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The first Christmas carols– of Mary, Zechariah, the angels and Simeon

MaryElizabeth

Article copyright by Bob Rogers.

    Singing Christmas carols goes all the way back to the first Christmas, because Luke’s Gospel records four different songs as he gives the Christmas story. Let’s look at the lessons we get from these original Christmas carols.

Mary’s song says that Christ came to love the forgotten  (Luke 1:46-55)

   When Mary was told that she would be the mother of the Messiah, she broke out into a song of praise, found in Luke 1:46-55. It is often called “The Magnificat” because she began, “My soul magnifies the Lord…”

   The song emphasizes how God has remembered the forgotten and lifts up the lowly. In verse 48-49 she sings with amazement that God chose her, a simple girl from Nazareth: “He has looked with favor on the humble condition of His slave. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” And notice what she sings in verse 52: “He has toppled the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly.”

   Mary’s song reminds us that in Christ, God remembers the forgotten. Mary was a poor girl, and Jesus was born in a feeding trough. The song should remind us to stop and give a donation to the Salvation Army when we go shopping, to help Toys for Tots, and share with Operation Christmas Child and Backpacks for Appalachia. The Christmas child shoe boxes and backpacks are a wonderful way to share Jesus with the poor at Christmas.

Zechariah’s song says that Christ came to save us (Luke 1:67-79)

Not only was Jesus’ birth a miracle, but the birth of John the Baptist, who was the forerunner of Christ, was also a miracle, because his parents were way too old to be having children. Yet an angel appeared to Zechariah to tell him that his wife Elizabeth would have a child in her old age. When John the Baptist was born to them, Zechariah broke out into a song of praise. It is found in Luke 1:67-79.

Zechariah’s song emphasizes that Christ came to save us. Luke 1:68-69 says, “Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, because He has visited and provided redemption for His people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David.” In the Bible, a horn was a symbol of strength. The Messiah was to come from the family line of King David. So Zechariah was singing about the same thing his son would prophesy when John the Baptist saw Jesus, and John proclaimed, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

   Zechariah’s song reminds us that Christ came to save us from sin.

The angel’s song says that Christ came to give us peace (Luke 2:13-14)

   When the angel announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, he was suddenly surrounded by a great angel choir that sang the best-known of the songs that first Christmas. We read it in Luke 2:13-14. It is called “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” because it begins with the words, “Glory to God in the highest.”

   The angel’s song spoke about Christ, the Prince of Peace, coming to bring us peace. Most of us know this song from the King James Version, which says, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, Good will towards men.” Many of us react to that like the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote the words to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” during the Civil War. He wrote,

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

   The good news is that the most reliable ancient manuscripts do not say what the KJV says. That is why the HCSB translates it, “peace on earth to people He favors!” You see, Jesus’ coming is not a general guarantee that everybody will have peace. The more accurate translation does not say peace to all men, but peace to people He favors. That is, peace is available to those who receive God’s grace, or favor, through faith in Christ. As Romans 5:1 says, “Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” On Christmas Eve, 1914, during World War I, the British, French and German armies laid down their arms and visited with one another in peace, and they all sang “Silent Night” in their own languages, as they all knew the song. The message about the Prince of Peace made all the difference, even in the midst of war.

   Have you found the peace of Christ? The angel’s song reminds us that Christ came to give us peace, a peace we receive by faith in Him.

Simeon’s song says that to keep Christmas with us, we must share it (Luke 2:29-32)

   There is one more Christmas song in Luke’s Gospel. Officially, it was after Christmas, since it happened a few days later. A lot of people get the post-Christmas blues after Christmas is over. They get kind of sad, taking down the Christmas tree and putting away the decorations. And we rarely sing Christmas carols after Christmas Day. But Simeon did.

   A few days after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to Jerusalem to dedicate Him to the Lord in the temple. There they met a prophet named Simeon, who had been waiting all of his life for the Messiah to come and save His people. Luke 2:26 says it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he saw the Messiah. When he saw Jesus with Mary and Joseph, Simeon took Him in his arms and sang the fourth Christmas carol. In that song, Simeon reminded us that to keep Christmas with us, we must share it. We read the song in Luke 2:29-32.

   Simeon sang, “For my eyes have seen Your salvation. You have prepared it in the presence of all peoples—a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory to Your people Israel.”

