The First Noel - Luke 2:1-20
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The First Noel – 12.12.2021
Today, I want to open up by talking about the Nativity. You probably noticed when we decorated the church that we have this gorgeous nativity set on the table up here and every nativity has the same four pieces right? First, you’ve got the holy family – Mary, Joseph, baby – boom. And of course the backdrop – stable, animals, star. The third piece is the shepherds – sheep, guys in robes, and little curvy sticks. And last but not least the wise men. Usually three dudes, wearing fancy clothes holding little shiny boxes and camels, always camels, even though there’s no camels in the biblical story we always picture wise men on camels. We tell the same story, with the same pieces every year. But what if we updated the nativity a little bit, put a little hipster vibe on it? I give you the millennial nativity set. Yes, this is a real thing. It came out a couple years ago as a limited time deal. But let’s take a look.
First, it’s hard to tell, but you should notice that instead of a star, the stable has a solar panel on top to guide the way for the wise men. The holy family is taking a selfie with their new baby. We’ve got Joseph with his man-bun, the baby in his hand knit beanie and the mother Mary has her starbucks in hand and is making a duck face. You know that weird kissy face girls make on social media? Yeah. Our shepherd is “watching over” his sheep while scrolling on his cell phone. You might also notice that the cow is labelled “100% organic” and is eating gluten free feed. Last but not least there are the wise men, dressed in an assortment of ridiculous hipster fashion which I’m pretty sure they stole from my closet, riding in on segways carrying their gifts in the all-too-familiar amazon boxes. It’s funny, this set came out in 2016, and it made some waves and then disappeared – I don’t think it’s even available anymore. Now, don’t get me wrong – I think this is tremendously creative and absolutely hilarious. I considered buying one when it first came out. But there’s one thing I think it gets wrong. The goal of a Nativity set is not to update the story to be culturally relevant in the modern world. The function of the nativity is to help us tell the story. We use our decorations and the symbols around us to teach us. To help us remember all the pieces of what happened back then.
Today is part two in our series called School of Rock: Christmas Album edition – where each week we are diving into popular Christmas song lyrics, and more importantly the scriptures behind those lyrics. And today we are going to jump into the classic song – the First Noel, and what we’re going to see is that it ties very closely to the existence of the nativity. Now, unlike the Millennial Hipster nativity set, the First Noel is one of the oldest hymns in existence. Two hundred years ago, way back in the 1800’s the singing of Christmas Carols was dying out as a practice in England. Nobody wanted to sing anymore – you might say there was a war on Christmas, 200 years ago. So then there was this guy Davies Gilbert who started up a revival in Christmas music, and he wrote a book in 1823 called “Some Ancient Christmas Carols” – and the First Noel was in there. Davies got The First Noel from a manuscript dated 1817. From then on music experienced a revival in the church. Specifically, in Methodist churches, we were credited with spreading the popularity of the First Noel across the country of England, keeping it alive and making it super popular even into the 20th and 21st centuries. There was another guy William Sandys who did the same thing – he published it in a book in 1833 called “Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern.”
Now, that alone would make it one of the oldest Christmas carols ever – it’s over 200 years old. But you have to remember, 200 years ago it was put in a book called “Ancient Christmas Carols” – so it’s actually much older than the 1800’s. Here’s the point with all this – there’s a theory among scholars, and there’s no way to prove this, but there’s a theory that it may come from as far back as the 1200’s – 800 years ago, because at that time it was very popular to put on skits called “Miracle Plays” which were designed to teach the nativity scene to people. Basically, I am describing the invention of the Christmas pageant. Some people believe that the First Noel was probably written by an illiterate man with limited knowledge of the bible, for the purpose of teaching the Christmas story to others.
