One of our former pastors, Bill Swanson, was a wonderful encouragement to me in my first couple years here before passing away last year, and his wife Ann and daughter Kathy worship with us to this day on most Sunday mornings.
Before our oldest son Noah was born, and shortly thereafter, Bill would describe to Callie and me that newborns and toddlers are “dictators in a high chair” (That kind of sounds like Bill now, doesn’t it?) while also telling me you’ll also love this little one more than you can possibly imagine. In hindsight, I realize that he was right on both counts.
Truth is, though there've been many “dictators in a high chair” throughout the years, there has only been one newborn King. For as the classic Christmas carol goes, Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King.”
During this Advent season, we’re taking a short break from our sermon series on the Gospel of Luke and instead doing something a little bit different and that is, we’re taking a look at a few of the most familiar Christmas carols, songs that we know and love, with lyrics so familiar that we may be tempted to miss their meaning, and seeing how these carols draw us closer to Jesus and connect us to the very heart of Christmas itself. And my hope in all of this is that through these reflections, you and I will sing these precious songs with a greater sense of awe and gratitude for the God that is behind them.
Last week we reflected on the hymn that our choir had sung, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and this week we now turn our attention to the hymn that you and I sang together minutes ago, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!
Truth be told, this isn’t my favorite Christmas carol, in fact, it probably wouldn’t even make my Top 5. From a strictly musical standpoint, there are other tunes I like more. And yet in terms of its lyrics and its message, I don’t think any hymn does more with less than Hark! The Herald Angles Sing!
In a stunning use of brevity, in the span of three verses, this hymn cuts straight to the heart of Christmas, summarizes the entire biblical teaching, delivering the gospel message, all in an economy of words that would make any long winded preacher blush. No Christmas carol does more with less.
So let’s get to it. We’ll first walk through the carol verse by verse, taking note of the truths it proclaims and the story that it tells. Afterwards, we’ll take a few minutes to highlight some key points of application.
What’s beautiful about this hymn is not only its message, but also its design. Where it’s not simply spewing out information in some kind of indistinguishable fashion, but rather telling a story in a very intentional way.
Where I would say that verse 1 captures the main idea, or the main point, and then verses 2 & 3 describe how it's accomplished. In other words, verse 1 is the summary statement, verses 2 and 3 are the story behind them.
For example, consider verse 1:
Hark! the herald angels sing, "Glory to the newborn King: peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!"
Here you have the essence of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. Through him, God and sinners are reconciled. The relationship is restored. But yet, how? How is this possible? How is this accomplished? Well, that’s what verse 2 and 3 are all about. It’s the story behind the summary.
For example, verse 2. How can it be that God and sinners are reconciled? It all begins with what is known as the Incarnation.
veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
hail th'incarnate Deity,
If you’ve ever wondered what the word Incarnation means or ever been intimidated by that word, don’t be. You’re probably more familiar with it that you realize. For example, have you ever been to a Mexican restaurant and seen “carne asada” on the menu? Carne asada literally means “grilled beef.” Carne, incarnation, same root word.
And so, what is the incarnation? It is literally the “meatification of God.” It almost sounds sacrilegious to say now doesn’t it, and yet that’s what it is! It’s the “fleshification of God.”
And friends this is what Christmas is all about. It’s about the incarnation, the beginning act of God and sinners reconciled. Because the word became flesh and dwelt among us, as the opening verses of John’s gospel.
That Jesus, now going back through verse 2 of this Christmas Carol. That though the Christ, the Son of God, the everlasting Lord, was in heaven, living in perfect harmony as part of the Trinity, was veiled in the flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate Deity.
This is what Christmas is all about. The mystery of hail the incarnate deity. The paradox of glory to the newborn King. He is Immanuel, which means God with us.
How can it be that God and sinners are reconciled? It begins with the Incarnation.
You see the Christmas story isn’t one in which God said, “You’ve got to come to me,” no, Christmas is the unbelievable, unfathomable story of God saying, “I’m coming to you.”
Pastor Alistair Begg makes this simple yet profound observation, where in our world today, the greatest and wealthiest and most famous people among us are often those who are most physically distant from us, whether it be the United States president, your favorite athlete or movie star - because of their power and wealth and fame, they remain distant from us. They travel in private jets, live in gated communities with long driveways, are surrounded by security guards, their greatness is revealed and highlighted through their distance and isolation from us. We’ll likely never shake their hands, never get their autograph, never have a picture taken with them.
And yet Jesus, God in the flesh, Christ the highest heaven adored, did just the opposite. He came down, he drew near, he closed the gap, he came to us. That’s Christmas.
And yet, that’s not all. There’s more to the story. There’s a third verse too. If the second verse was about the Incarnation, then the third verse is about the Resurrection. You see, this is what is so stunning about this hymn. It’s a Christmas carol, and an Easter one too.
Let me show you what I mean. Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings.
Risen with healing in his wings? That’s resurrection language, all in stunning poetic form. Jesus’s resurrection (and not to mention, his crucifixion) bring light and life and healing. It’s through all this that there is peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.
And then by the time we get to the last part of the last verse, we see all the themes of this song converging towards a final truth. That this newborn King was born to die.
