Summary: How do we replenish our exhaustion? The world into which Jesus was born was spiritually weary. We too are worn out from conflict, moral uncertainty. God has acted to come among us and to give us power to become.
“All 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!”
You don’t have to look long to find examples of what Edmund Sears was referring to when he wrote that Christmas carol less than a hundred and fifty years ago. You don’t necessarily have to know that he was thinking about the gathering storm clouds of civil war or that he was reflecting on the upheaval brought by the industrial revolution in his native New England. All you need to do is to listen, to listen to your own heart, to listen to the feelings expressed all around us. There are plenty of people today who can testify to crushing loads and painful steps, plenty who are asking for just a little bit of rest beside the weary road.
If there is any one thing I’ve heard this Christmas, from more people than ever before, it is this: “I’m exhausted. I’m tired” There is a weariness of soul, an exhaustion of the heart, it seems, everywhere. The whole world seems tired, worn out, poured out, disappointed, drained. Haven’t you said it too, “I’m exhausted, just plain exhausted”? It’s only a couple of days until Christmas, we’ve been mauled in the malls, we have more month than money, we have not yet found “Tickle Me Elmo”! We’re exhausted, aren’t we?
How shall we replenish our energies? How shall we recover from our exhaustion? It seems deeper than what a night’s rest will cure. It seems more profound than merely the kind of relief you get relaxing in the evening after a day of hard work. There is something more exhausting than ordinary labor, and thus something more powerful is needed to bring us back to life. Something more thorough is needed to revitalize us and revive us. How shall we deal with our exhaustion?
The Bible has a wonderful image for the condition I am speaking about. The Bible uses something which everyone in Israel would have grasped instantly. It fits neatly into what I’ve been doing this Advent season, talking about the images of Christ expressed in flowers and plants. The Bible speaks of exhaustion as a time when the olive trees would no longer flourish, a time when the ripe olives which had sustained the people for so many years would not grow and the blossoms would fly from the olive trees. Listen to this description of a weary, exhausted life, an exhausted world, from the Book of Job:
Job 15:17, 20-24, 28-33
Not a pretty picture, is it? An altogether depressing image of despair and unhappiness. And the image, there at the end of the passage, of the olive blossoms being cast off, is the worst of all. To us, you see, the olive is a funny little fruit that brightens up a salad or is sliced on a pizza. I am told, that it may even float in some decidedly non-Baptist beverages! To us the olive is a small thing, a little delicacy, an extra. You and I could very well live without olives. But not so in ancient Israel! Not so in the world into which Jesus came! Olives provided not just food, but oil for heating and light, ingredients for ointments and medicine, and the olive tree provided a fine wood for carpentry. The olive was a great boost to the economy because it was easy to grow, it did not require much water, it grew luxuriously even in rocky soil. A good olive tree could be counted on to be productive for more than a hundred years. If there was any one symbol of something inexhaustible, it was the olive tree. If there was anything that spoke of living in bountiful times, it was the olive.
But this nagging image of exhaustion. This warning that the people will cast off the olive blossoms and be barren. The ultimate threat. If the olive tree, the source of our sustenance, be cut off, how shall we live? We shall indeed be exhausted!
The world into which Jesus was born two thousand years ago was a weary world. It was an exhausted world, in which it seemed that everything valuable was gone and nothing for which people had hoped was ever going to come. The world into which Jesus was born was a world in spiritual, social, and political crisis. Everything on which people had depended was crumbling. All over the civilized world the old gods seemed to have shriveled up and died. No one had faith in them any more. The temples were deserted, the old religious practices of Greece and Rome were sneered at, and in the place of the old faith there almost nothing.