One parable is presented as the key to understanding all the others—or better, to understanding why we don’t understand. Since so much of scripture is a parable, this is a pretty important key.
- What made Jesus’ preaching popular: seeing God present
- What makes it hard: We have to pay attention
- Challenges to our paying attention
- Questions for discussion or reflection
Jesus was obviously a popular preacher. Mark tells us that he had to push out in a boat onto the lake as the crowd pressed upon him. What made his preaching so popular?
Part of it is that Jesus spoke of the everyday things. Things like sowers and seeds, birds and rocks, thorns and good soil, the sun and lamps, baskets and beds and lampstands. For Jesus, God could be found anywhere because God was everywhere. Jesus claims that God is interested in our everyday lives. Everything around us radiates God’s presence. Jesus believed that God was close, that the world was sacred. He said our lives carry divine significance.
But Jesus’ preaching was also hard. The hardest part of Jesus’ preaching is that he requires us to “pay attention.” He calls us to see beyond the obvious if we would recognize God’s presence in our lives. And the hard part about paying attention is that it takes time.
Paying attention takes more time than it takes for birds to eat seed off a path. But our culture is a path-paced culture. Running from one thing to another creates hard paths. Multitasking, multimedia, multiplatform, multiplying . . . We have no time to pay attention, and Satan swoops in and steals the Word that has been sown within us.
Paying attention takes more time than our rock-filled schedules allow. We’ve already dedicated our time to other things: Television shows and games, technological wizardry, physical exercise, maintaining the perfect house, going out with friends. We don’t have time to study and pray with God’s Word. Then when hardship comes we try to jump from one of our rocks to another, trying to stabilize our identity based on these, instead of being rooted in the Word of God.
Paying attention takes more than our thorn-filled emotions have time for. Jesus identifies three categories: The “cares of the world, the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things.”
The world deserves our care. But we are responsible only for our corner, for what we can actually do. It isn’t much, and it certainly isn’t too much, for this is what God created us for and calls us to. The rest of the world’s cares we prayerfully leave to God and his call upon others. If we don’t maintain our balance in this way, the cares of the world choke out the Word of God.
Wealth promises more than it can deliver. It may adorn our bodies, but it doesn’t cover our nakedness. It may provide a beautiful house, but it does not calm our restlessness. It may increase safety, but it does not address our insecurity. It may relieve hunger, but it leaves our yearning unfulfilled. This is why Jesus responded to temptation with the reminder, “One does not live by bread alone, but by the Word of God.” The lure of wealth chokes out the seed of God’s Word.
So does our desire for other things. The interesting thing about this part of the parable is here the plant doesn’t die. Whereas before the plant is scorched and withers, here it just doesn’t produce. It suggests that you can attend church, study the Bible, and offer lots of prayer, and yet produce no fruit because it is all choked out by not trusting God with what we can and can’t do, with what we have and don’t have.
Jesus’ preaching is hard because it takes time. He says, “Pay attention to what you hear!” Literally the phrase is translated, “Look at what you hear!” Here is a profound insight. Today we hear something, store it in our brains, and think we know it. Jesus calls us to a deeper knowledge. We may hear and think we know, but we don’t see and thereby truly understand.
Jesus’ favorite topic is the Kingdom of God. He speaks of it most often in visions. He points us not just to what is seen, but to what is beyond what is seen. He acknowledges reality but posits a parallel reality—like bread and wine being body and blood. Jesus’ reality is a promised and a sure one in the future, but one that is seen already by the faithful. Jesus’ reality is one according to which the faithful live already today–if they pay attention, if they take the time.
Today take the time. Take time off the hard, beaten path of busy-ness. Take time to remove some rocks out of your schedule. Take time to trust God with the cares of this world, with your wealth, with your desires.
And take time to be patient with yourself. For the measure you give, will be the measure you get. Whatever time you give, more will be given back to you. And if you give nothing, even what you have will be taken away.
Questions for Discussion or Reflection
- How would looking at life—the world around you and your very own life—as infused with divinity change your life?
- Where, in your everyday life, do you recognize God’s presence? How can these, like the sacraments of Bread, Cup, and Water, serve as reminders to you that God is present everywhere?
- Where are the places you can “take time” away—physically and out of your calendar—so you can pay attention to the Word of God in your life?
