Christmas Sermon from 2016! Given at St. John’s Georgetown. Feel free to think of your favorite Christmas Carol or Hymn too! The texts can be found here.
I would like to begin today with a little bit of congregational participation. Don’t worry. You don’t have to get up. You don’t even have to talk if you don’t want to. Okay! Here’s the activity. I would like you to sit back, close your eyes if you’d like, and think about your favorite Christmas Carol or Hymn.
Got one! Now, I would like those of you who are willing to share, to do so. Share with us your favorite Carol or Hymn!
All of these musical pieces, and so many more, are part of what makes this season so incredible. I don’t know about you, but when I hear my favorite, Carol of the Bells, in case you’re curious, this incredible sense of peace and happiness comes over me, which extends into the very core of my being.
I have spent a decent amount of time thinking about what it is about Carol of the Bells that I like so much. I think it’s the way all of the different parts come together, and in such a way that if one part wasn’t there, we’d notice. It can be sung in different ways, played by only instruments, or done in such a way that the instruments and voices meld together to create something incredible.
And I really, really like the idea of a bunch of different people coming together to create something bigger and more beautiful than themselves.
I think that’s part of why I like music so much, period. The coming together of different parts, voices, instruments, to create something bigger and more beautiful. For me, this season is made more complete, and even more beautiful because of music. Voices of all different types coming together; people of all different types coming together to listen, together.
Think about the songs you named or thought of earlier: would Christmas be complete without hearing it? We would still come together, sure. Gifts would still be bought and given. Much needed donations would still be given to worthy causes. Sermons would be preached. Church would be held.
But it wouldn’t be the same.
Now, fortunately and amazingly, we live in a world where we can press a few buttons on our phones and hear our favorite songs, hymns, and carols. But to me, there’s even a difference between listening to my favorite songs at my command, and hearing them when I’m not expecting it. When Sam throws Carol of the Bells in to service; when I hear it on the radio; or at a concert. There’s something about the element of surprise, and about it being out of my control, which makes the song somehow even better.
Surprise can be a good thing. More than just with a Christmas carol. Getting an unexpected gift, that’s super fun. Surprise parties, while terrifying, are also fun. At least for me, when it comes to surprise parties, I appreciate that so many people are gathered to celebrate me, AND that I didn’t have to do the work of gathering everyone together! Though, I don’t really appreciate this until after my heart rate has returned to normal.
It’s the instances of surprise, terror, and then the realization of something wonderful happening that is really sticking with me this year. And while there are a lot of directions I could go with this, the surprise, terror, and realization I’m talking about are that of the Shepherds keeping watch over their flocks that we are introduced to in Luke’s version of the birth of Christ.
Honestly, this year, the word terrified nearly leapt off the page at me. Much like what I did with Carol of the Bells, I spent time thinking about why that word could really be standing out to me. I have some theories, but my best guess is that those shepherds are totally justified in being terrified. Because what is happening in their world is totally, and completely, terrifying.
Imagine the scene for a moment. Three men, watching over their sheep, in the middle of a wide open space. Possibly with a small fire to stay warm, and possibly just in the dark, deciding who will sleep as the gate to the enclosure that night. When suddenly, they are surrounded by the glory of the Lord! I know that when we think about being in the presence of God, it seems like it would be fun. But this moment does not sound like fun to me.
To be surrounded by a dark so thick that you can’t see any further than the moonlight will let you. All of the stars can be seen so clearly they twinkle. There’s no light in the distance from a city. It’s dark.
Suddenly, it’s not. Suddenly you’re surrounded by a light more brilliant and bright than anything you could imagine, and certainly beyond anything you have ever seen.
That, my friends, would be absolutely terrifying.
The Angel of the Lord brings wonderful news, life and world altering news. But there are a few terrified moments when those shepherds have no idea what’s happening.
Interestingly, the word terrified, comes from the same root word as terrific. And as I’ve thought about it, there are a couple of terrifying things that turn out to be terrific. The one that gets the biggest mention here is the appearance of Angel of God to the three shepherds. But what about Mary’s terror, which turns into something terrific?
I am not a parent, but I’ve heard, that the days and weeks before becoming a first time parent are absolutely terrifying. Exciting, and welcomed, but terrifying. And once she starts to settle into the idea of being a mother, the realization would wash over Mary that she’s also brought forth God in human form into this world. That’s a lot of pressure for a young mother.
It had to be terrifying.
There’s one other part of this story, one thing that you have to look really closely to notice. In each instance, when the terrifying news becomes terrific, the news isn’t met by silence. When the shepherds hear the news, a multitude of the heavenly host started speaking. When the shepherds reached Mary and Joseph, all who heard were amazed and spread the word as well. This, was most definitely, a joyful noise!
As we sit here today, two thousand plus years later, we still great the news of the Birth of Christ with a joyful noise.
We each greet the news with a different joyful noise, but that’s all part of the wonder, mystery, and majesty of this God whom we worship.
My favorite carol is Carol of the Bells. My favorite Hymn, is Joy to the World. This world needs more love and joy right now. In terrified and uncertain times, we as Christians have news of hope, love, and joy. We are part of something bigger and more beautiful than ourselves. Today, we remember and celebrate the beginning of what brought all of us together.
Be the love of Christ today. Much like that infant wrapped in cloth and resting in Mary’s arms, Christ still depends on us to do the work in this world. Make a joyful noise, joining your voice with the multitude of the heavenly host and all the company of heaven:
“On on they send,
On without end,
Their joyful tone
To every home.”