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Worship Message - I Heard...Hark!

I Heard…Hark!
Conditions at the time of Jesus were, for God’s people, not good. Politically, they were not free, as they wanted to be. They were dominated by Rome. Economically, many struggled with lack of money. A lack made worse by both Roman and Temple taxes that needed to be paid. Culturally, many of God’s people had mundane day-to-day lives, lived often in small villages that had poor housing. Educationally, there were lots of non-Jewish influences the people of God had to fight against, including what to teach their children and where. Religiously, their own leaders were making it difficult to follow God’s teachings as they taught it was not enough to know what God had commanded in the Old Testament. Those leaders had, over the years, come up with thousands and thousands of rules and regulations to try to explain what God meant by what He had commanded. What those leaders thought He meant. The teaching of those leaders extended to the point that any violations of any of the rules and regulations would result in condemnation.At the time of Jesus - shortly before His birth - life was very difficult for the people of God. A difficulty that caused them to cry out for a Savior to rescue them. A Savior who could be described as Emmanuel, meaning God with us. As Dayspring, meaning He would bring new hope. As Wisdom, meaning He would be honest and hard-working to accomplish salvation. As Desire of nations, meaning He would be attractive to all who would accept Him when He came.

About 2000 years ago, the crying out of God’s people was answered. About 2000 years ago, the Savior came. He came as a baby, who was named Jesus. A baby who came to bring joy to the world.

That act in history should have changed the world. The change should have happened immediately. The change should have been permanent. From the moment of the arrival of the Savior, from the moment of the coming of Jesus, from the moment of His birth things should have been and have remained absolutely perfect in absolutely every way.

Unfortunately, that did not happen. I think the reason for that is based on free will, which refers to the decision each person is free to make about what to do about Jesus. Whether to accept Him as Savior - or not. Whether to allow Him to be the source of joy - or not.

Unfortunately, some people, right after the birth of Jesus, used their free will to not accept Jesus. To not allow Him to bring joy into their lives.

One example of that was King Herod, who was kind of the governor of the area where Jesus was born. A governor who represented and reported to Roman leadership. He used his free will to become so jealous of Jesus, he ordered a campaign of mass murder, trying, in the midst of all who were killed - all the boys two years of age and younger in and around Jesus’ birthplace of Bethlehem - to get rid of Jesus after He was born.

As we know, Herod’s plot was not successful. Lots of boys died, but Jesus was not one of them. The result was that Jesus grew from baby to boy and from teen to adult, which is when He began a ministry. A ministry that offered the joy of salvation.

During His ministry, some people accepted Jesus. Their use of their free will in that way meant they were saved from their sins.

But others did not accept Jesus. They used their free will to reject His offer. To oppose Jesus by arguing with Him and threatening Him and eventually beating Him and crucifying Him.

So much of the reaction to Jesus - the one who came to bring joy - was sad. Which continued over the centuries. And again, there have been many people over the centuries who have accepted Jesus. Those people had joy, even in the midst of difficult times. Joy based on being accepted by Jesus. Yes, many people over the centuries have accepted Jesus.

But others have rejected Him. Including people referred to in 1863 by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote the words of what became the carol I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.

I might mention that for each of this year’s Advent messages, various songs of Christmas are being featured. Songs that are sometimes happy, such as the second one for this message. Songs that other times are sad, such as I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, which is a carol that tells of sad conditions in the middle part of our nation’s Civil War.

Here is the background of the poem that became the carol when it was sent to music nine years later.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's oldest son Charles had, for a while, wanted to join the Union side of the Civil Was as a soldier. What kept him from joining was that his father would not give his blessing.

One day, though, Charles joined the Union army anyway, which his dad was informed about via a letter dated March 14, 1863. Charles wrote that he had tried hard to resist the temptation of going to war without his father’s permission, but that he could resist no longer. He added, “I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good.”

Charles soon got an appointment as a lieutenant. However, in November of that same year - 1863 - he was severely wounded in a battle in Virginia. That happening to his son, coupled with the recent loss of his wife Frances, who died as a result of an accidental fire, inspired Longfellow to write the poem that would become the song I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.

Let’s think about the words of that carol. As we do, let’s think about how bad things were during our nation’s Civil War, including the horrendous loss of life and health and the economic and relationship problems the war caused. Let’s think about personal tragedies, such as Longfellow losing his wife in a fire. Let’s remember how sad things were at the time of Jesus’ birth. Let’s also think how sad some things can be even now. Not so we can dwell on the negative, but as a reminder that even now, Jesus is needed. Which is something that will be proclaimed in today’s second - today’s happy, positive - Christmas song.