Below are responses to a question in our bulletin one Sunday, “What does Communion mean to you?” We celebrate Holy Communion weekly and have for about 6 years. When we made that change, we heard the chief concern expressed by a majority of churches considering weekly Eucharist–“It will lose it’s meaning!” Judge for yourselves.
It is a weekly, tangible, tactile reminder of my personal connection to God and his covenant with me. Weekly I touch, feel, taste, see, smell a reminder of that connection.
Sharing with all the faithful the meal that Jesus the Christ prepared for us to show our unity and belief in him.
No matter in what format we share communion, it serves to remind me just what the essence of our faith is.
Regardless of what is going on in the world, God’s love doesn’t end. Regardless of how isolated I fee, I am not alone.
The receiving of God’s grace and forgiveness as well as the Spirit of Christ that I need for every day living. He is the Bread of Life for me.
Communion is a tangible connection to Christ that refreshes/renews my spirit. I’m thankful that we receive it weekly to remind me of Christ’s presence with me through the week ahead.
Communion is the most personal time I have with God other than our time together in our yard.
Communion is both personally giving and personally receiving from other believers. Christ is a personal savior.
Communion is a very personal part of worship to me. As I partake of the symbols of Christ’s body, I feel that I am a small part of Him and dedicate myself each week to be His person and hands on this earth.
Feeling of solidarity with the congregation and church at large.
Uplifting, comforting, renewal. It fills my cup with love.
Communion is a quiet way for me to be mindfully aware of God’s love for us and Jesus’ sacrifice for me.
Communion is a personal and private time between me and God. I always wonder at how he could have given his son for my sins. This took on even more meaning to me once I had my own son.
Love, acceptance, forgiveness, repentance.
Communion reminds me that I am one of millions through the millennia that profess Christ as Savior.
Communion each week grounds me – as well as renews me – and reminds me of Christ’s grace.
Communion is my time of sharing in the life, death, and resurrection with the saints before, the saints now, and the saints to come.
To join all the saints past, present, and future to honor God and his beloved son.
Communion gives me the opportunity to share the love and grace of Christ with my faith family, as well as to have a very personal interaction with Christ reminding me of His sacrifice for ME. Didn’t earn it, don’t deserve it – GRACE! Communion strengthens my shaky faith.
Of all the rituals of the Church, and of our worship, communion brings me closer to God and to the Church, and makes me feel more at peace.
Physical reminder of what a privilege it is to be a child of God and the ultimate sacrifice for my sake.
Communion provides me serenity. The stillness and quiet time with God lets me hear Him and replenishes me so I can be strong and calm in our loud, busy world.
Through communion I feel humbled and close to my Father. That by grace I was saved knowing that he sacrificed his life for me, so I can have everlasting life. What a gift. I am one of his chosen ones.
Communion is the most vivid example and evidence that God is a loving God, thus showing us how to interpret everything in the Bible, our faith, and our lives.
To clean my “plate” so to speak. To seek forgiveness and a fresh start.
I feel cleansed and renewed each time I take communion and at peace.
Renewal of mind, spirit and body to focus on Christ.
Furthers by belief and what has been given up for us. “Faith”
Communion gives me the feeling of being close to Christ. Communion brings together all Christians in the world together regardless of their various differences.
Communion is our connection to our heavenly Father and a reminder of how he died for our sins and why we praise him each time we come to the table (each time we eat).
A reminder of my salvation and that of others. A reminder and symbol of my sustaining force.
Communion is being part of a community – the church, the city, the country, the world, the universe – being included in something good and bigger than myself. Sharing a moment with Christ.
Building of companionship, community, and giving to others. Reminder to consider the body, i.e. God’s people (especially those not present), and the blood, which reminds us that forgiveness takes sacrifice. If we are going to forgive, we have to be willing to give some up, FOR them! (not BECAUSE of them)
Christ Jesus accepts me and makes me “new.”
Communion is a reminder to me that I am a child of God and share in the lives of a community of believers.
- Jesus is the bread (sustenance) of my life
- It connects me to the body of Christ, to the spirit within, to all others who share it
- Physical evidence of God’s love
Tonight in conversation with a friend I was able to finally articulate an angle on the restlessness in my spirit of late. It is the distinction between “making a difference” and “being meaningful.”
