It was Christmas Eve, 1875. Ira D. Sankey, one of the most famous Christian singers of those times, was traveling by steamboat up the Delaware River. It was a calm, starlight evening and there were many passengers gathered on deck. Mr. Sankey was asked to sing. He stood leaning against one of the great funnels of the boat and his eyes were raised to heaven in quiet prayer.
It was his intention to sing a Christmas song but he was driven almost against his will to sing “Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us”. There was a deep stillness. Words and melody, welling forth from the singer’s soul, floated out over the deck and the quiet river. Every heart was touched.
After the song ended, a man with a rough, weather beaten face came up to Mr. Sankey and said, “Did you ever serve in the Union army?” “Yes”, answered Mr. Sankey, “in the spring of 1860.” “Can you remember if you were doing guard duty on a bright, moonlight night in 1862?” “Yes”, answered Mr. Sankey, very much surprised.
“So did I,” said the stranger, “but I was serving in the Confederate army. When I saw you standing at your post, I said to myself, ‘That fellow will never get away from here alive.’ I raised my musket and took aim. I was standing in the shadow, completely concealed while the full light of the moon was falling upon you.”
“At that instant, just as a moment ago, you raised you eyes to Heaven and began to sing. Music, especially song, has always had a wonderful power over me and I took my finger off the trigger. ‘Let him sing his song to the end,’ I said to myself. ‘I can shoot him afterwards. He’s my victim in all events and my bullet can’t miss him.’ But the song you sang then was the song you sang just now. I heard the words perfectly:
We are Thine, do Thou befriend us,
Be the guardian of our way.
“When you had finished your song, it was impossible for me to take aim at you again. I thought, ‘The Lord who is able to save that man from certain death must surely be great and mighty’ and my arm of its own accord dropped limp at my side.
“Since that time I have wandered about, far and wide. But when I just now saw you standing there praying as on that other occasion, I recognized you. Then my heart was wounded by your song. Now I ask you to help me find a cure for my sick soul.” Deeply moved, Mr. Sankey threw his arms about the man who in the days of the war had been his enemy. And that night the stranger found the Good Shepherd as his savior.
Well, Merry Christmas to you. I read this story this morning from “Streams in the Desert”, one of the books I read for my daily devotions. It really got through to me as not only a beautiful story but another striking miracle from the God of miracles and His Son, Jesus.
I guess I’m a person of my times and easily jaded by hype and razzle-dazzle. And I’ve heard the Christmas story so many times and seen it presented so many ways that I’m probably cloyed by it all, as probably many are. But this that I read just now, of an outstanding miracle happening at Christmas to two men, one of whom who went on to reach many thousands with his voice and music, was the jolt I needed to remind me again of the God of miracles.
Miracles have been a mainstay of my life in many ways. I’ve written about some of them and they continue to fascinate me. In this day of cynicism, postmodernism and demonic darkness, the good God is still doing miracles as much as ever, perhaps even increasing them.
So thank God for Christmas, a day in the year when we earthlings are almost forced and dragged, kicking and screaming, to remember the birth of, not only the greatest man that ever lived, but the eternal Son of God come down to earth as a poor helpless baby. Parents have to, often reluctantly, explain to their curious children what Christmas is all about. And in some fumbling way they’re almost forced to try to give a decent reason to their own kids why the whole world stops to remember the birth of a baby in Palestine two thousand years ago.
But that wasn’t God’s last miracle. Jesus’ life was more full of miracles by far than any other man that ever lived. And God is still doing miracles, at the time of Jesus, at the time of Ira Sankey and the Civil War and in our times as well. This is what I needed to hear today, not just something that happened 2000 years ago but that the miracle-working power of those times is just as alive today as it was then. That’s been my experience over and over, thank God, of a caring, loving Savior and Father, a “very present help in the time of trouble.” (Psalm 46:1)
I hope you have a great Christmas and that we all keep in mind that it’s all still as real as it was in Bethlehem way back then. God’s not dead or even sick. He loves us and will protect and provide for us just as he did for dear Ira Sankey on Christmas Eve in 1875. God bless you, Merry Christmas.