It was a chorus from Handel’s Messiah, “For Unto Us a Child is Born.” The verse in its entirety is: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulders. And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”
Before I played the chorus, I asked the congregation to think not only about the words, but also about the mood of the music. How did the music make them feel? Did it make them feel sad or did it lift their spirits? I also asked them to consider how Handel felt as he composed this music — was down in dumps or was he cheerfully inspired?
The response from the congregation overwhelmingly was that it was that the music “lifted their spirits” and that Handel must have been truly inspired.
They were right, of course. But ironically, just before Handel wrote the Messiah, he was depressed and miserable. Handel had fallen on hard times. He was in ill health and he also had financial troubles. His self-esteem was shot, and he was unhappy with himself. But the worst thing was that he had drifted away from the Lord
Then one day when he returned to his shabby home, he found a package at his front door. When Handel opened it, he discovered that they were words to a new sacred piece of music, and a letter from a Charles Jennens asking him to compose the music for it.
Still in despair, Handel started to read through the words of the libretto. With eyes wide open he came to the words, “He was despised and rejected and acquainted with grief. He looked for someone to have pity on him, but there was no one — neither found he anyone to comfort him.”
That was exactly how Handel felt. Of course, the words were from Isaiah 53 and spoke about the Messiah Jesus, who would come. Handel could certainly identify because he was feeling the same way — despised, rejected, and alone.
But as he read on he realized that God had not left Jesus alone and defeated. When he got to the words, “I know that my Redeemer liveth”; and “Rejoice!” And “Hallelujah!” he was starting to feel it — the excitement, the joy, and a renewed faith.
All of a sudden the creative juices started flowing and Handel wrote some of the most wondrous and majestic melodies ever written — which he stated later “came to him straight from heaven.” He began writing with amazing confidence and swiftness, filling page after page. He hardly stopped to eat or go out of his house. Sometimes so into his work was he that he wept or shouted out in praise! He finished the whole oratorio in 24 days! An unbelievable feat!
In later years, Handel was beset by other infirmities. But even though he became blind, he never gave in to despair again. His spirit remained undaunted. The words of Messiah — God’s words from the Bible — never left him. Nor did his Messiah leave him.
What happened to George Fredrick Handel? What made that dramatic change in his life? I submit to you that Handel had come to realize the true meaning of Christmas. And it changed his life! You might say that the Messiah, the Lord himself,was born afresh in the manger of Handel’s heart. And it made him a new person!
What really happened was that peace came into Handel’s heart and life. Remember, he was depressed and despondent. He thought his career and life was over! But it sure wasn’t! God brought peace to his anguished soul. What other explanation could there be? The one who had had said, “Peace be still!” silenced the storms in Handel’s life.
Lord knows we all need peace. Life can be trying. It can be frustrating and nerve-wracking. It seems that often in our life that chaos reigns. So isn’t wonderful that one of the main messages of Christmas is “peace on earth, goodwill to all.” (Luke 2:14)
The fact of the matter is that this old world is not very good at peace. I once read that in the 3,600 years of recorded history, only 286 have been years of peace. In that time, 14,000 wars have been waged with an estimated death toll of 3.6 billion people. How sad!
We obviously need more than human efforts at peace. We need the Lord. Peace is available, as George Fredrick Handel found out, and it comes through the Messiah. He gives a “peace that passes all understanding.” (Philippians 4:7)
I read something the other days that pretty much summarizes what I have been trying to say here today. It goes like this: “I turn coal into diamonds, sand into pears, and a worm into a butterfly. I can turn your life around, too.” (God)
May God’s peace be with you this during this Christmas and always!
Rev. John Koedyker is pastor of Congregational Care at First Reformed church of Grand Haven.