(1) Would you agree that Christmas is supposed to be a time of hope, of joy, of connection, of happiness?
(2) Beautiful lights, loving family, the joy of giving and receiving presents, ecstatic children, turkey, ham, cheesy potatoes, pie, chocolate, and in our family kringla and lefse.
If that doesn’t bring joy, what would?
But what if it doesn’t?
(3) What if all that just falls flat and you find yourself dragging through the holiday?
Perhaps it’s because of financial problems or fears. You just don’t know how you are going to make it through the next few months.
Perhaps it’s because of debilitating illness or chronic pain and each day you wonder if you will be able to drag yourself through the next day.
Perhaps it’s because of a terrible loss — a spouse, a child, a parent, whether that loss is to death or divorce, a rebellious child, or a harsh, critical, and easily offended parent.
Perhaps it’s because you virtually alone at Christmas.
It’s bad enough to live day after day after day without the connection and support of a spouse or children or close friends.
But watching from the outside, watching everyone else experience the joy of connection that you so desperately desire—it’s like rubbing salt into the wound.
And for some of us, Christmas is our most difficult season—perhaps for a particular year, or perhaps continually—year after year.
Is there hope at Christmas time? And where is that hope found?
(4) I’m Dave Bovenmyer, one of Stonebrook’s pastors who works with our soul-care ministry. And in our advent series we’ve talking about how we should join the resistance.
Two weeks ago, we talked about joining the resistance against hurry.
Last week we talked about joining the resistance against worry.
And this week we’ll talk about joining the resistance against despair.
First I’d like to say that if you are a person who tends to get down easily, to be depressed, to battle despair—know that you’re not alone.
All of us struggle to find hope in life, some of us more than others and sometimes more in one season of life than another.
And many, even of the most faithful, godly believers have struggled deeply with feelings of hopelessness and despair.
There are many, many examples, but King David is an obvious one. He wrote:
(5) Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him for the help of His presence. (Psalm 42:5, NASB95)
Something deep within his soul just wouldn’t settle down, wouldn’t be at peace, wouldn’t trust in God. Despair was rising up like flood waters, threatening to overwhelm him.
So, he talked to his soul. “Hope in God! Remember God! Remember His promises! Things will get better and I will again be able to praise Him from the heart.
All of us fight the battle to find hope, but some of us have a harder fight than others.
I’m not sure why that is.
Perhaps it has to do with the temperament God has given us. Some children seem to be born naturally cheerful while others are more reflective and melancholy.
Often those with the greatest talent—artists, writers, musicians—they can be the ones who have the most trouble battling discouragement and despair.
Perhaps some of it has to do with our imprinting. All of us have been shaped by family and schoolmates and difficult experiences that have wounded in ways that can bend us toward despondency.
But whatever the reason that some struggle more than others, let’s not judge one another. You may not struggle with despondency and despair, but you may struggle with something else—cockiness or pride or lust or some other vice.
In my counseling work I’ve come to realize that some of the people who are the most broken and dysfunctional could actually be considered the greatest heroes.
They’re facing extreme inner passions and conflicts that most of us know nothing about.
Yet they heroically battle on, doing their best to choose to love God and others with the strength they are able to muster.
But wherever each of us tends to land on the spectrum of encouragement or discouragement, we all need hope.
Is there hope in Christmas? And where is it found? Is there something deeper than the food and presents and family and friends that culture says should make us happy?
YES! YES, YES, YES, YES, YES!
There is hope in Christmas
And this morning I’d like to give you four deeper reasons for hope.
(6) The first is that approximately 2,022 years ago, God became a man!
Let that sink in. God became a man?
The all powerful, all knowing, everywhere present God, cared for His creation so much that He lowered himself to become part of it and entered into it.
God became a man, actually a tiny baby, and came into this world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth!
And amazingly, this uniting of God with His creation was not a temporary thing. It’s permanent. Jesus is still a man and always will be. The almighty God is still and will always be joined together with the physical world, His creation.