I have no doubt that my service to the church is “meaningful” to those who encounter it. I receive notes and calls and comments that prove this beyond doubt. What I offer in sermons and writings “means” something, sometimes even something transformative, to those who receive them. For this I am grateful and gratified.
But what difference is my ministry making? That is the question which, at heart, I long to have answered. Mathematically speaking, “difference” refers to “change.” When we ask what the difference is between 10 and 15, we are asking what has changed. And the answer, of course, is that 5 has been added to 10 to make 15. Both numbers have meaning, but there is a difference to be seen between 10 and 15.
In congregational life, there are only a few “hard” metrics, that is, a few measurements that concretely indicate differences. Some of these are worship attendance, financial contributions, baptisms, and people discerning vocational clarity.
Year end statistics show that attendance in my congregation is down, but financial contributions are up. This is the second year of this trend, and what it suggests is that the decreasing number of people who attend worship are increasingly committed financially.
I am grateful for the notes and calls I receive about how meaningful my ministry is to people. And it is deeply gratifying that these same people want to invest more in our ministry together–and the investment is not just financial. We have also seen an increase in volunteer hours both within and beyond the church. These hours reflect another measurement I mentioned above–discerning vocational clarity, that is, finding ways to serve others.
In addition to being meaningful, I also want to know I’m making a difference. People can have meaningful experiences in church their whole lives long and never actually grow spiritually. They have confused personal experience with intimacy with God. And many times it’s not their fault. It’s the church’s fault. It’s the pastor’s fault for being satisfied with having a meaningful ministry and not paying attention to whether it makes a difference.
So that’s the question disturbing my spirit: Am I making a difference, and how would I know? Part of the answer to the second half of the question is the increased giving, both in terms of money and hours. I can surmise an answer in part from our increasing budget, but even better from meeting the people our volunteers are serving. I would experience how our ministry is making a difference in the lives of our volunteers and those they serve.
With these observations included in the equation, perhaps the answer to the first half of the question will be an unqualified yes: I am making a difference. And that would be a very welcome conclusion, because I am less and less satisfied with being meaningful but not feeling like it makes a difference.
I am a preacher who constantly questions whether I proclaim the truth. Here’s how you and I can know.
- The truths that grounded Jesus’ preaching and that make it so attractive
- The temptations of Jesus, the lies of the world, and our divinely ordained needs
- Two characteristics of Jesus’ truthful preaching
- Two ways we can tell if a preacher is lying
One of the reasons Jesus’ preaching was renowned is because it was grounded in truth. Part of that truth was that Jesus knew who he was. He was firmly convinced of his baptismal identity—the declaration made as he emerged from the waters—that he was a beloved child of God, in whom was God’s delight.
Another part of the truth that grounded Jesus’ preaching is that he knew our situation so well. The three temptations made sure of that.
- The temptation to turn stones to bread: To take the short cut and satisfy our own needs; to put the physical above the spiritual. 2. The temptation to praise the Devil in order to win the world: Seeking the favor of other lords; seeking to be served, rather than to serve. 3. The temptation to prove God’s favor by working a miracle: Not being content with God’s declaration of love and delight; being preoccupied with the opinions of others.
Jesus encountered precisely these temptations because they are our temptations. He resisted them successfully so he could help us resist them also. Jesus’ preaching resonated deeply with his audience; it was attractive because it was true in this fundamentally human sense.
Jesus developed a reputation very early on in his ministry. Maybe news of his baptism had reached Galilee. Maybe people heard of his 40 days in the wilderness. Luke says he was “full of the power of the Spirit”—whatever exactly that means. Add to these his preaching in the surrounding area, when he finally reaches his hometown they were excited.
His hometown crowd would have been proud. After all, Galilee wasn’t known for much. It was basically Hicksville compared to Jerusalem. Just remember Nathanael’s response to Philip who claimed to have found the Messiah in Jesus of Nazareth: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46) And Nathanael wasn’t even from Jerusalem—he was from Bethsaida! Furthermore, Jesus’ hometown folk would have reflected nationalistic self-esteem under Roman occupation. Their attitude upon Jesus’ arrival would have been, “Jesus is one of us . . . a Jew, a Galilean, a Nazarene!”