Now, our scripture for today is the classic Christmas story, and it follows the pieces of the nativity. The first two pieces are the stable and the holy family. Verse 4 starts out [v.4-7]. This is the core of the story, right? I mean, the rest can be seen as extra pieces, but you’ve got to have Mary, Joseph, Baby in the manger. Like we talked about last week – this baby is everything. This is God coming to be with us in a way never done before in history. So that was last week – angel and Mary and all that good stuff. But today we need to talk about the shepherds. [read v.8-15]. I know you’ve heard this story before – shepherds hanging out in the fields, angels show up with some big news. Here’s the part I really want to emphasize today: the shepherds didn’t have to pass a test to receive the good news. The shepherds are sort of symbolic for the poor and the uneducated. In a minute we’re going to get to the 3 kings – and those are the scholars, like the wise men. But there is nothing remarkable whatsoever about these shepherds. And honestly? It makes me feel a lot better. We don’t know their names, we don’t know if they came from important families, we don’t know if they were good people or kind of rotten, selfish people. Because the angel didn’t show up and say, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for SOME of the people.” No, no - the message of the shepherds, the reason they are SO important to be in the nativity picture is to highlight the fact that the message is for everyone. And the angel gives them a very easy job. Go, look at the baby, and then go tell people about it. This is a job anyone can do – you don’t need to bring him gifts, not even a drum solo. You don’t need to go ritually purify yourself before you can enter his presence. You don’t need to go volunteer down at the soup kitchen for 30 hours to get honors credit. Just go, find Jesus, experience his presence and tell people about it. This is the message of the shepherds.
I said earlier that some people think the First Noel was written 800 years ago by an uneducated, illiterate person who didn’t know the bible that well. The history of the song got me thinking about the shepherds, because I think the one who wrote the song would have had a lot in common with the shepherds. Scholars say that they think the writer of the hymn was illiterate and didn’t know the Christmas story that well, and I have a theory about that. I think the reason they say that is because the song contains some errors. Not big ones, just little moments. The first verse is pretty classic, let’s put those lyrics up – angels, poor shepherds, in the fields. But then verse 2 goes a little wonky. [put lyrics up]. They, being the shepherds, looked up and saw the star. And it’s one of those moments when we think eh…. Maybe? There’s nothing in the bible about shepherds and stars, because the star comes with the wise men set in the nativity. Right? Like we read the whole rest of it – but it’s not in there. [read v.16-20]. There’s no star in the shepherds story. [walk to the nativity] The star goes over on this side. The shepherds get angels, the wise men get the star. Luke 2 has the shepherds, and Matthew chapter 2 has the Wise men. And it’s not wrong, like I don’t know maybe the shepherds saw the star too – but it just sort of makes us go, “well..eh….” Now here’s where this all connects – even if the song writer wasn’t 100% that they had all the pieces, at least they were still trying to tell the story.
I mean, think about what it would look like with the shepherds telling everyone about the baby Jesus. Like, do you think the shepherds knew all the details? Or that they knew everything about Jesus? Like, they burst out of the stable – glorifying God and praising him and then they bump into an average villager from Bethlehem. And they shout, “The messiah is here.” And the Bethlehem villager rubs the sleep out of his eyes. “Okay, but is he born of the virgin Mary from the line of David?” And the shepherd just gushes, “I don’t know, savior of the world’s over there, it’s the one in the manger.” And the villager responds, “Okay, but like – was the star just for the wise men or did you see it too?” And the shepherd, trying to catch his breath, “I have no idea - the angel said the messiah was over there, and that there would be a kid in a manger and everything they said came true. It was amazing.” And the villager strokes his beard and says, “Riiight, but did the wise men show up on the night the baby was born, or did they show up weeks or even months later?” and the exasperated shepherd grabs the front of the villager’s robe, pulls him in close and says, “I don’t know any of that stuff. All I know is that good news that brings great joy is in stall three. You should go meet him.” [pause] How many of us in our faith life are afraid to share the good news because we think we might get it wrong. How many of us hold back, because what if they ask me a question I don’t know how to answer?
