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Christmas In The Carols: I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day

Luke 2:25-40

I read for you now from the Gospel according to Luke. An incident which occurred just days after Christmas. The second chapter of Luke, beginning to read at the 25th verse. This is the Word of God. “Now, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And, inspired by that spirit, he came into the temple. And when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law, Simeon took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, ‘Lord, now lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word. For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples. A light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to Thy people Israel.’ And Jesus’ father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary his mother, ‘Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against. And a sword will pierce through your own soul also, that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.’” Soli Deo Gloria. To God alone be the Glory.

Let us pray. Now, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

The days after Christmas in the year 1863 were anything but a time of peace and goodwill. The Civil War was raging across this land, consuming both its eastern and its western fronts. Just a few months earlier, in the killing field known as Gettysburg, 150,000 men had fought with shot and shell, with cutlass and cannon, for three long days. When, at last, the firing had stopped and the acrid smoke had cleared, this nation was confronted with the unspeakable horror of nearly 50,000 casualties. The blood continued to flow from our national hemorrhage all the way through Christmas Day.

Little wonder, then, that in those days after Christmas, the waning days of 1863, the great port Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was moved to sit down and, as he put it, “I bowed my head in despair.” And then, from his stricken soul, he extracted these words. “There is no peace on Earth, I said. For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace, goodwill toward men.” Those words became a part of what stands as, perhaps, our most unusual Christmas carol of them all, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Interestingly enough, the carol makes no mention of the birth of Jesus. It does not refer to Mary or Joseph or the manger or Bethlehem. To the star, or the shepherds or the wise men or the Heavenly hosts of angels. The sole message of the carol is the peace and goodwill of which the angels had sung.

Not only that, but the carol is intensely personal. Longfellow speaks in the first person singular, I. And the verb tense of the carol is the immediate present, right now. In essence, Longfellow is decreeing that the message the angels sang must be lived by each one of us in the here and now. You see, it is the prerogative and the privilege of poets to sometimes be prophets as well. Such was the case with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Even in the midst of a sin-sick and war-torn land, he continued to hold fast to the hope which was born on that first Christmas in Bethlehem. And therefore, no matter what was happening in the world around him, he could still, in those days after Christmas, reach down into the deep reservoirs of faith within him and cry out for all of us, “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, in peace and goodwill to men.”

In other words, the message of the carol is that no matter what is happening in the world around us, Christmas reminds us that this is still God’s world. God is still in charge. He still rules. He still governs. He still commands. He still controls. And the ringing bells of Christmas reassure us of that great hope.

I find it absolutely fascinating to realize that Longfellow’s song and the circumstances under which he wrote it are almost identical to another song, the Song of Simeon, and the circumstances under which it was first sung. The Song of Simeon is recorded for us in Luke chapter 2. I’d like for us to focus our attention upon it, remembering as we do, Longfellow’s carol. For I think that here in this great passage of scripture, we see the singer, we see the song, and, best of all, we see the Savior.

We do, indeed, here in Luke 2, see the singer.

I find it to be quite fascinating that the Bible always manages to capture the character of an individual life in just the briefest of phrases. Usually, just a handful of words or less. For example, in the Bible, we are told of Enoch in the Old Testament, that he walked with God. That’s all the Bible says about Enoch, but when you stop to think about it, it doesn’t need to say any more than that. The Bible tells us that Job was upright. That’s all it says, but that is enough. The Bible describes Abraham with this phrase, “He believed God.” Or, what about the woman whom Jesus healed? Do you remember her, and do you remember that the Bible then describes her life from that point on with these three words, “She loved much.” Isn’t it wonderful how the Bible is able, in just a few words, to sum up the entire character of a person’s life?

