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Christmas in the Carols: It Came Upon A Midnight Clear

Matthew 11:1-6

Here’s a true story.

It happened in southern California. A twelve-year-old boy had been brought to the hospital. He had been thrown from a horse and was so traumatized by the experience that he had become a victim of what doctors call “emotional paralysis.” He was paralyzed in a prison of fear. His eyes were open, but he stared straight ahead. He would not move or speak, nor did he seem to have recognition of anyone else. The doctors determined that physically he was banged up, but there was nothing wrong to that extent. Apparently he had simply been frightened into a psychosomatic paralysis. Week after week he lay in bed in that vegetative state, totally unresponsive to anyone or anything.

Finally, one day in a moment of inspiration, one of the nurses brought in a baby, a happy six-month-old baby. She placed the baby on the stomach of that twelve-year-old boy. The baby crawled up and began to touch the little boy’s face, cooing all the while. Suddenly the little boy smiled, then he raised his arms, patted the baby and even kissed the baby on the top of the head. Amazingly, the boy had come back to life. He began to speak and respond and recognize. Within just a few days, the doctors declared him fully healed, and they let him go home.

Now that true story underscores for us the incredible message of Christmas. A little baby comes to set us free. A little baby comes to heal us, to save us, to give us new life. A little baby comes to do for us what no one else can do. Of course, the little baby became a man and the man became our Saviour, Jesus Christ. But how does He save us? How does He set us free?

That was the issue in the exchange between Jesus and His cousin, John the Baptist, which is recorded for us in Matthew 11. John the Baptist, having been imprisoned by King Herod, began to get a bit impatient with Jesus. John was convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, but John didn’t think Jesus was acting like the Messiah ought to act. So he sent a message to Jesus. It said: “Look! Are you the one who is to come or shall we look for another?” In other words, John was saying: “Jesus, what are you waiting for? You have the power. When are you going to rally the people and march on Rome? When are you going to get this kingdom going?”

But look at the way Jesus answers. He says: “Go tell John what you hear and see. The blind receive their sight. The lame walk. The lepers are cleansed. The deaf hear. The dead are raised up. The poor have good news preached to them.” Now what did Jesus mean by that? He meant that He had chosen not the way of might or power or wrath, but the way of love. He had chosen to bring in His kingdom of love because He knew that love is the most powerful and the most lasting thing in the world.

That’s still the good news of Christmas—that the love of the Christ-child is strong enough to set us free from the things that shackle us and paralyze us and rob us of the zest of life. The love of the Christ-child is still strong enough to make this world a haven of peace and love.

Edmund Sears captured that truth so beautifully in the carol we sing at Christmas, “It Came Upon The Midnight Clear.” The carol declares that the song of peace which the angels sang in the midnight clarity of the first Christmas is repeated again and again at Christmas time to remind us that although this seems to be a “weary world” with its “sad and lowly plains” and “Babel sounds”, still the love of Jesus Christ can set us free to build a better world. Let’s permit the words of the carol to help us to play out the theme…

First of all, the love of the Christ-child can set us free from selfishness.

The third stanza of the carol contains these words:

And ye beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow,
Look now! For glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing,
O rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.

The words call us to remember that in a world where people are burdened-down and broken-down and knocked-down and pushed-down and let-down, we need to claim again the lifting power of the love of Jesus Christ. He said: “A new commandment I give to you that you love one another even as I have loved you.” In effect, the message of Christmas is that we don’t have to be shackled and paralyzed by selfishness anymore.

Not so long ago now, an article appeared in the Columbus Ohio Dispatch that makes the point dramatically. It shows graphically what love, real love, is all about. The article said: “When Frank Segher pushed himself into an upright position in the hospital bed, the heart monitor’s lines disintegrated into an erratic scribble. His wife, Mary, returned to the room and drew a chair to his bedside. ‘I’m thirsty’, Frank said. Mary pulled his oxygen tube aside and put the straw to his lips. The medicine was making him nauseated. She fetched the basin, wrapped a firm arm around his spasm-wracked shoulders and mopped the sweat from his forehead.” Then the article went on to say that in the end, love is not some Clark Gable appraisal of Vivien Leigh or some sex symbol’s seductive pose, but “Let me help you sit up.” In the end love is not a smoldering glance across the dance floor, the clink of crystal, or a leisurely picnic spread upon summer’s clover. No, it is instead a squeeze of the hand and a gentle hug. It is the whispered words: “I’m here and I’ll be here no matter how long the struggle. I’m with you. Don’t forget that. Water? You need water? Here, drink. Let me straighten your pillow…”

It’s so easy for us to think of love as something sweet and beautiful and sentimental—and sometimes, of course, it is. But more often than not, the kind of love Jesus calls us to is tough and tenacious. It calls us to lift the crushing loads of others even when it is not pretty to do so. My friends, the Christ-child came into the world to set us free from the shackling sin of selfishness. He came to show us the meaning of real love—sacrificial, self-giving love. He showed us in the manger—He showed us in His healing touch—He showed us on the cross that love is the way God meant for life to be lived. It’s the way God means for you and for me to live.

