The Carols of Christmas
Part 1: What Child Is This?
Luke 1:26-33; Revelation 17:14
Rev. Morris Brown
He was born a long time ago in a far away land. He began with a small rag-tag band of followers, but throughout his life thousands were drawn to his charisma and charm. Unfortunately, his life ended way too soon. After his death, some say he appeared to them. And today, many continue to follow him faithfully. People still make pilgrimages to his birthplace, and the place where he died is considered a holy site. In fact, the memory of him is so ingrained into our culture that very few of us can remember a time when we didn’t know his name. Who am I talking about? Elvis Presley, of course, the King of Rock and Roll!
Elvis was born in 1935, in the strange and distant land of Tupelo, Mississippi. He died much too young at age of age of 42. Since his death some of his fans say he has appeared to him. And each year thousands continue to flock to his birthplace in Tupelo, and his home in Graceland, the place where he was laid to rest.
This morning; however, I don’t want to talk about Elvis, even if he is “The King of Rock and Roll.” Instead, I want to talk about a different kind of king. You see, today we’re beginning a worship series entitled, The Carols of Christmas. And each week from now until Christmas we’re going to focus on a different carol. We’re going to sing the carol, and then think about how it can help us prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. This morning we begin our series with the carol, What Child is This? We obviously sang the first verse as our “peace response” and in a few minutes, we’ll sing the rest as our hymn of response. So, why begin here?
Well, we begin with this carol because, in the liturgical calendar of the church, today is called Christ the King Sunday. On this Sunday, just before we enter the season of Advent, we are called to begin preparing for the celebration of the birth of our Savior by remembering what the angel Gabriel told Mary in our gospel lesson. The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that she was going to bear a child. The child who would be born to her would not just be any child, but “the son of the Most High” who would inherit the throne of David, the greatest king in Israel’s history. He would be what John the author of the book of Revelation refers to as, “The King of Kings, and the Lord of Lords”! Through this story God calls us to begin our preparation for
Christmas by remembering that the babe whose birth we will celebrate once again this year is a king - the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords! The question is, “What kind of King will Jesus be?” Let me offer some suggestions.
First, Jesus will be a COMMANDING king. And what is his command? In John 13, Jesus says, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another. As I have loved you, you should also love one another. Others will know you are my followers, if you love one another.” Jesus is a king who commands us to love. He commands us to love others as he loved us. And how did Jesus love us?
He loved us by spending his life - laying down his life - to tell us and show us that whoever we are, whatever we may have done we are unconditionally loved by God. And because we are loved by God, we ought to treat one another with love. Of course, this is a challenge for most of us. For example, many of you know Friday was “Black Friday.” On this day, retailers open their stores early and offer crazy sales designed to jumpstart the holiday shopping. And it can get nuts!
For example, you may remember what happened “Black Friday” several years ago. A young woman named Patricia Van Lester camped out all night at a Wal-Mart so she could be first in line to buy a flat screen TV for $29. When the doors opened at 5:00 am however, the mob was pressing against the door so hard that Ms. Van Lester was knocked down and trampled as others rushed to beat her in. “She got pushed down, and they ran all over her like a herd of elephants,” said her sister said. “I told them to ‘stop!’ I kept saying ‘Stop stepping on my sister! She’s on the ground!’ but nobody would listen. Everybody just continued rushing for the deal. All they cared about were those stupid flat screen TV’s.”
What kind of king is Jesus? Jesus is a commanding king. He is a king who loves us, who laid down his life to show us we are loved. And his number one command is for us to love each other - even if it means we miss a deal on a flat screen TV. Sometimes, we forget that, even as we approach the celebration of his birth.
Second, Jesus will be a CORRECTING king. You see, Jesus not only came to show us we are loved. He also came to show us the healthiest way to live life. But the truth is, many times we fail to live this way.
We lose our way. We stumble and fall. When that happens however, Jesus isn’t a king who condemns us. Instead, he’s a king who lovingly corrects us and helps us get back on the right path. As John 3:17 says, “God did not send God’s son to condemn the people. God sent him to save them.” The Greek word we translate “save” in this verse is “sozo.” It means “to heal, to help.” I like the way this verse is translated in The Message. It says, “God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending God’s Son into the world merely to point an accusing finger at people and tell them how bad they were. God sent God’s Son into the world to help - help to put the world right again, to help people find their way.”
There is an old story about a ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean. It was a dark and foggy night, hard to see. As the ship moved along the waters however, the captain saw a faint light in the distance. Thinking it was another ship and realizing that his ship was headed straight toward it, the captain sent a message, “You’re on a collision course, alter your direction 10 degrees to the south.”
A few moments later there was a return message, “You’re on a collision course, alter your direction 10 degrees south.” This annoyed the captain, so he sent a second message, “You’re on a collision course. Alter your course direction 10 degrees south. I am a Captain.”
Soon there was another return message. It said, “You’re on a collision course. Alter your direction 10 degrees south. I am a Seaman Third Class.”