That’s exactly the way it was with Simeon. The Bible captures who Simeon was in just three words, “Righteous and devout.” Understand, please, that literally speaking, what those three words mean is this: Simeon belonged to God and he let that show in the way he lived. He was righteous and devout. He belonged to God and he let that show in the way he lived. That is borne out in the experience recorded for us here in Luke 2. For when you begin to understand that Simeon was driven by a great hope, which God had given to him, that he would not die until he had seen the world’s Savior, you begin, then, to appreciate how hard it was for Simeon to maintain that hope across all the years of his life. You see, if you ever take down the history book of that time from the top shelf of the library and blow the dust off of it, you will begin to understand that Simeon lived in a time when his nation was being ripped apart by civil war. The temple fought the palace, and the palace fought the temple, and the people fought each other. And the Romans swept in and, with unspeakable brutality, they conquered the land. A once proud, independent nation was mired in humiliation. Temple priests were being assassinated. Worshippers were being slain as they knelt in prayer. Common people were being arrested on the streets for no good or just cause. Jerusalem, the beloved city, had been sacked, pillaged, and plundered. Simeon was living in the midst of that kind of time, and yet, through it all, he held fast to the hope that God was still in control of this world. That hope ultimately, near the end of Simeon’s life, at long last, was fulfilled. Simeon was righteous and devout. He belonged to the Lord and he let that show in the way he lived.

I’ve always enjoyed collecting the inscriptions on tombstones. Some of them are humorous. For example, I remember seeing the tombstone of a dentist. It read like this, “Here lies Dr. Emmett Williams, D.D.S., filling his last cavity.” Some are touching. Like the tombstone marking the burial place of one of our young soldier boys in the United States military cemetery just outside of Bonn, Germany. On the cross marking his burial spot, you find these words, “To the world he was but one. But to me, he was the world.” Some of them are inspiring. I think, for example, of the little cemetery in Zermatt, Switzerland, where those are buried who have died on the slopes of the Matterhorn. There is one grave there marking the burial spot of four Cambridge University students who died while climbing together on the Matterhorn. Their parents buried them there in the cemetery at Zermatt under a single stone, on which are inscribed these words, “They scorned the lesser peaks, and they died climbing.” Yet, you know, as I stop to think about what might one day be on my own tombstone, I don’t know that I would want anything more, or rather than, the remarkable words the scriptures apply to Simeon, “Righteous and devout. He belonged to the Lord, and he let it show in the way he lived.” Simeon, the singer, was righteous and devout.

But, now we look at Simeon’s song.

The song is a beautiful song and a powerful one. You see, when Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus into the temple to have the child blessed, as was the custom, they placed the child in Simeon’s arms. And in that moment, suddenly under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Simeon began to sing these words, “Lord, now lettest thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word. For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.” In other words, Simeon was saying, “Lord, at long last my hope has been fulfilled because You have come into the world in this child.” Incredible insight on the part of great Simeon. And yet, when you stop to think about it, of course God would come into the world in a child. I mean, that’s the way God always works, isn’t it? History proves the point.

Take, for example, the year 1809. It was, for all intents and purposes, a bleak and foreboding year. The world was in total chaos. Napoleon was marching from one bloody victory to another. Statesmen were frightened to the point of panic. Plague, poverty, and hunger ravaged huge segments of the world’s societies. There was a pall of hopelessness hanging like a heavy blanket over all of the people of the world. 1809 was a very dark year indeed. And yet, during that year, 1809, God was sending babies into the world as usual, yes. But, oh, what remarkable babies they were that year. In 1809, Cyrus McCormick was born on a farm in West Virginia. Later on, he would invent the harvester, which would enable the farmers of America’s Great Plains to begin feeding the hungry people of the world. In 1809, William Gladstone was born to Scottish parents. Later on, as the driving force behind the great British Empire, he would inject freedom and hope into the lives of millions upon millions of people in the world. In 1809, born that year, were Tennyson, Chopin, Mendelssohn. Later on, their poetry and their music would lift the spirits of the people of the world to new heights of joy. Perhaps, most important of all, in that same year, in a log cabin in Kentucky, there was born a child whose parents named him Abraham Lincoln. 1809 was a very dark year. But babies were being born in that year who ultimately would diminish the sense of the world’s hopelessness.
Do you understand that that is and always has been the way God works in this world? And that the greatest source of hope of them all was God himself entering into this world in the form of a little child named Jesus. That was the hope that captured Simeon and that was the hope that, ultimately, he found fulfilled. And that ought to be our hope as well.