The good news today that we see in the shepherds is that the message is for everyone, and God can use ANYONE to spread that message. The story of Christmas is not FOR us, it’s for EVERYONE. Jesus didn’t come for Christians. Jesus came everyone. The angel said, “good news that will cause great joy for ALL the people.” What I want you to realize with that is that we are the gatekeepers. We are the ones who know the story. We are the one’s holding onto the treasure that is hope in this season. And other people need that hope. In the last two years emergency room visits for suicide attempts went up 51% for young girls. Rates of depression and anxiety have doubled in teens. And it’s not the pandemic. Emergency room visits went up 28% between 2011 and 2015, this has been on the rise for a long time. And I want to say, publicly – struggles with mental health are not sinful. Struggles with mental health are not sinful and it’s a really good idea to seek professional help. You can have Jesus and a therapist – that’s a very good idea. Struggles with mental health are not a sin, in fact it’s a very common and normal response to living in a broken and sinful world. Therapy deals with the symptoms of living in a poisoned world, Jesus deals with the poison and it’s a very good idea to handle both. Okay, let me just, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I grew up in churches that treated evangelism like sort of this weird habit only for the extremely religious. Like very few people in my churches growing up, very few would actually share their faith with another person. Like, to just walk up to someone, or to look at a friend and say, “Hey, I know you’re going through some stuff – I actually think a relationship with Jesus Christ could change your life.” Like maybe you grew up in the church, but reconnecting to your faith, reconnecting to that foundation of God’s love – it could cause a revival in your heart.” And nobody was saying that when I was a kid. Because that’s weird. I don’t want to be the weird religious guy at work, or the weird religious kid in school. But as the pandemic has worn on and people’s hope is drying up – I guess the urgency has grown in my heart. And I think about the shepherds, and the First Noel and those little Nativity plays that they would put on to share the story as best they can – and I feel like our excuses are disappearing. This whole thing about the baby, about God coming to be with us, to live and die as a sacrifice for us, to save us and give us a chance to live inside God’s way – it’s a story worth sharing.
Last week I said that the application was to cling to the truth. That the all powerful God in heaven was coming to earth in a new way – to be present with you. Cling to that truth when you are weathering that storm. But today, I’m realizing the news is too good to keep to ourselves. The story is too beautiful to cling to – we need to give it away. I’ve talked about this before, but it’s worth repeating – evangelism is easier than it sounds. The core of sharing your faith comes down to two stories: God’s Story and Your Story. The first thing we need to do is reflect on the stories. Can you tell God’s story? Can you tell the story of how God created humans, and we fell away and how God redeems us through the story of Jesus? And even that sounds intimidating, but you’ve got all the pieces right here. The Nativity is a guide, the rituals and symbols around us tell the stories. Why was Mary a virgin? Because this kid was the son of God, glorious and miraculous in birth. Why is the kid in a manger? Because God was taking off his glory and humbling himself, it’s actually how we Christians try to live too. Why are there shepherds? Because this story is for everyone – even the outcast and the poorest in society. Why are there kings? Because this kid is royalty. He’s actually the king of Kings, and that’s why we worship him. Why did they bring presents? Because Jesus is the greatest gift ever given in history, because this kid is going to grow up and sacrifice his life for us in the ultimate display of love, because of how much he loves us. The nativity is a guide to help you tell God’s story. It’s not a decoration for your mantle, it’s an outline of what we need to give to the world.
The second story is YOUR story. Jesus came to save you from your sins, to give you a new life living in his grace and glory. What has God saved you from? How have you seen God show up in your life? I promise he has been there, but a lot of us don’t even see it until we go looking. The first thing we need to do is reflect on the two stories – God’s Story and Your story. Try writing them down. It’s tricky at first, but I promise you it gets easier as you go. The last piece is that once you know the story, share that story. Once you have been in the presence of Jesus, like the shepherds, go tell everyone the story. And if you’re worried that you’re not smart enough or you’re not holy enough or you’re not educated or trained enough – I just want you to let the example of the shepherds and the author of the First Noel, let those examples reassure you. Oh, I don’t have all the answers, but the angels said the messiah was over there – and he is.
I’m not sure the Hipster Nativity Set helps us tell the story much, but if God can work with uneducated, poor, outcast shepherds – he can work through us too. The story is for everyone, and God will use anyone to tell that story. And so I’ll leave you with this. May you reflect on your life and learn how to tell God’s story and your own story. May you find the broken and the hopeless in your life, pull them close and tell them, “good news that will bring great joy, is down in stall three.” Amen.