Sunday, December 7, 2008

Christmas Banquet Message - “Rejoicing in Hope”

(Here is the message I shared at the annual Christmas Banquet at Arrowsmith Baptist Church on December 5, 2008. If you would like to listen/download the audio of this message, Click Here).

Young John Blanchard stood up from the bench, straightened his Army uniform, and studied the crowd of people making their way through the train station. He was looking for the girl whose heart he knew, but whose face he didn’t - the girl with the rose. His interest in her had begun a months before in a Florida library. Taking a book off the shelf he found himself intrigued, not with the words of the book, but with the notes penciled inside the margin. The soft handwriting reflected a thoughtful soul and insightful mind. In the front of the book, was the previous owner’s name, Miss Hollis Maynell. With time and effort he located her address. She now lived in New York City. He wrote her a letter introducing himself and inviting her to correspond. The very next day he was shipped overseas for service in the midst of World War II. In the months that followed the two grew to know each other intimately through the mail. As the romance blossomed, Blanchard requested a photograph, but she refused. If he really cared, she said, it wouldn’t matter what she looked like. When the day finally came for him to return from Europe, they scheduled their first meeting- at 7PM at the Grand Central Station in New York. “You’ll recognize me,” she wrote, “by the red rose I’ll be wearing on my lapel.”

So at 7 PM John Blanchard stood in the station looking for the girl whose heart he loved, but whose face he’d never seen- the girl with the rose. Blanchard writes – “Suddenly a young woman came towards me, her figure long and slim. Her blond hair lay back in curls from her delicate ears; her eyes were blue as flowers. Her lips and chin had a gentle firmness; in her pale green suit she seemed like springtime come alive. But as I started toward her, I suddenly realized that she was not wearing a rose. She looked into my disappointed eyes, smiled, and walked on. It was then that I saw Miss Hollis Maynell; she was standing almost directly behind the beautiful woman I had just seen.”

“She was well past 40, and possessed graying hair tucked under a worn hat. She was more than plump, her thick-ankled feet thrust into low-heeled shoes. And she was wearing a single red rose. At that moment I felt as though I was split in two: my heart and mind sought to follow the beauty of the first women, yet my soul was embraced with a deep longing for the woman whose spirit had truly companioned me and held me up during the war. And there she stood. Her pale, plump face was gentle and sensible; her gray eyes had a warm and kindly twinkle. And so with my fingers gripping the small leather copy of the book that had brought us together, I squared my shoulders and saluted and held out the book to the woman, and spoke with words choked back by my disappointment.”

“I’m Lieutenant John Blanchard, and you must be Miss Maynell. I am so glad you could meet me; may I take you to dinner?” The woman’s face broadened into a tolerant smile. “I don’t know what this is about, son,” she answered, “but the young lady in the green suit who just walked in front of me begged me to wear this rose. She said if you were to ask me out to dinner, that I should tell you that she is waiting for you in the big restaurant across the street. She said this is some kind of test!”

We all face such tests in life on a regular basis. While there are times when our hopes and dreams and desires are satisfied beyond our grandest expectations – it seems more often than not that we see our greatest hopes dissolve in the face of reality. We are entering at time of year when we’ve all had such experiences. The Christmas season brings with it high expectations for “good will and great tidings with joy” - yet the reality is that often children are disappointed with their presents, spouses can be frustrated with one another, and families become disillusioned by their relationships with each other.

I remember as a young child growing up in a home without a father where money was hard to come by - and facing the reality that often my hopes for a particular Christmas present rarely came true. I also remember the excitement and expectation I felt when as an older child when my mother told she would soon be married – and the disappointment I came know afterwards once I experienced both the anger and distance of a step-father who was deeply embittered about life and had no time for me.

A few years ago at a Bible study I was leading in a prison an inmate told me that every Christmas season he experiences severe headache, a remnant of a severe beating and fractured skull he received from a drunken father on Christmas morning. At times it is hard to see the hope of this season beyond the scars we’ve received in life. The truth is we do live in a fallen and broken world - in the midst of the season where we proclaim “good will among all men” we can feel the tension of a government that is falling apart as our leaders attack one another for political gain. We try to “rejoice” as we watch the price of fuel go down, yet we wonder if we’ll have the funds to even buy gas. As we Christmas shop for the best prices - we also consider that we might need the money we spend for something more important later on. As the air becomes filled with the songs of holiday tradition - at the same time our ears hear reports of terrorism and war and genocidal atrocities and wide spread violence abroad.

It was because of such things that Jesus came into the world 2000 years ago. The times and place into which Christ was born were oppressive, violent and bloody. Life was hard, food was scarce, sickness and disease was rampant, death was in the air. There was fear and pain and terror and uncertainty everywhere. The prophets of God had spoken of a savior, a deliverer to come, yet the promise of that hope had gone fulfilled for over 400 years – and the dark days of life continued to get ever darker.

It was into this darkness that the light of was Jesus born. The world had grown hard and cynical, yet there was a breath of hope blowing through the hearts of the people of God. In the midst of the misery and oppression there rose up a sense that God was about to do something great and awesome and wonderful. In the midst of the darkness a light of hope dawned on God’s people; in the midst of the despair the promise of joy began to flicker in the shadows of life. The savior, the deliverer had come!