Verse 1 starts the carol positively. “I heard the bells on Christmas Day, their old familiar carols play. Wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth, good will to men.”

As people sang the songs of Christmas that year of 1863, the words were right as everyone expressed sweet, joyful thoughts. Peace and good will were proclaimed as good things. Things that should have been pursued.

In fact, peace and good will were, according to verse 2, proclaimed by all of Christendom. “I thought how, as Christmas Day had come, the belfries of all Christendom had once again rolled along the unbroken song of peace on earth, good will to men.”

But then verse 3. I wonder if we ever feel this way even now. “But in despair, I bowed my head. I said to myself and to whoever was around to listen, there is no peace on earth.” The Civil War was certainly an example of a lack of peace on earth. “Hate is strong. It mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.”

At the time of Jesus, God’s people did suffer politically, economically, culturally, educationally, religiously. In 1863, this nation was suffering through a Civil War, which brought about political, economic, cultural, educational, and religious difficulties. Today, we have plenty of our own problems - foreign threats, civil unrest, sometimes financial or relationship or health problems.

Because of that, we, like Longfellow, certainly could look around and say with him, “Peace on earth? Good will to men? Really? Where?”

Conditions even now are not always good. But guess what. Longfellow did not dwell on the problems - on the lack of peace and the hate and the mocking. In verse 4 of the carol, he sensed - maybe he forced it on himself or maybe it was a gift from God - in verse 4, Longfellow sensed hope in the midst of the problems.

Verse 4. “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep.” How interesting that the bells were not silenced by the problems all around. The bells continued to peal, now with more urgency. That is how Longfellow heard them. The bells pealed the message that “God is not dead, nor does He sleep.” Longfellow announced in that verse that even though things were bad right then, “the wrong was going fail and the right was going to prevail,” which could bring at least spiritual peace on earth. Spiritual good will to men.

Let’s sing that carol, doing so as a reminder that yes, we have lots of problems we face in our lives. Let’s feel free to acknowledge that, especially as we sing verse 3. But then, with joy, let’s sing verse 4. A joy that will lead us, after we sing, to the second song for today’s message.

Let’s sing.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

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.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Problems? Yes. They existed before the birth of Jesus. They existed in 1863. They exist now.

It was and still is so easy to become discouraged. Horribly so. But remember, the Savior people cried out for about 2000 years ago did come. His name was Jesus. That still is His name. And He is still is available to offer us peace, along with mercy and salvation.

All of which was proclaimed by angels on the night of Jesus’ birth, which the second song for this message tells us about. The second song for today is Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.

We are going to refer to that carol in just a bit, including some important challenges of what we are to do about Jesus when we accept Him and His peace. But before that, let’s consider what the Bible says about the angels who sang the night Jesus was born. For that, Luke 2:8-14.

Right before those verses is the recording of Mary giving birth to Jesus. The birth occurred in a barn in Bethlehem. Jesus’ first bed was a manger - a feeding trough - in the barn.

Right after Jesus was born, something very exciting happened to some shepherds in a field near Bethlehem. Those shepherds were in the field that night, watching over their flock, which was a rather tedious, tiresome, boring, lonely job. They were in the field that night when suddenly an angel of God appeared to them.

The angel just appeared, doing so suddenly. But it was not just the angel. The angel was surrounded by the glory of God, which I interpret as a light brighter than anything any of those shepherds had ever seen.

On a tedious, tiresome, boring, lonely night, as those shepherds did the same things for their sheep they did every other tedious, tiresome, boring, lonely night, suddenly an angel appeared to them. An angel surrounded by the glory of God.

The Bible records the shepherds were filled with fear. I nothing else, the suddenness of it frightened them. At least because of that, their fear was to be expected.

But the angel said to them, “Be not afraid.” Why ? Because, he continued, “Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people.”

Good news. Not ugly news about problems such as those faced by God’s people at that time. Political, economic, cultural, educational, religious problems. Not ugly news like that of the war that was being faced by the people of Longfellow’s day. Not ugly news like what we hear even today, including wars, rumors of wars, civil unrest, economic troubles.

Not ugly news. Good news. Happy, positive, fulfilling news.

News of a great joy. A joy that would be able to overcome all the problems faced then, through history, and problems faced even by us.

Good news of a great joy for all the people. Not just the Jews, but all people. Including us right here right now in our modern times.

What was that good news of a great joy that would come to all people? “For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

I wonder if that part of the announcement was confusing for the shepherds.

For instance, a baby was that great joy? The shepherds, along with other of God’s people, had problems right then. What good was a baby going to do, at least for many, many years?

