7 I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. 8 For he said, ‘Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely’; and he became their savior 9 in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
Our first reading and accompanying hymn help us reflect back on times in our lives when we heavily relied on God’s grace and mercy. Perhaps a sickness or the loss of loved one caused us to question our faith. We felt abandoned and lost at sea. Then, in the midst of our despair, God bestowed upon us acts of great mercy. Our sickness was healed and our feelings of loneliness were replaced with new hope. Isaiah calls us to “recount the gracious deeds of the Lord” and how “he had shown to the house of Israel according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love.” In their struggles, it was God’s mercy that saved them. As Isaiah writes, “it was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” God doesn’t forget us, especially in our times of struggle. God wants to comfort us and redeem us from our pain and sorrow. If God could forgive his insolent people of Israel, He can surely forgive us and redeem us. Our words from Isaiah assure us of this.
Our hymn, “What Child is This,” is similar in assurance. It was written by the English poet, William Chatterton Dix, in the mid-1800s. He was an insurance salesman and fell gravely ill. As he was slowly returning to better health, Dix was compelled to ask, “what child is this?” In essence he was asking, “what beautiful show of mercy has been bestowed on me and why?” Like Isaiah before him, Dix was recounting the great deeds of God; in his case, God’s blessing of renewed health. As we sing the hymn, look back on the last year and recall times of struggle when God showed mercy on you. Perhaps you, too, might have asked, “what is this blessing and why me?”
1 Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights! 2 Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host! 3 Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars! 4 Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens! 5 Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created. 6 He established them for ever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.* 7 Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, 8 fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command! 9 Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! 10 Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds! 11 Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! 12 Young men and women alike, old and young together!
13 Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven. 14 He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him. Praise the Lord!
Our psalm for this morning is one of David’s praise psalms. All throughout we hear David lifting up praise and thanksgiving to God for all His wonderful blessings. In spite of his struggles that typically accompany kingship, David was primarily a joyful man. He continuously counted his blessings. It’s not every day that a lowly shepherd rises to became a great king. David knew that he couldn’t have done it were it not for the gracious help of our God. He came to rely heavily on God throughout his kingship. He developed an intimate relationship with God by not only seeking him out in times of despair but also by extolling God for all his gracious gifts. Indeed, David was very adept at crying out, “Praise the Lord!”
Our accompanying hymn, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” inclines our ear to hear the unending praises of the angels. Like David, their songs lift up praise for God’s magnificent glory. The great English hymn writer, Charles Wesley, wrote the hymn in the early 1700s during a time when the puritanical Parliament had abolished the singing of Christmas carols. Consistent with puritanical thought, it was believed that Christmas carols encouraged too much joy which would in turn lead to sinful behavior. There was little joy throughout England at that time and it’s no wonder that people fled to explore the freedoms of America. But Wesley stayed and continued to write his joyful hymns. Eventually the abolishment was abandoned and joy slowly returned to churches through hymns like “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
David sings out praise, the angels sing out praise, how can we keep from singing out praise for all that God has blessed us with over the last year?! Our God is a gracious and loving God. Our God sent his beloved Son to us as an act of profound love. Let us sing out with the angels!
10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12saying, ‘I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.’ 13And again, ‘I will put my trust in him.’ And again, ‘Here am I and the children whom God has given me.’
14 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. 16For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. 17Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
The author of Hebrews helps us recall exactly whose birth we are celebrating this Christmas season. We are celebrating the birth of our mighty king, Jesus Christ. But Jesus was not like your typical mighty king. No, Jesus came to us not to condemn and punish but rather to suffer alongside us. It was in and through suffering and death that Jesus was able to rise victorious. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We’ll celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection at Easter. For now, we simply rejoice in our Lord’s birth and the start of his life of service through suffering.
There’s no better way to celebrate it than with the hymn, “The First Noel.” This hymn dates back to France in the 1400s. The word “noel” is a French word originating from Latin meaning “birthday.” It made its way over to Britain in the mid-1800s using the English word, “Nowell.” It became a great favorite for Christmas Eve when the entire village gathered for singing and celebrating the bringing in of the Yule Log. When the word, “noel,” is sung repeatedly throughout the refrain, this is the equivalent of singing, “Happy Birthday.”
Of course, Jesus’ birthday wasn’t the first actual birthday. There were a great number of people born before him. But the use of the word, “first,” served to accentuate its importance. There were many born before him, many born after him, but none of the same importance as him, or so the hymn suggests. Perhaps rightly so. Few other men have had such an impact on our world as Jesus. He profoundly changed our understanding of God and our relationship with him. We boldly sing, “Happy Birthday” to you, Jesus!
13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ 14Then Joseph* got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,* he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.* 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18 ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’
Our last reading for this morning recalls the terrible political environment into which Jesus was born. King Herod was a fearful man. He feared anyone who dared to threaten his authority. The wise men had told him that a child was born that would eventually rise to become king and threaten Herod’s rule. Out of fear, Herod killed all the newborn sons in his land. But not before the wise men warned Mary and Joseph to take Jesus and flee to Egypt. Herod’s reign was a time of great injustice and fear.
The time of American slavery was also a time of great injustice and fear for many people. Our African American brothers and sisters were treated like animals and kept poor and uneducated. Their white masters feared the slaves might threaten their rule so they gave them almost nothing; just basic food, clothing, and lodging. The masters exposed them to the wisdom of the Bible but wouldn’t bring them to church. To keep their hopes alive under such oppressive rule, the slaves created spiritual songs while working in the fields. They were seldom written down, simply passed along through the oral tradition. Some songs did manage to make it to print though. Our last hymn, “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” was one of those songs. No one knows the actual author, just another anonymous African American slave. The song imagines the wonder the shepherds felt when they saw the star that cold, winter night. Witnessing the sheer majesty of God’s glory, the shepherds were compelled to tell their story to others. An oppressed slave found joy in imagining the wonder the shepherds felt on that starry night.
Is there wonder and excitement in your heart this Christmas season? Have you welcomed Jesus into your heart? Jesus will lead you places that you never would have imagined. Jesus will give you an assurance that you would never have imagined could be had. Jesus will compel you to share what you’ve witnessed, much like the slaves behind our last hymn. Let us boldly sing out, “Go Tell It On the Mountain.”