What does that mean? — It means that He cares. It means that we are important. Every man, every woman, every child, is important because God cared enough to become one of us so as to bring redemption to us.
God becoming a man shows us that He is not some impersonal force, or some all-transcendent, unknowable, distant deity largely unconcerned about the world. No, He’s personal. He’s active, He’s involved.
He didn’t just send prophets and messengers, that wasn’t enough. He came Himself. He entered into our mess in order to begin to untangle it.
I’m convinced that failing to understand and believe this is the primary root of the despair that we see all around us. The problem isn’t just that active shooters have guns. The problem is the despair that has gripped their hearts.
People no longer believe in a personal God.
Ground into our thinking from the earliest days of school is the naturalistic story. God didn’t create the world. The universe came into being naturally, with a big bang. And over billions of years, through an incredible series of totally random happenstances, suns and planets formed, lightning struck the oceans and life emerged. And evolution brought about what we see today.
I used to actually believe this stuff. And it affected me. I remember sitting in my dorm room in Wallace Hall, with a nearly overwhelming urge just to leave school, run away, and hitchhike across the country and try to find myself. Deep down, under the surface, I was wrestling with the questions—Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?
You see, the idea that we rose up by chance out of the primordial slime and that everything that we see is destined to perish in the heat death of the sun just didn’t cut it.
My heart was telling me, “There has to be something more.”
And I started searching and investigating and reading the New Testament.
And within a year I believed in the God of Israel and in Jesus the Messiah King.
So, that’s the first reason for hope at Christmas — God is real. He’s personal and involved. He cared so much that He humbled Himself and became one of us in order to rescue us from ourselves and from the afflictions that constantly confront us.
(7) The second reason for hope at Christmas is that God is with us now in the person of the Holy Spirit. God didn’t just visit this planet 33 years and then return to heaven. He sent the Holy Spirit to come and live within all who believe in Jesus.
And the Holy Spirit, has come to teach us, lead us, empower us, admonish us, and comfort us. In fact, he is called “The Comforter.”
Let’s look at the Apostle Paul’s experience with this.
Just like so many other men of God, there were times when Paul despaired and became despondent.
(8) For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. (2 Corinthians 1:8, ESV)
What happened to him in Asia was beyond what he could endure. But that wasn’t the only time. The same type of thing happened in Macedonia.
(9) For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn—fighting without and fear within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, (2 Corinthians 7:5–6, ESV)
Whichever way he turned, there were afflictions and conflicts. And when he looked within his own heart, there was no rest, only fear. The situation seemed unbearable and he became downcast and discouraged for a season.
But he didn’t stay there. He regained perspective and hope.
Let’s look at 2 Corinthians 1:3
(10) Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3–4, ESV)
In his overwhelming afflictions, Paul experienced God. And he found Him not to be a distant observer or a cruel taskmaster, or a frightening critic. He found him to be the Father of mercies and God of all comfort.
The word “mercy” means is also translated “pity, compassion, sympathy.” It hurt God’s heart to see Paul suffer like this.
But not only is He the Father of mercies, He’s the God of all comfort. I love the word “all.” He has an infinite store of comfort. And Paul experienced this comfort in “all” his affliction.
Yes, there was pain, yes, there was worry, yes, the situation was way, way more than he could handle. But along with all that, there was comfort.
So much comfort that he had an abundance and was able to share that comfort with others as well.
Let’s read on:
(11) For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. (2 Corinthians 1:5, ESV)
The comfort Paul was receiving from the Lord was just as abundant, just as impactful, just as powerful as the pain he felt in his overwhelming suffering.
That is encouraging! When God calls us to suffer, He also brings us comfort. And the comfort can be just as powerful as the suffering.
Why don’t we experience that more? In my life, I find that it’s often because I fail to turn to God. Instead of seeking Him, I get angry at Him or resentful or fearful. And rather than bringing my anger and disappointment and fear out in the open before Him, I turn away and hide. But when I do turn to Him and become honest and real with Him, I often find that He’s there waiting, ready to comfort me in my need.
