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Christmas in the Carols: What Child Is This?

Luke 1:26-38

Christmas always has been, is now, and always will be for ordinary people. Christmas is for you and for me. Christmas always has been, is now, and always will be for ordinary people. Christmas is for you and for me.

When you stop to examine the Christmas story, what strikes home to you is its ordinariness. Christmas came to a little out-of-the-way, backwater town called Bethlehem so that we might know that there is no place on earth unknown to God. Christmas came in the middle of the night to remind us that there is no moment of the day or night when God is absent from us. Christmas came to an ordinary young peasant girl named Mary to convince us that every person, no matter who they are or appear to be, is priceless to God. Christmas came in a helpless child lying “in such mean estate” in order that we might never forget that all of life is in God’s hands. Christmas is for ordinary people. That’s why Christmas stakes such an absolute claim upon our ordinary lives and transforms us into the vessels and the vehicles of God’s amazing grace in Jesus Christ.

William Chatterton Dix is all the proof we need. He was an insurance salesman in Glasgow, Scotland. He was doing well. He was making a good living. He was looking forward to all the things that money could buy. Life was going his way, or so he thought. Then at age 29, he was stricken with a sudden serious illness! He was confined to bed for an extended period of time and he suffered deep depression. Then Christmas came and plunged him deeper yet into that depression. It was then that he cried out to God, and, as he put it, “met God in a new and real way in the Christ of Christmas.” Out of that transforming encounter with God’s grace, William Chatterton Dix was ordinary no more. He was transformed by God’s grace from an insurance salesman into a prolific and gifted hymn writer. Many of his words we sing in the church to this very day. But the words of his I love the best are found in a carol he wrote just after his transforming encounter with Jesus Christ: “What child is this who, laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping?”

Of course, it is a question asked through the ages: “What Child is This?” This One who stands as the help of the helpless began His life as a helpless child in a manger and ended His life as a helpless victim on a cross. The One who called Himself, “The Bread of Life” began His ministry hungering, and this One who called Himself “living water” ended His ministry thirsty. He was weary, yet He is our rest. He prayed, yet He hears and answers our prayers. He was sold for 30 pieces of silver, yet with His blood He purchased salvation for us all. He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, yet He is the Good Shepherd who never stops looking for His lost sheep. He died a brutal, agonizing death, yet by His dying, He destroyed death for you and for me. Little wonder that William Chatterton Dix, having encountered God’s grace in the ordinariness of Christmas, could be moved to write: “This, this, is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing! Haste, haste to bring Him laud, the Babe the Son of Mary!” The words of the carol affirm that the extraordinary grace of God invaded our very ordinary human lives in Jesus Christ.

And, it all began with Mary. We see how it happened in Luke 1 where there is recorded for us a wonderful conversation between Mary and the angel Gabriel.

The conversation shows us, first of all, the shock of God’s grace.

The angel Gabriel refers to Mary as one who has been “favored” by God. In Luke 1:28, he says, “Hail, O favored one”; and in verse 30, he says, “You have found favor with God.” The word we translate “favor” is better translated “grace.” The angel was actually saying to Mary: “Hail, O one who has been chosen by God’s grace…God is going to lavish His amazing grace upon you.” The angel went on to say: “You will have a Son and He will be great. He will be called the Son of the Most High. He will be given the throne of David and He will rule over Israel. And of His Kingdom there will be no end.” What an astonishing promise to be given to one so ordinary andinsignificant in life! It is quite clear from the passage that Mary was shocked by what she heard. She didn’t understand it all but she understood enough to know that her life would never be the same again.

Not long ago, I was dipping into a book about the Russian czars written by Robert Massie. He told of Czar Alexis who lost his wife and his two children to tragic illness and death. The czar’s grief was a double grief, not only had he lost his family, but he had lost an heir to the throne. Now the chief counselor to Czar Alexis was a man who was also serving as guardian for a young woman nineteen years of age. She was poor. She was uneducated. She had no dowry, no prominent family, no social entree. As Czar Alexis would visit the house of his chief counselor to discuss the affairs of the Russian empire, he would notice this young woman and inquire as to how she was doing. Then one day the czar said to his counselor: “I have someone for your young ward to marry.” Surprised by that, the chief counselor asked whom the czar had in mind. Alexis replied: “You may tell her that she will be my wife.” It was a statement with astonishing consequences for that young woman. She would be catapulted out of anonymity and insignificance into fame, prominence, opulence and affluence. That’s precisely what happened. Ultimately, she and the czar had a son who went on to become Peter the Great, perhaps Russia’s greatest monarch. That is something of what it must have been like for Mary when Gabriel told her that she would be exalted and that she would have a son who would be great.

Christmas, you see, is the declaration that little people count. Christmas is the reminder that nobodies can become somebodies. Christmas is the certainty that common people, touched by God’s grace in Jesus, are uncommonly blessed. Christmas is the proclamation that God wishes to use ordinary folks, like you and like me, to accomplish His will for the world. Christmas is the message that the King of the universe has entered your life and mine. That’s a shocking truth to grasp. You and I are children of the King, and we are destined for glory. Therefore, we must live out in our lives what we are. “Noblesse oblige.” Nobility obliges. The child of a king must not live like a peasant. Christmas means that ordinary people live extraordinary lives in Jesus Christ. Surely that is what the words of the carol mean: “This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing!”

Next, the conversation between Mary and Gabriel shows us the surprise of God’s grace.

