This week leading up to Christmas has been heavy and sad. In the last seven days I've heard of the tragic deaths of four people that I am acquainted with or know of. In each case, death was early and unexpected. This seems especially cruel in the season of hope and joy. The carols and Hallmark movies and holiday plans make no allowance for the shock and loss that these families will forever associate with Christmas.
Our sin-sick planet keeps grinding out disaster and doom. Open Doors, an organization that advocates for persecuted Christians around the world, reports that churches in many minority Christian nations are forced to step up security around the holidays because of increased attacks when they gather to worship. It happened to a Pakistani church on December 17. Two Islamic State militants, wearing suicide vests, entered a Methodist church in a town 40 miles from the Afghan border. Eight worshipers died; sixteen were injured. No doubt we will hear more of these stories as the holidays unfold.
Troubles are close to home, as well. The chronic or life-threatening illnesses, broken relationships or financial issues that you dealt with throughout the year are still staring you in the face as people wish you Merry Christmas. Even if your life looks pretty good on the outside, you may be carrying around a pile of regrets and disappointments that this season seems to emphasize. Christmas shines a light on your brokenness. Your holly jolly is strictly on the surface.
We're celebrating a holiday, but death, disease, destruction and disappointment take no holiday. The angel announced peace and good will to the shepherds in a field outside Bethlehem 2000 years ago, but it certainly seems to be taking its time. So we ask the ancient questions: Why? Where are you, God? Is Christmas a joke? What's going on here?
What's going on is that we live in an in-between time, the time between the first coming of Jesus, when he inaugurated his kingdom in the hearts and lives of his followers, and the second coming of Jesus, when the rule of the King of Kings will become visible to everyone. We live in the time of horrible groaning and birth pangs, waiting for the final victory over sin and darkness leading to an eternity of peace and joy in God's presence. Even for those of us who submit to the rule of Christ in the here and now, pain is not eradicated. We are in the waiting room of eternity.
Jesus told us life was going to be tough. He also promised an abundant life. How can both of these be true? The toughness comes from living in a sin-infected world while we march unwaveringly toward our own deaths, even if it happens peacefully, at a ripe old age. The abundance comes from being in a relationship with the God of the universe who invites us to join him in his mission of declaring his love and glory to all people.
To think we can avoid pain, even at Christmas, is to live in a bubble that sooner or later is going to pop. When it does, faith in God's sovereignty and goodness takes a nosedive. We feel betrayed and confused. If we were paying attention though, we'd know this isn't some horrible mistake. God hasn't abdicated the throne. He is on it still. And however murky and mistaken his methods seem to us, he has a clear goal in mind, and is always working to bring it to fruition.
I once knew a couple who adopted two brothers out of the foster care system. These boys were broken by abuse and pain. There were tons of issues to work through. One day the younger brother disappeared, and after searching the house, the adoptive mother found him sitting in his dark closet. That was where he went when life got too heavy. This wise mom simply joined him on the floor of the closet and sat in the dark with him.
What an apt illustration of Christmas. We live in dark closets of pain and disappointment. Jesus came to sit in the dark closet with us, to bring us light of course, but first of all to identify with us, to let us know he's with us. And that's what we really need.
Corrie ten Boom, that remarkable Dutch woman who lost everything to the Nazis in WWII, said it a different way. “There is no pit so deep that God's love is not deeper still.” She may have lost everything, but her conviction that God was in control and would never leave her was forged in her experience of loss and pain.
To be honest, I tremble at the thought of loss and pain. But I want to know the bedrock of God's love when everything else is crumbling, and I want to be able to point others to it. I think it begins by accepting grief, in whatever measure I now experience it, and looking to Jesus only as the one who is able to carry me through.
The hope and joy of Christmas is that every bit of beauty and light we produce and experience in this life is a precursor to that final beauty and light, which will be infinitely superior to anything we have now. In eternity, peace and incredible joy will not be a holiday, but our actual life, forever. We can experience it in the here and now if we're willing to be so satisfied with Jesus that nothing can ruin our joy, even as we grieve.
Pain doesn't take a holiday, but neither does Immanuel, God With Us.