In Nomeni Iesu
Text: Luke 2:10b-11a
God’s Favorite Christmas Words
Christmas is a wonderful time for words. Words carry our holiday greetings; we say “merry Christmas, happy New Year” and reply “Same to you!” Words in holiday letters update our friends and relatives about family happenings. And of course we turn again to the words of Scripture to hear again the beautiful story of the first Christmas: “And it came to pass in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus…” Just hearing those words again warms our hearts, and takes many of us back to childhood when we memorized them and recited them in church at a children’s Christmas service. The heart of that story was the message of the angel to the shepherds out in the field. Those words, again, will be the Bible portion that we focus on this morning:
Luke 2: 10-11 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
We all enjoy the words surrounding Christmas, especially since so many of them appear in beautiful poetry and hymns and carols. I can’t help believing that just as we enjoy those poetic Christmas expressions, they must also be among God’s favorite words. Let’s use this sermon, on the first Sunday after Christmas, to recall some of them together, shall we?
First there is the proclamation: how God must have delighted in it, announcing that His plan from the beginning of the world, indeed, His plan from eternity, was finally coming to pass. The proclamation of the angel might well be God’s favorite Christmas words. That proclamation was celebrated in the traditional English carol, “The First Noel.” Nobody knows who wrote it – it emerged in the 17th century, more than 300 years ago. Nobody is even sure where the word “noel” came from. It was French, but might have come from “natalis” meaning birth, or from “novella” meaning new. But it’s plain that the word refers to the good news from the Angel that Jesus has come. Is anyone here old enough to remember a newspaper boy standing on a corner selling newspapers by shouting, “extra extra, read all about it!” Nobody does that any more, but that’s what this refrain sounds like: “news news news the King of Israel is born today!” “noel noel noel noel, born is the king of Israel!
The proclamation by the angel of Jesus’ birth might be God’s favorite Christmas words.
What about the names of Jesus? We give a lot of thought to naming our children, looking up lists of baby names in books, and considering names of parents and grandparents, and once we choose a name for our baby, we consider that name precious.
God must love the names he gave his son. They are all so meaningful. Of course, the Angel told Mary what to name him: Luke 1:31 “And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.” In Greek: Ye-sous – in Hebrew: Yeshua. It means “God Saves.”
But there are other names given him in Scripture. How many can you think of? A favorite of everyone must be “Immanuel.” The Old Testament prophet Isaiah first used it: (Isaiah 7:14) “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” That name is a combination of two Hebrew words: “immanu” which means “with us,” and “El” which is a word for “God.”
That name, and others, are celebrated in the hymn “O come O come Emmanuel.” Like the “Noel” hymn, nobody knows who wrote this hymn; it’s even older than “Noel” and comes from a Latin hymn sung in the 12th century. Each stanza in this hymn invokes a different name for Jesus. The first notes how much we need “God with us.” Ever since Adam and Eve sinned and were sent out of the Garden of Eden, exiled from Paradise, we all like them would have been separated from God, lost and alone in our sins. In our exile we need the ransom [“redemption”] Jesus came to provide:
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
The second stanza calls Jesus Wisdom. This is what we read about Jesus as he grew up: Luke 2:40 “And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.” Listen to how this Wisdom teaches us about the plan of God for us, how Jesus sets everything in order, and shows us how our faith in him is the path to heaven:
O come, Thou Wisdom from on high
And order all things, far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.
In stanza 3 Jesus is named the Desire of Nations. The Old Testament prophet Haggai used those words to describe Jesus: Hag. 2:7 “And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD of hosts.” And shouldn’t all nations desire what Jesus brings?
O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
The next stanza names Jesus a Dayspring, an old poetic word for “dawn,” the time when the “day springs up” in the morning. Before John the Baptizer was born, his father Zacharias could not speak for a while, but when his son was born and named “John,” he could speak again, and in his song of praise he said this: Luke 1. 78-79 …the dayspring from on high has visited us, To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death…” Imagine how dark, sad, and gloomy our lives would be if all we had to look forward to was death. So we sing to Jesus:
O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Then there is this name: Rod of Jesse. Jesse of course was the father of King David. Jesse is pictured as the tree trunk from which a firm branch would grow, a powerful stick or club of wood symbolizing great power. Isaiah said, Is. 11:1-2 “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD.” And so we sing, trusting in Jesus’ great strength for us:
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse’s stem;
From every foe deliver them
That trust thy mighty pow’r to save,
And give them vict’ry o’er the grave.
Finally there is the stanza about the Key of David. A key can unlock a door, and can lock it up again. Isaiah wrote this about God’s servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah: Is. 22:22 “And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” That same verse is quoted in Rev. 3.7, not about Eliakim but about Jesus, who unlocks for us the door to heaven:
O come, thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
The many names of Jesus must be some of God’s favorite Christmas words.
The setting of that first Christmas has also inspired so many beautiful descriptions of what was probably a very stressful scene. Mary was about to have a baby, and they couldn’t find a place to stay. How many places must they have asked before someone finally said they could go into the cattle stalls? All this is recorded by St. Luke with just these few simple words: “she laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
A woman named Cecil Frances Alexander wrote a series of hymns for children to illustrate various parts of the Apostles’ Creed. For example on the phrase “suffered under Pontius Pilate” she wrote “There is a Green Hill Far Away.” On the phrase “conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary,” she wrote the following:
Once in royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her baby in a manger for His bed.
