PREACHING WITH THE CAROLS
Singing Christmas carols is itself a form of proclamation, as many of us know from walking around our neighborhood caroling with friends or choir members or a youth group. But it’s more than only the music or the words or the good feelings. Think of the passage from Eph 5:15–20. Following the soaring sentences of the first half of Ephesians, in which God is said to have revealed the whole mystery of the divine will in Jesus Christ, the one who unites all things in heaven and earth, the passage reads, “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise” (or, as the Phillips translation puts it so well: not as those “who do not know the meaning and purpose of life but as those who do”). “Making the most of the time” (buying it back, redeeming this moment), “because the days are evil.” Don’t get drunk with spirits, but instead be intoxicated with the Spirit of God, “as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts.”
The days are evil, no less so for us than for the early Christians. What are we to do? The author offers the seemingly absurd suggestion that we should sing! The days are evil; temptation is everywhere. So: full speed ahead with a song! When the effort of life is overwhelming, yet the purpose of life is clear because it lies outside ourselves in the One who destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ (Eph 1:5), what else is there to do but sing?4
Erik Routley insists that genuine carols are world affirming; they are neither a Puritan denial of the goodness of life nor a Romantic escape into some nostalgic past.5 Instead, they bring the truth of the gospel directly into our evil days so that we may make the most of this time. Almost as a sacrament, the profound but simple words are added to the joyful and singable melody and the carol becomes a vehicle of Christ’s presence for those who sing and those who hear. They bring Christ’s light into our darkness.
Whatever we may have been feeling, the words with their joyful melody draw us outside of ourselves to the Lord. They can burst into our private prisons, when words alone or prayers or sermons may leave us unmoved. And then their truth dawns, particularly when the days are evil–as we hear in the words attributed to the German pastor Martin Niemöller from his Nazi prison cell: “In the old days, I used to be a bearer of the gospel; now the gospel is bearing me.”
No wonder that at crucial places the Bible is full of songs: the song of Moses after crossing the sea; the song of Simeon after finally seeing the babe who would be the Messiah; the song of Mary when it was announced that she would give birth tothe savior of the world. Carols echo these songs’ hope of justice and righteousness, of a leveling of wealth and power, and an end to oppression. In our carols today, we too magnify the Lord and our spirits rejoice in God our savior. Let us make the most of the time (redeeming it, buying it back, setting it free) as we sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all our hearts. This passage from Ephesians may not fit well with Christmas Day itself, but it fits extremely well with the longer Christmas season of December 15–30.
FINDING JOHN THE BAPTIST
“I saw John the Baptist once.” Those were the first words of my mid-December sermon on John 1:6–8 to a startled congregation. The previous Christmas my wife and I and our dog had gone out for an evening drive shortly before Christmas. We had clipped a newspaper column describing the best displays of Christmas lights on homes in the whole metropolitan area. Following its directions, we drove for over three hours in lightly falling snow through dozens of neighborhoods, oohing and aahing over light displays of everything from manger scenes–complete with moving shepherds and wisemen, to Christmas trees and camels, Rudolph and the Virgin Mary, Santa Claus and all the reindeer spread across the roof of rambler homes, and choirs of angels broadcasting Christmas music. At times inspiring, often excessive, frequently corny, full of nostalgia but also of hope, the displays left us pretty much overwhelmed by the time we turned toward home.
We stopped to look at the newspaper list one last time and discovered we had missed one–the home with the most lights of all. Since it was only a mile away we decided we’d better see it. As we got close to the street, traffic was backed up for some distance, and although it was now past 10:00 P.M., at the far end of that street the light was so bright it looked like high noon. Slowly we made our way toward our goal, frequently having to stop as the cars ahead of us took in all the splendor. Finally, we were just one house away, stopped in front of a quite small home next door to the massive display. The small house was dark except for a single string of perhaps thirty lights, hung in the shape of an arrow pointing toward the extravaganza next door. We laughed and laughed, and then I thought of John the Baptist, who “came to witness to the light, so that all might believe….He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light” (John 1:7–8). The ironic simplicity of that arrow on the small house, and its slightly mocking tone, reminded me of the difference between the true light and the many bright lights that blind us to Christ’s coming. It seemed almost as if God had sent us to that one last display and also had sent that ironic witness.
Often in a city it’s very difficult to see the stars at all because of all the artificial lights. Yet even in a darker area, where we may see thousands of stars, we may not be able to find a particular star or constellation. We need assistance or a guide of some sort to see it. One of our callings as followers of Christ is to point to him who is the light: to do it in our families and our circle of friends, among our fellow church members, and especially for those who cannot find it. Someone–or, more likely, many people–did that for each of us. It may have been as unexpected or even preposterous as was that ancient figure John the Baptist or that little house with those modest lights, but God in Christ works that way still. Or, as the apostle Paul put it: “God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation [of salvation through Christ crucified] to save those who believe.”
Our proclamation at Christmas may fail if it is too familiar. Sinners have highly developed defenses against truly good be like God’s–wiser than human wisdom, or at least different from it.
Used with permission: Word & World, Volume 27/4 (Fall 2007) 438-441.
4For a fuller treatment of the role of singing for Christians, see my article “Rollicking Advice for Evil Days: A Biblical Rationale for Christian Singing,” Word & World 12/3 (1992) 236–242.
5Erik Routley, The English Carol (New York: Oxford, 1958).