Repeat the Sounding Joy: 2 Lessons from the First Christmas Song
Christmas has become quite a fascinating event in the United States.
A few years ago, a survey by Pew Research Center reported that over 95% of the U.S. population was planning to celebrate Christmas.
That’s a remarkable statistic, and it raises the question: “What actly are we celebrating?”
Over the past 50 years, our nation has taken some very drastic steps away from God. There has been a sustained effort to remove religion from the public sector – schools, government, entertainment, society.
And yet, we continue to celebrate Christmas with many of the same distinctively Christian elements.
This creates a very odd disconnect as you walk around during this time of year. People who never go to church and who don’t even believe in God will decorate their house with angels.
Just listening to the radio this time of year can give you a kind of worldview whiplash. Your local coffee shop or department store will go from “Santa Baby” to “Silent Night” to “I want an Alien for Christmas” to “What Child is This” in just a few short minutes.
But it’s not just the odd combination of songs that’s shocking. It’s the fact that many of the Christian songs are sung by people who don’t even pretend to follow Jesus Christ. And here they are singing the lyrics of “worship songs” about the birth of the Son of God.
Most people don’t even notice the disconnect. But of course, there are some who do.
A few years back, there was an article on Slate by the atheist Christopher Hitchens, who has since passed away. While he was alive, he was very outspoken in his disdain for Christianity. So as you might imagine, the Christmas season was especially annoying for him.
In the article he wrote, he said this:
“The core objection, which I restate every December at about this time, is that for almost a whole month, the United States — a country constitutionally based on a separation between church and state — turns itself into the cultural and commercial equivalent of a one-party state. As in such dismal banana republics, the dreary, sinister thing is that the official propaganda is inescapable. You go to a train station or an airport, and the image and the music of the Dear Leader are everywhere. You go to a more private place, such as a doctor’s office or a store or a restaurant, and the identical tinny, maddening, repetitive [noises] are to be heard.”
Now, that may appear to be an extreme and depressing take on the whole Christmas season, and it’s true that Hitchens was not known for being cheery and optimistic.
But I’m sure you can at least understand why he might be upset. Wherever he went, he was inundated with a Christian message. And in his view, this was not only annoying, but unconstitutional.
But there are two problems there.
First, he didn’t understand the constitution. The United States Constitution does not mandate separation of church and state. The phrase “wall of separation” comes from a letter that Jefferson wrote to a group of Baptists, and it has no constitutional authority at all. It was just Jefferson’s opinion.
The constitution does prohibit Congress from establishing a national church, like (for example) the Church of England. But it does not prohibit the government from acknowledging and submitting to the one true God.
So that was his first problem. He doesn’t understand the constitution.
But there was a second problem – an even bigger problem. He’s completely missing the basic point of the Bible. Specifically, it’s absolute claims of truth and authority.
He continues his rant in the article, but I will spare you the agony of copying all of it here.
Let’s just jump to his conclusion:
“If the totalitarians…”
That’s us, in case you were wondering.
“If the totalitarians cannot bear to abandon their adoration of their Dear Leader, can they not at least arrange to hold their ceremonies in private?”
Now, that is an interesting question, and at first glance, it seems reasonable.
He’s saying, “If you must believe this, then go ahead. But can’t you keep in indoors? Can’t you make it a private matter? Can’t you keep it away from the rest of us?”
But if we understand the Bible at all, our answer must be, “No. We can’t.”
Why? It’s not that we’re intent on annoying atheists. It’s that the Christmas story is not just a personal belief. It’s historical reality. It’s not just a personal perspective. It’s a public announcement that the King has come.
Jesus is Lord of all, that that truth radically changes every area of life.
We see this from the very beginning of the Christmas story. One of the very first announcements of this good news was given by angels to a group of shepherds in a field, not to a group of Rabbis praying in a temple.
And after delivering this announcement, these angels performed the very first public performance of a Christmas carol.
You can read about this song (and the events that surrounded it) in Luke 2.
The first thing we see there is that the coming of Christ turns everything upside down.
The heralding of the good news doesn’t go to those who were praying and fasting in the temple. It doesn’t come to those who were morally upright and intellectually superior.
The good news comes to shepherds. These shepherds were the audience for the first Christmas song.
So what is this good news that came to the shepherds? What were the lyrics of this first Christmas carol?
Glory to God in the highest! And on earth peace, good will toward men.
The shepherd’s experience was certainly unique, but the message they received was universal. This was good news for the shepherds, but it’s also good news for us.
