The year 1860 found Henry Wadsworth Longfellow happy in his life, enjoying a widening recognition, and delighted over the election of Abraham Lincoln which he believed signaled the triumph of freedom and redemption for the nation.
The following year the Civil War began and on July 9, 1861 Longfellow’s wife, Fanny, was near an open window sealing locks of her daughter’s hair, using hot sealing wax. Suddenly her dress caught fire and engulfed her with flames. Her husband, sleeping in the next room, was awakened by her screams. As he desperately tried to put out the fire and save his wife, he was severely burned on his face and hands.
Fanny died the next day. Longfellow’s severe burns would not even allow him to attend Fanny’s funeral. His white beard, which so identified him, was one of the results of the tragedy – the burn scars on his face made shaving almost impossible. In his diary for Christmas day 1861 he wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are the holidays.”
In 1862 the toll of war dead began to mount and in his diary for that year Longfellow wrote of Christmas, “A merry Christmas say the children, but that is no more for me.”
In 1863 his son who had run away to join the Union army was severely wounded and returned home in December. There is no entry in Longfellow’s diary for that Christmas.
But on Christmas Day 1864 – at age 57 – Longfellow sat down to try to capture, if possible, the joy of the season. He began:
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.
As he came to the third stanza, he was stopped by the thought of the condition of his beloved country. The Battle of Gettysburg was not long past. Days looked dark, and he probably asked himself the question, “How can I write about peace on earth, good will to men in this war-torn country, where brother fights against brother and father against son?” But he kept writing – and what did he write?
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.
It seems as if he could have been writing for our kind of day. Then, as all of us should do, he turned his thoughts to the One who gives true and perfect peace, and continued writing:
Then peeled 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.”
And so the world was given that marvelous Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
You know not everyone that first Christmas heard from God like the shepherds did.
Caesar in Rome with all his power, simply made a decree and everyone had to travel to their hometowns whether or not it was convenient. But he didn't hear from God.
Herod used his power to have all of the baby boys two years old and younger in Bethlehem killed because of his fear of a Jesus becoming his rival – but he didn't hear from God either.
Likewise not everyone today is looking and listening for the right things to be able to hear from God.
Those Jewish shepherds watching their flocks on the night of Christ’s birth saw and heard from heaven in a remarkable way that first Christmas!
We need to hear from God in our lives, so what can you do to help insure that you hear from God this year?
Let’s see what these shepherds can teach us.
The shepherds just may have seen and heard what others missed because they were watching for the right thing. That is what it takes to hear from God. You need to know what to listen for.
1. If you want to hear from God you've got to seek God’s glory, not your own.
Why were the shepherds out that night guarding their sheep? Why weren't they asleep in their tents?
They were guarding their flocks because this was the time of year that the lambs were born. The reason they stayed up was to make sure the lambs entered this world safe and sound. Their night watch wasn't interrupted as much as it was fulfilled!
The Lamb of God was born on their watch so God dispatched a choir of angels with an explosion of light to let them know their watching was over!
Being a shepherd was a very humble profession. It was a rough life. If you were a shepherd you weren't a member of society’s upper class. Shepherds were considered unclean and ignorant yet God granted them the opportunity to be witnesses to the birth of Christ.
You weren't accused of being a glory hound if you were a shepherd and most of us can probably identify with the shepherds because they were ordinary people.
God picked ordinary people to witness the first coming of Christ.
The Bible gives us an example of the difference between the shepherds, who were looking for God to get glory, and others of their day who were seeking glory for themselves.
King Herod was interested in his own personal glory. He lived for his own power and prestige so he didn't get to hear from God. But the wise men from the east did get to hear from God because they wanted to worship Jesus. They saw His star in the east and made a long, selfless journey, presenting lavish gifts to worship their new king.
God will not allow rivals when it comes to His right to receive honor and glory.
Like the shepherds, we must be on guard. Like they guarded the sheep we need to guard our worship, even when we attend worship together. If you’re not careful you can leave church and say, "Those songs or that sermon didn't do much for me." We critique the worship service as if we've been to the movies. WE ACT AS IF WORSHIP IS PRIMARILY FOR US. It is partially for us, but it is primarily for God’s glory, and that is an easy thing to lose sight of.
Reminds me of the mother with her little girl out Christmas shopping who passed by a Nativity Scene in a department store window one Christmas. Catching a glimpse of the beautiful scene the child grabbed the mother’s hand and exclaimed, "Mama! Mama! Please let me stop for a minute to look at Jesus!" But the mother quickly pulled the little girl away and said, "We don’t have time for that, it’s Christmas!"
Can you imagine the shepherds leaving the stable and saying, ‘That didn't do much for me. I don’t think Joseph had much of a say in the matter. Mary didn't look very good. When that baby started crying it really disrupted the whole evening. And it wasn't very clean in that stable. The animals sure did smell and those angels were way too loud!" (From a sermon by Michael Luke, Sermon Central)
It’s easy to lose sight of what really matters. It’s easy to get caught up, not only in the Christmas season, but year-round it’s easy to get caught up in the wrong motivation for living.
2. If you want to hear from God you've got to live in an atmosphere of praise.
Luke 2:13, 14
The Bible teaches that praise does something very special about drawing God to us. God is present everywhere but His presence is especially manifested when and where He is praised.
Psalm 22:3 But You are holy, Enthroned in the praises of Israel.
In the KJV the word is Inhabit and in the Hebrew, this word literally means, "to sit down, to settle, to remain, or to continue." Some versions translate the word "enthrone."
God sits downs and settles where He is praised! God inhabits, or lives in, an atmosphere of praise.
So, if you desire God to manifest His presence and blessings, create an atmosphere of praise in your life. Live in an atmosphere of praise.
Praise is our way of thanking God for all the good things He is and all of the good things He has done.
Hebrews 13:15 (GNT) Let us, then, always offer praise to God as our sacrifice through Jesus, which is the offering presented by lips that confess him as Lord.
One Christmas, a parent decreed that she was no longer going to remind her children of their thank-you note duties. As a result their grandmother never received acknowledgments of the generous checks she had given. The next year, things were different, however. "The children came over in person to thank me," the grandparent told an old friend triumphantly. "How wonderful!" the friend exclaimed. "What do you think caused the change in behavior?" "Oh, that’s easy," the grandmother replied, "This year I didn’t sign the checks!"
God signed His check when His only Son in human form to become our Savior! He deserves our gratitude – our praise!
If you develop an atmosphere of praise in your life you’ll hear from God
3. If you want to hear from God you've got to share the Good News with others.
Why did God tell the shepherds about His Son coming into the world when there were so many others to whom He could have sent the angels with the announcement?
God told the shepherds because He knew the shepherds would tell others!
God blesses those who tell others about Him. God shares information with those who will pass the information on. That’s what happened in the early church.
Acts 4:33 (GNT) With great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God poured rich blessings on them all.
One of the reasons the early church had God’s rich blessings was because they were great witnesses.
We need to do more than just celebrate the coming of the Lord Jesus – we need to celebrate it and we need to communicate it!
Love is the greatest gift that we could ever give, so I want to ask each one of you to think of one person who needs Christ’s light, one person who needs God’s love.
It might be a family member, a friend, an associate at work, or a neighbor. What could you do this year to communicate the Love of Christ with that person?