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Christmas in the Carols: The First Noel

Luke 2:1-7

Several years ago, my family and I were driving along the city streets one night looking at the Christmas lights and decorations on the houses. Suddenly we came to a house which had, standing in the front yard, an enormous, glittering, billboard-sized sign all bathed in floodlights. The words on the sign were formed by blinking, neon-bright lights. The sign read: “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” After my shock at the garishness of the sign subsided, I warmed up to the appropriateness of that sentiment for the Christmas season. Happy Birthday, Jesus! Imagine my delight then to discover that the literal meaning of the carol we know as “The First Nowell” is “Happy Birthday, Jesus!”

While no Christmas season would be complete without the melodious singing of this tuneful carol, virtually nothing is known of its origins. Who wrote it? When was it written? And what were the circumstances of its writing? All of those questions, so easily answered in the case of almost all of our Christmas carols must, in this instance, go unanswered. “The First Nowell” is a true “folk song,” arising out of the lives, hearts, and mouths of the common people. Folk songs, composed by ordinary people, always have certain characteristics in common. The language is simple, picturesque, and reflects the dialect of the people. They always tell a story, consequently they frequently comprise many stanzas. (“The First Nowell” actually has nine!) In addition, folk songs have refrains meant to be sung over and over again and thus memorized by the people. Such is the case with “The First Nowell.” The word “Noel” in French, and “Nowell” in English, literally means “birthday.” The repetition of the joyous “Nowell” in the refrain is the equivalent to our singing “Happy Birthday” to someone. “Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell! Born is the King of Israel.” That literally means: “Happy Birthday, Jesus!”

Of course, there is nothing lovelier than the story of how God’s Son was born as a baby in a little highland town, born in a cave-stable under a singing sky at the end of the way of a wandering star. That story is told in more homes to more children in more lands in more languages and in more ways than any other story ever told. It is an indescribably lovely story—far too lovely to be untrue. It is this event, the birthday of Jesus, that we celebrate at Christmas.

Please note, however, that this birthday is different from other ‘birthdays.’ We remember the birthdays of men like Washington and Lincoln because of the inspiration they have given us, but our observances of their birthdays serve only to recall their memories. They are dead; they are not with us any longer. It is different with Jesus. He is not dead. He is living still. Therefore, any celebration of His birthday must be like the celebration of the birthday of a member of the family. We should want to know what would please Him most. How best can we honor Him? What would Jesus want us to do on His birthday? I think the answer can be found in the story of His birthday as told in the Gospels.

We can wish Jesus a “Happy Birthday” by being compassionate.

In Luke 2:7 we read these words: “And Mary gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.” That’s all it says: “no room for them in the inn.” Yet have you ever stopped to think how out of those seven words, over the years, we have performed a harsh and sometimes hateful character assassination on an innkeeper, a person, a child of God we know nothing about. He has come to be pictured as an arrogant, hardhearted man shoving a helpless young couple out into the streets. Isn’t that amazing? He is never even mentioned in the Biblical accounts of the Christmas story, yet all of these negative, demeaning characteristics have been attached to him because of seven words in Luke’s Gospel: “no room for them in the inn.”

There’s a sermon in that. There’s a lesson we need to learn. It is dangerous and destructive to judge people and events when we don’t really know the situation or the circumstances or the facts. It is dangerous to let our imaginations and even our prejudices run wild. When we judge others without knowing the whole truth, we cause confusion and heartache.

Remember the time two fellows met on the street? One said to the other: “Hey, I know you. You’re the fellow from the state of Maine who made a million dollars growing potatoes.” The other man replied: “Yes, you’re right. Only it wasn’t Maine, it was Georgia. It wasn’t potatoes, it was cotton. And I didn’t make one million dollars; I lost one million dollars. Other than that, you got the right man!” That’s what happens when we get the facts confused.

Or I think of how the London Daily Telegraph, a few years ago, carried a letter sent by an eleven-year-old boy to his mother while he was on vacation in Switzerland. Here’s what he wrote to his mother back in England: “Dear Mom: Yesterday the instructor took eight of us to the slopes to teach us to ski. I was not very good at it, so, I broke a leg. Thank goodness it wasn’t mine! Love, Billy.” What in the world does that mean? Can you imagine what that mother’s imagination would have done in response to that information? That’s why it is so dangerous to judge when the facts are confused or before all the facts are known.

My friends, mark it down. One of the best ways for us to say “Happy Birthday Jesus” is to be compassionate toward other people, to never look down our noses at them, to never be judgmental toward them, to never be guilty of biased or prejudiced thinking, to never assassinate the character of others, especially when we don’t have all the facts and we don’t know the whole truth. Yes, we can best honor Jesus on His birthday by being compassionate.

And we can wish Jesus a “Happy Birthday” by being kind.

