Read Isaiah 9:1-7; Luke 2:8-14
If it hadn’t been for the kids, Luke would not have gone to church on Christmas Day. It was really just too painful. It was Mandy’s church really, but he wanted to honour her and allow the children to do the things their mother had seen as important.
It wasn’t his church. They had gone together for a while early in their marriage but he gave that up long ago. Mandy took her religion seriously – so seriously that she had said that she couldn’t marry anyone who wasn’t a Christian. They had been head over heels in love but she put her faith first. He had been shocked. What? However, he was willing to consider it so he started going to church with her.
It was OK. The people were nice and they made some good friends. He never really enjoyed the church services but he couldn’t fault what he heard about the lifestyle of loving one another. Even the stuff about Jesus seemed reasonable. He and Mandy had talked about what it all meant and it made sense.
Consequently, he told her that he wanted to be a Christian. Of course, she had been over the moon. She had been praying for this. God had clearly answered those prayers and opened the door for them to marry. Luke too was excited. This seemed like a small price to pay for being able to spend the rest of his life with the girl he loved.
In her speech at the wedding reception, Mandy said how excited she was that Luke had become a Christian and that they could share that aspect of their lives together.
It was probably only about 9 months after the wedding though that Luke felt somewhat constrained by all that was expected of him at the church. The first thing to go was the small group which clashed with rugby practice. Mandy was disappointed but Luke pointed out that Christians need to have a balanced life and it was important that he mix with those outside the church. After that, more and more things cropped up on Sundays as well and, before too long, he had slipped out of church life altogether.
Mandy had been devastated. She loved him. He loved her. How could he do this? She continued taking the kids to church every week. Luke was happy for them to go as long as there wasn’t pressure on him. He had plenty of other things to do and, actually, better friends outside the church than inside. He was far happier working at the surf lifesaving club, with good mates, than he was sitting through a boring church service.
He knew that Mandy was upset about it, and he assumed she was praying for him, but their love for each other remained strong and passionate.
Then the accident happened. Mandy didn’t turn up at work. A good friend went around to the house and found her on the bathroom floor, having hit her head. There was nothing that could be done.
Luke’s world was immediately thrown into chaos. His best friend had gone with no warning. He had no idea how he was going to live without her. He was a solo father. Could he keep working or did the kids have to be his priority? He had projects on the go and clients relying on him. But the children would come first. They had lost their mother so he knew there would be huge emotional needs there too. There had to be a police investigation. And a funeral to organise.
Had Mandy suffered? How long had she been there? The last thing he had said to her was just a routine “See you later”. Why hadn’t he said more?
The irony hurt. He wouldn’t see her later, or, indeed, ever again.
He’d got through the first few days and weeks somehow. Mandy’s friends from her small group had been on the job as soon as they had heard and had provided food, cared for the kids and a thousand other things. The funeral had gone well. People obviously held Mandy in high regard. Lots of nice things were said. Luke had spoken too – several times having to stop to compose himself, but able to tell of his love for her. He was glad he had done it.
Mandy’s parents had stayed for almost 4 weeks. They were heart-broken too, of course but their presence had allowed him to organise new routines so that he could balance work and being a solo dad. He assured them he wanted to do this – for Mandy and for the children.
It was probably six weeks later that he suddenly felt overwhelmed and doubted that he could cope. People continued to visit and help but the future looked unbearable. Luke couldn’t see how on earth he could manage everything, or how he could be even half the father the children needed. He couldn’t see his own pain ever easing. He would be forever lonely and a failure. He couldn’t work properly. He couldn’t be a father properly. He couldn’t do anything properly and he missed Mandy terribly.
And where was God, if there was a God? God didn’t seem to make any difference at all. How could Luke believe in a God of love when he was experiencing so much pain? What sort of God destroys families?
And so he went to the Christmas Day service with zero enthusiasm but out of a sense of loyalty. His enthusiasm dropped below zero when he realised that he was going to have to smile and be all cheerful. The people at church were always so happy!
As it happened, they seemed to realise that this was hard for him. They welcomed him lovingly but without being too noisy or bouncy. They let the family sit quietly in a pew at the back. The service though was all about “good news of great joy for all people” and peace, and light shining in the darkness. One reading even said, “There will be no more gloom for those who were in distress”. Well that was obviously nonsense. Luke wondered if they realised the irony. It was all happy, happy and he was anything but. It was so superficial. Positive talk with little understanding at all about the pain in people’s lives.
When the service ended, the back pew was empty. They had slipped out during the last carol.
