Who’s in Charge Here?
December 25, 2019
You wouldn’t think John Wilkes Booth had anything to do with Christmas, but in a strange way he did.
In early April 1865, the bloody Civil War that had torn America asunder was drawing to a close. Richmond had fallen, Lee had surrendered, and the end was in sight. Motivated by anger and despair, John Wilkes Booth decided to take matters into his own hands. Entering the box at Ford’s Theater, where Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln were watching a play called Our American Cousin, Booth fired a bullet into the head of Abraham Lincoln. He died a few hours later.
The news 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. Later he preached a sermon on Abraham Lincoln’s legacy.
O Little Town
A few months later, hoping to lift his spirits, the church sent him to the Holy Land. The itinerary included a horseback ride from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Back then it was a small village, far removed from the bustling city it would later become. By nightfall the pastor was in the field where, according to tradition, the shepherds heard the angelic announcement. Then he attended the Christmas Eve service at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Something about the beauty and simplicity of that visit stayed with Phillips Brooks when he returned to America. Three years later he wrote a Christmas poem for the children’s service at Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia. He then gave it to Lewis Redner, the church organist, who composed the music in time for the children to sing it in the service. It became a favorite Christmas carol when it was published in 1874.
The first verse gives us a poetic picture of Bethlehem as Phillips Brooks saw it:
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
The last two lines remind us that Bethlehem was more than a picturesque by-way in the Holy Land:
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
More Fears Than Hopes
It seems like we end the year with more fears than hopes, given the shaky state of the world. The headlines tell a grim story:
Turmoil in Washington.
Winds of change in England.
Saber rattling in North Korea.
Rocket attacks in Israel.
Pastors attacked in India.
Christians murdered in Nigeria.
Who can we trust?
We hear so much about fake news that we can’t decide what is real and what isn’t. Who can we trust?
Bad news abounds.
Against that backdrop we have the words of the angel to the terrified shepherds, “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people” (Luke 2:10).
Where is the good news the angel promised?
Let’s wind the clock back across the centuries, back to Bethlehem, but don’t stop there. Go all the way back to the time of Isaiah the prophet, seven hundred years before the birth of Christ. He gave us the real answer to that question:
“Unto us a child is born,
Unto us a son is given” (Isaiah 9:6).
God answers our anxiety with a manger in Bethlehem. There we find the baby who brings us peace now and one day will bring peace to the whole world.
Isaiah 9:2 says, “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine.” We live in dark days, and it is easy to be discouraged. There is so much hatred on every hand. If you turn on the TV, you hear politicians shouting at each other, accusing each other, slandering each other. It feels like the national blood pressure has gone up 100 points in the last few months.
We are an angry, unhappy nation right now. And there seems to be no end in sight. We were taught never to discuss politics or religion in polite company. But where is that “polite company” these days? Just try talking politics over the holidays and see what happens. It may not go well for you.
Walking on eggshells
Even with people you love, if you say one wrong word, you risk an explosion. We walk on eggshells during the holidays lest we say something that somehow offends someone.
“The hopes and fears of all the years.”
We’ve got the fear part down just fine.
But where is the hope?
Listen to Isaiah’s answer: His name shall be called . . .
Wonderful Counselor, because he has the answers we need.
Mighty God, because he has the power to help us.
Everlasting Father, because he knows us and loves us anyway.
Prince of Peace, because he alone can fix what is broken.
I’m glad Christmas is coming.
It can’t get here soon enough.
“God Accepted My Resignation”
In mentioning Isaiah 9:6, I intentionally passed over a phrase:
“The government shall be upon his shoulders.”
That means Jesus can bear the full weight of the world and all its problems. It’s easy to say but hard to believe. In one of his books, David Jeremiah mentions a man named George McCauslin. Many years ago, he served as director of a YMCA in western Pennsylvania. It was a difficult situation because the YMCA was losing money, membership, and staff. McCauslin worked 85 hours a week trying to fix things. He couldn’t sleep at night. Even when he was away from the job, he was worrying and fretting about problems he couldn’t solve. A therapist warned that he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Somehow he needed to let go and let God take charge of his problems. But how do you do something like that?
