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Christmas in the Carols: Silent Night, Holy Night

Matthew 2:7-14

Today I want to tell you the story of the best loved Christmas carol of them all, and of its sublime message and meaning. It is a story which will introduce to us seven people: a village priest, a substitute organist, an organ repairman, the Bishop of Florida, a forgotten king, a depressed author, and a folk hero. So sit back and relax while I spin for you a wonderful tale…Today I want to tell you the story of the best loved Christmas carol of them all, and of its sublime message and meaning. It is a story which will introduce to us seven people: a village priest, a substitute organist, an organ repairman, the Bishop of Florida, a forgotten king, a depressed author, and a folk hero. So sit back and relax while I spin for you a wonderful tale…

It all began in the little village of Oberndorf in Austria on Christmas Eve—1818. Father Joseph Mohr (Person #1), the priest in the St. Nicholas Church, learned the organ in the church was broken and it would not play. The music plan for the Christmas Eve service depended upon the organ for accompaniment. Father Mohr was distraught, and in his desperation, he fell upon the idea of writing a new song and using it instead of the music previously planned. Father Mohr sat down and in just a short while, dashed off some words. He then gave the words to his friend, Franz Gruber (Person #2), a school teacher who was serving as a substitute organist in the St. Nicholas Church, and he asked Gruber to compose a suitable tune. It was done by late afternoon Christmas Eve. That night in the service, Mohr sang the melody and Gruber sang the bass part as Gruber plucked out the notes on his guitar. The music made by the sound of the guitar and those two voices singing the matchless words had a powerful impact upon the people in that little village church.

There the story would have ended and there the carol would have remained had it not been for an organ repairman named Karl Mauracher (Person #3). When he came to fix the organ at the St. Nicholas Church, he heard about the Christmas Eve crisis and about the song Mohr and Gruber had sung. He asked for a copy. He was so captivated by the carol that in his subsequent travels to churches repairing organs, he shared the carol with others and the circle of its familiarity grew wider and wider.

Even then the carol probably would not have been known outside of Europe were it not for the Episcopal Bishop of Florida, John Freeman Young (Person #4). On a trip to Europe in 1863, he heard the carol, was overwhelmed by its simple beauty, and proceeded to translate the German words into English. He brought the carol to America in the form in which we sing it today. The exquisite beauty of the carol’s music is exceeded only by the extraordinary beauty of its message. The carol sings to us of worship, of oneness, and of wonder.

It sings to us of worship.

The focal point of our worship is that “holy infant, so tender and mild.” I love the cartoon “Family Circus.” In one of them the family is laying out the manger scene, and Dolly is holding up the little figure of the infant that is going to be placed in the manger. And she is exclaiming: “Here He is! The star! The Star of Bethlehem!” She’s right. He is the star. Not the star in the sky, but the star in the manger. He is the real star of Bethlehem. He is the One we are to worship and adore.

Let me tell you something. God doesn’t want your money—it is already His. He doesn’t want your talent—you got it from Him in the first place. He is not impressed with your Master Card. He isn’t impressed with your savings account. He is not impressed with your position. He is not even impressed with how many people are impressed with you. He only wants one thing. He wants your undying love.

That brings me to the forgotten king (Person #5). It’s the legend about the fourth king. You thought there were only three. In reality, we don’t know how many kings there were. We say that there were three, because there were three gifts, but we do not know. But there is a legend about a fourth king. He was on his way to join the other three in the middle eastern desert as they pursued the star in the sky, but then he happened to encounter a poor man who had been robbed. He gave aid to the man, but in so doing, he lost time. As a result, when he got to the desert the other three had gone. By the time he finally reached Bethlehem it was too late. The other three kings had returned home. Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus had gone. All he found in Bethlehem was turmoil because the soldiers of King Herod were slaughtering all the children under the age of two. He saw a soldier preparing to kill one of the children. He ran up to the soldier and he pulled out of his bag a ruby which he had brought to give to Jesus. He offered it to the soldier in exchange for this child’s life. The soldier took it and let the child live.