Well, this really angered the captain. So, he sent a third message, “You’re on a collision course. Alter your direction 10 degrees south. I am a captain. And I’m in a battleship.”
Shortly, a third reply came, “You’re on a collision course. Alter your direction 10 degrees south. I’m a Seaman Third Class. And, I’m sitting in a lighthouse.”
Sometimes we’re like that captain, aren’t we? Sometimes we lose our way. Our lives get headed in the wrong direction. We stubbornly set ourselves on a collision course that will end in disaster. When this happens, however, Jesus isn’t a king who condemns us. Instead, he a king who wants to help us, heal us. He wants to help us change our way, correct our course. Through his teachings, the example of his life, his presence and power, he wants to help us alter our course to get back on track. Jesus is a correcting king.
Third, Jesus will be a COMPASSIONATE king. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but the word “compassion” comes from a Greek word that means, “to walk with.” In Matthew 28:19 Jesus tells his disciples and anyone else who will follow him that he promises to “be with us always, even to the ends of the earth.”
Most of you have probably heard of the poem by Mary Stephenson entitled, Footprints in the Sand. In case you haven’t it goes like this, “One night I had a dream. I was walking along the beach with the Lord as scenes from my life flashed across the sky. In many of the scenes I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand. One belonged to me, and the other to the Lord. But, in other scenes I noticed that there was only one set of footprints. I noticed that this happened at the very lowest and saddest times of my life. I was bothered by this so I questioned the Lord. ‘Lord”, I cried, ‘you promised that if I followed you, you would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times of my life there was only one set of footprints in the sand. Lord, I don’t understand! Why when I needed you most, did you leave me?’ It was then that the Lord smiled and replied, ‘My child, I promised you that I love you. I promised you I would never leave you! The times when you see only one set of footprints were the dark and difficult times, and in those times, I carried you.’”
Listen, one of the great truths of life is that ALL OF US will go through dark and difficult times. Not one of us will be spared. But, the good news of our faith is that we never have to go through these times alone. What kind of king is Jesus? He is a compassionate king. When we make him the king of our lives he promises to walk “beside us and guide us” through the ups and the downs of life. He promises he will always be with us “even to the ends of the earth”. And he promises to carry us when we can’t walk on our own!
One final thought. Jesus will be a CONQUERING king. Revelation 17:13 says, “They will make war on the Lamb, but the Lamb will conquer them, for he is the King of kings and the Lord of lords.” This text was written to early Christians who were being persecuted, suffering and even dying for their faith in Jesus. It was meant to remind them not to lose hope, for Jesus (who is the lamb in this text) like them, had experienced suffering and death. But, Jesus was not ultimately defeated. Instead, with God’s help, Jesus took on the worst that life could offer, and by the grace of God’s power not only moved through it, but defeated it. And the good news is, Jesus will help us do that too!
Back in the 1940’s, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was planning his funeral. He told the members of his staff that the funeral was to take place in St. Paul’s cathedral in London. He also told them that it was to include some of the great hymns of the Christian faith. Finally, however, Churchill gave them a rather special instruction. He said, “At the end of the service, after the benediction is pronounced, I want a lone bugler in the dome of St. Paul’s cathedral begin to play Taps - the universal signal that the day is over. Before he was done, however, I want the bugler to suddenly stop. And at that point, I want the service to take a dramatic turn. I want another bugler, on the other side of the dome of St. Paul’s cathedral began to play Reveille, ‘It’s time to get up! It’s time to get up! It’s time to get up in the morning.’ It will signal to those in attendance that death does not have the final victory in this life. The final victory is life that is given by Christ, my King!”
What kind of King is Jesus? Jesus is a conquering king! He is the one who came to show us that when our lives fall apart, even when we hit the bottom, even when we experience the death of a job or a relationship or a dream or a person we love, and think it’s all over. It is not over! Death is NOT the final word! Why? Because we are in God’s hands. And just as God did not allow suffering and death to be the final word in Jesus’ life, God will not allow suffering and death to be the final word in any of our lives. For as we place our trust in Christ, the conquering king, we will rise again!
So, we live in a culture where there are many kinds of kings. Burger King is supposed to be King of hamburgers. Richard Petty is the King of NASCAR. Michael Jackson was called the King of Pop. For years, Larry King was the king of interviews. And for many, Elvis will always be “The King of Rock and Roll.”
But, when it comes down to it, the only king that matters is the one we’re singing about this morning’s carol. “What child is this who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping? Whom angels greet with anthems sweet, while shepherds watch are keeping? This, this is Christ the King!”
What kind of king will he be? He will be a king who commands us to love others as he has loved us. He will be a king who lovingly corrects us when we lost our way. He will be a king who compassionately walks with us throughout our life’s journey. He will be a king who will help us conquer whatever kind of death life can throw at us. I don’t know about you.
But on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, this “Christ the King Sunday”, I am truly THANKFUL to have a king like that! And so, as we sing this beautiful carol of our faith, let us give thanks, and once again begin our preparation to celebrate the birth of the babe of Bethlehem, who truly is Christ, our King! Let us pray!