Silent Night [Luke 1:67-79]
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Sermon Manuscript – 12.24.2021
Text: [Luke 1:67-79 and Luke 2:1-7]
In the last century, one of the most prominent and well known theologians world-wide was a man named Karl Barth. In 1962, during a trip to the U.S. he was going on a lecture tour. Apparently he was speaking at Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago, and after the lecture a student got up during the Q&A and asked, “can you summarize your life’s work in theology in a single sentence?” Now remember he was one of the most prominent teachers of religion in the world – writer of dozens of books on theology. He was a really big deal in the nerdy-religious world. It was an unusual request – can you summarize your life’s work in a single sentence? And Karl Barth answered, “Yes, I can. In the words of a song I learned at my mother’s knee: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the bible tells me so.” Tonight we are continuing our series called School of Rock: Christmas Album Edition. For the last month we have taken some of our favorite and classic Christmas hymns and pulled them apart. We’ve heard the stories of where they come from, and the scriptures they are based on. We have seen that more often than not, the lyrics of these hymns are so much more than just music – they are deep spiritual truths, lessons for us each to learn about God – put in a format that helps us remember and soak up the good news. Now here tonight, on Christmas Eve – there is really only one song we could ever really pay attention to – Silent Night.
200 years ago, in Germany in 1816, there was an assistant Pastor named Josef Mohr who wrote a poem. He wrote a poem, and then he put it on a shelf and forgot about it. Two years later, there was a traveling group of actors who went all around the countryside performing the story of Christmas. They were supposed to perform in the church, but the organ in the church was broken and needed to be repaired. The repairmen lived far away, and so he wasn’t going to make it before Christmas. SO the actors performed the Christmas story in a private home. The Pastor was invited to attend. After the play, the Pastor was feeling meditative, and so he went for a long walk around the village. His feet brought him to a hilltop where he could look down on the tiny village, all peaceful, covered in snow. When he suddenly remembered the poem he had written a couple years before. So he quickly went home and found the organist Franz Xaver Gruber and asked him to write some music for guitar (because, remember, the organ was broken) – so he asked to write music on the guitar, so they could sing the poem on Christmas Eve. Franz got to work, but he only had a few hours to put the song together. And that little church in Germany, almost 200 years ago, sang Silent Night for the very first time with a guitar on Christmas Eve. A few weeks later, the organ repairman named Karl arrived and fixed the organ. The organist sat down and played the melody he had written for guitar, on the organ. The repairman was so impressed with the song, he took the music back to his village and the song spread from there. Eventually it was translated from German to English and now it is one of the most famous Christmas Songs of all time – Silent Night. Now, there is one more story I want to share – maybe you’ve heard it, but it is just so awesome.100 years later, in 1914 during World War One on Christmas Eve – German Troops started singing Silent Night in German. The melody is the same, and so the British troops started singing the English version – which caused both sides to exchange Christmas greetings with one another, which ultimately lead to the unofficial Christmas Truce of 1914 – with French, British, and German Troops mingling on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
It’s a powerful song, Silent Night – most Churches sing it every single year on Christmas Eve, maybe even with candles. The lyrics to the song paint a beautiful picture of the Christmas story. Verse one paints a picture of heavenly peace where all is calm. Verse 2 talks about shepherds and heavenly hosts. Verse 4 talks about the star in the sky, and verse 3 talks about who Jesus is. Son of God, love’s pure light, the dawn of redeeming grace, lord at his birth. It’s funny because the song is called Silent Night – but most of us know that Christmas Eve was a loud and scary night. As the scripture from earlier outlined in Luke chapter two, if you remember the Christmas story, first there were angels appearing in the sky singing and making lots of noise, scaring the shepherds and their sheep. Then there were all the animals in the stable where Mary and Joseph stayed – probably making lots of noise. And then of course a baby coming into the world – usually makes a lot of noise. And yet, in all that crazy disorder and confusion – there is a peace. A moment when the angels go back into heaven, when the animals go to sleep and the baby stops crying. Maybe there was a moment, just one moment, where all was calm and all was bright. You see, life is anarchy with just a few moments of glory. Life is pandemonium – we spend so much time running around like chickens with our heads cut off, and at the end we wonder what did I spend all that time doing? What was I so busy with? Life is mayhem with just a few moments of glory. What’s beautiful about both the Christmas story and the story of Silent Night is that nothing went as planned. Mary couldn’t find a bed or a doctor. God came into the world – not in glory and armor riding on a cloud of awesomeness, but as a baby. The organ didn’t work, the music was written last minute. And yet – in all that mess, something beautiful emerged. The song wasn’t what was expected – and yet I’m so glad we have it. Jesus didn’t turn out like the religious experts thought, but I’m so glad we have him. Sometimes there is a difference between the plan on the paper and the performance we experience.
