At Christmas time in many countries, a tradition has become established of performing Handel’s oratorio Messiah, which he composed in 1741. One of the most glorious moments is when a soprano sings “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, the words affirmed by Job in the midst of his wretchedness and anguish (Job 19:25, KJV). This note of confident faith arises out of the ashes of his pain and misery, when all hope seems lost and no end to his appalling suffering is in sight.
The words “I know that my Redeemer liveth” transcend Job’s anguish, taking him – and us – to another realm, the realm of a Kinsman-Redeemer, whom we know to be our Lord Jesus Christ. It is He who will establish His purposes and bring hope out of despair.
We are living at a time when a sense of hopelessness pervades many countries across the world as Covid-19 continues to inflict suffering, not only sickness, mourning and death, but destruction of life-sustaining livelihoods and mental torment of many kinds. To this can be added new wars and conflicts breaking out, a potential global famine, natural catastrophes … until our hearts cry out “How long, O Lord, how long?”
And yet, for us Christians, as we remember the birth of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, we see that a light has entered into our dark world, a hope has appeared in the midst of despair, a joy has drawn alongside our grief and depression.
The angel in Joseph’s dream told him to give the name Jesus to Mary’s baby “because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). As a Christmas carol says, “Christ was born to save”, and the way in which He saved us was to redeem us, to pay a ransom to set us free from our sins and to claim us back from the evil one. That ransom was His own life.
And then He rose again: our Redeemer lives. In the midst of death, we know there is One who lives, and who will enable us to live with Him forever. So we have no fear of death. It is interesting to note that Handel’s Messiah was originally intended to be an Easter piece, not a Christmas one.
A hymn dating back to the early Church speaks of the solemn mystery of the incarnation, so easily forgotten in the tinsel and crib scenes of our modern Christmas celebrations.
Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.
Job not only affirms that he has a Kinsman-Redeemer who will defend and rescue him, even though the rest of his family has turned against him. He also finds a source of joy and consolation in his agony – through it all, he has been faithful to God. This is his “joy in unrelenting pain” (Job 6:10).
In the midst of suffering there is a joy that transcends suffering, that transcends sadness and grief, that transcends hurts and pain and loss. At Christmas we often sing a carol that begins:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King!
But these words by Isaac Watts, first published in 1719, were a poem based on Psalm 98. Just like Handel’s Messiah, it was not written for Christmas. Every day of the year, we can rejoice that the Lord Jesus came to earth to dwell among us, to redeem us from our sins, and lives forever. This is our joy in unrelenting pain, that our Redeemer lives.
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo
1 Verse 3 of “Let all mortal flesh keep silence”, Liturgy of St James, c. 4th century, translated by Gerard Moultrie (1829-1885)