OPEN: I love singing Christmas carols… so I’d like you to join me in singing this one. It’s called “O Holy Night” and it goes like this:
“O holy night, the stars are brightly shining. It is the night of our dear Savior's birth. Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till He appeared and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new glorious morn. Fall on your knees - O hear the angel voices! O night divine. O night when Christ was born. O night divine – O night, O night divine.”
I love that song. It’s been performed by such singers as Nat King Cole, Mahalia Jackson, Mariah Carey, Bing Crosby, Martina McBride, Mercy Me, Carrie Underwood and Josh Groban.
I love singing that song, but its not an easy one to sing. If you don’t start out low enough, it can get hard to hit that high note sometimes. But when you get all the notes just right…it can send chills up and down your back.
Now, there were 2 things that caught my attention about this song and the 1st is this: This carol was inspired by the story of the shepherds out in the field. For example, the carol declares “O holy night the stars are brightly shining, it is the NIGHT of our dear Savior’s birth.” And Luke says “… there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by NIGHT.” Luke 2:8
And then the song declares “O hear the ANGEL VOICES”, and Luke tells us “suddenly there was with the angel A MULTITUDE OF THE HEAVENLY HOST praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!" Luke 2:13-14
So that’s the first thing that caught my attention the song was inspired shepherds and the angels in the field. But then there was this phrase in the song that stood out to me: “A Thrill of HOPE” (it’s where I got the idea for the sermon title). And the more I thought about it, the more I realized… they got that dead-on! HOPE is the message of the Christmas story. And if you take Christ out of Christmas, you’ve pretty much take the HOPE out of the season.
ILLUS: About 15 years ago, one of the Elementary Schools in Dodgeville, WI, decided to change their Christmas program to a "winter program." In other words, this wasn’t going to be about Christmas, and Jesus wasn’t going to be invited to the party. The put on a play called “Cold in the Night” and changed the words of the song “Silent Night” to “Cold In The Night.” Part of the lyrics went like this: “How I WISH I were happy and warm, safe with my family out of the storm." (AFA 12/09/05)
Now, does that sound like a cheerful song to you? Me neither. But that’s what happens when you take Jesus away. The world often becomes harsher… darker… lonelier. And that’s what the song “O Holy Night” was trying to describe: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining.”
So that sets the plate for us. The world – without Jesus – is a world filled with sin and error. A world that can often be harsh and lonely. A world without HOPE! But the question is: What did the baby Jesus bring that the world hadn’t had before? What is it about this birth of Jesus that brought hope into our lives.
Well, the first thing I saw here was this: this baby was a gift FROM God. Jesus wasn’t some mere mortal born by chance in an obscure town called Bethlehem. God had planned this whole thing out to smallest detail, and this child was a declaration that God cared for you and me. This was God’s gift to us.
ILLUS: Years ago, a teacher in England helped her students build manger scene in a corner of her classroom. There was a model barn with the floor covered with real straw and the clay figures of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the animals and so on -- all facing a little crib with a tiny doll representing the baby Jesus. One boy absolutely enthralled with the scene. He kept returning to it, and each time he wore puzzled expression on his face. The teacher finally asked him, "Is something bothering you Johnny? Is there something I can explain to you?" With his eyes still glued to the manger scene, the boy said slowly, "What I'd like to know is, where does God fit in?"
Now why was that boy so confused? He was confused because all he saw was a BARN, filled with a bunch of working-class shepherds, a humble man and woman… and they’re all looking down on a baby in a feeding trough. And he’s asking himself: Where is God in all that? He’s just NOT Seeing It.
(PAUSE) But the shepherds saw it! We’re told “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!" Luke 2:11-14
There was an entire host of angels filling the sky with a light and sound show such as you and I have never seen in our entire lives. The manger scene may have been quiet and peaceful, but out in the fields God was setting off fireworks… declaring to the shepherds: “this is how much I love you! I loved YOU so much that I have given you my only begotten Son…” God was there, because this child in the manger was to be called “God with us” – IMMANUEL! This was where God “fit in.” And this is why the birth of Jesus was the foundation of our hope.
But God didn’t just stop by making a statement… He made a promise: “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior.” A SAVIOR? What is He saving us from? He’s saving us from ourselves. Joseph was told that when Mary gave birth Joseph was to name Him… “Jesus, for he will save his people FROM THEIR SINS” (Matthew 1:21). Later, in Acts 3:26 tells us that God sent His son… “to bless you by turning every one of you FROM YOUR WICKEDNESS.”