Jesus can bear the full weight of the world and all its problems
The breakthrough came one day when he took a notebook and ventured into a forest not far from where he lived. As he walked through the woods, he could feel his muscles starting to relax. Sitting down under a tree, he sighed and felt at ease for the first time in months. Taking out his notebook, he decided to let go of the burdens of his life. He wrote God a letter that simply said, “Dear God, Today I hereby resign as general manager of the universe. Love, George.” Looking back at that moment, he reflected with a twinkle in his eye, “And wonder of wonders, God accepted my resignation.”
Many of us need to resign as general manager of the universe. Are you worn out from trying to help your children and your grandchildren, take care of your parents, and get your coworkers shaped up? Are you exhausted from trying to repair the broken people and the messed-up situations all around you? No wonder you’re tired all the time.
In one of his sermons, Walt Gerber mentioned a plaque hanging on his wall:
Walt, Do not feel totally, personally,
irrevocably responsible for everything.
That’s my job! Love, God!
That caught my eye because it reminds me of the principle I call the First Law of the Spiritual Life: “He’s God and we’re not.” If you understand that truth, then you don’t have to take on impossible burdens only God could handle anyway.
Many of us need to resign as general manager of the universe
In the movie “Rudy,” there is a scene where the young man despairs of ever making the Notre Dame football team. He is too small, too slow, too weak, and in every way fails to meet the challenge. Totally discouraged, he goes to a priest and asks if he will ever make the team. The priest smiles and says that in 35 years he has learned only two things for certain: “First, there is a God, and second, I’m not him.”
Christmas is important for many reasons, but among other things, it reminds us we are not in charge. That’s always a good thing to remember.
“What Has God Taught You?”
As I come to the end of 2019 and look back over this year, I realize the last twelve months have been shaped by what happened when I went for a bike ride on January 2. It was a cold, clear day in Kansas City, and even though we had some snow on the ground, I thought the bike trail would be clear enough for a quick ride. When I got to the trail, I noticed no other cars in the parking lot. That should have been a sign to me. All the smart people were somewhere else that day.
Don’t ride on the ice!
But I took my bike out and began to ride down the trail. There was ice here and there, but I managed to make my way around it with little trouble. After going three miles down the trail, I came to a small patch of ice, which I decided I could ride over. That was a mistake. About halfway across the patch of ice, my bike began to slip. That’s a helpless feeling because the bike is going down, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. I was riding with my feet clipped to the pedals. It happened so fast I didn’t have time to get my feet free. As I hit the ground, I turned my head in time to see my left ankle turn partway around. It was like one of those ESPN commercials where they say, “You might want to look away from the screen” when they show a football injury. At that moment I broke two bones in my left leg, a bone in my ankle, and dislocated my ankle (the most serious injury). By then, I was lying on the ice. When I lifted my leg, my ankle dangled from the end. That wasn’t good.
The paramedics came, stabilized my leg, and took me to the hospital. That eventually led to three surgeries during January. I ended up BBR (bed, bathroom, recliner) for almost three months.
I learned to use a walker and then a knee scooter and then a cane. It was a slow process of getting better a little bit at a time. In April I began riding again–slowly at first, and no ice!–and now at the end of December, I’ve ridden over 1800 miles this year.
I’ve recovered quite a bit of my strength, but I have some hardware in my left leg that will probably be with me for the rest of my life. I can do four things that are important to me: walk, ride my bike, drive a car, and stand up and preach. I can’t run, but I didn’t run before my accident, so no loss there.
Wisdom from Charles de Gaulle
I mention all that to tell you about something that happened a few days ago. I was in Tupelo, Mississippi for a board meeting of the American Family Association. During the Christmas luncheon before our meeting, one of my fellow board members asked me, “What has God taught you through your accident?”
That caught me by surprise because it was the first time anyone had asked me that question. My policy is, go with whatever your first thought is and see where that leads you. That’s what I did. I said something like this: “I have learned how completely unimportant I am. For three months I was laid up, and the world got along just fine without me. I was worried about the ministry I lead, but Keep Believing kept right on going. Everything seemed to go just fine–and maybe even better–while I was laid up.”
We all like to feel indispensable, as if the world can’t get along without us. But as Charles de Gaulle once observed, “The graveyards are filled with indispensable men.” That’s a crucial thought worthy of some reflection. We’re not as important as we think we are. It’s a humbling thing to realize the world was spinning along just fine before we showed up, and it will keep spinning after we are gone. For that matter, God was doing fine before we appeared, and he will still be on his throne after we are gone.