This is why Jesus’ closing comments are so offensive. How could he assert that foreign widows were preferred over widows of Israel? How could he say lepers from foreign armies were preferred over lepers of Israel?
And suddenly the truth of Jesus’ preaching—its universal quality—wasn’t so attractive. It was offensive, even repulsive. It was heretical and dangerous. It needed to be exterminated!
Assuming that Jesus preached the truth, we might conclude that true preaching has at least these two characteristics:
- It speaks about and addresses our deepest needs;
- It challenges our presumptions about God’s grace, especially as it relates to others.
The synagogue of Nazareth loved Jesus’ preaching when it met their needs. But they wanted to kill him when he challenged their presumptions about God.
How can you and I know when a preacher is telling the truth?
It starts by getting in touch with our needs. We think we know what our needs are, but our understanding is distorted. The world is always telling us what we need. But these “needs” are lies. Jesus’ temptation exposed the lies of the world.
- You can take short cuts
- The physical is more important than the spiritual
- You should be served rather than serving others
- Cultural opinions matter more than God’s
- And the biggest lie of all: God doesn’t love you or delight in you
Jesus could preach the truth because he faced these temptations. Likewise, you and I can discern the truthful preacher after we also face these temptations.
- When we take our spiritual lives as seriously as we take our physical lives
- When we stop taking short cuts
- When we stop our preoccupation with providing for ourselves
- When we serve others instead of trying to be served
- When God’s opinion outweighs our peers’ or our boss’ or our in-laws’ opinions
- When we ground ourselves in God’s love for and delight in us
Only after we face these temptations ourselves are we better able to assess the truth of a preacher and accurately identify falsehood. If you want to know if a preacher is lying, face temptation like Jesus did. Armed with the baptismal assurance of God’s love and delight, follow the Spirit to the wilderness—into solitude and silence. Remain there for “40 days”—which simply refers to however long it takes for God to complete a special work. While there, fast, pray, and contemplate. Wrestle with the dark aspects of your thoughts, feelings, and attitudes. After this hard work, you’ll recognize truth when you hear it.
To say it from the other direction, if you want to tell if a preacher is lying, get in touch with your true, divinely ordained needs:
- To attend to the spiritual, not just the physical
- To worship God, not lesser lords
- To serve, not to be served
- To rest in God’s love and delight
A second way to know if a preacher is lying is to recall if he or she ever challenged your presumptions about God. If you never left worship disturbed or even angry; if you never question your thoughts, feelings, and attitudes; if you’ve never said, “I don’t know if I agree with that,” then the preacher may not be maliciously lying to you, but he or she isn’t telling the whole truth either.
Jesus told his proud, nationalistic, clannish hometown that the scripture promising God’s exhaustive grace was “fulfilled in their hearing.” God was with them. The kingdom had come. But not just for them—it had come for everyone! Even Nathanael in Bethsaida. And the elites in Jerusalem. And the widows in Sidon. And the lepers in Syria.
Because the good news of God’s healing, illumination, and liberation is for everyone. For those who need it. For those who pray for it. For those who welcome it. Even if they do so before “God’s people” who have become overly-familiar with God.
Jesus proclaims the truth and it challenges our presumptions about God. If that never happens to you, your preacher isn’t telling the whole truth.
So let us resolve in this new year, especially as we approach Lent, to fulfill our baptismal identity like Jesus, to be led by the Spirit of God, to receive the “year of the Lord’s favor,” and to extend that favor to all people. Let us resolve to hear the truth of Jesus’ preaching, and to live according to it as well.
Luke refers to John’s call to repentance as “good news.” It’s good because everyone needs to repent, and everyone can repent. But the first thing we need to repent of is religion.
- Moving to the margins: The ministries of John and Jesus in Luke
- Repenting of religion as an ethnicity
- Repent of religion as a means of salvation
- Five steps in repenting of religion
Luke introduces the ministry of Jesus in the context of the institutional establishment of his day. He refers to Tiberius, emperor of Rome, which might represent culture, tradition, or the entire Western civilization for us today. He then speaks of Pilate of Judea, which we might think of as country. Then the various “state” governors, including Herod, Philip, and Lysanias. And he concludes with a reference to the religious establishment through the high priests Annas and Caiaphas.