Let’s read on, verse 6:
(12) If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation. If we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings that we suffer. (2 Corinthians 1:6, CSB)
Again, Paul understands that his suffering and the comfort he received from God was not just for himself, but also for others.
But look at what comfort produces. What does it produce? Patient endurance.
The truth is we can only go so long without comfort. Often our tendency is to try to just push through the pain and even beat ourselves up to make ourselves keep going.
And, yes, we often do need to press forward when things are hard. But if that’s all we’re doing and we never turn to God to find comfort, it will become impossible for us to continue to patiently endure it.
(13) And our hope for you is firm, because we know that as you share in the sufferings, so you will also share in the comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:7, CSB)
Paul had a hope for the Corinthians, and it was firm. He believed that as they suffered, they would also receive God’s comfort.
Perhaps it’s like what happens when a child scrapes his knee and his mother takes him in her arms. She examines the knee, reassures the child that it will be OK, puts one of those Band-Aids with a Paw Patrol character on the scrape, and gives the child a hug and a kiss.
Of course, we never hope that a child will scrape his knee, but, in this scenario there is some good in it. If it hadn’t happened, the child wouldn’t have experienced his Mom’s comfort. And that comfort is special to him—communicating, “I care about you.” “You’re important to me.” “I love you.” “You’re special.”
But what does comfort from the Holy Spirit look like?
Certainly it’s not always as tangible and vivid as a mother comforting her child.
And certainly it’s not always immediate, as we can see in the book of Job.
And certainly His comfort is not likely to be present when we are living in disobedience and rebellion. In such a case, He’s more likely to bring the rod of discipline.
But God He does comfort—in a variety of ways.
(14) One of the most direct ways is by answering our prayers. God loves to give His children good things, just as parents love to please their children.
But there may be reasons why it’s not good for us or others for God to immediately answer or prayers or take away our problems.
(15) A second way that I’ve found much comfort from God is in times alone with God. When I take time in solitude and silence, I’m able to listen to my heart, notice my emotions, and bring my struggles and complaints to God.
And regularly, when my heart is open and quiet and listening, God renews my perspective, reminds me of His love, and opens my heart in thankfulness and worship.
This can be extremely heartening.
Often it can be on my morning walk.
It often happens when I’m reading the Bible.
I don’t hear a voice.
It’s more of an impression of His presence or of a truth He wants me to remember.
It usually includes a verse or a passage of scripture or a truth about God.
I’ve found these times of connection with God through the Spirit to be extremely comforting and hope building, especially when my prayers are not being answered.
(16) Another way of finding God’s comfort is through beauty. The beauty of a sunset, the babbling of a creek, the sparking of ice crystals speak to us of the beauty and goodness of God.
The beauty of music has great power to encourage the soul and push back the darkness. When you struggling, surround yourself with music that speaks to the soul. This has been super helpful for me.
Lately I’ve been trying something called a “Joy building exercise.” I think of a time in life that I consider beautiful, that brought me great joy. For example the day our dairy cattle judging team won the state contest or the day my first son was born and so on.
I think about what happened then and try to remember what that was like, particularly trying to reconnect with the joy.
Then I ask the question: “What might God wants me to know from this experience.” Often it’s “He cares.” “He delights in my success,” or He’s with me.”
In Galatians 5, Paul says that joy is a fruit of the Spirit just like love or peace or self-control. We work at strengthening these other qualities, why not work to build our joy?
(17) A third way that God often gives comfort is through His people. This happened to Paul:
(18) But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the arrival of Titus, and not only by his arrival but also by the comfort he received from you. (2 Corinthians 7:6–7, CSB)
Titus’s encouragement and the encouragement he brought from the Corinthians greatly comforted Paul
(19) Very often God calls people to be His hands, His feet, His messengers of hope.
You see, it’s not just your faith and it’s not just my faith. It’s our faith.
