Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas Brings Out the Best and the Worst

Christmas is both the occasion for our best in worship and our worst. I think that most Pastors realize that there will be people in the congregation who do not regularly visit God's House and they work very hard to make sure that the sermon speaks faithfully the Word of God, both Law and Gospel. I know that parish musicians work very hard with choirs, soloists, bells, chimes, and instrumentalists to bring the best the parish has to offer in the music for the Nativity liturgy. I hope that parishes work hard to post greeters, to have ushers who notice who is new and who is not, and to provide a warm welcome to those who do not feel at home in the House of the Lord.

Christmas also tends to bring out our worst. We are often content with the sentiment of the day more than we desire to hear the full truth of what the Incarnation means. Case in point is when we turn Christmas into some sort of birthday bash for the Jesus who is now, what 2000+ years old. Lots of candles on that cake -- I guess that is where the candlelight service idea comes from. Or when we focus on good will and miss the entire point of that wonderful grace statement of the angels. Or when we focus on the Baby in such way that we isolate the Baby from what the Man Jesus is come to accomplish.

I think of Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols and the words, "This little Babe so few days old has come to rifle Satan's fold..." The is great depth to those images of the great battle between Satan and his age and evil wisdom against the Baby whom God sends filled with righteousness. That is a great place to start to unpack the Christmas miracle of the Word made flesh.

Once when I was either young and foolish or young and cynical -- you decide -- I did the Paul Harvey thing -- for those who did not hear anything between the birth and the rebirth of Jesus (Christmas and Easter), I told them the "the rest of the story." I had people hopping mad at me for spoiling their Christmas with all that talk of cross and suffering and death.

I believe, as much as I hate to admit it, they were right. The way I was preaching the Gospel was intended to shock and punish them for not being there the rest of the year. Now I do my best to avoid the sentimental stuff and yet I am sensitive to the need to preach to the wounds and hurts that the Babe in the Manger has come to address -- suffering, sin, sorrow, and death. The means this Child uses to address our wounds is the same -- the cross and suffering and death -- but the way you say it can make all the difference.

My people travel a lot at Christmas and bring me back bulletins from the congregations they visited. I am amazed at how many churches sing one or two stanzas of nearly all the well known carols -- destroying both the poetry of the carol and cutting off its message so that at best the people get angels and shepherds. I hope that the sermon did not also cut the message off, leaving the folks with just the sweet details of the story without telling the purpose of this birth.

Christmas brings out the best and worst when it comes to worship -- sometimes the best means digging a little deeper than one stanza of all our favorite carols... going a little further than angels and shepherds in the story... spending enough time to explain why God would send His Son in our flesh and blood... Some of the great carols do just that when we sing all their stanzas. I hope the sermons for Christmas do as well.

This year we used "All My Heart, This Night Rejoices" as the hymn of the day for Christmas Eve. Not one of the more well known Christmas melodies -- especially deep in the heart of Dixie! But oh the words... and what they tell...

All My Heart This Night Rejoices or listen to it here or here.

1 All my heart this night rejoices
As I hear
Far and near
Sweetest angel voices.
“Christ is born!” their choirs are singing
Till the air
Now with joy is ringing.

2 Hear! The Conqueror has spoken:
“Now the foe,
Sin and woe,
Death and hell are broken!”
God is man, man to deliver,
And the Son
Now is one
With our blood forever.

3 Should we fear our God’s displeasure,
Who, to save,
Freely gave
His most precious treasure?
To redeem us He has given
His own Son
From the throne
Of His might in heaven.

4 See the Lamb, our sin once taking
To the cross,
Suff’ring loss,
Full atonement making.
For our life His own He tenders,
And His grace
All our race
Fit for glory renders.

5 Softly from His lowly manger
Jesus calls
One and all,
“You are safe from danger.
Children, from the sins that grieve you
You are freed;
All you need
I will surely give you.”

6 Come, then, banish all your sadness!
One and all,
Great and small,
Come with songs of gladness.
We shall live with Him forever
There on high
In that joy
Which will vanish never.

1 comment:

OldSouth said...

Thanks and Amen.

I, like so many others, have heard the first stanza of this carol often. The really good news lies further down the poem!

Merry Christmas.