The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.
Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom God favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
A blessed Christmas to all on this beautiful Christmas Eve. It is beautiful not because there may be snow falling softly to the grown somewhere. It is beautiful not because of Christmas’ past. It is beautiful, not because of the special Christmas music. It is beautiful, not because we are here. It is beautiful simply because God birthed something so utterly amazing into our weary, weary world. It is beautiful, because a child born in a manger 2000 years ago, also birthed new realities that we are still struggling to understand and fulfill today.
This evening I move away from a more traditional sermon and weave in a few pieces of poetry into the mix. Poetry often brings a sense of depth to the occasion that I simply cannot. Into the mix are also woven some of the background stories of three of our favorite Christmas hymns. How these words and music came to be are also inspiring stories. Tonight’s first poem is entitled The Child Is Born Again, written by Ann Weems, from her book, Kneeling in Bethlehem.
The Child Is Born Again (Ann Weems, Kneeling in Bethlehem)
Each year the Child is born again.
Each year some new heart
finally knows love.
And in heaven
there is great rejoicing!
There is a festival of stars!
There is celebration among the angels!
For in the finding of one lost sheep,
the heart of the Shepherd is glad, and
Christmas has happened once more.
The Child is born anew
and one more knee is bowed!
The reality is that a child of humble origins was seen as a threat then and now as well to the status quo. The good news of this birth continues to challenge us, compels us to action and self-reflection. We think we know this Christ, but each time we think we get a handle on Christ’s reality, we come to realize we don’t understand what children often do.
James Garrett tells this story. “A little girl, dressed as an angel, in a Christmas pageant who was told to come down the center aisle. The child asked, “Do you want me to walk or fly?” You feel as though she almost could have flown. Don’t ever lose the wonder and mystery of Christmas.
Every year I’m reminded of those words of the late Peter Marshall: ‘When Christmas doesn’t make your heart swell up until it nearly bursts and fill your eyes with tears and make you all soft and warm inside then you will know that something inside of you is dead’.” (James T. Garrett, God’s Gift, CSS Publishing Company. sermon.com)
Often music can make our hearts swell and our eyes fill with tears. There are some significant and beautiful hymns we sing tonight. We don’t always know why they were created, so I thought this would be a good night to share three of these stories.
Keith Wagner writes that one of his all-time favorite Christmas hymns is O Little Town of Bethlehem. “It has been around since 1868 although it wasn’t formally used in churches until 1892. It is a hymn which is packed with emotion, a song about the Christ Child, born to Mary, a song filled with the creative power of God intervening in history with the gift of a savior.
For Wagner, O Little Town of Bethlehem, “depicts the Christmas story as a story of hope, a story where the divine and the human come together in an amazing but humble way. It is also an invitation for both the non-believer and the believer. For the non-believer it is an announcement of what God has done and for the believer it is a challenge to increase one’s faith.
What might surprise you is how this great hymn came to be. It was written by Phillip Brooks, Episcopal priest. Brooks was serving the Holy Trinity Church in the City of Brotherly Love (Philadelphia, PA). He had just returned from a trip to The Holy Land which inspired him to write the words.
Brooks gave the words to his church organist and Sunday School superintendent, Lewis Redner, and asked him to create a tune for the upcoming Christmas celebration. Redner procrastinated and struggled with the creation of a tune to go with the 5 stanzas that Brooks had written. It wasn’t until the night before the celebration that Redner got inspired in the middle of the night and created the song as we know it. The following day a group of 36 children and 6 Sunday school teachers introduced the song created by the 2 [men]. That was on December 27th, 1868. The following January, Phillips Brooks died, never knowing the magnitude of the hymn that he created.
For some reason the 4th stanza has been dropped from the original score. ‘Where children pure and happy Pray to the blessed Child, Where misery cries out to thee, Son of the mother mild; Where charity stands watching And faith holds wide the door, The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, And Christmas comes once more.’ (Keith Wagner, Real Hope. sermon.com)
The next story is how Silent Night came to be written and set to music. It is based on Luke 2:8: “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night.”
“In 1818, a roving band of actors was performing in towns throughout the Austrian Alps. On December 23 they arrived at Oberndorf, a village near Salzburg where they were to re-enact the story of Christ’s birth in the small Church of St. Nicholas.
Unfortunately, the St. Nicholas’ church organ wasn’t working and would not be repaired before Christmas. Because the church organ was out of commission, the actors presented their Christmas drama in a private home. That Christmas presentation of the events in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke put assistant pastor Josef Mohr in a meditative mood. Instead of walking straight to his house that night, Mohr took a longer way home. The longer path took him up over a hill overlooking the village.
From that hilltop, Mohr looked down on the peaceful snow-covered village. Reveling in majestic silence of the wintry night, Mohr gazed down at the glowing Christmas-card like scene. His thoughts about the Christmas play he had just seen made him remember a poem he had written a couple of years before. That poem was about the night when angels announced the birth of the long-awaited Messiah to shepherds on a hillside.
Mohr decided those words might make a good carol for his congregation the following evening at their Christmas eve service. The one problem was that he didn’t have any music to which that poem could be sung. So, the next day Mohr went to see the church organist, Franz Xaver Gruber. Gruber only had a few hours to come up with a melody which could be sung with a guitar. However, by that evening, Gruber had managed to compose a musical setting for the poem. It no longer mattered to Mohr and Gruber that their church organ was inoperable. They now had a Christmas carol that could be sung without that organ.
