THE BELLS TOLL
The bells in town would ring for many occasions, but the Christmas bells always caught my full attention. They would toll each December, marking the arrival of the holiday season. In my heart and mind, they just sounded different- They were louder and clearer, bringing with them the incomparable joy of the most wonderful time of the year. In my soul, they boldly resonated, announcing the birth of my Savior and the assurance that my God would love me forever. No matter where I go, I will always cherish the sound of a tolling Christmas bell as it chimes me back to the manger and the God who favored me enough to send His child to save my life.
"Favor." It's a word we don’t visit often and it's relation to faith can be a bit foreign to some. We spend plenty of time discussing spiritual "contentment." We often reference the concept of being “right” with God. We love the idea of being spiritually "connected," but when was the last time you sought your Heavenly Father's favor? We spend so much time praising the Biblical “giants” for the "wholeness" of their faith, forgetting that their holiness was what often drew God's attention. We pedestal the great theologians, inspiring authors, dynamic pastors and reputable worship artists of the day because their faith seems unattainable. If God clearly speaks THROUGH them, He must also speak TO them and we assume they must have His personal phone number on speed dial. We imagine what it must be like to live in their shoes, opening their eyes each morning to a beam of heavenly light and the rousing applause of angels. Friends, could we really be that delusional? Faith is not graded on a curve; spiritual discipline is rewarded. We just grow envious of the faith that others possess when we neglect our own personal investments in the kingdom and the enemy uses this to convince us that God picked favorites and we didn't make the team. It seems unfair that others can win His favor when our lives seem so bleak, difficult or painful and we find ourselves feeling restless and abandoned- fighting for contentment when we should be seeking peace.
God’s favor is not a matter of random selection. It’s the by-product of a willing heart. Contentment with your faith is not the same thing as finding peace with God, so know which one you're searching for! Peace can only be discovered in the fullness and intimacy of His presence. Peace is what follows God's favor and finding favor requires sacrifice. It's won by the heart that utters those four difficult words... “here I am, Lord.” It's found in the soul that stays true to Him through every facet of life.
“For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show himself strong on behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him.” 2 Chronicles 16: 9
God seeks out those who love Him and love His commands and your willingness to serve Him (with wholehearted devotion) is what draws His attention to your cause. His seal of approval brings the peace that transcends all understanding and overwhelms the bitter aftertaste of life. All hearts desire peace, but few seem to find it and many more want rewards for diligence they haven't displayed. We spend more time wondering why God doesn’t seem to favor us than we do living out the things that bring Him joy. If we delight in Him (loving Him with our whole heart and living that love out to our neighbors), He delights in us. Ultimately, God’s favor is tied to grace. The “free gift” is what justifies us, but we have to accept it and allow it to work through us. The holy child we celebrate each Christmas saves us, by grace, through faith in Him, and turning our lives over to Him brings the favor of the Father. If God's favor rested on His Son, we can find favor through Him.
Why else do we so rarely find peace? Because life is loud! The noise of busyness and obligations clamber for our attention; the orchestra of "bad news" and personal woes ring loudly in our ears. The choirs of heaven that proclaim "peace on earth" are drowned out by distractions and we forget about the Christ-child who was born in silent stillness. It's so hard to hear Him in this concert of calamity we call "life." Still, if hope could be born in such a time of darkness and danger, how much more can we discover God’s favor in the midst of our own pain and strife? In times of fear, frustration and failure, open your eyes again to the coming King. Join with the shepherds and look to the skies. This happened... this REALLY happened.
“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” Luke 2: 13-14
The peace promised by the angels is the reward of God’s favor and it rests on those who seek His Son. Do you have a hard time finding it? Perhaps you’ve lost sight of the manger. Have you forgotten the light of the Christ-child amidst a dark forest of life's difficulties? Has the magnitude of God's love story been replaced by the weights you now carry? You’re not alone...
Henry knew difficulty well. It clung to him like a leech. In 1861, he lost his beloved to her untimely death in a freak accident when her dress caught fire. Henry awoke to the scene, attempting to put out the flames with his own body- suffering intense burns in the effort to save her life. Because of his injuries, he was unable to attend her funeral. In 1863, Henry permitted his eldest son Charles to depart for Washington D.C to join the active service of President Lincoln’s army and he met suffering again at the news of Charles bout with typhoid fever. While Charles would eventually return to the war effort, his health lasted a short while before being wounded in a battle of the Mine Run Campaign. The bullet passed through his shoulder and grazed his spine. News of his son’s injury arrived to Henry in a telegram that explained the severity of his condition. There was a very good chance his son would be paralyzed and never walk again. On Christmas day, 1863, Henry, a father of six (one nearly paralyzed in his country's war against itself)- Henry, a widowed husband (by the untimely loss of his beloved wife), sat down and wrote a poem to capture the distress of his heart and the unrest he witnessed in the dark world that surrounded him. Listening in the quiet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow heard the singing of “peace on earth” and the bells that rang from a nearby church steeple. Henry was no stranger to difficulty, the familiar battles of life and the ongoing question of where peace could possibly be found in the midst of this darkness. Had he lost God’s favor in the sight of injustice? Had he been abandoned by heaven as life sought to sap him of the hope that faith was meant to provide? The recurring theme of his texts became the powerful words we know today as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” and the words still reverberate these many years later. We can relate to the struggles and yet, like Henry, find a confident hope in the face of our own adversity. God still favors His people! Can you hear the bells through the mess of life? Will you seek the favor that is found through living for Jesus Christ? There, and only there will you find peace.
“I heard the bells on Christmas Day. Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet, the words repeat, of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how as the day had come, the belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song, of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till ringing, singing on its way, the world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime, of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth, the cannon thundered in the South,
and with the sound, the carols drowned, of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent, the hearth-stones of a continent,
and made forlorn, the households born, of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head; “There is no peace on earth,” I said; “for hate is strong, and mocks the song, of peace on earth, good-will to men!” Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men.”