He hadn’t managed to cook a Christmas dinner. He took the children to a restaurant but hated himself for it. They needed better than this.
When they got home, there was a note under the door. Hi Luke. We felt terrible for you during church today. It must have been so hard. And we noticed you left before the end. We came around to see if you wanted to join us for lunch but we have obviously missed you. Sorry about that. Let us know if there is anything we can do. Matt and Sue,
Luke didn’t reply. What could they do? But he put the note on the breakfast bar.
Three days later, he was desperate. He hadn’t wanted to talk to anyone but now he couldn’t stand the loneliness and he knew he needed to talk to someone. He picked up the note, procrastinated for a long time but then rang the number. Matt said that he would be right over. Luke had known him well when he was going to the small group but had seen less of him since. Seeing Matt at the door though brought Luke to tears. Matt hugged him without saying a word.
After they had sat down, Luke poured out his troubles. Matt was clearly listening but still didn’t say anything. “And, honestly, Matt, I just don’t get this Christian thing. It didn’t do Mandy any good. Why did she have to die? It hasn’t done me any good. I don’t know what I am going to do. I see no hope.”
Matt knew better than to trot out glib answers. Luke’s questions were genuine. They were big questions: If God is loving, why does He allow so much pain? Why do good people, like Mandy, suffer? He drew a deep breath and shot up a silent prayer.
“Luke, I don’t know. There’s lot of things that confuse me, but can I share something that I really do believe?”
Luke shrugged, “Sure.”
“At the heart of it all, I believe this: Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again.”
Luke had heard that before. Same old tripe – the sort of thing Christians always say as if it is the answer to everything. But the words echoed in his head.
Then he heard Matt saying, “Luke, I don’t understand suffering but I do know that God also suffered. Jesus Christ died. God is not heartless. He chose to suffer. He suffered for us – for our sins.”
Luke had not called Matt over to talk about his sins. He was struggling! He was at the end of his tether! He didn’t need to also be accused of being a sinner. And yet, a realisation was growing within him. He had sinned. He had put his rugby and the surf lifesaving club ahead of God. He had been selfish. He had put those things ahead of his love for Mandy and caused her great pain. Could she ever forgive him? Would God forgive him. Even in claiming to be a Christian he had been selfish. It had been, at best, half-hearted. What he had really wanted was her – and he had deceived her for his own selfish ends.
God knew his heart. God knew how selfish he had been. Would God reject him forever?
But, what did those words say? Jesus Christ died for his sins? It seemed that far from rejecting him, God had done the exact opposite. God had died for those sins. God had suffered so as to forgive him.
Matt’s words filtered into his consciousness. “…and rose again. Luke, where do you think Mandy is now?”
The question shocked him although, of course, he had many times wondered where she was. Was there life after death? Was there a heaven? “I don’t know, Matt. I’d like to think that she is in heaven but I don’t know if that is any more than wishful thinking. Do Christians just say these things to cheer themselves up or do they really believe it?”
Matt leaned forward. “Luke, the tomb was empty! No one could produce the body. It wasn’t there. What do you think that means? What do you think it means for Mandy?”
A little flicker of light was piecing Luke’s gloom. Somehow this message was making more sense than it ever had in the past. “Matt, do you really believe Mandy is in heaven? Do you believe that she is alive? Might I see her again someday?”
“I absolutely believe it. She trusted in Jesus. She believed that Jesus had died for her sins. She was forgiven. And Jesus rose again. He defeated death. Luke, you have experienced the worst thing imaginable: death – the death of dear Mandy. That is awful. The Bible calls death “the last enemy”. Jesus wept when a friend died. Death is just awful. But Jesus rose again. That gives us confidence.”
“But what about now,” Luke thought to himself. “I still have to face life without her. Nothing has changed.” But then a new thought entered his head: “and rose again”. Jesus is alive. Mandy had talked about her relationship with the living Jesus. Might that be real too? Might he be able to live life and raise the children, not on his own, but knowing Jesus, and with the help of Jesus?
“Luke, you asked if you might see Mandy again. I’m sure that is what she wants. I am sure she is hanging out for you to join her – all in good time, of course. I’m not wishing any harm on you. I’m sure, when you stopped coming to church, she not only missed being able to talk about her faith with you but she possibly also didn’t know if she would spend eternity with you. Will you be there?”
Luke smiled – for the first time for a long time. “I want that more than anything else.” He paused. “You know what? I think there is one thing I want more than that. I want to meet Jesus. Did He really die for all of the terrible things I have done? Did He really rise again? Amazing! Truly amazing!