University Congregational Church
Dec. 8, 2019
“Songs for the Season: It Came Upon A Midnight Clear”
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” Luke 2:8-14
As a child, Edmund Sears loved the Berkshire hills near his family’s farm in western Massachusetts and later said that he imagined the hilltops touched heaven and that angel messengers rested on the hilltops between heaven and earth on their errands of love. Edmund’s father Joseph taught him to appreciate poetry and later Edmund wrote that he often did his chores with snatches of poetry running through his head.
Both his father Joseph and mother Lucy taught Edmund the importance of moral principles and encouraged his love of study. Although farm work prevented Edmund from regularly attending school, he advanced in his studies enough to be admitted as a sophomore at Union College in New York in 1831, and he won a prize for his poetry while he studied there. After graduating from college, he studied law and then for the ministry in the Unitarian tradition and graduated from Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1837.
He worked as a missionary in a frontier area around Toledo, Ohio where his congregation was so impressed by his character and preaching that they called him to settle permanently with them. As his family gradually grew to four children, Reverend Sears discovered that he needed a larger, richer church to support his family and between 1840-1847 he served a Congregational Church in Lancaster.
When the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law became enforced nationwide, Reverend Sears announced from his pulpit that when human and divine law conflicted, people must obey the Divine law. In his 1856 sermon Revolution or Reform, he declared slavery a crime and predicted that continued and unrepentant slavery of it would reap national retribution.
In 1849, when Reverend Sears wrote his carol, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, the United States still reeled from the aftermath of the Mexican War and the burning issue of slavery that in another decade would ignite the Civil War. Europe reverberated with revolutions, and people all over the world warred with themselves and each other. Sears was committed to abolishing slavery and his carol remains, repeated all over the world every year reminding us of the challenge to bring peace to the world. Probably more than any other Christmas carol, it talks about today — his day and our day. It says that the call to peace and goodwill to all is as loud on any other day as it was on that midnight of old, if we would but listen “in solemn stillness.”
Just this week, I was reading about a 30+ year career teacher in the Wichita schools with a fascinating platform who was running for our Kansas State legislature. She happens to be transgender. In the comment section, someone wrote “Jesus is coming back and when he comes, he isn’t bringing peace!” This comment continued to lambast the candidate and finished with a pronouncement about this person’s eternal damnation. I thought it incredibly sad that someone who claims to be a Christian thinks that the Prince of Peace could somehow be separated from peace itself.
Today is Peace Sunday. The Hebrew word “shalom”, translated to English as peace means much more than just peace; is has a great sense of wholeness. Shalom seeks the well-being of all. Shalom embraces:
• Right relationship
The Bible teaches us that when there is brokenness anywhere within the human family, no one can know wholeness.
Or as Jamie Arpin-Ricci says, “Shalom is what love looks like in the flesh. The embodiment of love in the context of a broken creation, shalom is a hint at what was, what should be, and what will one day be again. Where sin disintegrates and isolates, shalom brings together and restores. Where fear and shame throw up walls and put on masks, shalom breaks down barriers and frees us from the pretense of our false selves.”
This is the concept Edmund Sears expresses so eloquently in his hymn – that those “who toil along the climbing way, with painful steps and slow… (can) rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing! When peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling and the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.”
Edmund Sears understood that Jesus came in the form of a human to teach a new way of God’s shalom – a new peace – a world where there is justice for the oppressed; food for the hungry; freedom for all; and enough for everyone! Peace means that everyone is whole again. And until everyone has enough – people of faith cannot have true peace.
In the Biblical Hebrew understanding of shalom, there is a point at which we have so much shalom that it spills out from us and is repaid or rendered to others. And so, as we make others peaceful and inwardly complete, that makes us peacemakers. Jesus said these peacemakers will be called children of God.
This is the incredible news of the Christ child coming to earth in a stable and the words in the song angels sing. May you find and give this peace today and all season.