Isaiah 9:1-7
Matthew 2:1-16

The familiar Christmas carol God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen is one of the oldest that exists, going back to at least the 16th century, if not earlier. Five hundred years of changing language use has rendered its title a little nebulous.

Many people today miss the meaning of the first line because they misplace the comma, thinking the title should say God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen. This is not a song about ‘merry gentlemen,’ hanging out at The Village Inn. It helps to know that the word ‘merry’ originally meant strong or valiant, as in Robin Hood and his band of Merry, that is, strong, valiant, Men.’ And the word ‘rest,’ as in ‘God rest,’ meant to ‘make.’

So the first line really means, “God make you strong and valiant, gentlemen.” That explains the second line, “Let nothing you dismay.”

And what is it that makes us strong and valiant in the face of the struggles of life? “Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day, to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray (a reference to the forgiveness of our sin through Jesus) O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy; O tidings of comfort and joy.”

This Christmas as at every Christmas, we need to be reminded of the glad tidings of comfort and joy; in other words ‘hope.’ Because the truth is Christmas has a way of magnifying any sadness brought about by negative aspects of life experienced in Christmas past or being experienced now.

On Christmas Day in 1863, the great American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem that would become the lyrics of I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

“And in despair I bowed my head, there is no peace on earth I said.”

He was despairing that Christmas, not only because our country was in the third year of the Civil War, but also, that his son had been severely wounded in battle; and because his wife had tragically died when a dress she was wearing caught fire.

My guess is that all people everywhere have experienced some darkness associated with Christmas.

Perhaps it helps to know that darkness cast its shadow over those who experienced the very first Christmas.

Luke tells us, “There was no place for them in the inn” (2:7). They are shown no personal favor in the world. They will give birth in a way that would frighten most of us; no doctor, no hospital, no running water. There is nothing romantic and warm about a manger.

Luke speaks of Simeon who reminds Mary, and us, that the birth of the child would not remove grief or death from this world, not yet anyway; and warns her to expect “a sword to pierce her own soul” (Luke 2:35).

Luke has us know that the good news of great joy the angels spoke of did not remove trying circumstances, even from God’s people.

Matthew’s gospel informs us of Herod’s plot to take the child’s life, their escape to Egypt and the death of children under the age of tw. The Magi have to return to their country by another route under similar threats.

Every person in the Christmas story, whether it was Simeon or Anna, Mary or Joseph, the shepherds or the Magi, the oppressed under Herod or the oppressed under Rome, even Jesus Himself; they all experienced what it meant to encounter the darkness of seemingly hopeless situations.

I say ‘seeming less’ hopeless situations because the prophet wonderfully proclaimed, “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” (Isaiah 9:2).

No matter what you are facing this Christmas, no matter how dark it seems to be, I want to say a gentle word of comfort to all of you. Our greatest hope this Christmas isn’t for the absence of darkness. Our greatest hope is the presence of the light of Christ in the midst of the darkness.

But for true hope to exist we must possess the guts to go head-to-head with the darkness and pain that threatens it. And that’s not always easy.

Just ask C. S. Lewis.

Lewis was born in England in 1898. He left his Christian upbringing at the age of 15 and became a devout atheist. Lewis became a brilliant scholar and writer and held faculty positions at Oxford and Cambridge at the same time. At the age of 33 as a result of his friendship with J. R. R Tolkien, he came in his own words, ‘kicking and screaming into the Christian faith.’

He turned to writing Christian books; both fiction and non. His works of Christian fiction include The Chronicles of Narnia. And his best known non-fiction work is Mere Christianity.

Lewis was a lifelong bachelor until he met and married Joy Davidman in 1956 at the age of 58. And his life completely changed. He had never been in love before and now it was head over heels. Sadly, a year after they were married, she was diagnosed with bone cancer and died three years later.

Lewis was devastated and his faith in God faltered for a time. He writes about it in, A Grief Observed. Lewis felt that there was a “sort of invisible blanket between the world and me,” that had also enveloped his spiritual life. A little over half-way through his journal, Lewis experienced a lifting of that blanket. His relationship with God began to reopen and he surmised that God had needed to show him what a flimsy house his faith really was. He realized more fully that we need to love God, not our ideas of God. He accepted that there are mysteries that will be solved only in heaven. 1

Our greatest hope this Christmas isn’t for the absence of darkness. Our greatest hope is the presence of the light of Christ in the midst of the darkness.

For those who have eyes to see, the light shines the brightest when things seems the darkest.

