Christmas is a difficult season for many of us. Loss, grief, sorrow, and loneliness can plague us around the holiday. Our culture often promises a sort of Christmas miracle that resolves all pain into joy and laughter, but it doesn’t hold up in reality. Holiday kitsch can’t satisfy the brokenness of our lives, but there is a true Christmas miracle which can give hope of restoration.
Christmas is a season for haunting. We don’t naturally think of the Holly Jolly Holiday that way, but Christmas has a long history of affiliation with departed spirits. The English in particular had a tradition for many years of telling ghost stories while huddled up around the fire in winter. One author has written about the varied sources that exemplify this tradition. He points to Shakespeare’s Winter Tale and Henry Irving’s Keeping of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall. The most familiar example of this, however, is Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. Haunted by three spirits – the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future respectively – Ebenezer Scrooge learns to hold Christmas in his heart all year round. But it’s not simply the ghosts which haunt Scrooge. In fact they themselves seem to be the lesser of the sources of his anxiety. Rather, it is the memories, the faces, and the possibilities that haunt Scrooge and compel him to change. It is fear, regret, and love which compel the change of heart in old Scrooge. Fear, regret, and love – these are common emotions for many of us around the Holidays. Despite the many wonderful experiences that Christmas can bring, and despite the many festive parties and joy that our culture commonly celebrates at Christmas, there are many still who experience Christmas very differently. Christmas can become, for many, a season of sorrow, disappointment, grief, and regret. The emotions of fear, regret, and love, among a host of others, can be overwhelming around the holidays.
The Christmas magic of our culture celebrates the happy ending. So, in the holiday kitsch of Hollywood, Christmas is the season of “miracles.” As a friend of mine has said, at Christmas:
- The homeless find a home
- The lonely find a family
- The destitute find wealth
- The skeptical find faith
For many of us who live in reality, however, there’s no Christmas miracle. My dad died right after Christmas. There was no Christmas miracle for us that year, and for many others the ghosts of Christmas past still haunt. The Bible promises something more beautiful, satisfying, and hopeful than the kitsch of cultural Christmas. There is a Christmas miracle that truly changes us, but it doesn’t come apart from sorrow. Rather it comes through it.
Isaiah chapter 7 points to this dynamic interplay between suffering and Christmas miracles. The nation of Israel, as we enter into the time of Isiah, had basically imploded. After the death of Solomon the ten Tribes in the Northern part of the Kingdom seceded and formed their own state. In the south there remained the dynasty of David, the people in Jerusalem who were committed, more or less, to God and His ways. The result of this split is a great deal of dysfunction within the people of God. Isaiah 7 locates us about 200 years into this dysfunction. Within the context of this passage we see a threat pending on the doorsteps of Jerusalem, the capital city of God’s people. The people of Israel in the North, and the nation of Syria are joining forces to attack the city of Jerusalem. What they want to do is get rid of Ahaz, put up a puppet king who will join their coalition against the rising forces of Assyria. It must surely have been a terrifying sight, the text tells us that King Ahaz and the people trembled like trees blowing in the wind. And in this context God sends His prophet Isaiah to go and speak words of encouragement and hope to the King.
The prophet, speaking on behalf of God, says to the King, “Don’t be afraid. God is not going to let these armies destroy Jerusalem.” Then he says to him, in order to increase your confidence here, ask God to give you some kind of sign that this is true, some kind of tangible evidence that can be a beacon of hope and confidence in the face of this serious threat. But the King refuses to do that – and so the prophet says, fine, “God’s just going to give you one: A virgin will conceive a son. That’s the sign. It’s a pretty remarkable sign, right? And he says, before it comes to pass these armies that you fear, they will be extinguished. They’ll be gone from the face of the earth. The virgin’s son will be a sign that they have been destroyed.
The text points us plainly to one important role of suffering and hardship: it increases our dependence upon God. The goal of suffering and hardship is to help us increase our dependence upon God, to test and strengthen our faith. The Bible paints this picture across both canons, Old and New Testaments:
- So, we see it in the beginning with Abraham, who’s faith is tested when God instructs him to sacrifice Isaac.
