The Treasures of Christmas
Part 1

December 28, 2008

 

The Rev. Dr. Anthony J. Godlefski, Pastor

Montgomery United Methodist Church

 

 

 

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, good morning! Today and next week I’d like to share with you a sermon series called “The Treasures of Christmas.” It’s unlike any series I’ve preached in the past, so I’m a little nervous about it. But I hope you’re blessed by it. I hope you enjoy it. I’d like for us to explore the background of some of our most beloved Christmas songs. I believe that the more you know about these Christmas songs, the more you’ll love them and the more you’ll enjoy them. And so, I need your help. I need you to keep your hymnal in hand, and those in the congregation who have bells or tambourines, please ring away whenever it seems appropriate. And so, my dear friends, the treasures of Christmas…

 

Open your hymnals, please, to hymn number 224. The year was 1295. It was a bleak time for humanity.  There was a small group of very rich people, and lots and lots of very poor people. Into one of the very rich families was born a man named Heinrich Suso. Heinrich, ever since he was a little boy, had a great heart for the Lord and a kind heart toward people. He saw the poverty around him. He saw the fact that people felt distanced from the church. The services of the church were somber and sad. He was determined to change all that.

 

He became a priest. He joined a monastery. He had a great desire to connect people to the Lord. He wrote books that were simple in word and simple in form and encouraging and positive – and therefore of course he got in trouble with the authorities of the church. But he wrote the books anyway. He loved to pray, and he loved to dream about God.

 

Brother Heinrich also had a great wish. He wanted to write a Christmas song, a song that the people could sing easily and well, a song that was in their language, a song that could express his feeling of joy about the Lord, but alas! He couldn’t write it. He couldn’t think of one. But one night, he went to sleep, and he started to dream. [Bells ringing quietly] And in his dream, he saw an angel. And the angel said, “Come, Heinrich! Sing with us! Dance with us!” He looked around his bed and saw angels, all around his bed. Their hands were joined, and they were waiting for him. And as he stood up and looked at them, the angels began to dance and sing.

 

In dulci jubilo,

Let us our homage show!

Our heart's joy reclineth

In praesepio;

And like a bright star shineth

Matris in gremio.

Alpha es et O!

Alpha es et O!

 

And when Heinrich awoke from his dream, he remembered it. He remembered the tune. I’m glad he did; aren’t you? He wrote it down, and it has become one of the most cherished tunes in all history, one of the favorites of Johann Sebastian Bach and of composers throughout the ages. “In dulci jubilo” sang the angels to Heinrich. “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice!” sing we. Let’s sing it together, the first verse.

 

Good Christian friends, rejoice!

With heart and soul and voice!

Give ye heed to what we say

            News! News!

Jesus Christ is born today!

Ox and ass before Him bow

And He is in the manger now.

Christ is born today!

Christ is born today!

 

A little later in time, in England, there was still controversy over whether Christmas music should be happy or sad. Of course, the established church said it should be sad, but individuals knew it had to be otherwise. And so, in the Episcopal Church, there were two priests named John Wesley and Charles Wesley, John’s younger brother. They both had a great heart for the Lord and a great love for people. John was the administrator and the leader, but Charles was the musician.

 

Charles loved to write hymns. He wrote a lot of them! Do you know how many hymns there are in our hymnal, more or less? About seven hundred. Do you know how many hymns Charles Wesley wrote? Six thousand! So if you took ten of our hymnals and put them together, that’s how many hymns Charles Wesley wrote. Do you know the phrase that John Wesley most often heard from Charles? “Look, John, I’ve got another one!  Want to hear it?”

 

Charles wrote a hymn called “Hark, All Heavens Welkin Ring, All Glory to the King of Kings.” Yes, that’s right -- “Hark, All Heavens Welkin Ring, All Glory to the King of Kings.” What’s a welkin? A welkin meant a cloud, sort of a cloud filled with angels praising God.  

 

Charles really liked this hymn. He sent it away to be published. There was a publisher by the name of George Whitfield. George Whitfield was also a very popular preacher, a very handsome guy, but a rough sort of fellow.  He didn’t have Charles Wesley’s knowledge and Biblical background. (You know what George did before he went into the priesthood? He was a bartender.) But he took this hymn of Charles Wesley and he published it.

 

One would think that would have made Charles very happy – but no.  Charles got really, really angry, because without asking his permission, George changed the title to read “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Glory to the Newborn King.” Well, I hope Charles got over it, because it became one of the most beloved Christmas hymns of all time – truly, a Methodist song. Let’s sing the first verse, hymn number 240.

 

Hark! The Herald Angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise.
Join the triumph of the skies.
With th’ Angelic Hosts proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King.”

 

Over in America, there was a time when the Civil War was raging, and there was a young minister by the name of Phillips Brooks. He was an Episcopal priest, and he had a very big church in the Philadelphia area. He was very depressed about the war. So many members of his growing congregation wore the black of mourning for husbands and sons, and the war raged on. And finally, when the war came to a close, he thought surely things would get better. But then President Lincoln was shot, and it fell to Rev. Phillips Brooks to conduct Lincoln’s funeral.

 

After all of this trying time of his soul, he decided to go on a trip to the Holy Land over Christmas. And instead of going with a regular tour, he decided to rent a horse and to ride out to the fields of Bethlehem to see what it was like. He looked down at the beautiful quiet of Bethlehem and the stars in the sky and the shepherds in the fields, and he was so deeply touched to be reminded of exactly how it was when Jesus was born.

 

When he returned, he tried to tell people about the wonderful things he’d seen, but nobody quite caught the spirit of it. And then he went to his music director, Lewis Redner, and said, “I’ve written a poem about this experience. Won’t you set it to music? And I tell you what – if you write a good tune, I’ll name it after you. I’ll call it St. Louis.”

 

Redner couldn’t come up with a tune, but, once again, he went to sleep and woke up in the middle of the night with just the right tune. And so we received, out of that visit to the Holy Land and out of the tribulation of the Civil War, this beautiful Christmas song. It’s called “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Let’s sing the first verse, hymn number 230.


O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee to-night.
 

One more. And once again, out of the tribulation of the Civil War, out of the time of national heartbreak called slavery, there arose a beautiful flower in the midst of it all. Because out of the suffering of the people enslaved, there was the music of the soul, the music that came from their faith, the music that was sung on plantations throughout this land. Some of the songs we were lucky enough to capture. They were sung in towns and then by small churches and then larger churches. Some of the songs, alas, were lost forever.

 

But there was a man named John Wesley Work. He was a black man, a professor, determined that these songs be preserved. And he captured one in particular that he had heard from workers on the plantation. It was sung by an enslaved person, but a person with a soaring spirit.  No chains could hold down the soul of the ones that sang this song.  There are no limits for the spirit that sings, "Go tell – over the hills, and everywhere! Jesus Christ is born!"  Sing it with me, won't you?


Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere
Go, tell it on the mountain,
That Jesus Christ is born.

While shepherds kept their watching
Over silent flocks by night
Behold throughout the heavens
There shone a holy light.

Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere
Go, tell it on the mountain,
That Jesus Christ is born.
 

 May the carols we sing, the Treasures of Christmas, bless your soul this Christmas and always. God loves you, and I do too, friend.  Merry Christmas!

 

© 2008 Anthony J. Godlefski