Monday, December 23, 2013

Sleep in Heavenly Peace

Today, we lost a saint. Gena's best friend from childhood became one of my dearest friends. I owed Elizabeth a lot - after all, if she had not accepted me, I doubt seriously Gena would have said "yes." If she had not continued to welcome me as a part of her life, well, let's just say I am so glad she did, for my marriage has been happier as a result. If she had not been the person who fought cancer for the last three years with grace, dignity, spirit, and an unflagging faith that ended each email with "trusting Him now more than ever," her struggle would have been much more difficult for Gena and me and everyone else around us.

And now her struggle is over. She has entered that place and time and presence that are promised to all of us who know Christ. She is at peace. And it is time, oh how it is time, for her to be at peace.

Here it is, the day before Christmas Eve, and Elizabeth gets to enjoy a silent, holy night. She gets to sleep, for the first time in months, in heavenly peace.

It reminds me of that carol that so many of us will all sing tomorrow night. For the chance to sleep in heavenly peace is needed by us all.

Oh tiny baby, you who have not been given even a bed on which to lie, sleep in heavenly peace. This one night, after the shepherds have left and before the wise men arrive, sleep peacefully. Tonight, now that the barnyard animals have finally settled down, sleep. For there will not be many peaceful nights for you. Already you know the torment, the turmoil, the torture that lies ahead. You have watched us since creation, so you know that we are building our towers and fighting our wars; you know that we will not let you walk your road very long before somebody gets out the whip and somebody else builds a cross. So tonight, dear child, while you can, sleep in heavenly peace.

Oh quaking shepherds, you who work on the ragged hills and keep watch through the cold nights, sleep in heavenly peace. You have heard what none of us has – the very choir of heaven singing “Alleluia” with harmonies and chords that we cannot even imagine. Tonight, you who have seen glory streaming from the face of a baby can dream about what you have experienced, this gift presented to you. This night, you can sleep in the peace reserved only for those who know they have seen the face of God. That is heavenly peace.

Oh melodious angels, you who sang the anthem you have been preparing since that dark day in Eden, sleep in heavenly peace. We don’t know you well enough to know if you sleep like the rest of us creatures do, but we imagine that this appearance to our human brethren for a concert like none other has left you pleasantly spent. You have done well. Indeed you have inspired us to understand the true greatness of this event. You have earned a rest. Sleep.

Oh sinful world, you who have waited for Messiah and have struggled with your own vices, sleep in heavenly peace. For you who are wearied by temptation and failure, this night of the wondrous star has witnessed new light shed into your darkness, and you can sleep now. Tonight, you no longer have to fear not waking up, for the world has changed. Christ the Savior is born. So tonight, dear children, for the first time, you can sleep in heavenly peace.

And tonight, and every night, Elizabeth knows heavenly peace. Thank God.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Missing the Messiah

"We were sad to miss the Messiah this year."

This line from my pastor's weekly letter to the congregation caught my eye. I know what he meant, of course. Our church annually holds a community service called the "Messiah Sing." Our chancel choir, accompanied by members of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, performs Handel's "Messiah" and invites all those in attendance to sing with us on the choruses. It is a popular and expected event, and the sanctuary is routinely filled to overflowing for it. This year, because of an unusual ice storm, the event was canceled. We thus missed "Messiah."

But the pastor's note struck a different chord with me. Too often, Christmas comes and Christmas goes, and we miss the Messiah.

We do not allow ourselves to miss the Christmas experience. We sing the songs, take the school vacations, hang the lights, attend the parties, and give the gifts. We make sure to include "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Miracle on 34th Street" and "Elf" and "The Christmas Story" as a part of our December routines. We would not dare fail to put up a tree.

And we dutifully bemoan the "commercialization of Christmas" even as we buy another lighted wreath.

The brilliant insight of Dr. Seuss is that taking all of these trappings away - the Grinch even steals the roast beast - cannot keep Christmas from coming. Would that we all had the understanding of Dr. Seuss.

John the Baptist himself was not sure the Jesus he found was the Jesus he had been expecting. John had preached about a Messiah bearing a winnowing fork. The healing, resurrecting, loving Jesus was not quite the same picture. Of course, more was different than just Jesus, for John the Baptist asked his doubting question - "Are you really the one?" - from a prison cell. Life was not turning out like John had expected, and the world was not what John expected, and Jesus was not what John expected.

The same is true for us. Life is not what we expect. Dangerous ice storms prevent us from taking our routine drives and interrupt our schedules. We do not turn out to be the persons we thought we would be. Somebody steals our roast beast.

And maybe Jesus is not what we expected. We wanted a king to come and conquer everything that was bothering us. We were ready for the ruler, the long-expected deliverer. We were prepared for the one who would smile at us and thank us for our excellent work and take us to our special slice of heaven. Yet life has not turned out that way. Our years of service and good deeds have seemingly gone unnoticed. Jesus has come without doing one thing about our sore backs or our irritating bosses. In fact, Jesus seems to have bypassed us altogether.

If we are not careful, we will be sad to miss the Messiah this year.

Jesus of course does not leave John the Baptist in his doubt. He reminds John of the the great prophecies of Isaiah, of the one who would come bringing sight to the blind and preaching good news to the poor. Jesus will not let us miss Him either if we will simply look. He is the one the angels proclaimed, the one who has come once again to live in the very dirtiest stables of our own lives. He is not deterred by ice storms, or aches and pains, or our own stubborn insistence on making Christmas about lights and movies and chocolate.

Advent is upon us. Christ is coming. Do not miss the Messiah.