Next, the love of the Christ-child can set us free from hate.

The next stanza of Edmund Sears’ carol is never sung, perhaps because the message of the stanza is so hard-hitting. Listen to the words:

Yet with woes of sin and strife the world hath suffered long,
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled, two thousand years of wrong
And man at war with man, hears not the love song which they bring,
O hush the noise ye men of strife and hear the angels sing.

I know of nothing more dangerous and destructive to our spiritual lives than hate. Hate can literally poison your soul.

Those of us over 40 grew up with the comedy team of Abbott and Costello. One night years ago on their radio show, Lou Costello was wearing a beautiful flower in his lapel. People kept complimenting him on his lapel flower, much to his delight. However, a neighbor named Scott came along, admired the flower, and then suddenly, without warning, he pulled Costello’s flower out of his lapel and put it on himself and walked away whistling. Well, that made Costello so mad. As the program unfolded, Costello got madder and madder at Scott for taking his flower. Finally, Lou Costello said to his partner Bud Abbot: “I’m ready for Scott now. Just let him try to take my flower out of my lapel now and see what he gets!” Bud Abbot asked: “What have you done, Lou?” Costello replied: “I have a hand grenade in my pocket and I have tied my lapel flower to the pin of that hand grenade. When Scott takes my flower this time, it’s gonna blow his hand clean off. That’ll teach him.”

Of course, what Lou Costello didn’t realize was that at the same time it would blow his heart right out! That’s the way hate works. When we lash out at others in hatred, we blow our own hearts out. Jesus knew that. That’s why he exposed hatred as a terrible and destructive enemy of real life. There is no question about it. Hate is a terrible prison to live in, but this Good News of Christmas is that Jesus Christ can set us free. Love came down at Christmas to hush the noise of strife and hatred, to bring good will toward all people, and to set us free from hatred.

Then, the love of the Christ-child can set us free from indifference.

We sing these words in the carol:

For lo, the days are hastening on, by prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendor fling,
And the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing.

Jesus gave us a foretaste of that glorious “age of gold” when He said: “Go tell John what you hear and see. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised up and the poor have good news preached to them.” Jesus Christ came to show us how concerned God is, how much God cares, and how deeply God loves. Therefore, we cannot look at the problems in other people’s lives and at the problems in our world and say “I don’t care.” If God cares, so must we.

I saw something the other day that fascinated me. I was driving down Delaney Avenue on the way to the church. On the sidewalk, up ahead of me, was a young woman out for her morning walk. Suddenly, a huge dog came rushing from behind a house. The dog was barking and snarling. The dog charged right toward the young woman. Now what do you think she did? Run away? Freeze? Scream for help? No, none of these. Rather, she ran straight at the dog. She challenged him. She stared him down. She turned him back. She ran him off. Then she continued her morning walk.

Now what was it that made her so courageous? I’ll tell you. It was love! Love! You see, she was not alone that morning. Her baby was with her. She was pushing her baby in a stroller. And when the snarling dog started toward them, she did what any mother would do. She positioned herself between the dog and the baby. She was more concerned about her baby’s safety than her own safety! Her love set her free to care, to be concerned, to be courageous. That’s the love of a mother. But let me say that it is also the love of a Christian. We are called by the message of Christmas to have that same courageous, caring concern for all of God’s children in this world.

Well, I started out with one true story: Let me finish with another…

One Christmas, a woman stood in line at the post office with a huge package in her arms. It was just a couple of days before December 25 and she wanted to make sure that the package got to her father in Arizona in time. When she stepped up to the counter she asked the clerk when the package might arrive. He said: “I don’t know, maybe the 26th or the 27th. I just can’t say.” The woman pleaded: “But it’s got to get there by Christmas. Can’t I pay extra and get it there on time?” The postal clerk said: “Yes, but it will cost you a bundle.” He put the package on the scales. He said: “Yes, it’s a bundle all right. It’ll cost you $45.38.” The woman said: “That’s fine, so long as it gets there by the 25th. You see, that’s my Dad’s birthday and this package is for him.” The clerk said: “His birthday is on December 25th? You’ve got to be kidding.” The woman said: “No, I’m not kidding.” The clerk shook his head and said: “What a bummer! I’m sure glad I don’t know anyone born on Christmas.” From somewhere back in the line, a voice spoke up and said: “Thank God, I do!”

That’s the way I feel today, don’t you? I’m glad I know someone who was born on Christmas—not just any someone, but a very special Someone. Yes, I’m so glad that I know the One who was born on Christmas, born to set His people free.

Do you know Him?

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