I don't know where this Christmas week finds you, but it may be in a very darkened place. Emotionally, psychologically, or spiritually you may feel dry and despondent. Christmas feels thin to you, hollow. The sentimentality of the holiday is a weak antidote for what ails you.
I want to urge you for a moment to look beyond the wrapping to the Gift. You can find hope this Christmas.
If you’re a Christian, the most important thing about your life—your eternal destiny—is settled. “This hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5).
This hope will not disappoint us. This hope, as some other translations put it, “does not put us to shame."
Put yourself in the sandals of a Jewish man or woman in the last days of the year 1 BC. You don’t know it’s 1 BC, of course! You only know it’s been four hundred years since Malachi. It’s been four hundred years since God has spoken through his prophets. And you’re tired. You’re oppressed. You long for comfort, for deliverance, for justice. And the hope for God to do anything about any of it is starting to feel like an urban legend. “If he’s up there,” you begin to think, “he doesn’t care about us.”
Picture a couple of shepherds in very late 1 BC. They’re just watching the sheep under the stars, like they have for years, maybe decades. And two guys, buddies, lean against a boulder, watching their flocks. Two months earlier they were leaning against that same rock, like they had so many times before, and one shepherd says to the other, “Hey, Ernie.” (Let’s pretend his name is Ernie.)
Ernie says, “Yeah?”
“Do you ever sit and think to yourself if any of that Messiah stuff is true?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, my grandpa used to recite to me all the Scriptures he knew. Isaiah. Jeremiah. Job. I’ve never forgotten them. And when I was younger I used to really believe them. But now, sometimes I wonder . . . I mean, was it all just fairy tales?”
“What are you talking about, fairy tales?” Ernie says. “Of course not. The Lord God himself inspired those prophecies.”
“I know, I know. But it’s been, like, four hundred years since the last prophet. The Romans own everything. Our preachers are mean. Our activists get crucified. If God was ever speaking, he sure doesn’t seem to be speaking today. He’s been silent a long time, since long before you and I were born. And day after day, night after night, we come out here and we stare at these stars, and we assume there’s a heaven up there, and we assume there’s a God up there doing something. But if there is, he has a funny way of showing it. You never think to yourself, what if this is it? Like, what if this is all there is?”
And Ernie says, “Man, that’s life. Life is just waiting. For who knows how long. Maybe another four hundred years, I don’t know. But I know God’s up there somewhere. I know he’s all around here somewhere. And just ’cause we can’t see him, and just ’cause it looks like he’s done talking, doesn’t mean it’s so. Look up at that sky.”
And his friend—we’ll call him Ralph—looks up.
“One day, my man,” Ernie continues, “One day, he’s gonna split that sky in two and come right down here and set everything back the way he wanted it.”
Ralph looks up at those stars. “Man, I hope so.”
Months go by. The shepherds are out with their sheep. Just like they’ve been doing for years. It’s Christmas night, but they don’t know that. Christmas doesn’t exist yet. To them, it’s just one more night, same as all the others. Same ol’, same ol’. Nothing ever changes.
And Ernie and Ralph are leaning against that rock again, in silence. And they’re looking up at the stars.
And for a second, it looks like one star seems to twinkle a little brighter. And—is that possible?—it looks like it’s getting bigger. Ralph rubs his eyes, looks back up.
Yeah, it’s definitely getting bigger. Maybe even closer.
And then over the field, the light gets brighter and brighter, until it’s almost like daytime. And then it seems like the whole place is on fire, except nobody’s getting hurt. And all the shepherds are freaking out, terrified. They’re falling on the ground, trembling in fear. It’s like an invasion is afoot.
And suddenly a figure comes walking out of the blaze. An angel has come down. He says, “I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today in the city of David a Savior was born for you, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Can you imagine?
Whatever your situation or condition, I think you can.
Remember the man Job. He'd lost everything -- his children, his livelihood, his health. What was it that Job could look forward to? Maybe he had a hope that he would get his fortune and health back. We do know that at the end of the story, he has all those things restored. But he can’t get his kids back. And in any event, he doesn’t know that’s going to happen. Certainly he never presumes. For all he knows, this is it. This is the end. Broken, defeated, grief-stricken, and shot through with agony. This is what his life is always going to be like. It couldn’t get worse.
And then it does. And it certainly can’t seem to get better.
But all along, we never see Job say, “I hope I get my stuff back.” No, where is his hope? At one point, he says this:
"But I know that my Redeemer lives
and at the end he will stand on the dust.
Even after my skin has been destroyed
yet I will see God in my flesh.
I will see him myself;
my eyes will look at him, and not as a stranger.
My heart longs within me."
-- Job 19:25–27, emphasis added)
This is Job’s hope: first, that the Lord would not take note of his sin, and then, because of that, that the Lord would deliver on the promise of hope, that he would actually know God personally forever. “Lord, I don’t know what you’re doing, and I don’t know the ins and outs of your providentially orchestrating this smoking crater that is my life, but I do know this: when it’s all said and done, I will look you in the face and see into your eyes and, whether I understand or not, I will see you, and you will see me, and all will be well.”
“My heart longs within me,” Job cries in worshipful hope, and I hear in this lament the foreshadow of Peter’s declared fulfillment, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3).
It is this kind of hope that prompts Job to say to God elsewhere, in essence, “Even if you kill me, I will hope in you” (Job 13:15).
I don’t know where your reading of this blog post finds you at the moment. Maybe you’re desperate right now for that thrill of hope.
We seem to forget that when the wise men came to see the Christ child in Bethlehem, a village of about fifteen hundred people, because of Herod’s decree that every boy under the age of two be slaughtered, there were at least a dozen, perhaps up to twenty or more families in the immediately surrounding areas mourning the murder of their babies. That’s the dark, grief-stricken, hopeless world Jesus was born into.
And the way the Bible forecasts the second coming of our Lord, we see that it will be preceded by a great time of tribulation unlike anything ever seen (Matt. 24; 2 Thess. 2:1–12; Rev. 7). As far as the Lord’s timing is concerned, it seems like the cliché is not a cliché—it’s always darkest before the dawn.
So what are we to do?
"Do not think of following Christ into glory," George Whitefield says, "unless you go through the press here. Look forward, my brethren, into eternity and behold Christ coming and his reward with him, to give a kind recompense for all the temptations and difficulties of this present life."
Whatever you’re going through, it will be worth it. You can endure with hope, because Christ has come to be born, live, die, and rise again. He is here in Spirit now. And he will come again.
Doesn’t this make it all worth it?
(Portions of this post are adapted from my forthcoming book The Gospel According to Satan: Eight Lies About God that Sound Like the Truth, now available for preorder.)