From these mainstream institutional establishments, Luke then moves to the margin with John the Baptizer, himself a son of the establishment (his father was a priest and his mother a member of the priestly line), in the wilderness. John has an orthodox appearance (according to Mark). He preaches not in the Temple but in the region of the Jordan River.
The Gospels present John as the fulfilment of the prophet Isaiah’s vision of “every valley being lifted up, every mountain and hill brought low; the crooked paths being made straight and the rough places made smooth.” (Isaiah 40:3-5) All this re-landscaping is done so that “all flesh can see the salvation of God.” In the Gospel of Luke, this “all” includes the crowds, tax-collectors, and soldiers. The Gospel of Matthew includes Scribes and Pharisees.
What this “all” does is prove what Luke says: That John’s call to repentance is “good news.” Everyone needs to repent, and everyone can repent. And if John is our example, then the first thing we need repent of is religion.
We repent of religion in two ways. The first is to repent of religion as an ethnicity. It is the presumption that one is a child of God through religious identity. John warns the crowds that, if the descendants of Abraham don’t want to participate in God’s promise to him, then God can raise up children for Abraham from the rocks. Note that God’s faithfulness to his promise is never in doubt. If we don’t go along, God finds another means to fulfill his promise.
Presumption of religious identity is evident when people identify themselves as “American” and thus Christian, or “Catholic” or “Protestant” or even “Christian” but do not bear any of the spiritual fruit of being a child of God. Just because you’re born in a hospital doesn’t make you a doctor. Disciples are made, John is saying, not born. And disciples “bear the fruit of repentance.” Jesus uses same metaphor in his parables and his final speech.
So John calls us to repent of religion when it gets in the way of our acting like a child of God. And what does a child of God act like? A short summary list from the teachings of the Newer Testament includes:
- Love your enemies
- Provide for the poor
- Protect the vulnerable
- Regard others as better than yourselves.
Are others better? No. But God knows the only hope we have of overcoming our self-centered ego is by considering others better than we are. Only then will we love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Only then will we serve them as Jesus did.
The other way we repent of religion is to repent of it as the means of our salvation. Religion isn’t our salvation. John’s baptism was a water baptism of repentance. It represented the intent of those coming to receive it. But Jesus, he says, will baptize with Holy Spirit and fire. Jesus’ baptism represents something beyond our intent.
Jesus understood the baptism in the Holy Spirit because he received it in his own water baptism. And he also understands the fire of trials culminating in his own crucifixion. The Newer Testament relates Jesus’ baptism to the baptism of his death. (see Mark 10:38)
So when John calls us to repentance and promises that Jesus will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire, he’s saying that it is Jesus within us who is actually doing the repenting. We don’t do it on our own. We can’t do it on our own. We need the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit to separate the wheat from the chaff in our lives.
We choose religion (necessarily, I would argue) and repentance. But religion isn’t what saves us. Christ with us in the Holy Spirit is what saves us. If we trust in anything else to save us, especially if it is religion, we need to repent of it.
How does Jesus helps us repent of religion? Here are five steps from this passage.
First, we embrace an attitude of repentance. We remember John’s water baptism and humbly accept that we need to change. And beyond this, we resolve that, whatever God says, we’ll do it.
Second, we follow John to the wilderness, which means, yes, outside the official church. We go to a place where we are vulnerable to the Spirit. We find ritual cleansing in the living waters of a river, like John’s Jordan River, instead of in the cisterns of water we find in the Temple.
Third, we ask Jesus to cleanse the threshing floor of our lives. We imagine him coming in with his winnowing fork and tossing the wheat and the chaff into the air, then burning away the chaff. And we must remember his motive in doing this. It isn’t to punish us in the flames, but to isolate and use the wheat to make good bread of our lives—bread Christ may take, bless, break, and give to others for their benefit.
Fourth, we submit to Spiritual examination. Just as Jesus entered our world under the waters of baptism, so through our baptism into Christ the Holy Spirit “swims” within us. If you’ve ever been fishing, you know you have to deliberately drop the hook and reel it in. You have to take into account the time of day, the weather, and the shadows making the water cool or warm. It’s the same with the Spirit in our lives. We have to attend to it in order to catch it. But when we attend to the Spirit, God speaks to us.
