A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.
Christina Rossetti sat at her home. This English poet of moderate fame had published many poems before in her life, mostly focused on things that would gain readership. But now, having been diagnosed with Graves Disease and having suffered a near-fatal heart attack, she found herself convalescing in a dark season of life.
As she struggled with her health, it’s understandable that the first words to her poem would be, “In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan. Earth stood hard as iron. Water like a stone.” She paints a stark picture of the bleakness of the middle of winter, one that we don’t well know here in our warm climate, but one we can certainly imagine.
Her poem is not an exercise in self-pity. She imagines that same midwinter scene surrounding the birth of Jesus. In the midst of the cold and hardness of winter, the warmth and gentleness of a savior is born. In the harshness of the season, God’s graciousness comes into being.
Then, at the end, she wonders what she can give in response to this tremendous blessing. For how often is life hard, cold, and harsh? How often does life mimic that season of midwinter, feeling dead and despondent? In those hard, cold, and harsh times, comes Jesus with life and light to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings.
In those dead and despondent times comes Jesus, born a people to deliver, born a child and yet a king. Born to reign in us forever, now thy gracious kingdom bring.
In the Bleak Midwinter, Rossetti’s poem turned Christmas carol, she asks, what can we give him, poor as we are? If we were shepherds, we would bring a lamb. If we were wise men, we would do our part. Yet, what can we give him? We can give him our hearts.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.
Let’s hear Mary’s Magnificat, her song of praise, located in chapter 1 of the gospel of Luke.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.
Was not Mary’s first reaction to the news of Jesus in her womb. Like Zechariah, she doubts when the angel gives her the news of her role in bringing Jesus into the world. Unlike Zechariah, she is not made mute but told to go visit her cousin, Elizabeth, Zechariah’s wife.
We can imagine Mary, the angel having left, feeling bewildered and overcome. Her? An unwed teenager? The mother of the savior of the world? It would be scandalous. Imagine today finding out about an unwed mother you personally know. Now imagine yourself believing her when she tells you she’s carrying the savior of the world through an immaculate conception. It’s unbelievable now and it was unbelievable back then.
Most of all to Mary. How in the world is this to happen? But she follows the angel’s command and travels to see Elizabeth. There, through Elizabeth, she finds all she needs. She gains right and true perspective. She can see what God is doing and she can now grasp it, understand it, and even sing it.
She declares in her song, the Magnificat, that God’s mercy is coming afresh and anew, that God will scatter the proud, remove the lofty from their thrones, and lift up the lowly. God will fill the hungry and keep promises of old. Above all, God will deliver the people from what ails them. God will deliver them from their midwinter season, their cold, harsh, and hard time in history.
God will deliver. God will bless.
And Mary realizes all this through visiting with Elizabeth. From that friendship with her cousin, she is able to do what she could not before; the same thing Rossetti found the strength to do through her poem because of the encouragement of her friends:
She can give God what she has; give God her heart.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.
Edmund Sears was a failed priest. At least, he thought he was. He’d had what we would call a large appointment; a large church to pastor. But it had broken him. Details of why it had broken him are unclear, but he returned to his Wayland, Massachusetts home, having broken down. Sears knew a cold, harsh, dark midwinter season in his life as he wrestled with failure.
And in his life, feeling crushed and carrying a heavy load, he penned these words:
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!
Somehow, even while broken and overcome, he could look and see that God was still working, God was still moving, and God would deliver him. Somehow, he knew, just knew, that God would come swiftly on the wing, bringing those glad and golden hours. And so he could rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing. He once again felt God in his heart. He was free, filled with joy.
His carol, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, one he wrote after the encouragement of a friend, demonstrates what Rossetti and Mary knew: that especially in the midwinter seasons of life, when we give God our hearts, we discover
A thrill of hope, our weary world rejoices.
Sitting in church in France one day in the 1850s, John Sullivan Dwight was feeling dispirited. He was visiting from America, where he worked hard for the abolitionist movement to end slavery. But at the moment of his visit to France, his home country seemed ready to erupt into war. It was not what he hoped for.
But then, as he sits in church pondering the state of things, a magisterial song breaks out. He hears the words: a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, and his weary soul rejoiced. As he traveled home, he took the song with him.
When he arrived back in America, he ran straight to his abolitionist friends to share the song he’d learned, but not just the words and music he had learned. He had added a new verse:
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is Love and his gospel is Peace;
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
And in his name all oppression shall cease,
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we;
Let all within us praise his Holy name!
O Holy Night, with this additional verse, became an instant hit throughout churches in the north. Abolitionists across the country found inspiration in the new verse. Dwight and his friends knew that the slave was their brother, just as we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, and that through their efforts, God would break chains and in his name all oppression would cease. They found encouragement and once again give God their hearts.
For them, as they gave God their hearts, it was indeed a thrill of hope. Their weary world rejoiced.
