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Christmas in the Carols: There’s A Song In The Air

Matthew 11 :2-6

For twenty-three years now, beginning in December of 1968, in every church I have served on the Sunday before Christmas, we have sung “There’s A Song In The Air!” Why? Well, because, in the first place, it’s my wife’s favorite Christmas carol and she has taught me to love it. But that’s not the only reason. While this carol is not so well-known and not so frequently-sung as other more familiar carols, it is deserving, I think, of wider notice and greater appreciation. It was written interestingly enough, by a medical doctor, whose name was Josiah Gilbert Holland. He gave his life out of love for Jesus Christ first as a healer in the pattern of the Great Physician, and then as a poet singing the songs of the Lord in magnificent ways. His carol, “There’s A Song In The Air!”, achieves in its poetry a level of perfection rare in the world of music. It carries the message of Christmas straight from the manger of Bethlehem right into our hearts and into our homes. It compares the firepower of the Christmas star to the powerful fire of love for Jesus Christ. It reminds me of the words spoken by the great French theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “Someday after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tide, and gravity, maybe then we shall harness for God our energies for love, and then for the second time in the history of the world, humankind will have discovered fire!” That’s the fire of which this great carol sings and that’s why we always sing it on the Sunday closest to Christmas.

In our world today, we talk a lot about firepower. We speak of military power and nuclear power and “smart bombs” and “throw-weights” and “megatonnage” and “strike force capability.” We are people who live in a time almost totally dedicated to the concept of power. We are obsessed with it. But in the midst of that powerful obsession with power, I want to ask you: What is the most powerful thing in the world? Is it force or military might? Is it political clout or oratory? Is it influence or money or position? How would you answer? What is the most powerful thing in the world?

Christmas says it is love. In our time we give so much energy and effort to chasing after the wrong kinds of power, and then along comes Christmas to alter our sense of reality and to call us back to the power of love. That’s what this colorful story in Matthew 11 is all about. John the Baptist has been preaching the future coming of God’s Kingdom on earth through his first cousin, Jesus of Nazareth. Then John the Baptist had verbally attacked and condemned King Herod for his evil ways. Herod sentenced him to death and threw him in prison. There in prison, John the Baptist began to get a little impatient with Cousin Jesus. So he sent some of his followers to ask Jesus this question: “Are You the One who is to come or shall we look for another?” In other words, John was asking: “If you have the power then when are you going to get this Kingdom going? When are you going to smash Herod and the Romans and seize the throne?”

But look at how Jesus answers, “Go and tell John what you hear and see. The blind receive their sight. The lame walk. Lepers are cleansed. The deaf hear. And the dead are raised up. And the poor have good news preached to them.” Jesus, you see, was declaring that He had chosen not the way of might or force or wrath, but the way of love, because He knew that love is the most powerful thing in the world.

Love is more powerful than fame.

The world tries to convince us that there is a lot of power in position and fame and prestige. But while there is some truth in that, the problem is that it is so fleeting. It doesn’t last. It fades and shrivels and dies.

Ask Muhammed Ali. At one time he was considered to be the most famous person in the world. His face has appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated more times than any other athlete. When he was “floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee”, he was the king of the sports world. Everywhere he went, he was trailed by an entourage of reporters, trainers, support people and fans. But that was yesterday. Where is Muhammed Ali today? Sportswriter Gary Smith went to find out. Ali escorted Smith to a barn next to his farmhouse. All over the floor and leaning against the walls were mementoes of Ali in his prime. Portraits of the champ—sculpted body, muscles rippling, fists flashing—once the picture of power. But now the pictures in the barn are covered with dust and cobwebs. Then according to Gary Smith, Ali did something significant. He walked over to the row of pictures and turned them one by one, toward the wall. He then mumbled something so softly that Smith had to ask him to repeat it. Ali did. “I had the world,” he said, “and it wasn’t nothing. Look now.”

That broke my heart when I read it. But, you know, Muhammed Ali was simply acknowledging what Christmas declares to be true: that love is more powerful than fame, that love is more important than fame, that love is more lasting than fame. Listen to the words of the carol:

There’s a tumult of joy
O’er the wonderful birth
For the Virgin’s sweet boy
Is the Lord of the earth!

He came as One unknown, born under circumstances of virtual anonymity, away from the glare of the public eye. But when He came, everything changed. We began to see that love, His kind of love, is more powerful than fame. It is the most powerful thing in the world.

And love is more powerful than force.

Let me come at the point like this. Suppose you have a child and your control over that child is based on force. If that is the case, then your control over that child will last only as long as that child is in your presence and under your thumb. Once the child is old enough to move away to a college dormitory or an apartment complex or just get big enough to say “No,” then you no longer have any control over that child. However, if your relationship is based on love, than that child can go off to college or out into the working world or get to weigh 240 pounds and your relationship will be the same as when the child was young.