In the city of David, which was Bethlehem, a little town? It was expected the Savior would originate from a big city. Probably the biggest Jewish city of all, that being Jerusalem, which was just a few miles away. Why Bethlehem?

The announcement might have been confusing. But did you catch the titles given to the one just born? Savior, Christ, and Lord.

Savior. Remember the people of God at that time and for a long time before that night had been hoping for someone to come save them. They were, as their ancestors before them had been, crying out for rescue. Hearing “Savior” let the shepherds know the rescuer had arrived.

Christ means the anointed one. Anointed by God. Anointing represents a special task given by God. In this case, the task of being the Savior. Hearing “Christ” let the shepherds know the one just born was very special in God’s work.

Lord. That is a title for God. It represents having authority. Hearing that word let the shepherds know the one just born - the one who had been anointed to be the Savior - was very powerful.

“For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” That is what the angel of God announced to some shepherds near Bethlehem the night Jesus was born. The angel then added these words. “And this will be a sign for you. You will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

As soon as those words were spoken, suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly host, all of them praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”

Concerning the second part of what the Heavenly choir sang - the part about peace - let’s get to today’s second carol - Hark! the Herald Angels Sing - and see how it describes the kind of peace Jesus came to bring

in verse 1 are the words, “God and sinners reconciled.” God wanted - He still wants - a close relationship with people. That is why He created us. But sin interferes with that kind of relationship. An interference that can be calmed only by having a Savior from our sins. Jesus came as the Savior. He came to give us a calm, peaceful relationship with God. The kind of relationship that comes only through salvation.

But it is not just here on earth we can have a good relationship with God. We can have that in Heaven, too. That is what words in verse 3 mean. The words that Jesus was born “that we no more may die.” And of course we are all going to die physically someday. This refers to spiritual death, which sin brings. Because of Jesus - because He is the Savior - we can die no more. We can live spiritually forever.

What are we to do because of Jesus?

Of course, we need to accept that He is who He was announced to be, that being the Savior. That is the key - the #1 - thing we must do.

But beyond that - verse 1 - we are to be joyful. Even in the midst of all the problems we face, we are to have the joy of knowing who Jesus is. The joy that comes from accepting Him as the Savior, which brings us peace with God.

Also verse 1. We are to do what the Heavenly host did. We, too, are to proclaim who Jesus is. As proclaimed in verse 3, that He is the Prince of Peace, the Sun of Righteousness, the healer, the one born to give us spiritual life.

Interestingly, that proclaiming is what the shepherds did the night of Jesus’ birth. How that happened is this.

First, they left their sheep and went into Bethlehem, where they found Jesus. As had been announced to them, He was wrapped in swaddling cloths. He was lying in a manger.

The shepherds found Jesus. They told His mother Mary and Joseph, and anyone else in that barn that night all they had heard about Jesus. In that way they proclaimed who Jesus is.

Then, when they left the barn to return to their sheep, they celebrated. They glorified God - they praised God - for all they had heard and seen.

Will we do the same? Will you hear the bells, not just on Christmas Day, but every day? The bells of faith that no, God is not dead, nor does He sleep. That yes, the right will ultimately prevail. Bells that announce the same message the angels sang the first Christmas night. Tat Jesus is the Savior, the Christ, the Lord. The one who came to bring peace so we can, by accepting Him and obeying Him, glorify God.

let’s proclaim all that by singing Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King:
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With the angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ, by highest Heaven adored;
Christ, the everlasting Lord!
Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us Thy humble home.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail the incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Hail the Heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Risen with healing in His wings,
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Two thousand years ago, God’s people had lots of problems. In 1863, God’s people had lots of problems. We have lots of problems today. But remember today’s Advent theme, which is the call to rejoice in the gift that God still fulfills His promises. Throughout the Old Testament, God promised His people a Savior. He fulfilled that promise in Jesus. The one anointed to be the Savior who, as Lord, is all-powerful.

The good news is that Jesus came, not just for people 2000 years ago. Not just for those who suffered in 1863. He came for us, too. And for all others for as long as this earth exists. He came so we could have peace here and in Heaven.

Let’s pray. God, help us, this season and always, to accept Jesus as Savior, Christ, and Lord. Help us to take advantage of who He is, doing that here and now as we look forward to being in Heaven, which is where those who accept Jesus will be when life here is over.

Please help us to remain hopeful. And may we never keep our hope, our joy, our acceptance to ourselves. Instead, may we every day join the angels in singing glory to Jesus.

Jesus, Merry Christmas. Thank You for coming. Amen.

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