As the legend has it, this fourth king spent his entire life looking for Jesus. Three decades later, he was in Jerusalem and he heard that Jesus was there. His great desire in life was to bow down in worship before this One whom he had sought for so many years. But as he combed the streets of Jerusalem, he encountered another man who had been robbed and beaten. He stopped to care for him and to help him. Only later, too late, did he learn that Jesus had been crucified, was dead and buried. The legend is not true, but there’s truth in the legend. That’s the moral of the story that’s written at the bottom of the story and it’s this: that of all the kings who sought Jesus this is the one who saw Him most clearly and loved Him most dearly and followed Him most nearly because he served Jesus’ people most sincerely.

And that’s why I say the carol sings to us of oneness.

The “radiant beams” of “love’s pure light” in Jesus Christ brings “the dawn of redeeming grace.” In other words because of the love of Jesus Christ, we belong to each other. We are one in Him. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to share, to love, to reach out to each other. I love the Peanuts cartoon where Lucy comes up to Charlie Brown and says to him: “Since it’s Christmastime, Charlie Brown, I think we ought to bury past differences and try to be kind.” Charlie Brown replies: “Why does it just have to be Christmastime? Why can’t it be all yearlong?” Lucy looks at him and says: “What are you, some kind of fanatic?” There is a message there we need to heed. The message of Christmas is that we belong to each other and that should be operative all year long.

Let me tell you about a man who underscores that message. He is a despairing author (Person #6). He is 31 years of age. London, England. 1843. October 6, to be exact. He leave his row house and walks out onto the streets of London. His face wears the traces of a three-month depression. Writer’s block. He can’t think of anything to write. He has a family to support. He has written several books which had sold fairly well, but now the sales were slipping and his publishers were demanding something before Christmas, before the big season. Since July he had been trying to come up with something, all to no avail. On this day, October 6, 1843, he goes out for a walk hoping that he might see or hear something which will trigger an inspiration.

Walking near the Thames River he sees a twelve-year-old boy. At one time this had been an elegant part of the city. It is no longer. Beggars, streetwalkers, pickpockets and orphans are everywhere. The twelve-year-old boy is an orphan, face black with charcoal dust. The author looks at the boy, then pictures in his own mind another twelve-year-old boy, working in a dirty factory, 12 hours a day, six days a week, putting labels on jars of black boot paste. In the filthy rat-infested place, that boy’s childhood is slipping away while he earns a paltry six shillings a week.

What the author is envisioning is not out of his imagination—it’s out of his own history. He was the boy in the factory. Later on, he was able to leave that onerous job and go to school where he learned how to write, and could he ever write! But on this day, October 6, 1843, Charles Dickens hasn’t a word to pen until he sees that boy. The boy’s name is Tim. So he puts a crutch under Tiny Tim and begins to weave a story out of his own history of miserly people at Christmas, of honest workers, and of a victim who found joy in spite of it. The result was that Scrooge’s story was published and put on sale on December 24, 1843. It sold 6,000 copies the first day, a record for that time. Of course, the reason it sold so much is because it said so much. It said that the mastery and the mystery of Christmas is not in the gifts you give but in the person that you are.It says that the greatest gift you receive is not something under your tree, but someone under your arm, under your roof, under your care.

Let me tell you something: it’s not too late for you to love somebody this Christmas. It’s not too late for you to find the person whom everyone else has forgotten. It’s not too late to open your home and your heart and give the joy of Christmas.

And that’s why I think this carol sings of wonder.