Yet many who had wanted that hope - missed it. On June 6, 1981, Doug Whitt and his new bride, Sylvia, were escorted into their hotel’s fancy bridal suite in the wee hours of the morning. In the room they saw a sofa, chairs, and table, but no bed. Then they discovered the sofa was a hide-a-bed, with a lumpy mattress and sagging springs. After a fitful night’s sleep they woke up in the morning with sore backs. The new husband went to the hotel desk and gave the management a tongue-lashing. "Did you open the door in the room?" asked the clerk. Doug went back to the room. He opened the door they had thought was a closet. There, complete with fruit baskets and chocolates, was a beautiful bedroom.

We most often miss out on the true joy God has for us - because we are looking for it in the wrong places. An old Chinese proverb that says: “If you wish to be happy for one hour, get intoxicated. If you wish to be happy for three days, get married. If you wish to be happy for a week kill your pig and eat it. If you wish to be happy forever, learn to fish.” I know of a few men that would agree with that. But the point is we often confuse happiness with joy. You see while happiness is a feeling, joy is something else. Joy is much deeper than happiness and more than an attitude. Joy is a person. Joy is Jesus.

D.L Moody once said: “Happiness is caused by things that happen around me, and circumstances will mar it; but joy flows right on through trouble; joy flows on through the dark; joy flows in the night as well as in the day; joy flows all through persecution and opposition. Joy is an unceasing fountain bubbling up in the heart; joy is a secret spring the world can’t see and doesn’t know anything about.” What Moody is saying is this - happiness is about our expectations, but joy is about our hope in Jesus.

In his book In A Pit with A Lion on A Snowy Day Mark Batterson writes: "Too often our prayers revolve around asking God to reduce the odds in our lives. We want everything in our favor. But maybe God wants to stack the odds against us so we can experience a miracle of divine proportions. Maybe faith is trusting God no matter how impossible the odds are. Maybe our impossible situations are opportunities to experience a new dimension of God's glory." This is something we all know deep in our hearts by experience. When the heavy waves of struggle wash into our lives and hope begins to drift from the shore – feeling happy has no meaning or effect. There is something – or rather Someone - deeper at work that causes us to joyfully rise above the struggle of situations and circumstances.

We’ve seen that within our own church family. In the first week of August, Alvin Schulz had a mountain bike accident which broke his neck which left him paralyzed from the neck down. One week after the accident his wife Judi sent us an email that said: “I have great hope in God and rejoice in the day He has given us. There will be many things that will come our way and hurdles that will seem like mountains, but our trust is in the Lord. God did not say it would be an easy road. We will only be able to do this through His strength. I wanted you to know that I am taking joy in . . . proclaiming God.”

Jesus said we will have trouble in this world. The Christian life can often seem like a bad bed; good around the outside but pretty lumpy in the middle. Yet we are told to rejoice in our struggles and not lose hope. When the world gets turned upside down, when our sense of security and safety is broken, and when we are worn out and tired and standing out on the edge of life – it is then we are finally ready for God to turn things right-side up again, ready to let Him be our security and safety, ready to be strengthened and saved and delivered - from our struggles with life, our struggles with others, and our struggles with ourselves. It is then we are ready to put our hope in God by finding our joy in Jesus.

Hope in God comes from knowing joy in Jesus. Joy in Jesus causes us to know hope in God. Joyful hope is central to our existence. The Bible says: “Through him (Jesus) we have . . . obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2).

A Persian legend tells us that there was a certain king who needed a faithful servant and had to choose between two candidates. He paid them both the same wage and told them to fill a basket with water from a nearby well, saying that he would come in the evening to inspect their work. After dumping one or two buckets of water into the basket, one of the men said, "What is the good of doing this useless work? As soon as we pour the water in, it runs out the sides." The other answered, "But we have been paid our wages. Our work is the master's business, not ours." "I'm not going to do such fool's work," replied the complainer. Throwing down his bucket, he went away. The other man continued until he had drained the well. Looking down into it, he saw something shiny at the bottom that proved to be a diamond. It was then he realized the purpose of the struggle of pouring water into a leaky basket. Had the well not been emptied dry to the bottom, he never would have found the treasure waiting for him.

Wherever you might be tonight in your walk in this life, know that regardless of how desperate or overwhelming or discouraging your circumstance or situation might be - a joyful hope awaits you in God through Jesus Christ. You may have to bail a lot of water to get there, and it may seem there’s a pretty big hole in your basket - but there is treasure at the bottom of it all waiting for you. Romans 5:5 tells us that: “hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts.” On the night Jesus was born we read that the angels said: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people" (Luke 2:10). Jesus has come. He has come to be our hope and our joy!

1 comment:

  1. Leland, I saw that you quoted Mark Batterson in your message from his book "In a Pit". I work with the Threads team at LifeWay ( Mark actually partnered with Threads to write his Bible study based on In a Pit called Chase the Lion. I just thought you might be interested in the study. You can find it at Thanks!