And the shepherds knew this very well. Because they responded by spreading the good news to anyone who would listen.
Here are two lessons that we can take from that very first Christmas song.
Look at those lyrics again. It was a short song. We could probably all memorize these lyrics.
Glory to God in the highest!
The glory of God is the Bible term for the ultimate beauty, holiness, and magnificence of God.
In the Old Testament, the word for “glory” referred to the “weight” of something. So we might say that the glory of God is heavy. It has the power to displace things that are smaller. It has a way of moving things out of the way that are less important.
This is what’s happening when the angels show up and say, "Glory to God in the highest.”
They’re saying, "There is a beauty here now that displaces all other beauties. There is a joy here that swallows up all other joys. There is a brightness here that outshines all other lights.”
That’s why the shepherds leave their sheep and go to find the Christ child. Those sheep were their livelihood. They never left them.
But they left them here. Why? Because something better had come.
There is something better than sheep.
There is something better than presents under a tree and money in the bank.
There is something better than… well, everything.
There’s something more magnificent than anything you can think of. It is the glory of God - His beauty and power and mercy and holiness on display to the world.
When we feel the weight of God’s beauty and magnificence, it will displace all other loves and desires. It will captivate us. It will transform us.
And one of the most profound ways that it changes us is found in the last part of this song.
And on earth peace, good will toward men.
Because Christ has come, we can have peace with God.
The most profound affect of God’s glory coming to earth was peace – peace to all those who do not run from the Light, to all those who do not shake off the weight, to all those who do not shrug at its beauty.
The glory of God did not come to earth like a hammer to destroy us. That’s what we deserved. We were enemies of God. Separated by our sinfulness. Sin had corrupted us, distorted our desires, fractured our relationships. The Bible says we were children of wrath. That’s what we deserved.
But God’s glory did not come to destroy us. It came to save us. It came to bring us peace, not judgment (Ephesians 2:13-19).
The coming of Christ brings peace. Jesus stepped in between our sinful rebellion and God’s just wrath. And through His blood, He brings peace.
He absorbs God’s wrath toward us and replaces it with God’s love. He takes our sin and replaces it with His righteousness.
But even though we have peace with God as believers, there are times in life when we don’t feel like we have it.
During this time of year, we feel the stress of busy schedules and shopping lists. Some are even financially crippled by the Christmas season. They feel guilty for not spending enough or they feel guilty for spending too much.
During this time of year, we feel the strain of family relationships. Some will see family members over Christmas that they don’t see any other time during the year. And many times, that can be awkward and difficult.
During this time of year, we feel the loneliness of loved ones who are no longer with us. Some will be celebrating their first Christmas without a spouse or a parent or maybe even a child. Christmas for many is the time of year where that pain is felt more sharply.
It feels like everything is out of control. We feel unsettled, fearful, depressed, stressed.
This is why Paul prays that the believers in Colosse would let the peace of God rule in their hearts.
It’s one thing to have peace with God through Jesus Christ. This is something that anyone can receive by coming to faith in Christ. But it’s another thing to live in the reality of that gift. If we’re honest, there are many times that the peace of God does not rule in our hearts.
When we are overwhelmed, stressed, or discouraged, we need to remind ourselves of something that we already know: we are not God.
There is undoubtedly work to do this Christmas season. There are gifts to wrap, road trips to make, and relationships to rekindle. There are cookies to bake, decorations to put up, and meals to prepare.
But this Christmas, we need to be reminded that the most important work has already been done. Jesus said, “It is finished.”
Jesus came. He was born as a baby, lived a perfect life, and died in your place, taking the penalty for your sin.
That work has already been done. And because of Christ’s work on your behalf, you can have peace with God, which means you can have peace in the middle of the chaos around you. You can have peace in the middle of loneliness. You can have peace in the middle of disappointment.
And if the peace of God is not on the throne of your heart, the only way out is a fresh glimpse of the glory of God. Because if you don’t feel the weight of God’s glory, you will feel the weight of everything else in life.
This is why we need weekly reminders of who God is and what He has done. This is why we need Christmas.
You don’t need a choir of angels to visit you in your room tonight. The supreme demonstration of God’s glory is found not in a choir singing or on Christmas morning. The supreme demonstration of God’s glory is found in the Jesus, who came to be one of us.
When we see Christ for who He is – when we are captivated by the beauty and wonder and joy of Emmanuel – we will know the peace of God in our hearts.