The shepherds “quaked” in wonder at the glorious sights they saw and the glorious news they heard—the news that “Christ the Saviour is born.” But you know, it seems to me that in our time, the wonder of Christmas is too much focused on someone else. He is a folk hero (Person #7) and he is known all over the world. Some call him “Ho-tiosho”. Some call him “Pierre Noel”. Others call him “Kris Kringle.” Still others call him “Sinterklas.” You know him as “Santa Claus.”His real name was Nicholas. He was born in 280 A.D. in what is now Turkey. His parents died when he was nine. You probably thought he went to college and majored in toy manufacturing. Actually, he went to a Catholic seminary and studied Christian doctrine. You probably thought he was fat and chubby. Actually, he was slim and wiry. You probably thought he wore red. Actually, he wore black. You probably thought he was peaceful and sweet. Actually, he was put into jail twice by the Emperor Diocletian for getting into fights with people who were persecuting the church. He ultimately became the Bishop of Mira and stayed in the post until he died in 340 A.D.

So where did all of this start? I mean I can understand calling him “Saint Nicholas” but, what about the rest of it? Best we can figure, it started when Nicholas learned that his next-door neighbor who had three daughters, didn’t have enough money to put up for their dowry so they could get married. So one night, Nicholas secretly crawled up to the neighbor’s window and tossed some coins on the table. The next night he did the same thing for the second daughter. The third night, he secretly dropped in more coins for the third daughter. Well, you know how people tend to embellish a good story. Within a few years, it was said that Nicholas didn’t put the money on the table, rather he dropped it through a—fill in the blank—chimney! And the money wasn’t just a handful of coins, it was a large bag of cash. And it didn’t land on the floor. Guess where it landed? Well, the girls had hung up their stockings to dry and…you wondered where that came from, didn’t you?

By the year 1300, people started to draw pictures of this Saint Nicholas, still wearing black and still small and wiry. In 1830, he is seen in red for the first time. In 1866, he acquires boots and carries a basket of food under his arm. In the early 1900’s, he was still small, but now he had grown a beard. 1930 was the picture that set him up for good: he’s tall, robust, hefty, cherub-faced and drinking a Coca-Cola!

Now I’m not down on Santa Claus, but for all the effort we put into creating him, don’t you think we could have done a little better? I mean what does Santa do about your death for example? How does he handle your mistakes, your sins, your failures? And by the way, where is Santa in February or April or July? What’s my point? My point is that Christmas is actually about One infinitely greater than Santa Claus. The incredible story of Christmas is that God Almighty Himself came down from heaven in the form of an infant “sleeping in heavenly peace” in His mother’s arms. Sound incredible? Sure. But the very incredibility gives it its greatest credibility, because we could never think up something that crazy, could we? The wildness of the story is its greatest witness. Who would ever have imagined that God would do what He did?Let me tell you something. When it comes to cherubs and red-noses and toys, go to Santa Claus. He’ll take care of you. But when it comes to death, when it comes to guilt, when it comes to your purpose in life, when it comes to your eternal destiny, come to the manger. Come to Jesus Christ.

Well…

It was Christmas Eve two years ago. A minister-friend of mine was visiting the hospital. He went to see a man who had suffered a stroke. Both legs were paralyzed. One arm was limp. Most of his ability to speak was gone. As my minister-friend joined the family at the bedside, he was not quite certain how to communicate with this stricken man. Then he remembered something he had heard. He remembered that some stroke victims can sing even though they cannot talk. So suddenly on impulse—or better yet, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit—my friend began to sing: “Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm, all is bright.” Amazingly enough, the stricken man reached over with his good hand, took the minister’s hand and began to sing along. No stammering. No hesitation. No difficulty in forming the words: “Round yon Virgin Mother and Child, Holy Infant so tender and mild.” The family joined in “Sleep in heavenly peace; sleep in heavenly peace.” For a few minutes that hospital room became a Bethlehem. My friend said later: “There were angels in that room.”

I think that’s true wherever this carol is sung. For this carol, as no other, reminds us of God’s seeking, saving, redeeming love. This carol, as no other, reminds us that God gave His only Son for us. This carol, as no other, reminds us that God’s grace and salvation are ours through Jesus Christ. And believe me, that is worth singing about…

Isn’t it?

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