Christianity Today recently published an article on the Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells.” As I read it I learned that the great American poet Henry Wadworth Longfellow wrote this song as a poem during the Civil War, “the bloodiest war in American history.” The lyrics reflect this terrible time:
“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!’”
I didn’t know that just a few years before this Longfellow’s wife died in a terrible accident that left his face scarred. That same year his son was also injured in the war. So when Longfellow wrote this poem, he was writing from a place of deep personal pain and pain for his country. If we go back to the first verse of the song, we recognize that this is not how life is supposed to be, especially at Christmas.
I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play;
In music sweet the tones repeat,
“There’s peace on earth, good will to men.”
Longfellow describes the tension between how Christmas should feel—peaceful, joyful, happy—and how life actually feels—there’s conflict and hurt everywhere. As we look out at our world I think this song rings true. Just watch or listen to the news. Whether it’s politics or a tragedy or the economy it seems like there are tensions and conflict everywhere. Sometimes they’re up close and personal between us and family members or friends. This is because we live in a world marred by sin.
Romans 3:10-11 As it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God. (NIV®)
Sin creates disorder and chaos in our world. It creates brokenness and hurt between people. But God offers a way of healing and hope for any who will trust in Jesus Christ.
Romans 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (NIV®)
So does our song sing of this hope? Longfellow was a Unitarian. That means he didn’t believe in Jesus like we do at Cornerstone, but he still captured the hope God offers in this stanza:
“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.’”
As we sing this song tonight we can all find hope in Jesus Christ. Despite a world in a conflict, God promises that one day through Jesus he is going to right all wrongs. He is going to end all wars and conflict and peace and true justice will reign forever. So no matter what you’re going through this Christmas season, or how you feel about this world, I’d like to offer you hope through Jesus. Jesus is our final and everlasting peace. Let’s sing about this struggle and our final victory in “I Heard The Bells.”
Pastor Jonathan adapted this homily from an article published in Christianity Today. You can read the original article “A Carol for the Despairing” by Kristen O’Neal in the December 2018 issue.