When it seems to me that God is nowhere to be found and that my prayers will never be answered — it greatly strengthens my faith to hear about the amazing things that God is done in my brother or sister’s life.
We mustn’t look only at ourselves and our own circumstances to know who God is and what He’s doing, because for long seasons it can appear that He’s doing nothing at all. We must keep a broader perspective than our own little world.
God often uses people as His agents to bring comfort.
It’s especially comforting when a brother or sister really listens and enters into our world. The burden is shared. It’s lightened. It’s more bearable.
When my wife and I married we had great passion and vision for family. We wanted to have lots of kids and we wanted to raise them God’s way—to do it right—to raise exceptional men and women for God.
This passion was not just our own, but was shared by our close friends and mentors.
Well, when our second oldest son was in high school, he got really, really down.
He could see that Mom and Dad and people in church seemed to connect with God, but He just didn’t seem to be able to do so. So, he gave up on seeking God.
We did all we could to help him, but to no avail. Eventually he moved out on his own and really went downhill.
He became immersed in the Goth culture, dressed in black, hung black curtains in his bedroom, placed bleached animal skulls on his furniture and started reading books that glorified blatant evil.
This was absolutely crushing to us.
I remember one morning when I became so concerned and frightened for him that all I could do was lie on my bed in a fetal position, weeping and crying out to God to save my son.
That prayer was answered, but not until twenty years later when just a few weeks before he died of colon cancer he believed in the Lord Jesus.
For twenty years we prayed and hoped and waited and grieved.
And I remember those early days of deep discouragement and grief.
When someone dies we have customs and rituals that help us know how to grieve and that help others know how to comfort us.
But when a child turns from the faith, there are no such traditions.
And there is a tendency for parents to blame themselves and there is also a tendency for friends who are also raising children and desperately not wanting that to happen to their child to try to understand what went wrong.
And they can question your parenting. It can be quite shaming.
Somehow I knew that I needed someone to talk to, to confide in. Someone to empathize and reflect back and help me process.
So I reached out to Rich Hiler and for several months, we got together once a week and shared our hearts with each other.
And just having someone to listen and empathize drew out my sadness and lifted my spirits out of despair.
Rich, I so very much appreciate your listening ear and how much comfort you brought me way back then.
So, God brings us comfort through the Holy Spirit in various ways, often even in the midst of our trials
(20) A third reason for hope at Christmas is—God calls us to walk in Jesus’ steps
Let’s look again at Paul’s experience.
(21) We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Corinthians 4:8-12, ESV)
Paul was a man radically affected by Jesus. On the road to Damascus he encountered Jesus, a Messiah radically different from what He had expected, a Messiah who died that others might live.
And in this passage, it’s clear that Paul longed to walk in Jesus’ footsteps—to yield himself to suffering, to affliction, to persecution. To be given over to death that others might find life and life forever!
He goes on to say that he believes that
(22) “He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. So we do not lose heart. (2 Corinthians 4:14, ESV)
Knowing the God was calling him to a similar mission as Jesus—to suffer and die and rise again—caused Paul not to lose heart!
How is that? Knowing that you are called to affliction and suffering and persecution would seem to do the opposite.
But no, it gives us heart to know that our suffering has a grand purpose, that God has a plan for us, a plan similar to that of Jesus.
It helps us to understand our suffering.
It makes sense of our losses.
It explains why we’re suffering and gives meaning to it.
It assures us that we aren’t necessarily doing something wrong when we suffer.
And it reassures us that we don’t need to be alarmed. This is what God is calling us to in this age—with the goal that others might find Jesus.
Understanding and embracing this calling gives us hope.
(23) And that brings us to my final reason for hope at Christmas. Our present affliction is producing eternal glory
You see, Jesus is coming again.
And this time when he comes, it won’t be to suffer and die. This time he’ll return in blazing fire with his powerful angels, dealing out retribution to His enemies.