William Barclay suggests that the innkeeper may have been the only friend Mary and Joseph had that night in Bethlehem. Tradition suggests that he placed them in a cave near the inn to spend the night. If so, it was an act of great kindness. You see, hotels in those days were hardly five-star deluxe establishments. They were small, uncomfortable and lacked privacy. They were cold, smelly, noisy places. Hardly the kind of place for a baby to be born. But Bethlehem, built on limestone hills, had many caves in those hills. Some of them were used as stables. They were not particularly comfortable, but at least they afforded warmth, quiet, and privacy. In light of that, our attitude toward the innkeeper ought to be changed. We ought to see him, not as a man of contempt, but as a man of kindness. And, of course, kindness is the glue which holds us together in life.

Recently I came across an interview with Jimmy Stewart, the actor, about the filming of the movie classic “It’s A Wonderful Life.” They show that movie every year at Christmas. It was Jimmy Stewart’s first film after returning from 3 years in the Air Force in World War II. As most of you know, it is the story of George Bailey who is frustrated because he feels that he has never amounted to much in life. One Christmas Eve, he bottoms out and tries to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge. His guardian angel, Clarence, comes to save him, but Clarence the angel can’t swim so George has to save him. Then Clarence proceeds to show George what his community would be like without him. He helps George to see that his ordinary acts of kindness are more extraordinary than they appear. The film opened in 1946 and met with mixed reviews. However, over the years, it has become one of the most popular films ever made. Jimmy Stewart had this to say about the movie: “It seems to me that there is nothing phenomenal about the movie itself. It is simply about an ordinary man who discovers that living each ordinary day honorably, with faith in God and with kindness toward others can make for a truly wonderful life.”

Jesus knew that. That’s why He said: “Be kind to one another.” By the way, the Greek word for “kind” is “chrestos.” That’s just one letter away from “Christos” which means “Christ.” I submit to you that performing an act of kindness is one of the most Christ-like things we can do in life. And, after all, isn’t it a contradiction in terms to carry home a bundle of Christmas presents in your arms and a bundle of bitterness in your heart? Isn’t there something wrong with putting colorful lights in your windows if you are unwilling to speak to the person who lives across the street? So how can we best honor Him whose birthday we celebrate at Christmas? You know. You know what He said: “Be kind to one another.”

Then we can wish Jesus a “Happy Birthday” by being committed.

Let me lay it out for you as clearly as I know how. The coming of Jesus Christ into this world was, is, and always will be the single most momentous event in the history of the world. It became the focal point of all time. Everything before Christ looked forward to His birth; everything since looks back at Him. He made an impact on the world which had never been and never will be equaled. He never wrote a book. He never held political power. He was not wealthy or particularly influential in His lifetime. Yet He altered the human experience completely. He has been opposed, fought, hated, censored, banned, and criticized in every generation since His birth. Yet His influence continues unabated so that not a day passes but that lives are revolutionized by His teachings.

Some say He was just a good teacher, but good teachers don’t claim to be God. Some say He is was merely a good example, but good examples don’t mingle with prostitutes and sinners. Some say He was a lunatic, but those who are deranged don’t speak the way He spoke. Some say He was a crazed fanatic, but crazed fanatics don’t draw children to themselves nor do they attract people of great intellect like Paul or Luke to be their followers. Some say He was a religious charlatan, but phonies don’t rise from the dead. Some say He was only a phantom or a figment of some overheated imagination, but phantoms don’t bleed when spears are thrust into their sides. Some say He was just a myth, but myths don’t set the calendar for history.

He never enjoyed a Christmas, yet if He had not lived there would never have been a Christmas for you and me. He never had a business, yet the businesses of this world boom in celebration of His birth. He rarely, if ever, received any gifts, yet in honor of His birth multiple millions of gifts are given, and the most profound generosity of the human spirit is unleashed at the mere mention of His name. He never went to school, yet in His name schools and colleges and universities have been built all over the world. He did not leave a single written line, and all that He spoke could be printed on one page of the morning paper, yet He has shed more light on things human and divine than anyone who has ever lived.

He knew nothing of architecture, but look about you—all that you see is built to His glory. He never owned any of this world’s goods, yet today literally billions of people own Him as Lord. Every other person who walked this world of ours has exhibited obvious faults, but the one who put Jesus to death said: “I find no fault in Him.” He lived but 33 years from Bethlehem to Calvary, but the story of that life has been translated into every language on the face of the earth and if we were ever to follow His teachings, then injustice, poverty, and fear would be banished from the earth forever, and war would be no more.

You see in Jesus Christ, God has given the greatest Christmas gift of all time: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes on Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” How can we respond to that? How can we best say “Happy Birthday Jesus”? How can we honor Him on the occasion of His birth?

What can I give Him, Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring Him a lamb.
If I were a wise man
I would do my part.
But what can I give Him?
I give Him my heart.

Happy Birthday Jesus!

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