Fifth, we let the fires burn. Yes it is difficult and even painful. We will want to protest, to argue, and to fight. We may need to grieve. But have to let go of those things God wants to separate from us and burn away. Immediately after his baptism, Jesus was led by the Spirit to the threshing floor where he was tempted. There he remembered God’s proclamation at his baptism: “You are my child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Because of God’s love and delight in us, we repent of religion without judging. We don’t judge others and we don’t judge ourselves. We may repent of things that “worked” in the past for us, or still work in the present for others, but don’t work anymore for us. Just remember, God was faithful in those things back then to you, and God is faithful in those things now to others. And God remains faithful now in your repentance.
Questions for Discussion or Reflection
- In what ways have you been called to the “wilderness” with John? Where have you found God’s Spirit at work beyond the fellowship of your church?
- We normally think repentance follows threats of judgment and fear. How does the idea that repentance is “good news” strike you?
- What presumptions of religious identity are getting in the way of your growing as a child of God and a disciple of Christ? Are you too content in the activities of Christianity while neglecting the activities of Christ?
- If repentance is powered by the Holy Spirit within us and not by our own power, is it easier or harder for you to repent?
- Looking at the five steps Christ uses to bring about repentance in our lives, where do you see Christ working in your own life?
Introduction: This is a proclamation of the gospel offered on the Second Sunday, the Tenth Day, of Christmas, January 3, 2016. Please follow the links to the hymn/carol selections from Glory to God, the hymnal of the Presbyterian Church, USA, which this proclamation uses.
Today is the Tenth Day of Christmas, the twelve day season which begins December 25 and ends with the arrival of Epiphany on January 6. Epiphany has three traditional meanings, all of which refer to the “revelation” of Jesus, which is what “epiphany” means.
- The baptism of Jesus, including the descent of the Spirit upon him
- Jesus’ first “sign” of turning water into wine
- The Adoration of the Magi from the East
Together, Christmas-Epiphany reveals that:
- Jesus’ birth is “good news of great joy for all people” (Luke 2:10)
- “In Christ, there is no longer Jew or Gentile” (Galatians 2:28)
- “God so loved the WORLD, he gave his only son.” (John 3:16)
The “devout and righteous man” who was “seeking the consolation of Israel” and upon whom rested the Holy Spirit, Simeon, expressed this truth when he praised God saying, “My eyes have seen God’s salvation: A light—for revelation for the Gentiles, and for glory to God’s people Israel.”
Based on this truth, the salvation of the world in Jesus Christ, today we celebrate “Christmas around the World.” We are guided by hymns and carols from Glory to God, our new hymnal, hymns and carols we have inherited from world Christianity. Today we will move from “me” to “we,” from “our time” to “all time,” and attempt to conform more to the Christ of Christmas, not the culture of Christmas. In other words, we desire to emulate God in Christ, who gave himself for all the world.
“Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light” No. 130
We begin in Germany, where so many of our Christmas traditions began, including the Christmas tree and the Advent wreath. This is a piece of music perfected by Johann Sabastian Bach. It is a chorale, which is a choir piece of highly regulated composition. While chorales are very challenging to sing and to write, they represent the building blocks of Classical Western Music. As we sing this hymn, try to appreciate the beauty, art, and creativity it expresses even within the rigid restraints of rules. And remember that God can create beautiful art despite whatever constraints your own life presents.
“Jesus, the Light of the World” No. 127
Here we encounter the latest adaptation of one of the most popular carols, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”. “Hark” was composed by Charles Wesley, the brother of John Wesley, founder of Methodism, in 1737. Charles wrote over 3000 hymns! The original opening line was, “Hark how all the welkin rings, glory to the King of kings”. “Welkin” refers to the vault of heaven, and so the line accurately depicts the scripture to which it alludes, that “there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly hosts, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest . . .’” Note, the Bible does not say the hosts were singing.
But Charles’ good friend and famous preacher George Whitefield changed the words to the ones you have memorized: “Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king.” Wesley was infuriated. But the evolution wasn’t complete. William Cummings set Whitefield’s revision to Mendelssohn’s music—the setting you have memorized—in 1856. The rest is history.
This most recent evolution arises from the African American community. It gives us opportunity to recognize, appreciate, and enjoy the evolution of music in the church.