On Christmas Eve, the little Oberndorf congregation heard Gruber and Mohr sing their new composition to the accompaniment of Gruber’s guitar.
Weeks later, well-known organ builder Karl Mauracher arrived in Oberndorf to fix the organ in St. Nicholas church. When Mauracher finished, he stepped back to let Gruber test the instrument. When Gruber sat down, his fingers began playing the simple melody he had written for Mohr’s Christmas poem. Deeply impressed, Mauracher took copies of the music and words of Silent Night back to his own Alpine village, Kapfing. There, two well-known families of singers — the Rainers and the Strassers — heard it. Captivated by Silent Night, both groups put the new song into their Christmas season repertoire.
Twenty years after Silent Night was written, the Rainers brought the song to the United States, singing it (in German) at the Alexander Hamilton Monument located outside New York City’s Trinity Church. In 1863, nearly fifty years after being first sung in German, Silent Night was translated into English (by either Jane Campbell or John Young). Eight years later, that English version made its way into print in Charles Hutchins’ Sunday School Hymnal. Today the words of Silent Night are sung in more than 300 different languages around the world.”
(Howard Culbertson, 5901 NW 81st, Oklahoma City, OK 73132 | Phone: 405-740-4149 – Fax: 405-491-6658)Copyright © 2000, 2001 – Last Updated: January 12, 2015 | URL: http://home.snu.edu/~hculbert/silent.htm. Sermons.com). And it still brings tears to my eyes. And perhaps like me, you too have never experienced a Christmas Eve service without singing these beautiful words.
The third hymn we learn about is also our final hymn tonight: Joy to the World. Writer King Duncan asks us to “consider the story of one young man. Sick and puny as a baby, he remained frail and delicate all his days. Later, as a pastor, his maladies were so severe that he could not serve his growing congregation. Instead he wrote them letters filled with hope and good cheer. Even though his body was frail his spirit soared. He complained once about the harsh and uncouth hymn texts of his day. Someone challenged him to write a better one. He did. He wrote over 600 hymns, mostly hymns of praise. When his health finally broke in 1748 he left one of the most remarkable collections of hymns that the world has ever known. His name? Isaac Watts. His contribution to the Christmas season? Probably the most sung of all the Christmas hymns, Joy to the World; the Lord is come.”
A question Duncan asks us to consider: “Could Isaac Watts have written so, if his life had been easy? I don’t know. It is amazing, though, how often persons who have everything are spiritual zeroes, whereas those who struggle through life have souls with both depth and height.” (King Duncan, Collected Sermons, www.Sermons.com)
Christmas – it’s the time when our hearts swell up and our eyes fill with tears. It is the time when ill feelings toward others can melt away. It’s the time when love prevails in our lives. It’s the time when the lion and the lamb can co-exist. It’s the time when barriers between brothers and sisters can be broken. It’s the time when stereotypes can be shattered. Why else did God send us a savior in the form of an infant born in a barn and laid in a manger?
We are often caught between the desire for a soft-sweet Christmas filled with good cheer but the reality of the day-to-day harshness in the world keeps breaking through. This next poem by Ann Weems, Christmas Comes, speaks of this tension:
Christmas comes every time we see God in other persons.
The human and the holy meet in Bethlehem
or in Times Square,
for Christmas comes like a golden storm on its way
to Jerusalem –
determinedly, inevitably. . . .
Even now it comes
in the face of hatred and warring –
no atrocity too terrible to stop it,
no Herod strong enough,
no hurt deep enough,
no curse shocking enough,
no disaster shattering enough.
For someone on earth will see the star,
someone will hear the angel voices,
someone will run to Bethlehem,
someone will know peace and good will:
the Christ will be born!
Writer Peggy Shriver also wrote of the spirit of love in the following poem/parable entitled: “The Spirit of Thirty-fourth Street” (Pinches of Salt: Spiritual Seasonings). The imagery of her words are stark and beautiful.
Doors opened with a silent scream,
Like photographs of anguish;
The subway paused, shed cargo
And raged on.
She lurched aboard,
Sagged into a vacant seat,
Frail weight of her gray years
Hunched with cold.
Numb fingers plucked at rags,
Drawn close against raw misery.
Knuckles, cracked and swollen white,
Clutched into a plea for warmth.
He, dark and lithe
Swung down the aisle,
Taut jeans dancing
With Latin grace
He, sliding past
Her patient form,
In one smooth gesture
Disappeared through the subway doors,
Leaving in her lap,
Like folded dove wings,
His black leather gloves.
This, to me, is the heart and message of Christmas and of the Christian message. This reflection of unexpected and undeserved grace is what makes my heart sing and my faith deepen, and my eyes fill with tears.
One more poem from Ann Weems before we leave these musings this beautiful night entitled It Is Not Over.
It is not over,
There are always newer skies
God can throw stars.
When we begin to think
that we can predict the Advent of God,
that we can box the Christ
in a stable in Bethlehem,
that’s just the time
that God will be born
in a place we can’t imagine and won’t believe.
Those who wait for God
watch with their hearts and not their eyes,
for angel words.
On this most blessed of nights may your hearts sing and your faith deepen and your eyes fill with tears as we glimpse God’s enormous love for us – each of us – God’s beloved. Amen.
Copyright DMC, 2018