This morning's sermon relies heavily on the connections between the scriptures we read and the hymns we sang. I always post the links to the scriptures so that you can read along with the one that I read and you can read what was read by the lay reader. I don't generally include the hymns, but sometimes I put together a spotify playlist of the hymns for me to listen to throughout the week as I prepare for worship. I think it's important to include that this week, and perhaps I'll start including it more often. As you'll hear in the sermon, I believe the choice of music in the service is very important and helps to bring together the service and etch it on our hearts. There are multiple versions of each of the hymns on this playlist. I like to reflect on each hymn in different ways, so I always include several versions. I may start posting the accompanying hymn playlist each week or at least frequently so that you can listen to it before or after the sermon and ask God to continue to speak through it throughout the week.
And here is the sermon:
I can’t believe that we are already at the last Sunday of Advent this year. In a few days, we’ll gather together again on the holiest of nights and celebrate the day that God burst into time and space to be with us. Not some abstract spiritual “with us,” but physically with us. Emmanuel – God with us. Come, come Emmanuel.
There are distinct themes woven throughout the church year, and during Advent, we’ve talked about waiting, we’ve talked about God’s desire for peace and justice. We have prepared our hearts for the arrival of the Messiah, the Great Light in a dark world. I don’t know about you, but I’m excited that our season of waiting is nearly over! I love candlelight, but isn’t the light of the Son even better?!
The themes are all through the scripture passages we read, through the prayers we pray, and the songs we sing and today is the day that they all start to come together to herald the coming of Christ.
Sometimes we can get used to the way church services are structured and we forget that every piece has meaning and value. Style of music has historically been one of the most hotly argued pieces of church services – going back hundreds of years at least, but most churches agree that music in general is important in church.
Traditionally, songs were incorporated into worship services primarily because they are a format that is easy for the human brain to remember. Even as far back as Jewish temple worship in Israel, chanting and singing was important because it sounds nice, but it also helps us to remember things better. I’ll bet half or more of you could recite or sing the first verse of at least one hymn right now off the top of your head. The rhythm and notes stick the words in our head better than just spoken words.
Many old hymns make use of pub music. There are tunes that we today consider holy and church-like that were originally sung in bars. Some hymns share tunes with others, some have “old Irish folk melody” or something like that written below them in the hymnal. Some are from slave songs, some are melodies from classical music. Hymns are traditionally theology set to popular music – music the people know. Music is a way of centering our hearts and our minds on the worship service.
There is a reason Christmas music is such a big deal. It’s an important time of year for us and we use music as a way to communicate to others and to remind ourselves what it’s all about. Even most non-religious Christmas songs have nostalgic themes and ideas in them about home and family, love and warmth, the way things were and the way things should be.
When we sing in church, especially during important times in the church calendar like Advent, Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, we are telling our story – listen closely to the words. We’re reminding ourselves and those around us of what we believe, of what the meaning of this season is, of the great things that God has done for us and the bright future we have in Jesus.
The first hymn we sang this morning talks about God breaking forth into human history as Jesus Christ. God chose to be in saving relationship with human kind before anything was even created. “Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be.” Before this universe was even in existence, God loved us; God wanted to be a part of our history before there was even such a thing as history. This isn’t just something God decided to do one day because people had made such a mess of things. God always has wanted to be with us in a tangible way. Jesus was begotten of God’s love before the first person was even made. There is no beginning and no end to this love other than God who is without beginning and end.
The first theological, musical declaration we made this morning together is that God is for us. Before anything else, God chose to be with us in Jesus Christ. That little baby in a manger who we celebrate this week is God saying, “I love you. I’ve got this.” It’s humbling, because:
“He is Alpha and Omega, He the source the ending he, of the things that are that have been and that future years shall see, Evermore and evermore.”
In the children’s sermon this morning, the candles represented us. We can shine a dim light in a dark world. But God? God is the source of everything – including any light that we shine - from the beginning of time as we know it to the very end. God breaking into the world is like the lights coming on at full wattage! King David, Jesus’ mother Mary, us. . . we are candles at best.
When the angel in Luke 1 tells young Mary that she is the one who will bear the Messiah, she’s understandably “troubled at his words.” Mary knows that she is but a candle and God is the overwhelming, overshadowing, blinding, dazzling, King of all Creation. When David tries to jump God’s plans by building the temple he wasn’t told to build, God says to David, “I picked you up from the pasture and made you a king! Remember your place.”
We sing this morning that in all the ages, God is and always shall be the light in the darkness, the loving creator and the sovereign of all.
What do we do when we are approached by our Sovereign God? How do we respond to an encounter like this with the Holy One of all the ages? Mary’s response, after her initial fear of having been confronted by the Holy is to say, “I am the Lord’s servant.” The second song we’re singing this morning is a reflection on Mary’s response to God’s call. It’s called “The Canticle of the Turning,” which is a very formal sounding name for a song. A canticle is simply a song or hymn that is based directly from Scripture and this one is based on the later part of Luke 1, after Mary meets with Elizabeth. Mary is expressing joy and humility over having been chosen for God’s task at this time when the world is ready to change. It’s a canticle about a time when the earth is turning or changing and in it, we see the important Advent themes of expectation and waiting, of the coming greatness of the Messiah, and of the comfort, reconciliation and justice that come in Jesus Christ. We also continue the idea that God’s light always overshadows any light that we can possibly shine.
“My soul cries out with a joyful shout that the God of my heart is great, and my spirit sings of the wondrous things that you bring to the ones who wait. You fixed your sight on your servant’s plight, and my weakness you did not spurn. So from east to west shall my name be blessed. Could the world be about to turn? My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.”
David too finds himself at a time of turning. After reminding David that he’s but a candle, God goes on to tell David that he is special – he is chosen for an important task. He softens the tone and reminds David that he has been made great and that there is something special about his house, his lineage. In the Gospels, we see Jesus’ human family tree traced back to David, the son of Jesse. That lineage is often referred to as “The tree of Jesse” or as a type of vine.
I’d always thought “Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming” was a strange non-sensical Christmas song until I made a connection with the key line “Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.” Jesus is the flower of the vine – he is the fulfillment of God establishing Kingdom. He is the foretold Messiah.
“This flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air, Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere. True man, yet very God, from sin and death he saves us and lightens every load.”
We can be candles like David and Mary. Our place in the story might not seem so exotic or exciting or adventurous. I doubt any of us in this room today will ever be a king and I’m sure none of us will every give birth to Jesus. But every one of us has a place in the work of God. We need to be in all corners of the community because Jesus is in all corners. His fragrance fills the air, he dispels not just some of the darkness or darkness in certain places, but everywhere!Like David and Mary before us, let us approach God’s throne with gladness, with awe and reverence as we prepare for the blinding light of Jesus breaking into the world.