Today’s sermon tells the story of the song: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” which was based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Christmas Bells.” If you’d like to hear the song while you read the sermon, or just listen to the song in general, here is a good version. And if you’re interested in other Christmas Carols that were written around the same time with interesting histories, check out this blog post on Experimental Theology. The text for this week’s sermon, Isaiah 40:1-11, can be found here: Isaiah 40:1-11.
A Song of Peace
The hymn, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It was put to music a few years later, but it was originally a poem, written on Christmas Day 1863, but the road to its creation was far from easy.
On July 9th, 1861, just two months after the first shots of the Civil War, Longfellow’s wife Fanny was trying to seal an envelope with wax when her dress suddenly caught fire. Henry tried to stifle the flames with a rug and then with his body but was unsuccessful. He was so badly burned in the process that he was unable to attend her funeral. The loss was devastating to him, and it was especially difficult at Christmas. The next Christmas he wrote in his journal, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” The following year was the same, “A merry Christmas say the children,” he wrote. “But that is no more for me.”
In 1863, Longfellow received more bad news. His son Charles, who had enlisted in the Union army against his father’s will, had been shot through the back and the bullet nicked his spine, leaving him disabled. 1863 was also a dark year for the nation. Chancellorsville and Gettysburg were some of the worst battles of the war. But on Christmas Day of that year, Longfellow wrote the poem that would later become our hymn.
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!
Longfellow was no stranger to the pain of loss or the devastation of war. He had lost his wife in a tragic fire, and nearly lost his son. His grief nearly drove him insane, and he never fully recovered.
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!”
But in spite of his own personal heartbreak, and the devastating war between the states, Longfellow penned this poem of Christmas hope.
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.”
In the midst of a war, devastated by grief, Longfellow wrote a hymn of peace, proclaiming that though the cannon might thunder like earthquakes, peace would reign on earth again.
Isaiah 40 also speaks of hope in a hopeless context. The author of Isaiah 40 writes to the exiles in Babylon, who are mired in shame and doubt. There are basically two ways to doubt God. One is to doubt God’s will, and the other is to doubt God’s power. In the extreme, the first is belief in a cruel and unforgiving God, the second is belief in no God at all. The exiles held on to both. They wondered if God had the power to bring salvation. Babylonian gods seemed to prevail over Yahweh, and they were a long way from Israel, God’s power might not extend that far. They also worried that God might no longer want to save them. If the exile was punishment for their sins, would the punishment ever end?
The same doubts can plague us too. We wonder if God is listening to our prayers, or if we are just speaking to an empty sky. We worry that even God might not be able to get us out of the trouble that we have found for ourselves. We worry that we might not be good enough for God to want to. Like Longfellow, we bow our heads in despair, knowing that the earth has no peace, and good will is hard to come by.
But Longfellow and Isaiah’s words proclaim a deeper truth. Hope in the Lord is not misplaced. The Prince of Peace is coming; His reign is imminent. “Do you not know?” Isaiah 40 asks, “Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.”
“Here is your God,” our passage proclaims. God is the Sovereign Almighty, but God is tender as a shepherd. God is the ruler of this world, but God also cares about us so deeply that God sent God’s son that we might find hope, peace, love, and joy through Him.
It took another year and a half, but Longfellow’s promise of peace came true. The war ended and peace returned to the once-again United States. Isaiah’s promise also came true for the exiles, when Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and allowed the exiles to return to Judah. And as Christians we believe that these words of Isaiah are not limited to that time and that place but speak to us in our time and place. The words reassure us that peace is coming to our troubled lives and our troubled world as well.
And this is how we know to believe them. Because the bells still ring in our ears. Because the prophet’s words still ring in our hearts. Because if we can quiet ourselves from our warring and strife, if we can ignore the messages of hate that threaten to drown out the song, if we can silence our doubts and fears, then we too can hear the angels’ song. Of peace on earth, goodwill to all.
 Stewart, Tom “From the Editor’s Desk: The Story Behind ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day’” What Saith the Scripture, whatsaiththescripture.com. Dec. 20, 2001. Accessed December 6, 2014. http://www.whatsaiththescripture.com/Fellowship/Edit_I.Heard.the.Bells.html