- Donate Now
Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Christmas carols, with seldom-heard words and phrasings, are often misinterpreted by small children. A little boy came home from Sunday School with an odd picture of the holy family. His Dad looked at the drawing and said, “I see Mary, and Joseph, and the baby in the cradle. But who is this very fat person standing off to one side?” And the little boy answered earnestly, “Oh, that’s Round John Virgin!” What home has not heard a small child innocently singing, “O Christmas Tree, O Christmas” to the words, “O Tiny Bomb, O Tiny Bomb.” Or perhaps the odd words to Deck the Hall, “See the grazing mule before us… fa, la, la, la.”
When I was in First Grade preparing for the annual Christmas program, our Sunday School Director Marion Knutson insisted that we all learn a new song, “Angels We Have Heard on High.” We loved the flowing melody, but for a class of 6 years old just learning how to read, Run, Spot, Dick and Jane, the words of the refrain were impossible, so Miss Knutson decided to teach us the words phonetically. And so we learned, “Gloria in egg shells is Dayo” to rhyme with Mayo. I was shocked to discover years later that the song had nothing to do with eggs what so ever. “Gloria in Exclesis Deo” is actually the very first Christmas carol sung on that night of Jesus’ birth. They are the Latin words to the song the angels sang to the shepherds. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward all.”
It was a common practice in the ancient Middle East that when a baby boy was born, friends of the new parents would hire local musicians who would come to the house and greet the newborn with music and song. The song would often portray the virtues of the child or perhaps offer a portent of what would come to be. Fortunately, since Mary and Joseph were far from their home in Nazareth, God himself arranged for the heavenly chorus to sing and announce Jesus’ birth. After all none of their friends even knew that Mary had given birth let alone where to send the musicians. But the angels knew. And so an innumerable host appeared on the darkened hillside. Not only did they sing, but they chanted in chorus while the whole world rested in drowsy slumber unaware of the eternal hour had come. This heavenly choir was busy keeping the appointment for which it had been commissioned from the foundations of the earth, to sing to God’s glory. “Gloria in Excelsis Deo!”
As for the Christmas carol’s first performance, that may surprise you. There in the most remote and isolated field, without sign or warning, an angel appeared to the lowly shepherds. At the darkest hour of the night, when the fear of marauding predators was greatest, and the shepherd’s flock was the most vulnerable, the glory of the Lord shone around them. The brightness of the noontime sun dawned upon them, and the light shown all around them and they were terrified. And the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
Now why would God bring this message of good news for all people to this lowly band of shepherds first? Why would a choir of thousands sing for such a small handful of listeners? Certainly, the crowds in Jerusalem would have been greater. After all, a royal birth always stirs curiosity. Special anthems would have been written for the masses for harp and chorus. And yet, there is for me great comfort in the thought that the good news came first to the tireless, lowly shepherd keeping watch over their flock by night. Yes, it is consoling to know that the good news of Jesus’ birth came first to those who needed it most. The message of the angel was and still is intended for the shepherds of every day and age.
It is a word for all tired and weary souls who are responsible for their loved ones and keep watch by night. It is message for every parent or grandparent, uncle or aunt, brother or sister who carries the burden and responsibility for others and find themselves awake, keeping vigil, in the midnight hours. My friends, if this is your sorrow and challenge, the message of Christmas angel is for you. Like the lowly shepherds in Bethlehem, you have been given the assurance that you are not alone. God is with you. “So do not be afraid.” I know there are many this Christmas, who in spite of the joy and laughter, are seeking rest for the weary, a hope for the hopeless, and are longing for a peace and a place for those who wander on their own. The Lord’s messenger comes to you and says, “Do not be afraid.” Trust in God’s word, just as the lowly shepherds did long ago.
You see, the shepherds might easily have said to themselves, “Are we poor shepherds truly worthy that the whole host of heaven should come to us to tell the good news- and yet pass over the princes and priests of the earth?” Perhaps, in a more reflective, logical moment, you and I too might say, who am I that God would come to me? But my friends, the shepherds believed in the spoken word of the angel, and they opened themselves to be changed. Let that be true for you this Christmas. As the reformer Martin Luther once wrote, “Of what benefit would it be to me if Jesus would have been born a thousand times and it would have been sung daily in my ears that Jesus Christ was born, but that I was never to hear that Jesus Christ was born for me?”
We don’t know if the shepherds traveled together with their flocks, or whether they left the sheep in the care of a few shepherds out in the fields. We really don’t know what they thought they would see. But we do know from scripture that they were not disappointed. Their fool hearty and risky journey was worth it. In the face of this infant Jesus, they saw the glory of God’s renewing hope. The shepherds themselves left Mary and Joseph and the babe in the manger “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” That is what you are invited to experience this Christmas as well.
My friends, are you a reluctant, but tireless shepherd? Are you afraid that you don’t have the skills needed, or maybe you don’t know all the words and verses to your favorite Christmas carols? It doesn’t matter. Simply make a joyful noise with excitement and wonder- rather like the 4-year old who sang loudly, “Joy to the world, the Lord has gum.” Let your voice join the heavenly chorus, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill to all.” There is no greater gift you can share with your family than the gift of the Christ Child. “Do not be afraid.” God is making shepherds into angels every day and every Christmas Eve. And this child, m his grace, his presence, and his love will be sufficient for you this blessed day, and all the days of your lives. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.