The other part of our scripture comes right before the Christmas story. There’s this guy Zechariah and when his son John is born, he just starts praising God and he sings this song. Verse 68 [read v.68-72]. Basically, what’s going on here is that he is praising God. He is so excited about what God has done. About a promise being fulfilled. I love that line about how God “raised up a horn of salvation” – in my house, we don’t have any horns, but I do have lots of very loud babies. I’ve got babies who sing, which – I mean, that’s what they tell me it is. The littlest one – you give him two sticks of any sort and he’s our little drummer boy. He takes two sticks and just whacks them together, and then parades around the house “singing” at the top of his lungs, but he doesn’t know very many words, so we get these sort of “half-songs.” I think my favorite this year has been “Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the… bells!” There’s no horns in my house, but I think we have captured the essence of praise and excitement. But I’ve got to ask, what are we praising? Why is Zechariah so excited? Why is he praising God and singing this song? The key comes from those last two verses. [read v.71-72]. Hundreds of years before this night, God promised his people salvation. And God did not forget his people. That’s why we’re singing, that’s why he’s so excited. Salvation came – it was not what people expected – but God did not forget his people. I love the ending of the song, comes in verse 78 [read v.78-79]
So what we get from the song Silent Night, and from Zechariah’s song is this story of hopeful expectation where nothing goes as planned. When I was in high school, I was in a symphony band. It’s a unique experience, and we were a pretty large band, roughly 130 kids in the group. I didn’t listen to classical music very much – that wasn’t really cool with my friend group. But in band class, we experienced the music in a way that’s hard to describe. Playing as a part of a massive group. Each piece having a completely different part, coming together to create something beautiful. And sometimes the band director would realize something was off. He would stop the music, and make different instruments play. He would cut us off and say, “alright, just the trumpets.” Or “alright, just the horns” or whatever until he found which group was wrong and bring us back on track. And I realized every time he did that, I’d grimace a little bit. Because the individual parts don’t make any sense! They sounds so weird all by themselves, without the rest of the group completing the picture. And I think about the story of Silent Night - with the broken organ, and the traveling group, the forgotten poem, and the last minute guitar arrangement. All these pieces coming together to create something perfect. And then I think about the Christmas story itself – the weird story of three wise men following a star around, the unfortunate story of a unmarried pregnant lady stuck in a barn at the last minute, the ridiculous tale of a bunch of spooked shepherds claiming they saw angels telling them to come inside the city – and yet, it all comes together in stunning picture we call the nativity.
In life, there’s this tension between the plan we have in our heads and the performance that plays out in reality. But then I realized, that for God, there is no tension. God performs the plan. God’s love is a symphony. The symphony, the collection of every single story coming together into the picture that is the history of the world that’s God’s business. That’s God’s performance. God’s love is a symphony. Our lives are just one part, one instrument in a tapestry of lives woven into a melody that God is creating. God’s love is a symphony. And when we play the wrong notes, or everything falls apart and our instrument breaks and we feel like we can’t keep playing the song of our soul – God is somehow able to bring us back on track and take our brokenness and weave it into the melody of the universe. It’s this amazing thing we call redemption. God takes your mistakes, your brokenness, and lifts it back into harmony with His melody. For God the performance IS the plan. God’s love is a symphony. When we feel like we are losing control – remember that God is in control. And then I think about the song of Zechariah – praising God, because even though things went bad for a really really long time, God did not forget his people. And God will not forget you.
So, what do we do with that? There’s a lot of talk of songs and symphonies – but what does it mean? Well, if God is in control, and God’s not going to forget us. Then there are two obvious challenges for each of us. First, let go of your plan, and with it your worries. Let go of the picture you had in your head of how life was supposed to go. The symphony is God’s business, the collection of individual parts coming together to create something greater is not something we have to worry about. We just have to focus on the performance of our part in the story. Ask yourself, what small, simple thing can you do in your life to change the world for the better? There’s a contemporary group called Newsboys and they have a song called “That’s How We Change The World” – and I wanted to share some of the lyrics with you. It says, “It’s the prayer in an empty room. Little things we do when nobody’s around. A hand reaching out. To a heart in doubt. It’s the smallest spark, that can light the dark. That’s how you change the world. A million little drops of rain can be enough to cause a tidal wave. A flood of your love that no one can contain.” Remember, God loves to work in unexpected ways. To take something that seems insignificant and turn it into something unforgettable. You never know when God might be doing that with your life.
In the last year, we have all been through some hard times. Sometimes it feels like we are so helpless and insignificant. When we are faced with some of the HUGE problems of this world, we are confronted with the question – what can we do to make a difference? What can I do? I’m just one person. All these massive problems and overwhelming obstacles that are just too much for just little ol’ me to handle. What can I possibly do to make a difference in the world? But I want you to remember something. A symphony is created one instrument at a time. A fire is created one spark at a time, an ocean is created one drop at a time. Mother Teresa once said, “We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But if that drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something.” So in the small, simple, unexpected ways in your life – add your drop to the ocean, add your instrument to the symphony and add your spark to the fire.
I love music. And what I really love about worship music is that the songs are very intentional. The lyrics matter, the way they move us and teach us are significant. From Zechariah’s song to that old german church with the last minute guitar rendition, to our little church in Flushing Michigan – we let the songs teach us. Teach us to love God and love our neighbor – and so we add one more drop to God’s ocean, one more voice to God’s melody, one more instrument to God’s symphony of love in the world. And so I’ll leave you with this. In the mayhem of life, may you remember that God is in control, and that God’s love is a symphony. May we play our part to the best of our ability and leave the symphony to God. May we lift our voice, with hopeful expectation, trusting in God to do something incredible with our simple melody. Amen.