   Simeon knew that the salvation that is offered in Jesus Christ was prepared for “all peoples,” both Gentiles and Jews, and he wanted everybody to know that the baby Jesus that he was holding in his arms was the Savior.

   Simeon’s song reminds us, to keep Christmas all year long, keep on sharing the good news.

 Christmas carols that celebrate Jesus may not be in the top 20, but people still recognize the songs and enjoy hearing them this season of the year, which is all the more reason for us to play carols in our homes and cars and places we work. It’s a simple way to share the good news.

    And how we need to renew the tradition of going Christmas caroling! I have a suspicion that if Zechariah and Simeon and Mary were with us today, they would be going door-to-door caroling, with some shepherds right behind them and angels overhead.

   Years ago, a small group of carolers went door-to-door in a wealthy neighborhood of Beverly Hills, California. They rang a doorbell, and the man of the house answered, all in a hurry. He said, “Look, I appreciate the sentiment, but I really don’t have time for this. The house is a mess and we’re trying to get out the door to go shopping. Come by some other day.” As he shut the door, Bing Crosby and his family said, “Okay,” and left.

    God sent His Son at Christmas. Don’t be so busy you miss the song.

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Book review: “Touching Heaven: Real Stories of Children, Life and Eternity”

TouchingHeaven

Touching Heaven: Real Stories of Children, Life, and Eternity by Leanne Hadley is an inspiring collection of true stories by a United Methodist minister, primarily telling the stories of dying children she met as a young chaplain in a children’s hospital. Her stories of faith are deeply moving. She opens with her own story of faith as a preacher’s daughter, and how she began to doubt her faith. Then she tells a dozen stories of the faith of children who faced their own death, and the death of her own mother. This short book concludes with a summary of lessons learned that ties together the stories well, and shows how the faith of those to whom she ministered erased her own doubts. Some of the stories of children’s faith and encounters with angelic visions are amazing, and even startling, yet there is little reason to think that she is embellishing them.
This book is encouraging to anybody facing a terminal illness, especially the terminal illness of a child. It is also a great resource for those who do hospital ministry, as Hadley models good practices, and is honestly self-effacing about her feelings of inadequacy at times to do this ministry.
I could hardly put the book down, it was so engaging. I highly recommend it.

How to hear angel prayers

Copyright 2012 by Bob Rogers

“The Spirit then lifted me up, and I heard a great rumbling sound behind me– praise the glory of the LORD in His place!– with the sound of the living creatures’ wings brushing against each other…” – Ezekiel 3:12-13, HCSB

Ezekiel heard the prayers of angels. How did this happen? How can we experience such things?
1) Be in the Spirit. Ezekiel 3:12 says, “The Spirit then lifted me up.” John the Revelator also heard angels in Revelation 15:3 and 16:5, and he also was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (Revelation 1:10). How can we be “in the Spirit”? First, we have to be believers in Jesus Christ. Only a believer can be in the Spirit: “But the unbeliever does not welcome what comes from God’s spirit, because it is foolishness to him; he is not able to understand it since it is evaluated spiritually” (1 Corinthians 2:14, HCSB). Second, the believer must be “filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18), which comes by filling our minds with the Word of God and filling our hearts with prayer.
2) Pay attention. Ezekiel 3:12 says, “I heard a rumbling sound.” He paid attention to what he was hearing. The shepherds on the hillside near Bethlehem paid attention when the angel of the Lord appeared to them (Luke 2:8-15). Interestingly, the shepherds heard of prayer of “Glory to God in the highest heaven” (Luke 2:13), just as Ezekiel heard “praise the glory of the LORD in His place” (Ezekiel 3:12). Too often we fail to hear because we fail to listen.
3) Be willing to obey. Ezekiel felt the bitterness of God’s anger at sin (Ezekiel 3:14), and he sat stunned for seven days (Ezekiel 3:15). It was only after he had that desire to obey that he received a word from the Lord in Ezekiel 3:16-17. Paul experienced what may have been angel prayers when he was caught up into paradise and “heard inexpressible words” (2 Corinthians 12:4). And just as Ezekiel, Paul was also willing to obey God when God would not remove the thorn from his flesh, but said His grace is sufficient. Pauls’ response was to accept God’s grace, “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
And maybe, just maybe, when we are listening that closely to God, we might even hear the prayers of angels!