Even before I stepped on the plane, I knew it would be anything but a holly jolly Christmas. I was walking into the home of family members who were left hollowed by an ugly divorce. And I was determined to bring whatever joy I could into an otherwise sad and awkward situation.
In the quiet of the night, I received a phone call that added to the heartache and made this one of the bleakest Christmases of my life. Another family member, caught in the on-and-off-again throes of addiction, was taken to rehab for the upteenth time. She was alone, and that broke my heart. So, I put a smile on my face on Christmas morning, asked the Lord for strength, opened presents and drove four hours to a rehab center. Presents in hand, I tried to bring a little bit of Christmas into that small room for visitors. I spent the remainder of Christmas Day, by myself, cleaning up a house marked by the mess of addiction.
It was lonely. It seemed hopeless and “unfair.” And I didn’t understand how the Lord was using this for my good and his glory. It was the bitterest of Decembers, and I hope to never re-live it.
For all the sentimentality of the Christmas season, it’s far from the most wonderful time of the year in many homes and hearts. The twinkling lights and sappy songs, both of which I’m a sucker for, can be catalysts for depression and despair in souls that are wrestling against the powers and principalities who rule over this fallen world.
The temptation to withdraw into cynicism, shut the blinds to block out the lights and wait until Christmas passes can be overwhelming. But this is what Christmas—the first Advent—is for. It reminds us that life—and trusting in the God of the Bible—is not in vain. The same promise-keeping God who spoke into the 400-year silence with the Word made flesh is the same God who is guarding us through faith for a salvation that will be revealed and fulfilled in due time (1 Peter 1:5).
This hope means everything for Christians as we seek to influence the various cultures around us. As we look back on a year that has been one for the history books in some of the worst of ways, as we look forward to an unknown future that incites us to fear and as we often wonder what difference our meager little lives and offerings make, the fact that Jesus, fulfilling hundreds of years of prophecies, has come should spur us on to unfettered faithfulness, because we know that our lives, our faith and our efforts are not in vain.
The whole birth story of Jesus might have appeared underwhelming and mundane, even horrifying, to us if we were there. Joseph was a humble carpenter. Mary was an ordinary teenager, pregnant by suspicious circumstances. The Savior was laid in a disgusting feeding trough. Lowly and despised shepherds were among the first witnesses to his birth. And because of Herod’s wrath, many young boys were slaughtered (Matt. 2:16-18).
Following the Messiah also seemed like a dead end at first. You certainly wouldn’t have been impressed with him if you were seeking political, financial or social advantage, or were concerned about the comfort and longevity of your physical life. Yet, that’s how the kingdom works, isn’t it? It’s the mustard seed that grows into the largest of trees. It’s the smallest bit of yeast that permeates the whole batch of bread. It often starts with what is tossed aside and barely perceived until, one day, the unmistakable work of God is ubiquitous.
It’s good news that Christmas isn’t just for the cheerful one who loves sipping hot chocolate by the tree. Christmas is for the downtrodden and defeated ones who have been praying for years and want to give up. Christmas is for the distraught and discouraged ones who have had another setback in their life’s work. Christmas is for the depressed and despairing ones who are barely hanging on. Christmas is for the ones in the middle of the darkest night of the soul.
I look back on that hard Advent season I experienced and see how seeds of the kingdom were being scattered, even as I cleaned up the mess of a house that revealed an even messier soul. Years later, I can see how God has been gracious to give glimpses of the second anticipated Advent. He has made his blessings flow in places where the curse is found within my family. And one day, no more remnants of that curse will remain—in their place, only joy.
Wherever you find yourself this Christmas—in the middle of nowhere, in the dark of the lonely night, in the repetition of the messy mundane—may God meet you like he met the shepherds that night, suddenly surrounding you with his glory and causing your heart to join in the angels’ song,
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.”