We turn to an example of how popular devotion often trumps official church doctrine. According to linguistic scholars, The First Nowell appears to have been written not by a skilled poet or theologian, but by an illiterate lay-person. For example, he refers to a star appearing to the shepherds, of which there is no mention in the Bible. Such a mistake could be explained by confusing various Nativity depictions, as might appear on stained glass windows.
In England, popular practice combined the carol with a Yule Log devotion that had been received from Scandinavian Vikings. This was a domestic devotion, not official church teaching, in which the log was lighted on the first day of Christmas and families hoped it would burn through the twelve days to bring good luck to the household. The First Nowell accompanied this devotion.
From England it migrated to France in the 15th century, and eventually found its way back to England to be finally published in 1833. As we sing The First Nowell, appreciate anew the creativity of combining stories. Like Christmas card depictions and children’s pageants, these combinations may get the details wrong, but the main point remains—we have been redeemed by God’s love for us in Christ.
“Still, Still, Still” No. 124
We turn now to Austria, and to a carol whose message in its entirety is “value simplicity.” With the first and last lines repeating, it invites us to replicate simplicity in our own lives, a message that is especially important to remember during Christmas. In its depiction of a “still” Jesus who “sleeps,” it reminds us that the busy world—and we ourselves—may also rest in God.
“In the Heavens Shone a Star” No. 131
This carol is written with a pentatonic scale: It uses only five notes. Such scales are characteristic of Asian music, and this song from the pacific island archipelago of the Philippines shows this influence. The most famous pentatonic hymn you know is Amazing Grace.
This hymn has personal significance to me, as my family emigrated from the area in the Philippines where this carol originated. My dad is celebrating this Christmas there, in fact.
Listen for how the star-light symbol offers a commentary on the birth-incarnation relationship, and how the Shepherds and Magi refer to people both near and far, both the empty-handed and those with treasures. It is an invitation for all of us—whether near or far, whether poor or rich—to “bow at the cradle and adore the holy child.”
“Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” No. 128
From the Philippines we go to Poland. The word “infant” literally means “incapable of speaking”. Even when Jesus doesn’t speak, he still testifies. We are reminded of Psalm 19 which states, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” We are encouraged by the fact that those with faith see and hear beyond the obvious, like the Shepherds who “glorified and praised God for all they had heard and seen.”
This carol also reminds us that Jesus redefined “holy.” Whereas the Holy used to be transcendent and terrifying, here “holy” is revealed to include that which is “lowly”. And so this carol invites us to “be holy as God is holy” (see this refrain in the “holiness code” of Leviticus, but cross reference Jesus’ paraphrase of it in the Sermon on the Mount). Holiness in Jesus means living lives of humility and service as Jesus did.
“‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime” No. 142
We turn to the first North American hymn which dates from the 17th century. It was written in the Native American Huron language by a French Jesuit missionary. The Huron nation lived in Canada, near Lake Ontario. It was translated into French, and later paraphrased into English, and this is the text we sing today.
There is some controversy regarding these lyrics, specifically, do they include racist perspectives? Do the images reflect European caricatures of Native American life? Or does the text appropriate native language and narrative for the purpose of sharing the good news of Christ?
Criticism aside, the larger point to appreciate is that all language is malleable, which is why it is so important that God’s Word became flesh. Our best understanding and description of God is not contained in words, but presented to us in Christ. The important message is that God always accommodates himself to our needs.
“That Boy-Child of Mary” No. 139
In African culture, the name given by a community expresses the hope the community has for a child. This hymn from Malawi reflects this cultural understanding. Here we are reminded that “Jesus” reflects the Hebrew word for “Savior.” It also alludes to the name Matthew applies from the prophet Isaiah about the child born to Mary, that he is “Emmanuel” which means “God is With Us.”
This hymn makes a further point. It describes God’s salvation in terms of God’s helping us, suggesting that God helps us not primarily by intervening in our circumstances, but by being with us through them.
“Once in Royal David’s City” No. 140
This hymn originated as part of a collection of children’s hymns from Ireland. The hymns were intended to help children understand the classic testaments of Christian faith, including the Ten Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed. This hymn comments on the Creed’s statement that Jesus was, “conceived by Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary.” What does it mean to be a child of God and humanity?
Part of the answer, according to this carol, is that “Jesus is our childhood’s pattern”. He is like us in all ways. He is human. But the answer also includes the lyric that Jesus “leads his children on to the place where he is gone.” The promise is that we will be like Jesus when we follow him. We too can be children of God and of humanity.