Mary was that mother mild, Jesus Christ her little Child.
He came down to earth from heaven Who is God and Lord of all,
And his shelter was a stable, and His cradle was a stall.
With the poor, and mean, and lowly lived on earth, our Savior holy.
I don’t know if the manger was in a stable shed; more likely it was in a cave, since that is what the geology of Bethlehem was like. And while we in America celebrate Christmas in wintertime hoping for snow (a “white Christmas”), it’s pretty certain there wasn’t any snow at that first Christmas in Palestine. Still we love the words of the poet Christina Georgina Rossetti. She was born in 1830, educated at home, and though she wasn’t a hymn writer, she was a poet. While it wasn’t really cold winter where Jesus was born, we can consider the world into which he was born as cold, frozen and hard with sin. She wrote:
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain;
heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
but his mother only, in her maiden bliss,
worshiped the beloved with a kiss.
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him: give my heart.
And that’s how it is at Christmas: when the Holy Spirit brings into our hearts the news of a Savior, we are moved to give those hearts back to him.
Maybe words about the setting of Christmas are God’s favorite Christmas words.
A favorite theme of Christmas hymn writers has been the contrasts of the Incarnation, the almighty God taking on human flesh and becoming a tiny helpless baby. One of my favorites is a little known hymn by William Walsham How (died 1897). Notice the contrasts between the first half and second half of each stanza:
Who is this so weak and helpless,
Child of lowly Hebrew maid,
Rudely in a stable sheltered,
Coldly in a manger laid?
‘Tis the Lord of all creation,
Who this wondrous path hath trod;
He is God from everlasting,
And to everlasting God.
The next stanzas remind us that Christmas isn’t just about a cute little baby – although I am sure Jesus was a cute little baby. But remember what this baby came to do. He came to live a life of perfect obedience to God, something we couldn’t do so he did it in our place. And then he came to die, paying the penalty we owed God for our sins. That’s why, when God now looks at us, he sees us as Jesus made us: God sees us as sinless and holy as Jesus was. So we sing:
Who is this, a Man of Sorrows,
Walking sadly life’s hard way,
Homeless, weary, sighing, weeping
Over sin and Satan’s sway?
‘Tis our God, our glorious Savior,
Who above the starry sky
Now for us a place prepareth,
Where no tear can dim the eye.
Who is this? Behold Him shedding
Drops of blood upon the ground!
Who is this, despised, rejected,
Mocked, insulted, beaten, bound?
‘Tis our God, who gifts and graces
On His Church now poureth down;
Who shall smite in holy vengeance
All His foes beneath His throne.
Who is this that hangeth dying
While the rude world scoffs and scorns,
Numbered with the malefactors,
Torn with nails, and crowned with thorns?
‘Tis the God who ever liveth
‘Mid the shining ones on high,
In the glorious golden city,
And because of his dying, by which he paid for our sins, we know that we will share that life with him everlastingly.
For many of us, our favorite Christmas words are the prayers we find in the Christmas hymns. How many of us memorized these when we were children, and still pray them regularly? Martin Luther wrote “From Heav’n Above to Earth I Come” as a pageant, a play to be acted by his children. But many of us especially remember this stanza:
Ah, Dearest Jesus, holy Child, Make Thee a bed, soft, undefiled
Within my heart, that it may be a quiet chamber kept for Thee.
Martin Luther is often given credit for writing the carol “Away in a Manger.” But this third stanza, a beautiful prayer, was added by John Thomas McFarland (who died 1913, almost exactly a hundred years ago).
Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
close by me forever, and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care,
and take us to Heaven to live with Thee there.
You’ve seen the theme for this sermon: God’s Favorite Christmas Words. What you’ve heard so far are my own favorite Christmas words, and I’m sure some of your favorites too. What words might actually be GOD’s favorite Christmas words? I’d like to speculate, knowing the great love that God showed us in sending his Son into the world that night, that his favorite Christmas words were six of those spoken by the angel to the shepherds, recorded by St. Luke in his Christmas chapter, chapter 2. I’m speaking of the six words in a row at the end of verse 10 and the start of verse 11.
From Luke 2:10b “to all people”
From Luke 2:11a “for unto you”
You see, the news wasn’t just that a child was born, or even that a special child was born; this child was born ‘’unto you,” that is, FOR US. The plan wasn’t just to help a few people; it was FOR ALL PEOPLE. God in his great love FOR US, and FOR ALL PEOPLE, was carrying out his plan FOR US, and FOR EVERYBODY!
It wasn’t a new thought of course. Centuries before it happened, the prophet Isaiah emphasized the same message in a passage often quoted at Christmas time, and set to music so beautifully by George Frederick Handel in his marvelous oratorio, “Messiah”: Is. 9:6 “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”
It’s a thought picked up again in our Christmas songs such as in The First Noel, the first song we spoke of earlier. We don’t often sing it through to stanza six, but if we did we’d find this thought there, in the first line: US ALL.
Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heav’nly Lord,
That hath made heav’n and earth of naught,
And with His blood mankind hath bought.
Noel, noel, noel, noel,
Born is the King of Israel
For all people.
For unto you.
Those might be God’s favorite Christmas words. They certainly are mine.
Thanks be to God!
Dr. Tom Kuster
at Resurrection Lutheran Church
Winter Haven, Florida, USA
December 28, 2014