In Deep Down Dark, Hector Tobar tells the story of the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped 2,000 feet below the surface for 69 days in 2010. They had to live in the dark, with little food, cut off from the rest of the world. They didn’t know if they would ever see daylight again.

Many of the miners, face-to-face with imminent death, took stock of their lives and realized they had a lot of regrets. Somebody asked Jose Henriquez, a Christian, if he would pray for everyone. As he got down on his knees, some of the other men joined him, and he began to talk to God: “We aren’t the best men, Lord, but have pity on us.” He actually got more specific: “Victor Segovia knows that he drinks too much. Victor Zamora is too quick to anger.”

Nobody objected; it was the beginning of something special. In the deep down dark, buried under the earth, with death staring them in the face, the men got real before God and each other. They met every day to eat a meager meal, hear a short sermon, and then get on their knees and pray:
“God, forgive me for abusing the temple of my body with drugs.”
“God, forgive me for the violence of my voice before my wife and children.”

They were at their best when life was at its darkest. 2

You see, The Deep Down Dark is the place where we know we can’t make it on our own. The Deep Down Dark is the place where we realize we need Christ.

Just ask the family of Eleanor Munro and her doctor, Joseph MacDougall.

Eleanor, who was 23 years old with a one-year old child, came to be his patient in 1947. Eleanor was a frail young woman with one small child whose husband returned home from WW II with Tuberculosis (TB). He was of hearty stock, so his body responded well to treatment. She, sadly, was not as hearty. She contracted TB and began a rapid decline into waning health. She had weighed 125 lbs. but she was down to 87 the first time he saw her. Her fever was high, fluctuating between 101 and 103 degrees. The disease took hold in a rare and difficult place as she developed a gaping hole in the lower lobe of her right lung. Because of the unusual position of the lesion, traditional surgeries were not an option. And due to her drastically weakened condition, neither were the various medicinal treatments of the day.

Finally, one day that December, he had to tell her that her fate rested in God’s hands. She weakly told him that He, that is, God, was her only hope in the darkness of those days. You see, Eleanor was a courageous and devout Christian woman.

After the doctor told her she wasn’t going to make it she asked for just one thing. ‘If I’m still alive on Christmas Eve,’ she said slowly, ‘I would like your promise that I can go home for Christmas Eve.’ He knew she shouldn’t go, but made the promise, thinking she’d be gone before then anyway.

But amazingly she was still alive on Christmas Eve. He told her not to hold her child and to wear a surgical mask if she was talking to anyone but her husband, whose own case had given him immunity. She promised, and off she went by ambulance, wearing a smile he’d never forget.

Eleanor returned to the hospital the next day, and continued her decline. As the days went on, doctors were saddened that, adding to her misery, an entirely new set of symptoms began to war against her ravaged body. Increased weakness, nausea and vomiting reduced her weight to under 80. Dr. MacDougall was stumped; so he called in a senior medical consultant, and when he examined her, he was stumped, too. But then almost jokingly, he asked if he thought she could be pregnant. The suggestion seemed utterly ridiculous. Nevertheless, a pregnancy test came back positive.

When he told her, she smiled and faintly blushed. It was as close to impossible as you’re ever likely to get, but it was true. But she was so far gone, her doctor was sure her body would reject the child.

Days turned to weeks, but against all odds, the baby continued to develop. By March, Eleanor’s temperature began to drop, she began eating, and even put on some weight. A chest X-ray revealed that the TB cavity had stopped growing. Eleanor’s diaphragm began pushing up to make room for the baby growing inside her. Eventually, it pushed against the lower lobe of her lung. “It appeared as if God was able to do what we’d failed to do pressing the sides of that deadly hole together,” said the good doctor. By the time the baby was born, the TB cavity had completely closed. Their child saved her life. 3

To be sure, it doesn’t always work that way. Just ask C. S Lewis.

Our greatest hope this Christmas isn’t for the absence of darkness. Our greatest hope is the presence of Jesus in the midst of the darkness.

None of us knows what our futures hold. But I hope and pray that we know who holds our futures. So when the darkness falls, hang in there, don’t give up on God, plod through worship, pray, encounter God in Christ through the scriptures.

“And so ladies and gentlemen, this Christmas I pray that God will make you strong and valiant. Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day. To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray. O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy; O tidings of comfort and joy.”


2 Ortberg, John. I’d Like You More If You Were More Like Me. [Nashville: Tyndale House Publishers, © 2017] Pages 181-183

3 “A Christmas Miracle,” by Dr. Joseph A. MacDougall as told to Douglas How in MOODLY MONTHLY, December 1988, pp. 63-65.
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