Sunday, December 24, 2023
Psalm 89:1-4 & Luke 2:8-14
Rev. Kristine Aragon Bruce

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This week I’ve been bombarded with reminders of how God uses unexpected situations and people to help people understand God’s love for all of us. In my devotions, I was reminded about Tamar, who exposed an unjust system. I was reminded of Ruth who showed extreme loyalty to her mother-in-law at great expense to her own well-being. I was also reminded about Rahab, a Gentile, a non-Israelite, who showed greater faith than God’s own people. Then last week I met with the PW (Presbyterian Women) Bible Study leaders as we do each month to go over their monthly Bible Study discussion. This may be a spoiler alert, but January’s lesson is about the 10 lepers who Jesus heals, but only one of them comes back to thank Jesus. This individual was a Samaritan, a group of people that Israel looked down upon, yet here is another instance of God using the most unlikely of people and unexpected situations to convey the love and grace of Jesus Christ. 

As we bring to a close our Advent Sermon series “Songs of the Season,” we also see how God uses unlikely situations to convey God’s love for us. Our carol for today is my favorite Christmas carol: “Hark the Herald Angels sing.” The story of how this carol was arranged to the tune and lyrics that we know today had a lot of unexpected twists and turns. 

For instance, the tune of this hymn was meant for completely different lyrics. The music to which this beloved carol is set was written one hundred years after the lyrics were written. 

The music was written by Felix Mendelssohn, but it was written in celebration for the 400-year anniversary of the Gutenberg press. The Gutenberg press brought the light of knowledge to all of humanity by making the printed word more easily accessible to the common person. It’s very exuberant and patriotic for the German people.  While Mendelssohn was a convert to Christianity, it wasn’t his intention for his music to be set to sacred lyrics, or that this particular tune would have anything to do with Jesus. How interesting, however, that the original tune was set to lyrics that praised Gutenburg for bringing the light of knowledge to the common people, but now we know the tune as set to lyrics about Jesus, the light of the world

It wasn’t until 1855 that Mendelssohn’s tune was used for the lyrics of “Hark the Angels Listen.”  Unfortunately, Mendelssohn never heard the final arrangement of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” as he passed away long before the final arrangement

Now on to the lyrics. The lyrics were written by Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church, and arguably one of the most prolific hymn writers in history. As Pastor Troy pointed out, yes we are talking about another English composer. He was inspired by the bells he heard on Christmas day while walking through the streets of London. Signifying the birth of Jesus Christ, it was as if the bells were crying out, “pay attention to what has happened! You can’t hear them, but the angels in heaven are rejoicing!”

The lyrics were also originally meant to be sung to the tune of another well-known hymn: “Jesus Christ is Risen today.” It works, but it’s jarring because it’s not the tune we are familiar with for this specific carol.

An argument can be made that Mendelssohn would not have wanted his music to be used for a carol meant to be sung by a congregation because it’s too complicated for the regular lay/non-musical person to sing. In regular congregational hymns the highest and lowest notes are only an octave apart. The music to which “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” includes complicated harmonies that are more than an octave apart. Mendelssohn’s tune therefore requires that you have to be in the correct singing position. This means sitting up straight at the edge of your seat with feet flat on the floor in order to use your diaphragm. Better yet you should be standing in order to reach those notes. This is good posture for any singer, but especially so for more complicated music. Such a posture shows you are ready and you’re paying attention.

Which goes along beautifully with the lyrics of this hymn. Sit up straight and pay attention! Hark! Or in other words: “Look what’s happening, pay attention or you’ll miss what God is doing in our midst!”

In our passage from Luke this morning, God uses unlikely people, the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus Christ. In Jesus’s day, shepherding was seen as lowly work that no one wanted to do. Shepherds were therefore looked down upon for their dirty profession. They were nomadic and slept outside with the sheep under their care. They seldom interacted with others because they were in rural areas with their flocks away from village and city centers. Let’s just say that any competent PR or marketing exec would not advise God to use shepherds as the first people to proclaim the birth of the son of God. Shepherds did not appeal to the masses. It would’ve been wiser for God to use more respectable and honorable people such as rabbis and temple priests, or better yet, a top Roman official to make the announcement. Such people of power bring power to the message.

But that’s not who God chose to joyfully announce the birth of Jesus Christ. In choosing the shepherds, God essentially chooses “nobodies” to announce to everybody that Christ our Savior is born. 

My prayer for us all is that we would always keep our singing positions for “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” What I mean by that is that we would always be paying full attention to how God is at work in and around us. How God continues to be at work in the most unlikely of people and situations to continually proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. 

I hope we see for ourselves that Jesus Christ continues to surprise and comfort us, by being present in the places and people we think God would want nothing to do with. Because we want nothing to do with them. How many of us parents would have chosen to give birth to our firstborn in a place where dirty animals also lived over a pristine and sanitary hospital bed? I wouldn’t!

But it’s exactly in the places and people that we see as beneath us or that we downright fear, where Jesus continues to be at work. May God give us eyes to see how Christ is present and in action in the mangers and shepherds of today.