Christmas Eve 2001
University Congregational Church – Wichita, KS
Gary Cox (12/24/01)
People have often observed that life is journey, and as with any travels, it is the journey itself, and not the ultimate destination, which bears the rewards. The changing of the seasons provides a cyclical motion, a steady rhythm, to the passage of time, and allows us to file away our memories in ways that make them easy to retrieve.
For example, we have our summer memories—memories of family vacations from our early years, of baseball games played on a vacant neighborhood lot, of hopscotch patterns carefully chalked upon a front walk, of moonlit evenings when the crescendo of the cicadas’ buzz filled our ears, and the flashing of lightning bugs almost outshone the stars.
Life is a journey of unspeakable beauty, and its rhythms keep the memories of all those beautiful moments in sync. How many of us have watched our own children, or grandchildren, playing in the back yard on a hushed summer evening, and found ourselves transported in time back to the days when we ourselves were the ones playing without a care in the world, being watched by those who loved us most, and who would guide us through the early years of life? And how often, in the quiet reverie of such moments, have we recalled loved ones who have passed beyond our reach, and found them so present in our memories we could almost reach out and touch them?
Every season–every holiday, birthday and special anniversary—has a special place within us where its unique memories are filed away. But for all those beautiful memories, there is no place within as important and as treasured as that little room where we store our memories of Christmas.
These are our most powerful memories. We more than remember the turkey our mother was cooking in the oven so many decades ago. Its aroma surrounds us as if it were only a few feet away, instead of countless years away. We more than remember our father snapping pictures of us as we tear through the colorful array of gifts under the tinseled Christmas tree. The residual spot before our eyes from that camera’s flash is still there, and through the blur we can still see his smile, his happiness born of witnessing our own childlike joy.
Nothing compares to our Christmas memories. And for many of us, this is the greatest night of the year. This is the night when the journey meets the destination; when the anticipation of Christmas reaches its zenith, and Christmas itself, with all it memories and with all its promise, settles into our hearts yet again.
Because I am a minister, I get all sorts of material throughout the months of November and December decrying the secularization of Christmas. These mailings, publications, flyers and e-mails all lament the way Santa Claus has become more important than Jesus in the eyes of so many. And they warn that the warm sentiment of Christmas memories should never overshadow the true “reason for the season,” which is the birth of Jesus Christ.
I certainly understand this sentiment. After all, like many sincere people of faith, I attempt to make the love of God through Jesus Christ the centerpiece of my life. It is, for me, the ultimate concern against which everything else is measured. But I see no reason people of faith cannot hold the religious meaning of Christmas, and the cultural celebration of Christmas, in harmony.
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I admit that while the arrival of Jesus in this world is a big part of my childhood memories of Christmas, there are some other vitally important parts of my holiday memories. The shopping, the music, the laughter, decorating the tree, waking up to discover all those gifts that Santa placed under the tree—those memories are not in and of themselves religious, but they are such a vitally important part of my spiritual view of the world, I would not sell them for any price.
As my wife Leigh and I were talking about the Christmas Eve service here at University Congregational Church, she suggested that I should perhaps talk about the words to some of the Christmas songs that I find meaningful. This advice came as I was wrestling with whether to make this evening’s message more religious—this is, after all, the evening when we remember the coming of Christ into our world; or more reflective of our heartfelt memories of the celebration of the season.
Leigh’s suggestion affords me the opportunity to do both. First, we will give some thought to the words of one of our most familiar Christmas hymns. Most people do not realize it, but when you pick up the Pilgrim Hymnal we sing from each and every week, you are holding a book filled with theology. Now, frankly, there is some good theology and there is some suspect theology in all the old familiar hymnals. But it is undeniable that the words were crafted with great care, and taken as a whole, they provide a remarkably detailed theological vision of the Christian faith. If you have never done so, you should open our hymnal sometime and simply read and ponder the words. Those hymns were not dashed out in a few quick minutes.
Many churches have turned away from the traditional hymns. I have attended services where a single line, such as “God loves us so,” is repeated over and over again to a simple melody, and I admit there is a certain power in joining voices in a simple and repetitive message. But if the church as a whole ever loses interest in the old hymns, we will have lost something wonderful. To prove the point, consider the lyrics to a song we have all sung hundreds of times: Joy to the World.