I think it was A. W. Tozer who remarked that if every man on earth became an atheist, nothing about God would change. We all know these things are true, but we live as if they aren’t. That is, we act like we are indispensable, but we are very dispensable indeed. It is a great advance spiritually to embrace that reality. In fact, that may be the ultimate reality check.
Tis a gift to come down
Where we ought to be.
Do you want to know how big a hole you’ll leave when you are gone? Stick your arm into a bucket of water and then pull it out. The hole in the water is the hole you’ll leave behind. Perhaps that sounds depressing, but reality shouldn’t depress us.
It’s like the old Shaker hymn says,
‘Tis a gift to be simple,
‘Tis a gift to be free,
‘Tis a gift to come down,
Where we ought to be.
You’ve Got to Bow Down
If you ever visit the Holy Land, one of the sites you will visit is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The church is built over the reputed spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus. To get to the church, you first walk across a broad plaza and then come to a tiny entrance. In fact, it’s so tiny you have to duck down to get inside. The entry is low because several centuries ago the local big shots liked to ride their horses right into the sanctuary. The priests felt that was inappropriate, so they lowered the entrance to force the great men to dismount before entering the church.
Get off your high horse!
There is a lesson here if we will receive it. If you want to go to heaven, you’ve got to get off your high horse. Until you do, you’ll never be saved.
You could be a king like Herod, but you’ve got to bow down.
You could be a shepherd, but you’ve got to bow down.
You could be a Wise Man, but you’ve got to bow down.
We’re so worn out from carrying the world on our shoulders, as if we are mighty Atlas with superhuman strength. No wonder we feel so tired. We’ve been trying to do what only God can do.
Veiled in Flesh the Godhead See
It happens that I am writing these words a few days before Christmas. Soon we will celebrate the central miracle of the Christian faith: the birth of Jesus Christ. Theologians call this the Incarnation, which means “to take the form of human flesh.” Skeptics and unbelievers have attacked our faith at precisely this point—the notion that God could ever become a man, much less a baby.
But that’s precisely what happened at Bethlehem. To quote the words of Charles Wesley (from “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”):
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate Deity.
Either you believe that, or you don’t. If you don’t, then Christmas is just another day to you. But if you believe that, then you shouldn’t have trouble believing anything else the Bible says.
Christmas is the central miracle of the Christian faith
Many of us approach the end of the year with a heavy load of worries about the future. There are career questions, health issues, family problems, church issues, a marriage that needs repair, a host of financial difficulties, and an armful of unfulfilled dreams. We wonder if next year will simply mean more of the same. Sometimes we feel everything depends on us, and we are “totally personally, irrevocably responsible for everything.”
Time to Resign
Christmas reminds us God is God and we’re not. He can arrange for a virgin to become pregnant. He can cause a Roman emperor to order a census at precisely the right moment in history. He can ensure the baby will be born at exactly the place prophesied 700 years earlier. He can put a star in the sky at the right moment. He can bring together angels, shepherds, and Wise Men to celebrate that miraculous birth. And he can take a tiny baby born in a stable and make that baby the Savior of the world.
If God can do all that, what are you so worried about?
Are you tired of trying to run the universe? I urge you to turn in your letter of resignation. It will be accepted in heaven.
What are you so worried about?
Phillips Brooks was right:
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
As we come to the end of the year, there is too much fear and not enough hope. But that won’t last forever.
God’s answer can be found in Bethlehem. The baby in the manger means God is fixing what has gone wrong with the world. It’s a big job, and 2000 years later, the work is still not done. But a light shines from the manger to tell us that darkness will not win in the end.
Christmas means Jesus can carry the full weight of all your problems,
for “the government will be on his shoulders.” So if the question is, “Who’s in charge here?” then the answer comes from heaven. Our Lord is in charge. He reigns from heaven amid the chaos we see around us.
That’s why the angel said, “Fear not!” We need not be afraid. That baby in the manger is God’s answer, not just for us personally, but for the whole world.
He will reign forever.
His kingdom will never end.
Let the weary world rejoice!
Holy Lord, thank you that your shoulders are strong enough to carry all my burdens today. Amen.