In October 1347, 12 ships sailed into a European port from the Black Sea. To the surprise of those who greeted them, every ship was full of dead, or diseased and dying sailors. And despite the effort of authorities to send the ships back out to sea, the damage had been done. The Black Death had come to Europe, and over the course of the next five years, one-third of the continent's population was wiped out by this plague. Some 75 to 200 million people perished. It was the worst pandemic in world history.
Yet, let's be honest. Even if you have heard of the plague, you don't really know anything about it.
Fast-forward to 1453 when the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottoman Turks, marking the end of the 1500-year-old Roman Empire. This titanic power shift was an earth-shattering event with dramatic implications for people in some of the world's most populated areas.
But you don't remember it either, do you?
Closer to home, in April 1865 the worst maritime tragedy in the history of the United States occurred on the Mississippi River when the over-burdened ship Sultana, steaming northward with 2,500 passengers, met disaster. A boiler exploded, then two more followed, causing the giant paddle wheels to break loose. The ship spun backwards and the stiff wind blew the flames up over the boat causing a massive inferno. Nearly 1,800 passengers died, about 300 more than the Titanic.
Even though this happened in our country, and occurred just a century and a half ago, this is likely the first time you've ever read about it.
I could keep going with these critical, influential, pivotal, defining moments of world history – the Zimmerman Note, Dr. Snow and the Broad Street pump, the Tulip wars – but you get my point.
Now consider: A poor Jewish baby is born in a low-rent village in some Roman Empire backwater 2,000 years ago, and you remember it. You may not even believe that that baby was who He would grow and claim to be, but you know His story. You even know the details. Have you ever paused to ask how that is even possible?
Oh, it's true that people have been celebrating it for over 2,000 years, so that's the short answer as to why you know about it. But why have they been celebrating it? Why did this event prove so memorable when the collapse of kingdoms, the deaths of untold millions, the colossal shifts of world power have all become footnotes in such relatively short periods of time?
Certainly the people interested in those latter events vastly outnumbered the small band of shepherds in that Judean hillside, or the eastern kings who would come visit that young Jewish boy a couple years later. So why has their story, their account, their testimony brought such a monumentally larger impact on the face of our world today?
There are, of course, a number of answers that could be given to these questions. But I submit this one: the most discreet, unimpressive, isolated demonstrations put on by God will prove epically more significant than the grandest, most noticeable and obvious affairs of man.
I propose this truth not in an effort to provoke or engender debate. Frankly, I don't even mean it to be evangelistic in nature. I point it out as an encouraging reminder to avoid the myopic trap Satan sets for all humanity to become consumed in our own concerns.
Read the headlines to see what I mean. Wars persist, protests erupt in violence, presidents are impeached, doomsday predictions continue, evil seems ascendant, man is in crisis, and morality is in freefall. Becoming mired in such a reality easily leads one to echo the famous words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
"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 Longfellow had one more stanza of his poem to write. A stanza I'm convinced was inspired by the same truth I hinted at earlier. The truth that man's deepest tragedies, his most challenging anxieties, his most profound chaos and confusion, all fade into irrelevance when held up in the brilliant light pouring from a tiny, insignificant Bethlehem manger two millennia ago:
"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."
That's why you know this story. That's why it's remembered 2,000 years after it happened. That's why it will be just as potent, just as powerful, just as prevailing, in another 2,000 years – well after the things that burden us today are long-forgotten – should God will it.
So you can afford to lay those burdens down, if just for tonight, and sleep in heavenly peace.