The first line goes Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her king. What a magnificent way to begin this hymn! That simple little line tells us that the Lord has come into this world, and our response should be one of joy. Don’t hide, don’t cower, don’t run, don’t develop intricate theological doctrines to explain away the mystery. The world should be filled with joy, because the Lord has come. And the whole earth is to receive the Lord as our king.
When we think of a king, we think of somebody being placed on some ostentatious throne and being housed in a great castle. But the next line is one of the most important in the whole hymn. It tells us where the king–the Lord–is to live. The line reads, Let every heart prepare him room. This king will require no castle, no earthly abode at all. He is to take up residence in our hearts, and will do so if we grant him room. And the first of the hymn’s three verses ends with the same line being sung three times: And heaven and nature sing. What an image! Heaven—all things beyond our world, all things beyond our knowing; and nature—all things within our world, sing together in some divinely perfected harmony. All is now right with the world, as heaven and nature sing.
The next verse says, Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns. Let men their songs employ. Now we know this king is our Savior. The lost are found, the hurting are comforted, the hungry are fed. This Lord who is our king is our Saving God, and we can only respond to this news with joyous song. And as we sing with joy, all of creation is filled to overflowing with the good news as, in the words of the hymn, fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy.
Music somehow captures the mystery of it all in a way that eludes all other forms of communication. As the third and final verse begins, a single line says more than most books of theology can hope to: He rules the world with truth and grace. We know how earthly kings rule. They rule with might, with coercion, with the power of the sword. But this king, this king, he rules the world with truth and grace. And that truth and grace prove powerful enough to place all of creation under the authority of our Lord, because the hymn ends by saying, And makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness, and wonders of his love, and wonders of his love, and wonders of his love.
What a song! And it’s all the greater for the knowledge that this Lord who came into the world to live in our hearts, and to rule with truth and grace…he entered the world just like we all enter this world, as a helpless little baby, whose only hope for survival was the love of the people around him.
And although every generation since that time, in one way or another, has had a song in their hearts that proclaimed “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come,” two men are actually responsible for the song as we sing it today. The familiar melody to this most famous of Christmas hymns was composed in the early eighteenth century by George Frederick Handel. Handel, of course, is perhaps most famous for having composed Handel’s Messiah, which contains the glorious “Hallelujah Chorus.” The wonderfully inspiring words to Joy to the World were written in 1709 by Isaac Watts, who wrote hymns in his spare time. For his primary vocation, he served as the pastor of a Congregational Church in Colonial New England.
I’ll conclude my reflection this evening by moving to a piece of secular music. It is a simple little Christmas song that is a favorite of mine and Leigh’s, even though it has no direct mention of Jesus, or God, or anything else that is readily identifiable as religious. But in my mind, the spirit of God we find in that incomparable hymn, Joy to the World, is written all over the season. And like my memories of the basting Turkey and the tinseled tree, I find great joy, and a beautiful spirituality within many parts of the Christmas season that are not overtly religious.
I won’t analyze this song line by line, because it probably wouldn’t hold up to such scrutiny. It is short; it is simple. There is no brilliant theology. English teachers would tell us that it’s not even especially good poetry, as the rhymes are sometimes a bit forced. The words to the song may be simple, but that’s okay. God’s response to the troubles of the world was simple—a baby.
The world has certainly seen its share of troubles over the past months, so perhaps our response in this Christmas season should be equally simple. Because Leigh and I like this song so much, we wanted to stand up here and sing it for you. But trust me, any attempt on our part to sing this song would have a detrimental effect on an otherwise wonderful evening. So I am happy to say that our friend Burt Tims has agreed to build a bridge from the spoken part of this evening’s service to the musical part by singing this song, our Christmas wish to all of you.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light.
From now on our troubles will be out of sight.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the yuletide gay.
From now on our troubles will be far away.
Here we are as in olden times, happy golden times of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us, gather near to us once more.
From now on we all will be together, if the fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bow.
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.