I HEARD THE BELLS ON CHRISTMAS DAY
God Is Not Dead!
Over a century ago philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote the famous words "God is dead." But he did not mean what many suppose. He was not saying that somehow God had ceased to exist. Rather, he meant that God has ceased to matter to us. That the vast majority in society have little thought of God. He is dead to them. Sadly, that is even possible for Christians.
One day Martin Luther's wife Katherine came down to breakfast dressed head to foot in black. Startled by her mourning attire, Luther asked her who had died. "Do you not know?" she said, "God in heaven is dead." "How can you talk such nonsense, Katie! Luther responded. "God is immortal. He can never die." But then Katherine pointed out that, by her husband's persistent discouragement in recent days, he was certainly acting as though God had died. She helped him see the need to once more apply the truths he knew so well.
No, God is not dead. But the point is well taken. It is possible even for born again Christians to act like what we might call "practical atheists." Perhaps it is because of personal failures or domestic problems. Perhaps it is because current events in the world are so discouraging. Sometimes life's problems do loom large in our limited view and we bitterly turn our backs on God as a reaction to that.
Here we are at another Christmas season. In some ways it seems a hollow mockery to celebrate "peace on earth, good will toward men" when the world is in such turmoil. It is easy to be overwhelmed with pessimism. Wars and rumours of wars abound. Violence and unrest stalk the streets of our big cities. Famine and disease blight various third world countries. What has become of the Prince of Peace? At times we may be tempted to cry to the Lord like the storm-tossed disciples of old, "Do You not care that we are perishing?" (Mk. 4:37-38).
Such thoughts gripped the heart of a father, in the nineteenth century, as he sent his own son off to war--the American Civil War. A few years before, he had lost his wife in a tragic fire. Now the ongoing brutal strife of the war was decimating communities and dividing families. Would it ever end?
The father pondered the national scene with fear and dismay. But soon, as the Lord enlarged his view, he renewed his confidence in God, confessing with the psalmist that, "He who keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep" (Ps. 121:4).
That father was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), one of the preeminent poets of his day. He has expressed his inner journey from discouragement to rekindled faith in the Christmas carol, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day."
Some verses now omitted make reference to the war, but the hymn has a wider message. The song begins, "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." Even so Longfellow admits that "Hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth."
But in the booming church bells on Christmas morning the poet fancies he hears a bold declaration: "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."
We must be careful not to dwell on a short-ranged perception of the purposes of God. With an upraised finger it is possible to blot out the sun from our view. But it is still there. It continues to shine. And similarly, though our problems at times obscure the face of God, He is still there, and still on the throne. God is not dead. "The Lord reigns; let the earth rejoice" (Ps. 97:1).