Shawn Triplett is a retired US Marine who now works as a volunteer at an elementary school in Mayfield, Kentucky. After tornadoes devastated his community, he was helping at a church shelter where he saw a mother and her young child who had been displaced. “The boy told his mom, ‘I’ve lost my Christmas,'” he said.
Shawn then decided to ask friends and family to donate money so he could buy toys for children who were impacted by the storms. “I was going to give them back their Christmas. That was my mission,” he explained. At this writing, his gofundme page has raised more than $75,000.
“This isn’t a ‘me’ project by any means,” Shawn says. “This has been the result of thousands of people spreading the word and making it happen.”
“The Lᴏʀᴅ is near to the brokenhearted”
Shawn is right: no one should have to suffer, especially during the holidays. And yet our broken world makes no exception for Christmas.
For example, a twenty-one-year-old father died in a massive, five-alarm fire at a QVC distribution center on Saturday. Seven people, including three children, were found dead at a home in Minnesota on Saturday as well. The mayor said, “This is an absolutely horrible tragedy, made even more poignant since it is close to the holidays.”
I know what it is to lose a loved one at Christmas: my father died on December 15, 1979. From then to today, his death has colored the holidays for me. As a result, I can grieve for those who are grieving in these days.
So can God. His word is filled with promises of his compassion for those in hard places (cf. Isaiah 43:1–3; Psalm 23:4; Matthew 14:14). His word states, “The Lᴏʀᴅ is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).
But what do we do when we cannot feel his presence? When, despite his promise, we feel “crushed in spirit”? How do we trust God when he does not seem to answer our prayers or meet our needs?
“The Angels of Punishment will take them”
In Luke 1 we read of Gabriel’s astounding statement to Mary: “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (vv. 31–33). Many centuries earlier, the Lord had promised such a Messiah to whom “shall be the obedience of the peoples” (Genesis 49:10). As a ruler even greater than David, he “shall bear royal honor, and shall sit and rule on his throne” (Zechariah 6:13).
By Mary’s time, the Jewish people had come to interpret such statements as promising a military conqueror who would overthrow their enemies and reestablish their nation. For example, 1 Enoch, a book written after Malachi but widely popular among first-century Jews, foresaw a day when the Messiah would come and “all the mighty kings, and the exalted, and those who rule the dry ground, will fall down before him . . . and will petition for mercy from him” (1 Enoch 62:9).
At that time, “the Angels of Punishment will take them so that they may repay them from the wrong that they did to his children and to his chosen ones” (v. 11). As a result, “the chosen will be saved on that Day and they will never see the faces of the sinners and the lawless from then on” (v. 13).
We cannot know with certainty how Mary understood Gabriel’s promise. However, when she visited Elizabeth a few months later and Elizabeth’s unborn child (John the Baptist) leapt in her womb, Mary knew that by her unborn son, God “has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever” (Luke 1:54–55).
At the very least, it seems that Mary understood that her obedience to God’s call would lead to great help and hope for herself and her people then enslaved by the Romans.
“All the families of the earth shall be blessed”
But the Jewish people in Mary’s day did not understand that the Messiah would fulfill God’s promise in two ways.
He would indeed come to earth as King of kings and Lord of lords, but at the end of history (Revelation 19:16). First, he would come as a Suffering Servant who would be “pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5). Neither Mary nor Jesus’ disciples understood that her son would die for our sins to purchase our salvation (cf. Matthew 16:21–23).
Nor could she know that she would give birth to this Suffering Servant in a dirty cow stall, that his birth would be attended by lowly field hands, or that she would one day watch him die in tortured suffering upon a Roman cross.
However, God kept his promise in an even more significant way than Mary and her people were expecting. Rather than merely liberating them from slavery to Rome, Jesus came to liberate them from slavery to sin. Rather than merely saving their nation, he came to save their eternal souls.
And he came to be the Messiah not just of the Jewish people but of all peoples, fulfilling his Father’s promise to Abraham twenty centuries earlier: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).
“Seek his presence continually!”
Mary’s story is our story.
Like her, we have been given promises by God that he does not always keep in the way we wish. He sometimes heals our loved ones physically on earth, but he sometimes heals them eternally in heaven instead. He sometimes removes our “thorn in the flesh,” but he sometimes redeems it by teaching us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
If you are grieving or otherwise suffering this Christmas week, I urge you to “seek the Lᴏʀᴅ and his strength; seek his presence continually!” (1 Chronicles 16:11). Go to him directly and personally. Put words to your pain; ask him your honest questions. If, as Philip Yancey put it, you are “disappointed with God,” know this: he is not disappointed with you. He welcomes your honesty (cf. Isaiah 1:18) and will meet you where you hurt.
You can “cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7 NIV, my emphasis).
What “anxiety” do you need to cast on your Father today?
NOTES: For further reflections on 1 Chronicles 16:11 and its amazing invitation, please see my latest blog. And for very practical help, I recommend this article on our website: “Grieving this Christmas? Here are 10 ways to prepare with purpose.”