Luke says frankly, that when Mary heard what the angel had to say “she was greatly troubled.” I believe that she was troubled because she had a sense that God’s grace usually works itself out in ways we never expect. So it was for Mary. The angel Gabriel had said that her Son would be called “the Son of the Most High”—but the day came when Mary heard Him called “the son of the devil.” Gabriel had said that He would be given the throne of David and rule over Israel—but the day came when Mary saw the placard “The King of the Jews” not fastened over a throne but a cross. Gabriel had declared that “of His kingdom there will be no end”—yet the day came when after just three years of existence, Mary saw His rule brought to an abrupt and catastrophic end.

Here’s a side of the Christmas story not often told. Those soft little hands, fashioned by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb, were made so that nails might be driven through them. Those chubby little baby feet, unable to stand and walk, would one day stand before Pontius Pilate and then walk up a dusty hill to be affixed to a cross. That sweet infant’s head, which on Mary’s lap is sleeping, would one day wear a bloody crown of thorns. That tender little body, lying “in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding,” would one day be ripped wide open by a spear! Jesus, you see, was born to die—to die for you and me.

In the Louvre in Paris, there is a marvelous painting by Georges de la Tour called “St. Joseph in the Carpenter Shop.” It shows a sturdy, rugged Joseph in his shop. There is only one other figure in the painting. It is the boy Jesus at age 10 or 11. Jesus holds a candle which is the only light. Jesus is watching attentively as Joseph takes hard, intractable material and shapes it. At first look, it seems to be a tender painting of an admiring boy watching his father at work. But you must take more than one look. For only then will you notice in the deep shadows at the bottom of the picture—you can barely see it in the deep amber tones—that what Joseph is building with his hands is a cross. Jesus, you see, was born to die.

Even the carol speaks of it. Believe it or not, we do not sing the carol the way it was written. When we sing it, at the end of each verse, we sing the words: “This This is Christ the King whom shepherds guard and angels sing! Haste, haste to bring Him laud, the Babe, the Son of Mary.” However, William Chatterton Dix wrote it differently. At the end of the second verse, we ought to sing: “Nails and spears shall pierce Him through; the cross be born for me, for you. Hail, hail, the Word made flesh, the Babe, the Son of Mary.” Jesus, you see, was born to die.

Now I’m not trying to upset your joyous mood at Christmas. It’s just that until you come to grips with the troubling fact that this sweet and tender birth ended in all the horrors of the cross, you haven’t dealt with what Christmas is all about. God’s grace always comes in surprising, even troubling ways—it comes through a cross. Jesus was born to die—to die for you and for me.

Then the conversation between Mary and Gabriel shows us the surrender to God’s grace.

How does Mary respond to this incredible proposition? The angel says to her: “Mary let God use you and empower you.” And she answers, “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord.” That’s the feminine word for “servant.” Mary says: “Behold, I am God’s servant girl. I am at His command. Let it be according to your word. Whatever God wants to do in me and through me, let it be, let it be.” The message is that God’s grace cannot be forced or faked—it cannot be bought or bargained. It is something to which we yield, to which we submit, to which we surrender. And when we surrender to it, it transforms us and the way we live.

A recent convert to Jesus was approached by an unbelieving friend who said: “Well, I understand that you have been converted to Jesus Christ.”

“Yes” came the answer.

“Then,” the unbeliever said, “you must know a lot about Him. Tell me what country was He born in?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? Well, how old was He when He died?”

“I don’t know.”

“How many sermons did He preach?”

“I don’t know.”

With an acid tongue, the unbeliever said: “You sure don’t know much for a man who claims to be converted to Christ.”

The recent convert thought for a moment and then he said: “You are right. I am ashamed at how little I know about Him. But I’ll tell you what I do know. I know that three years ago I was a drunkard and I was in debt and my family was falling to pieces and they dreaded the sight of me when I came home. And I know that now I have given up alcohol and we are out of debt and ours is a happy home and my children eagerly await my return each evening. All of that Christ has done for me. That’s what I know about Him.”

Frankly, my friends, that’s all he needed to know. You see, to know Jesus Christ is to be transformed by Jesus Christ. That’s what happens when we yield to Him, when we submit to Him, when we surrender to Him. How does the carol put it? “The King of kings salvation brings; let loving hearts enthrone Him.”


My sisters and brothers in Jesus Christ, if you have been struck by the grace of Christmas, if the Lord in His mercy has given you the courage to accept Him, if you are convicted that Christmas is the decisive breakthrough of the passionate love of God in Jesus Christ, if you trust that God is faithful to His promises, that He will finish what He began, that amazing grace is at work in your now, that you have only checked into the hotel of earth overnight and you are enroute to the heavenly City of God, then in the immortal words of John Powell, “Please notify your face!” Let God’s grace show in you and in your life. On the other hand, if you have not been struck by the grace of Christmas, ask for it and it will be given.

The great Arnold Palmer once played a series of exhibition golf matches in Saudi Arabia. The king was so impressed that he proposed to give Mr. Palmer a gift. The golfer demurred. “It’s not necessary, your Highness, I am honored to have been invited.” But the king was insistent. He said: “I will be upset if you do not allow me to give you a gift.” Finally Palmer gave in. He said: “Okay. How about a golf club? That would be a nice little memento of my visit to your country.” The next day, delivered to Arnold Palmer’s hotel room, was the title to a golf club—hundreds of acres, trees, lakes, clubhouse, the whole thing!

The moral of the story is the moral of Christmas: In the presence of the King, don’t ask for small gifts!

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