Mild he lays his glory by, born that we no more may die
born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth.
Sure, he was born to teach. Born to inspire. Born to comfort. Born to heal. Born to bring justice. Born to lead. He was born to do all those things. But above all he was born to die.
So that through faith in Jesus, that we no more may die. Or more specifically that we would no longer die separated or unreconciled from God.
By the way, quick rabbit trail here, you might notice a discrepancy in that third verse, between the lyrics in your bulletin and the lyrics in your hymnal. Our hymnal does a great job of using more inclusive language. Where instead of saying, “men” it says “us.” Instead of “sons” it says “we.” That’s all in an effort to change the language in a way that doesn’t change its meaning, so that women know that the lyrics or in other cases, the bible, is for them too.
And to the women in the room, if you’re ever feeling frustrated by a scripture passage or a song’s male dominated language, I want you to put this feather in your cap. The bible describes the church as the “bride of Christ” and guess what? Men are a part of the church too. So ladies, look at the men around you. You’re looking at the bride of Christ. Ladies, rejoice in it. Guys, get used to it. Alright, rabbit trail over.
And with all that said, let’s briefly move towards application and more specifically what this hymn encourages us towards and what it calls us to embody.
Here’s the first thing this hymn shows us, and that is,
The way up is down.
Notice the downward and upward movement of this hymn and more importantly what we are told about the life and narrative arc of Jesus’s ministry.
He descends to us here on earth (“pleased with us in flesh to dwell”), is crucified, dies and buried, and then ascends from the grave as he’s (“risen with healing in his wings”)
Even more, notice how the word glory is used here. On one hand, we sing Glory to the newborn King! And yet, we later learn “mild he lays his glory by”
The one who had glory, gave up his glory, only to later take it up again. This is what we see in Philippians 2, that Jesus,
6 Who, being in very nature God … he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And you and I, as followers of Jesus, are charged to have that same downward like mindset for the good of those around us.
I recently read a story about a pastor who was on a flight to Seattle and was reading a book called “Ministering to 21st Century Families.” He heard a mom and her young son arguing because the little boy wanted to be in the window seat. So he said, “I’ll take the aisle so that he can have the window.” The boy was excited, and the mom thanked him, but then he noticed that she kept looking back at the back of the plane. She said, “Do you have another child traveling with you?”
And she said, “Yeah. My daughter is in the middle seat in the last row.”
The pastor said, “I groaned inwardly.” The worst seat on the plane. Middle in the back. All the people in line for the restroom. The smell of the restroom. All the way back to Seattle. But he said, “I’ll take her seat so you all can sit together. My wife’s traveling with our kids. I’ve got some empathy.”
He said, “After squeezing myself in a space designed for a 90-pound person with 24-inch legs, I looked at my book, ‘Ministering to 21st Century Families,’ and I thought reading this book did nothing to actually minister to any families unless I applied it. When I saw the young girl smile and the relief on the mom’s face, I felt a momentary splash of God’s glory.” What a great phrase. A momentary splash of God’s glory.” “It may not be my most profound act of ministry, but something as simple as giving up my seat on a plane ministered to a family way more than anything I’ve ever written or said, and I felt joy, and I felt God’s presence, so the middle seat was just fine by me.”
The way up is to first go down. So friends, look for ways to move downward for the good of another. To move downward, to lift another up. After all, it’s the way of Jesus himself.
Maybe it looks like watching the kids for a couple hours so that your spouse can get a much needed break. Maybe it looks like dishing out praise and encouragement at the risk of not being acknowledged yourself. Maybe it looks like volunteering here at church behind the scenes in a way that no one notices. Maybe it looks like taking on a much needed project at work that everyone else refuses to do.
The way up is to first go down. And may you experience a momentary splash of God’s glory as you do.
That’s the first point of application, here’s the second.
Go be a herald.
In that first verse we sing, Joyful, all ye nations, rise, join the triumph of the skies;
In other words, join the angels, just as they did long ago in spreading this good news, that “Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
After all, to be a herald is to be the sharer, the spreader, the announcer of the news. In fact, some newspapers to this day, such as in the town of Sidney, Montana up north, are known as the Sidney Herald, because newspapers deliver the news.
And I do apologize, for those who are under the age of 18, a newspaper is … gosh, how do you describe it? … It’s like, a … it doesn’t really matter, does it?
The point is this. You are a herald. You have been commissioned by God to share good news.
Which our world desperately needs, because though it has no shortage of good advice to offer, it’s lacking in good news. And good news is exactly what we have.
For example, for many the holidays and Christmas season is a tough one. It reminds them of what they don’t have, reminds them of who’s not sitting around the table or gathered around the Christmas tree with them.
And yet, at the very heart of Christmas is a God who was pleased with us in flesh to dwell, who knows our pain, who knows what it’s like to be human, who has experienced loss. You see, Christmas does not ignore our pain. Rather he took the pain upon himself and brings life and life and healing on the other side.
So friends, who among you is hurting and who is in need of some good news? Go and be a herald.
And so, let’s finish by doing a little heralding ourselves. Just like last week, let’s sing that climactic final refrain one more time, and let’s sing it acapella.
Hark! The herald angels sing.
“Glory to the newborn King”