Listen to the Words - Song Three
A Christmas Series by Pastor Greg Crawford
There are a lot of Christmas songs out there to choose from. Even if you weed out the modern music and grab a hymnal, you will still find dozens of beloved songs at your disposal. When I reflect on my favorite timeless classics from the Christmas genre, my favorite Christmas hymn probably has to be O holy night. While most of us who try to sing it completely butcher it due to the wide range of notes within the song, we love it due to the variety of minor chords and the catchy melody. We even love the lyrics, but how much thought have we really given to their theological significance. Let’s take a look to see what we’ve caught, and what has passed us by.
"O holy night, the stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth;
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn"
The first two lines don’t offer us anything substantial. We don’t know whether or not it was a clear night with stars or a cloudy night with a slight drizzle. The wisemen most likely did not arrive until Jesus was 1 to 2 years old and so the star they observed has little to do with the sky the night Jesus was born. Regardless, it was the night of our “Savior’s” birth. The fact that Jesus is our savior is rarely overlooked but the remainder of the verse explains some of the theology behind our need for the savior.
“Long lay the world in sin and error pining” is an amazing way to communicate the curse of sin that has come upon the whole world. Paul brings out in Romans 8 that the creation is moaning in labor pains, waiting to be delivered. The world experiences chaos on multiple levels as pestilence, natural disasters, and other threats wreak havoc on her security. More importantly, sin has plagued humanity for thousands of years, leaving them no real way to escape their corruption. At this point we need to adjust our focus from ancient Israel as we understand their connection to God and their ability to sacrifice in the Temple to atone for their sins temporarily, however, a giant world of nations lay outside her borders with no access to God, and therefore no way to experience purity and holiness. The Oriental people groups, ancient Germanic tribes, African nations, and countless other people around the globe lived daily lives with no hope. They had no forgiveness of sin. Yes, they had Israel as a light that was meant to draw people to God (Ex 19:6, Is 42:6) but Israel’s own shortcomings dampened their illuminating appeal. So they were helpless and hopeless. Falling prey to foreign gods made of wood and stone, worshipping the stars, and blindly following the Satanic powers manifested through their priests and diviners, they were so far from God. Don’t forget that this was how the world was before Jesus came into the world. So hopeless, so helpless.
“Til he appeared”… these words make the transition from hopeless and helpless to a world of purpose and unlimited potential. It was a world where the “soul” could truly recognize its eternal value. Being united to Christ has elevated souls to an everlasting significance, going from sinners in struggle to saints in security, from wretched rags of wrath to royal garments of righteousness. The “thrill” of hope should come over the “weary world” as their mourning…their labor pains… turn to rejoicing. I’ve witnessed three children come into this world and every one knows a woman’s labor pains can be intense. But each delivery I’ve witnessed has resulted in an instant transition from my wife’s pain to her overwhelming joy. The world made the same transition the night Christ was born. Their Savior, their salvation, was finally at hand.
Fall on your knees, Oh hear the angel voices!
O night divine! O night when Christ was born.
O night, O holy night, O night divine.
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is Love and His gospel is Peace;
Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
And in his name all oppression shall cease,
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful Chorus raise we;
Let all within us praise his Holy name!
This verse may have more reason for theological introspection than the first as it covers a span of theological ideas that may be missed in our cultural context. We know that Christ taught us to love and that God is love but what does the song writer mean by “His law is love?” Much of Jesus’ ministry was spent clarifying the Old Testament teaching. He didn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it and he fulfills it by living in a way that gets at the heart of the commandments. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus explains what it really means to hate, divorce, murder, etc. He wasn’t changing the law, but simply demonstrating that the nation had wavered from the original intent of the law. God’s heart in the commandments is LOVE. Jesus states that the greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength” and to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He explains that all the law hangs on these two commands. I will briefly say that love does not always look “nice” and “tolerant” like we’ve come to expect in this culture. Jesus flipping tables over was love. Jesus driving people out of the temple with whips was love. Jesus calling the Pharisees hypocrites, a den of thieves, vipers, etc., was love. Our love must be biblical.
“His Gospel is peace” is another theological statement worth considering. Gospel means “good news” and “peace” is a theological word that is deeper than we often think about. Peace is not just tranquility and rest from chores. Peace in the Jewish world was a term that echoed the rest of God in Genesis 1. It is the rest that indicates the world is in balance and nothing is off-kilter. It is the rest that allows humanity to accomplish God’s purposes with no temptation and trial to derail his efforts. The Sabbath was meant to be a foretaste of this eternal rest, but never a substitute for what God would bring about in the eschaton. The Gospel of Jesus is the good news of this coming rest.
“Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother” is a statement that comes with both biblical and political fervor. While we live outside the time period of slavery in this country, this song was written during the climax of the abolitionist movement and expresses the deep remorse for brothers and sisters who were deprived of their freedom and basic human rights. Jesus expressed that he had come to “proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18) God’s son expresses the heart of God in this quotation of Isaiah, since God himself had embedded within the Old Testament law a year of Jubilee that reset the clock on human relationships and land. Slaves were released, land possessions went back to their original owners, even if they switched hands, and people got a chance to start over again, even if their own actions got them in their current situation. As Jesus fulfilled all of the Old Testament, He is our year of Jubilee and all who know Him have rest and freedom that no human system can take away. Yet, this internal/spiritual reality in our lives should carry over into the way we treat others. It should cause us to fight for freedom and all human rights as we see in them the reflection of our heavenly father. We are paving the way to the day when “all oppression shall cease.”
Christ is the Lord, then ever! ever praise we!
His pow'r and glory, evermore proclaim!
His pow'r and glory, evermore proclaim!