy, but it would be muted by the foreknowledge– of course there would be a happy ending; of course there would be a miracle– I saw it all from afar off.
The Apostle Paul touches on this in 1 Corinthians, chapter 13. This is commonly known as the “Love Chapter”, and the first half is frequently quoted at weddings and church sermons. But the end of the chapter is a wonderful message of hope and faith, ending with Paul’s triumphant statement about all three:
1 Corinthians 13:8-13English Standard Version (ESV)
8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part,10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
God loves us with a perfect love. Because of that, I can trust Him, and have hope in the midst of my questioning. So when I pray with questions, I can know that God has “filed them away”– He is fully aware of my situation, questions and all, and He is fully faithful to answer them all in His perfect wisdom and timing. Someday, I will know– not only all that I don’t know now, but why I had to wait.
God will provide full disclosure. with compassion, love, and wisdom that only He can give.