One of the carols that we’ll sing today is “O Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” It may sound odd to make such a request when Jesus has come into the world already. And yet, there’s power in asking Jesus to come again, for I don’t know about you, but sometimes I need a fresh outpouring of Christ in my heart.
Charles Wesley, the brother of John Wesley and author of this hymn, declares what we can know through giving our hearts to Christ, echoing Mary’s Magnificat:
Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart.
No matter the harsh, midwinter conditions we face in life, we can know the joy of Wesley’s song because Christ has delivered, Christ has restored, Christ has raised us up. We can know because, as Rossetti said, when we bring God whatever we have, poor as we are, we give God our hearts. And then, we find:
A thrill of hope. The weary world rejoices.
We are truly blessed by these Christmas Carols. And not just by the carols themselves, but by knowing the backstory. We see how out of life’s trials, life’s crushing loads, life’s oppression, life’s dismay and decay, indeed the midwinter seasons of life, out of all our trials, that God will deliver. Mary could see it, too. She saw that, even through her, God would deliver.
All it took, in each of our stories this morning, was to give God their heart, and a little friendship along the way.
Sometimes, we all need a fresh outpouring of Christ into our hearts. Sometimes, our prayer is indeed come, thou long expected Jesus. And one of the best ways to find it, one of the best ways to find the encouragement we need to give our hearts to God, is through walking the journey of life with a friend.
When Sears wrote It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, a friend had encouraged him to write to help find a sense of peace and joy in his brokenness. When Rossetti penned In the Bleak Midwinter, she was encouraged by friends. When Dwight brought home O Holy Night, adding his famous verse, he was encouraged by his abolitionist friends. When Mary sang her song of praise, our scripture this morning, she was encouraged by her friend, her cousin, Elizabeth.
Through the companionship of their friends, they could see the world through fresh eyes, discovering where God was delivering, providing, and upholding. Indeed, they experienced a thrill of hope and they, in their weary worlds, rejoiced, because they had found through their friendships that despite their present circumstances, God was Immanuel; God with us.
Consider Mary, who carried God in her womb. She needed her eyes opened to see beyond the overwhelm and dismay of the angel’s pronouncement. She needed to see beyond her fear and doubt. It’s easy to think of Mary as this stoic, heroic even, exemplar of the faith and forget that, at first, she was a frightened teenage girl suddenly thrust into a role she did not ask for.
She found the strength she needed, and gained sight of what God was doing in her life, because of her friend. And with that companionship, she was able to give God her heart afresh and anew.
And that’s just the point this morning: to reveal the heart of God and help others give God their heart, one of the best things we can is be a friend.
We can be a friend by being available to others who are carrying a crushing load. We can notice when others seem down and offer to listen, to be present. So much of my pastoral care involves me not saying a whole lot. I do much listening. And many of you have often heard me remark that there’s great power in just being present. Because when we’re present with someone’s suffering, we send a powerful message of how much we care.
We can be a friend, and in doing so, we are a tremendous blessing. We don’t have to have the right words, we don’t have to know what to say, except to say that we’re there and we’re willing to listen and willing to share the burden. That’s all. And that’s powerful.
Because when we’re such a friend as this, we bring Christ. Our friends may be saying, “come, thou long expected Jesus, deliver me,” and when we decide to be a friend, we say back to them, “here is Christ. He will deliver you.” We do that just by being present, just by listening, just by being a friend.
In our friendship, in choosing to be a friend, we bring a thrill of hope so that our friend’s weary world can rejoice.
Without friendship like that, our characters this morning would never have penned their words, words that out of their suffering lift up our souls. Words that speak directly to the midwinter seasons of life.
If, today, you relate to the stories of one of these characters, feeling life’s crushing load, feeling your arms and forms bending low, feeling your toil along the way, with painful steps and slow, if that’s you today, go and find a friend. Reach out to loved ones in your life. Someone you know will come and sit with you, be present with you, listen to you.
It’s tempting in those crushing moments of life to isolate, to decide that we’ll tough it out. It’s sometimes embarrassing to ask for help, to admit that we’re struggling. There’s something self-destructive in our human nature that makes us not want to ask for help when we need it the most.
Take courage and ask for help. Seek out a friend. That friend, even just by being present, will make real to you Sears’s encouraging words: Look now! For glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing. And with your friend, you can rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.
And if that’s not where you are this morning, if life is good and you don’t face much need, be ready and available when a friend calls, asking for help. Be ready to be Elizabeth; an encouragement simply by being present and listening well.
Friendship, as common as it sounds, makes such a huge difference. We bring Christ to each other when we share in each other’s crushing loads. We bring hope and deliverance from what ails us, what makes us know a weary world. Friendship brings a thrill of hope to the midwinter seasons of life because friendship, true friendship, brings Christ to life’s crushing loads.
Today, be a friend. And, when struggling with life’s toilsome way, with painful steps and slow, ask for a friend.
Then, you both will be able to give Christ your hearts. And then you will know:
A thrill of hope, your weary world rejoices.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.