He’ll come to conquer and reign and rule with justice and righteousness forevermore.
He’ll coming to do away with sickness and death and wars and natural disasters and all the evil that robs our hope and pushes us to despair.
Let’s read on in 2 Corinthians.
(24) Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16–18, ESV)
One thing that strikes me from this portion are the words “light” and “momentary.” When I read of Paul’s life, his afflictions seem anything but light and momentary.
Later on this letter, where he reluctantly boasts about his ministry in order to discredit the false apostles, he describes his suffering:
(25) Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers,
(26) danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? (2 Corinthians 11:23–29, ESV)
This mission was a terrible burden to the great apostle.
The suffering was immense, far beyond what any of us have gone through.
And it seemed to just keep going on in his life—so much so that he became despondent and despaired even of life.
(27) So, how can he call it “light” and “momentary”?
(28) Well, it’s in comparison to the eternal weight of glory to come!
That glory so far outweighs the affliction that they can’t even be compared!
Think about this when you are down and discouraged.
Think about this when your dreams have shattered and everything seems to be falling apart.
Think of this when you are tempted to despair.
(29) The trials you are going through are actually preparing for you an eternal weight of glory.
Other translations say “producing” or “achieving.”
Faithfull suffering in the will of God produces glory for all eternity.
(30) On Dec. 16th, 1944, my father-in-law was caught up in the last great European battle of World War 2, the battle of the bulge. He was on guard duty early that morning when his commanding officer came by. The officer had stayed up way to late because of a poker game. When asked how things were, George said, “I don’t like it.” “It’s way too quiet.” Typically through the night there was gunfire and artillery fire, if for no other reason but to keep them from getting a good night’s sleep. But tonight — absolutely nothing. The commander said, “I’m getting everyone up,” which was no small feat at 3:00 in the morning.
So, when the Germans came, they were ready. And for three days, they were able to hold the town that they were defending. But they quickly found themselves deep behind enemy lines as other units collapsed around them.
(31) So, for nine days they hid and traveled at night and at times fought their way back to American lines. They slept in the snow, raced up a hill while the enemy picked some of them off. They evidently drank some bad water and George got so ill he and exhausted that he laid down and told the others to go on and leave him. The sergeant said, “George, I want you to think about your mother getting the news that you’re dead.” And that thought gave him the strength to get up and drag himself along. Of their company of 160 men, only a few more than 20 survived.
Fifty years later he started attending reunions of veterans of the battle. And, oh, the stories that came out. To George it seemed that some were greatly exaggerated. There was lots of talk about how bad they had had it and plenty of boasting about how they had persevered through hardship and overcome obstacles.
You see, fifty years later, their suffering had become their glory.
(32) Now, I assume that there will be much more to the glory to come than this, but I wonder if this story might illustrate one aspect of how our suffering might produce glory in the kingdom of God.
Maybe we will go around asking each other, “How were you able to suffer for Him?”
And then, I know that I, and probably all of us, will wish that we’d been more willing to suffer, more willing to take up our cross, more willing to speak up for Him to others.
You see, there’s one thing that we can do now to show our love for God that we won’t be able to do in the kingdom of God. We can suffer for Him. In the coming age, we won’t be able to show Him our love in that way.
(33) So, don’t lose heart when you are in pain, when you are suffering, when you are experiencing overwhelming trials or battling with deep disappointment and despair.
First, remember that God loved you so much that He entered into this world. He joined Himself to His creation, suffered and died because He wanted you.
Second, remember that He has sent the Holy Spirit as our comforter, our helper, our guide. And seek His comfort when tempted to despair. Don’t get resentful toward Him or frightened of Him. He’s the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort.
Third, remember that He has called us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. To lay down our lives so that others might live.
Lastly, mediate on the truth that our afflictions, our trials, our suffering, when endured for Jesus’ sake, is producing an eternal weight of glory far, far beyond, incomparably greater than the worst suffering we could ever go through.
(34) May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 15:13, ESV)