- We see it with Job, whose faith is tested as God allows him to be put through the ringer.
- We see it with Moses as he is called to go and seek the release of the slaves in Egypt
- We see with Israel, as they are led out into the wilderness and called to trust that God will provide for them.
- We see it as they enter the promised land and are called to lay siege to a walled-city by means of marching and blowing trumpets.
- We see it in the New as the disciples are called to die to themselves, to walk on water, to believe that Jesus can multiply fish and bread, to anticipate the resurrection.
- We see it with Thomas who can’t accept the risen Christ without touching him, and for that he is rebuked, though with grace.
- We see it too in the life of Paul who is given this “thorn in the flesh,” in order that he might be humble and dependent upon God.
Suffering, difficulty calls us to trust in God. Both Paul and James tell us this plainly. Paul says it in Romans 5:3-5:
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Count it all joy, my brothers,when you meet trials of various kinds,3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4)
Trials test and strengthen our faith.
Within Isaiah 7 we see this same principle at work. God is inviting Ahaz to trust Him more deeply than He does. This is an occasion, an opportunity, for the King to seek greater assurance in God’s goodness, sovereignty, and trustworthiness. Ahaz, for his part, doesn’t take it. It is important to note that how we respond to trials and difficulties is exceedingly important. All things work together for the good, but for the good of whom? For those who love the Lord. How we respond to trials can lead us deeper into relationship with God or further away from Him. Your challenges, your difficulties, your thorns in the flesh – as uncomfortable as they are – are opportunities to grow. If you stewards your trials well you will see hope, joy, peace, and goodness beyond your difficulty. That’s what God wanted for Ahaz. “Ask me for a sign, Ahaz. Ask me to show you my trustworthiness and goodness. Ask me!” But Ahaz wouldn’t. We don’t know why He wouldn’t ask. Perhaps he was afraid to hope, perhaps He didn’t really believe, perhaps he wanted to be miserable.
The holidays can be immensely difficult for some of us. It can be physical or emotional or relational. It can be grief, or unfulfilled desire, or regret. They can feel especially hard because at the same time that we want to weep, we feel this intense pressure to paint on a happy face and sing deck the halls with everybody else. We don’t want to be a downer, we don’t want to ruin everybody’s holiday fun. So, we live sort at odds with ourselves. So, what do we do? On the one hand there is a temptation to see in this text the need to suppress those emotions and spiritualize everything by saying, I just need to trust God more. On the one hand you may need to do that. There may be some diminished faith in your life and you need to wrestle with that – but the Bible does not invite us to pretend and suppress negative emotions. That is not godly. In fact God himself weeps, doesn’t he. Jesus weeps for Jerusalem, he weeps for his friend Lazarus. Paul too weeps, and feels great anguish in his heart for the Jews who have rejected Christ. The Bible does not invite a sort of “don’t worry, be happy” kind of mentality. It doesn’t simply tell us to walk around like we live in a winter wonderland and pretend that everything is always beautiful and lovely.
It’s okay to be honest. You don’t need to go around with a dour face and talk about your sorrow with everyone everywhere. And sometimes you do just need to force yourself to go out to a Christmas party and enjoy the joy of others, even while you are struggling to find your own this season. The Bible tells us that Christians have a responsibility to weep with those who weep, but also to rejoice with those who are rejoicing. So we need to do that. But it is okay to be honest too. It’s important to have a trusted Christian friend that you can talk to about your sorrow, someone you can share with and grief with. It’s okay to mourn your losses again, to grieve unfilled dreams, to desire something better. But what you do with all that negative emotion, friends, what you do with it will either drive you closer to God or further from Him.
Steward your sorrows for spiritual gain. Let your trials drive you to prayer and desperation for the Kingdom of God. Let it drive you to remember and rejoice in the gospel. Let it drive you to thankfulness for all that God has done for you. Let it drive you to compassion for those in your situation or similar situations. Let it drive you to meditate on the Scriptures of hope and joy. To hide God’s Word in your heart that you might not sin against Him. God wanted more for Ahaz, and so He allows this difficulty to come into his life in order that Ahaz would look to God for help. He does the same for us. Look to God for help, friends, even in the midst of holiday struggles.