Who are the people who have the greatest control over us and influence upon us? Not the ones who threaten us with force. In fact, most of us tend to do the opposite when people threaten us. The persons who have the most power over us are the ones who love us the most. Love is stronger than force.

Ask Napoleon. Early in his career, he said: “God is on the side of the ones who have the biggest guns.” But listen to the words he wrote in his diary much later in his life: “I know men, and I tell you that Jesus Christ is no mere man. Between Him and every other person in the world there is no basis of comparison. Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires! But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded His empire upon love. And at this hour millions upon millions of people would die for Him.”

Here is what is true: either you accept the kingdom as Jesus understood it or you don’t. You cannot serve two masters. It is all or nothing. Second place or half-hearted commitment is tantamount to nothing. To believe in Jesus is to believe that Jesus is divine, that He is the Son of God. So if you want to do right and to be right and to stand for what is right and to come out on the side of right, remember Jesus! If you want to know the greatest power the world has ever seen, remember Jesus! Empires will rise and fall. Military establishments will conquer and be conquered. Leaders will come and go. But God’s truth will keep marching on, because love is more powerful than force. The carol says:

In the light of that star
Lie the ages imperiled;
And that song from afar
Has swept over the world.

He came bringing the word of God’s love. You cannot stop God’s word. It will not be silenced. You can’t kill God’s truth. It resurrects. You can’t destroy God’s righteousness. Ultimately it wins. Love, Christ’s kind of love, is more powerful than force. It is the most powerful thing in all the world.

And love is more powerful than finances.

We tend to believe that if we have enough money we can do anything. Money is power, or so we think.

Ask that man in the hospital emergency room. It happened several years ago. A young man in my church had been involved in an automobile accident and was critically injured. He was still alive but just barely. I met his father in the emergency room waiting area. The man was one of the wealthiest and most powerful people in town. I was standing there beside him when the doctor came out and told him that his son probably would not make it. The man grabbed the doctor’s surgical gown and said: “Doctor, I have enough money to do whatever is necessary—to bring the best doctors or surgeons here to treat my son. Whatever it takes, and whatever it costs, save my son.” But even as he spoke the words, I could see the expression on his face change as he realized that there are some things you can’t buy no matter how much money you have.

Some years ago, the renowned author, Rudyard Kipling, spoke to the graduating class at the University of Toronto. He advised the graduates not to value too highly the prizes of fame, power, and wealth which this world has to offer, because, he said, “someday you will meet someone who cares for none of these things and then if that is all you possess, you will discover just how poor you really are.”

Jesus said: “Go and tell John what you see and hear: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear and the dead are raised up and the poor have good news preached to them.” That’s the good news of Christmas. Jesus Christ has come to us in the power of love. He came to live in love that we might live meaningfully, and He came to die in love that we might live eternally. That is why:

We rejoice in the light
And we echo the song
That comes down through the night
From the heavenly throng.

Love is more powerful than wealth. Love is the most powerful thing in the world.

Well…

It has all the ingredients that make for a great story. It’s emotional. It’s dramatic. It delivers a potent message. It’s a story that will break your heart. It’s a story you may have heard. There’s only one problem. It’s true but it is not accurate.

It happened in 1936. John Thorton operated a drawbridge across a mighty river. With a control panel of switches and levers, he set in motion a monstrous set of gears that either lifted the bridge for river traffic or lowered it for on-coming trains to cross. One day he took his young son to work with him. The fascinated boy peppered his dad with questions about the bridge. It wasn’t until the span had opened to allow the passage of a ship that the father noticed that the questions had stopped and his son had left the operator’s booth. He looked out of the window and saw that the boy had climbed down onto the huge teeth of the gears, exploring. Then John Thornton heard the whistle of an approaching train. His pulse quickened and his heart plunged. If he lowered the bridge there would be no time to retrieve his son. If he left the bridge up the train could not stop in time and would crash. Either his son would be killed or a trainload of innocent passengers would be killed. A horrible dilemma mandated a horrible decision. John Thornton knew what he had to do. He reached for the lever to lower the bridge.

The story is true, but it is not accurate. You see, some have said that that story is an illustration of why Christ came into the world. Well, it’s true that God could not save us without killing His Son. It’s true that the heart of God the Father did twist in grief as He slammed the gears of death down on Jesus. But what is not accurate is this: the cross was no accident. God deliberately sent His Son into the world to die for us. Don’t you remember? “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” That is the single most powerful truth in all the world. That’s why we sing:

We shout to the lovely evangel they bring

And we greet in His cradle our Savior and King!

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