“He Came Down” No. 137
This is our Carol of Preparation for Communion. It comes to us from the African country of Cameroon. When we celebrate communion, we pray together and “lift up our hearts.” The reason we can “lift up our hearts,” is because Christ first “came down.” This dynamic is the fundamental movement of Christianity: God moves first; and we respond. God’s first move is grace; our response is gratitude.
Remember from last week’s reading in Romans 1 that Jesus is “descended from David according to the flesh,” and “declared Son of God according to resurrection.” This dynamic of God’s coming down and our lifting our hearts, of grace and gratitude, of the sacrament of Eucharist (which means “thanksgiving”), reminds us of one of the earliest Christian teachings: that God became human so we could become God. It isn’t that we replace God, but that we reside and participate in God. “He came down, that we may have life.”
“Jesus Entered Egypt” No. 154
Having celebrated Christmas around the world, we return finally to a hymn found only in Glory to God. This hymn reminds us that Jesus came to all the world, so that we who faithfully follow Jesus may also go to all. But what if the world should happen to make the journey and come to us? This hymn reminds us that to be faithful to the Spirit of Christmas, we must welcome all.
As we receive the Child of God, we become a child of God. Let us go, therefore, into all the world, proclaiming the good news of Christ’s birth. If necessary, use words. If possible, use songs.
Christmas makes us think of stories of Jesus’ birth. And yet the earliest writings of the New Testament make no mention of Jesus’ birth. Still, the opening verses of Paul’s letter to the Romans sound a Christmas theme worthy of inclusion in the Christmas season.
As the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke give us a preview of those gospels, so the opening verses of Romans summarize the gospel according to Paul. Here are four themes previewed in the opening verses, and why baptism at Christmas is most appropriate.
- Paul writes that Jesus is part of the good news, the “gospel” of God according to the prophets. The Older Testament prophets were concerned primarily with social justice and peace. Paul presents Jesus as one aligned with these prophetic concerns. Jesus is a continuation of the prophetic witness and ministry. With Matthew and Luke, Paul regards Jesus as a fulfillment of the prophetic literature.
- With Matthew and Luke, Paul identifies Jesus as a descendant of David. Whereas Matthew and Luke have Jesus “born in Bethlehem, the city of David,” Paul just says Jesus is “descended from David according to the flesh.” Jesus is like David: he is an unlikely choice and a deliverer of God’s people. But Jesus is also a new David: he delivers not through war, but as shepherd. The peace and well-being Jesus brings is not political first, but spiritual. And out of this spiritual peace comes the hope for a transformed world—a hope for which we will work, even politically.
- Paul says Jesus is “declared” the Son of God. He was declared to be so, because he was discovered to be so. Matthew and Luke imply Jesus’ divinity through his miraculous conception. For Paul, it is based on his resurrection from the dead. His resurrection proved his holiness—his being “chosen.” And it was a demonstration of God’s power—power at work in Christ. For Paul, because Jesus is God’s Son, he is also Lord, which is in direct contrast to Caesar Augustus who also claimed to be God’s son and Lord.
- In Christ, Paul says, we have received grace and apostleship. By “grace” Paul refers to forgiveness for sins, rebirth, newness of life—in sum, to a life liberated from sin and repurposed accordingly. And by “apostleship” he means we have received a commission—we are ones “sent out” (the meaning of “apostle”) with the same mission of Jesus, namely, to “bring about the obedience of faith among Gentiles.” This means that the grace we receive in Christ sends us all out as missionaries to invite all people to orient their lives around Jesus as new David and true Lord.
If we were to point to a ritual, rather than the introduction to a letter, for a summary of Paul’s gospel, it would be baptism. Here we would need to read Romans 6 (and chapters 7-8 as well). For Paul, just as Jesus’ birth represents a new hope, so our rebirth represents the endurance of that hope. Just as Jesus’ full identity wasn’t known until resurrection, so our rebirth requires a dying of the former self. And for Paul, it is baptism that unites us to Christ’s death so that we can live according to Christ’s resurrection.
And so it is perfectly appropriate to celebrate baptism during Christmas. For as we celebrate the birth of Christ, we also celebrate our own being born again, born anew, born from above in him.