Oh, I know, sometimes the message Jesus Christ proclaims seems to be drowned out by human greed and selfishness. I know sometimes the voice of the Master has seemingly been lost amidst the sound of exploding bombs and the crying of the dying and the wounded. But, the fact of the matter is, my beloved, no human greed, however pervasive, can ultimately strangle the Savior. No human prejudice, however deeply ingrained, can ever silence the Master. No matter what happens in the world around us, Jesus Christ still lives. Jesus Christ still walks the face of this Earth. Jesus Christ is still in control. And the great affirmations of the Christian faith are absolutely true. And the ringing bells of Christmas serve to reassure us of that hope.

So we have looked at the singer and we have looked at the song, but now, best of all, we look at the Savior.

Some years ago, the noted actress Julie Harris was performing in a play called Member of the Wedding. One of the other stars of that play was the great Black actress Ethel Waters. One night, Ethel Waters came backstage to find Julie Harris slumped over and weeping. “What’s the matter with you, child,” Ethel Waters said. “Why are you crying?” And Julie Harris answered, “Because I’m so full of fear and doubt and worry.” And Ethel Waters said, “Honey, the problem is you’re trying to go it alone in life. You need to know Jesus. You need to give Jesus all those worries and all those troubles and he’ll help you to carry them. You do know Jesus, don’t you? You do know Jesus, don’t you?” That’s the question I want to put to you today. You do know Jesus, don’t you?

Jesus, the Bible calls Him a Seven-Way King. He is the King of the Jews, that’s a racial king. He is the King of Israel, that’s a national king. He is the King of Righteousness, He is the King of the Ages, He is the King of Heaven, He is the King of Glory, He is the King of Kings. Do you know him?

No means of measure can define his limitless love. No human boundaries can hamper the delivery of his eternal blessings. No far-seeing telescope can bring into visibility the coastlines of His solar supply. Do you know Him?

He is enduringly strong. He is entirely sincere. He is eternally steadfast. He is immortally graceful. He is impartially merciful. He is imperially powerful. Do you know Him?

He is the greatest phenomenon to ever cross the horizons of this world. He is the centerpiece of all civilization. He is the highest ideal in literature. He is the dominant personality in philosophy. He is the soaring melody in all great music. He is the focal point of artistic creation. He is the foundation doctrine for all true theology. He is unparalleled. He is unprecedented. He is uncommon. He is unchangeable. He is undaunted. He is undefiled. Well, do you know Him?

He is accessible to the weak and the weary. He is available to the tried and the tempted. He is attainable to the deserted and the downtrodden. He strengthens and He saves. He sympathizes and He sustains. He guards and He guides. He heals the sick and He cleanses the lepers. He forgives the sinners and He discharges the debtors. He delivers the captors and He defends the feeble. He blesses the young and He regards the aged. He serves the unfortunate and He rewards the diligent. But I wonder, do you know Him?

He is the keystone of all knowledge. He is the pathway to all peace. He is the wellspring of all wisdom. He is the doorway to all deliverance. He is the roadway to all righteousness. He is the highway to all holiness. He is the gateway to all glory. But do you know Him?

His office is manifold. His promise is sure. His life is matchless. His goodness is limitless. His Word is enough. His grace is sufficient. His mercy is everlasting. His love never changes. His yoke is easy and His burden is light. Do you know Him?

He is indescribable and He is incomprehensible. He is invincible and He is irresistible. You can’t get Him out of your mind and you can’t get Him off of your hands. You can’t outlive Him and you can’t live without Him. The Pharisees couldn’t stand Him and Caiaphas couldn’t stop Him. And Pilot couldn’t condemn Him. And Herod couldn’t kill Him. And death couldn’t handle Him. And the grave couldn’t hold Him. But do you know Him?

He is the King of all Kings. And He is your king and He is mine. He is the Lord of all Lords. And He is your Lord. And he’s mine. But do you know Him?

My beloved, that is the only question that truly matters in life. Do you know Jesus? Your answer, please.

Let us pray. Almighty and most gracious God, Christmas is for naught if we do not know Jesus. Let us open our minds, our hearts, and our lives to Him right now. Amen.

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