We are our own worst enemies! Years ago there was a popular cartoon called “Pogo” where the title character famously declared “We have met the enemy… and he is us.” We are own worst enemies. We DO things and THINK things and SAY things that damage us and rob us of the blessings God wants to give us in our lives. We allow ourselves to be controlled by bitterness and selfishness and sinful behavior that bring us nothing but frustration, shame, guilt and self-loathing.
That’s what “O holy night” was saying: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining… till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.” Jesus came to be our savior… to save us from our sins and errors. To forgive us our failures, and to help us to change how we think and how we act. That’s the promise… and that our HOPE.
And that brings us to our last point: The angels declared that God was going to give “… peace among those with whom He is pleased!" Oh???? Who is He pleased with?
Well, in helps to realize WHO the angels appeared to. Did you realize that ONLY people who got special invitation were the shepherds? Not Kings, not Princes, not Religious Leaders or men of Prominence. Not even Caesar Augustus – who set this whole thing in motion! THOSE would have been worthy people to attend birth of Christ.
But Shepherds? (PAUSE) Not so much. Shepherds were just common laborers. They were not important people. They impressed no one. All they did was take care of flocks of sheep, and they tended to SMELL … like sheep.
ILLUS: One person noted: the scent of a sheep is an odorous blend of wool, dirt, grass and excrement. Sheep wool that is wet smells like…well … wet wool. A sheep's breath just stinks to high heaven. Sheep don't smell good. (http://grahamjbaird.blogspot.com/2015/03/the-smell-of-sheep.html)
So, shepherds would smell like sheep. They’d have been the last folks I’d invite to a birthday party, and yet these were the ONLY people God invited. WHY? Because God doesn’t think like we think. The world may be impressed by important people, but God isn’t.
Just as an example, I want you to sing another Christmas song with me. We’re probably going to be the only church in town to sing this during worship… but that’s OK. It’s my sermon, and I want to sing it this morning.
Sing it with me: “Santa Claus is coming to town.”
“You better watch out, you better not cry. You better not pout, I'm telling you why, Santa Claus is coming to town. He's making a list, he's checking it twice, he's going to find out who's naughty and nice, Santa Claus is coming to town. He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake. He knows when you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake. Oh, you better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I'm telling you why, Santa Claus is coming to town.”
Now what is that song saying? It’s saying if you’ve been good, THEN you’ll be rewarded. If you’re not good… too bad! Only the righteous deserve a gift. And every world religion – except Christianity – preaches that type message: If you DESERVE God’s love, then He might give you His blessings.
But everything about Jesus - His birth, life, death and resurrection - defy that concept. Jesus didn’t come to show God’s love to those who “DESERVED it. He came to show God’s love to people no one else wanted to have around. And that’s the difference between the message of this world and the message of God. The world’s message: “Santa is coming. Be good!” God’s message: “Christ has come. Be free!”
It doesn’t matter WHO you are, WHAT you have, WHERE you’ve been, or WHAT you’ve done. God can and will accept you and love you and show you His blessings.
Someone put it this way: “The moment Mary touched God’s face is the moment God made his case: there is no place he will not go. If he is willing to be born in a barnyard, then expect him to be at work anywhere—bars, bedrooms, boardrooms, and brothels. No place is too common. No person is too hardened. No distance is too far. There is no person he cannot reach. There is no limit to his love. When Christ was born, so was our hope.”
CLOSE: I want to close with this observation by Max Lucado:
“The announcement went first to the shepherds. The angels didn't ask God if he was sure he knew what he was doing. Had the angel gone to the theologians, they would have first consulted their commentaries. Had he gone to the elite, they would have looked around to see if anyone was watching. Had he gone to the successful, they would have first looked at their calendars. So he went to the shepherds. Men who didn't have a reputation to protect or an ax to grind or a ladder to climb. Men who didn't know enough to tell God that angels don't sing to sheep and that messiahs aren't found wrapped in rags… and sleeping in a feed trough.
“A small cathedral outside Bethlehem marks the possible birthplace of Jesus. Behind a high altar in the church is a cave, a little cavern lit by silver lamps. You can enter the main building and admire the ancient church. You can also enter the quiet cave where a star is embedded in the floor and recognizes the birth of the King. There is one stipulation, however. You have to stoop. The door is so low you can't go in standing up. The same is true of the Christ. You can see the WORLD while standing tall, but to witness the Savior, you have to get on your knees. So, while the theologians were sleeping and the elite were dreaming and the successful were snoring, the meek were kneeling. They were kneeling before the One that only the meek will see. They were kneeling in front of Jesus.” (Max Lucado, “In The Manger”).
And that’s what the song “O Holy Night” is telling us – “Fall On Your Knees – Hear The Angel Voices.” Humility is the only way we’ll get to see Jesus.