Hebrews 4:14-16 (NIV)
14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
by Pastor Cherie Dearth
The song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” can seem sad and sentimental, especially if you are missing loved ones or are anticipating missing them. The song was written for the film Meet Me in St Louis in the middle of World War II. At that time, of course, there were a lot of people who were separated from loved ones. It may interest you to know that one of the earlier drafts of the song was even less cheerful. Actually, the words aren’t so sad as you might think. “Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light. Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.” It gave people hope that there would be a time when they could all be together again. The music brings out the poignancy of the song.
This song can remind us of the hopes and dreams that we have for the season. If those hopes and dreams don’t look like they’re going to come to pass, it can leave us feeling a little melancholy or even more than a little melancholy. For others, this is simply not a good time of year. It can be for many different reasons. It could be the shorter days, being overwhelmed with everything that comes with the holiday season, like we talked about last week. It can be overwhelming in a different kind of way, an introverted person being forced into an extroverted time of year, total sensory overload.
There are two things here. If this is NOT you, we have a chance to be sensitive to the ones for whom it is true. Sometimes we can presume that because we’re having a fantastic time, everyone else is, or should be, too. If this IS you, not feeling the most cheerful at this time of year, know that we CAN take solace in the one who does understand us, Jesus.
“15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses … 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15a, 16)
It goes on in verse 17, “For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God.”
There are so many passages in the gospels that illustrate Jesus’ compassion on those who were suffering. In Matthew 9, upon seeing the needs of the crowds who were following him, literally following him around, needing healing, needing the gospel, needing a shepherd. Doesn’t that sound like us, especially when we are in pain? The feeding of the 5000 in Matthew 14 and then feeding thousands again in chapter 15. The people had been with him for three days. They were so desperate for him, and he knew their needs. One of my favorites comes from Luke 7, when Jesus sees the grieving widow who has just lost her only son too. When Jesus saw her, he immediately went to her and said, “Don’t cry.”
Jesus not only had compassion, but he also experienced the suffering. When he is in the garden praying before his arrest. He knows what is coming, and his prayers are the same as any of ours might be in the midst of suffering. “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me,” but in his faithfulness he continues, “yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)
Then, of course, at his lowest point, just before he dies on the cross, he says what any of us might when we feel completely lost and alone in our despair, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46) Here he is quoting from the first verse of Psalm 22.
He may not have experienced every single thing we have, but Jesus knows the suffering of the human life, of our fleshly beings. Last week we sang the song “As the Deer.” We didn’t sing the second verse. “You’re my friend, and you are my brother even though you are a king.” When we pray to Jesus, he really can understand.
My father died twelve years ago on November 30th. Two of the things that I remember distinctly were: 1) I was going to use the Advent/Christmas season to strengthen me rather than be a source of perpetual pain for the rest of my life. I had witnessed too many people who felt that they were betraying a deceased loved one if they enjoyed the holidays. There is hope here if we are willing to grasp onto it. 2) The church, the worship services, were places where I sought solace and prayed to God. I had actually been away from the church for a while, and like many, a time of tragedy brought me back.
Even though I used the season to strengthen me, it didn’t remove the sadness. The church was truly a sanctuary. I remember weeping at the alter rail after a worship service. I remember weeping during a worship service. That day I learned something about the different ways different cultures express empathy. In the south, I would have been quickly and demonstratively embraced. Hugs all around. However, I was in Minneapolis, and they didn’t do that. Instead, as people passed me on their way for communion, they squeezed my shoulder. It was more subdued, but no less meaningful or heartfelt.
But even outside that time of obvious grief, there have been times that I’ve felt especially lonely and left out, even when I was among a crowed. The “forced” happiness of the season can be a burden. “Have yourself a merry little Christmas” almost seems like a command. You will have a merry Christmas. You must. It’s your duty. Ummmm … no it’s not. You don’t have to pretend that you feel what you don’t. However, through it, you can have hope; you can take refuge in Jesus because he really does understand.
Many of us hear the verse, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” by the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4:4, and we think that it means to feel any unhappiness or distress is a sin. So, we may paste on a happy face because we think it’s our duty. We must be gad about everything that happens to us. We must be joyful in all things. Those statements are simply not true. Let me repeat that in case you were dozing … Those statements are simply not true.
For one thing, Paul indicates his own distress in multiple letters including Philippians talking about his tears. In 2 Corinthians 2:4, he talks about the thorn that is continually plaguing him. He accepts it, but he’s not happy about it.
For another thing, the verse does not say, be joyful always. It says, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” It is not referring to wonderful feelings developing from within, which is our contemporary use of the word rejoice. It is celebrating in the knowledge that no matter what our circumstances that God is with us. God will never leave us or forsake us.
To see this, we can go back to Psalm 22, the first verse of which Jesus quoted while on the cross. In verse 24 the psalmist says of God, “For [God] has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one, [God] has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.”
That does not sound like distress is a sin, quite the contrary. We are allowed, encouraged, to take our problems, our concerns, to God, and God will listen.
If we go back to Philippians to the next verse, 4:5, it says, “The Lord is near.” The following verse effectively instructs us to cast all our cares upon God. Pray to God. This will allow us to have peace about whatever our situation may be. It may not be an easy process. When I give things over to God, I tend to take them back without realizing it. The peace may not come immediately.
At the beginning of worship we sang, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” We sang the lyrics, “Rejoice, rejoice,” but we sang it in a minor key, which evokes sadness and distress. But that song tells us that even in our distress there can be a light of hope. Even if we feel that we are in a dark place … with the days continually getting shorter for the next couple of weeks, it may literally be a dark place … there is a hope of a better and brighter day coming.
In a few minutes, we will be singing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” That phrase is inspired by Luke 12:6 where Jesus says, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are numbered. Do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
So even if you do feel wonderful and happy, remember that there are those around you who are not having such a good time. Be generous and understanding of them. Help them to be brave enough to be honest about how they are really feeling. It is only then when we will be able to minster to them, maybe by giving them a big hug, maybe by giving them a gentle squeeze on the shoulder.
Is there something we can do to make the season more merry or hopeful, less sad and discouraging?
Jesus is our hope! Through his death, we are forgiven our sings. Through is resurrection, we are given new life. Our peace is that he does understand what we go through, our ups and our downs. He is our intercessor, “Our refuge and strength, and ever present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:2) Jesus was born “to shine a light on those living in darkness.” (Luke 1:70a) And, we have that ever present hope of the day of Christ’s return. So, we can remember that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5).