The Gospel According to Christmas Carols- "What Child Is This?"

Pastor Terry Inman



Last Tuesday I was watching The Voice. The finalists sang carols. O Holy night, Silent Night and the winner Jordan Smith did an incredible rendition of “Mary Did you Know”. He was raised in a small church in Kentucky. He learned to sing in the choir. He sings in a Christian University Choir. Earlier in the season Jordan’s rendition of “Great is thy Faithfulness” topped the charts of Billboard Magazine.


The judges and the audience were overwhelmed by his performance of “Mary Did you Know”. They didn’t know exactly how to describe what they felt. I would call it an anointing. When we sing songs that really exalt the Lord he is present.

Today I am going to talk about a carol that begs a question—one that every one already knows the answer too. What child is this? Really?

It’s Jesus, of course. We all know that — even the kids know that.


So why title a song with a question. Not all questions are for solving problems or requesting new information. Sometimes questions make a point. We call those “rhetorical questions.” Jesus used that method often.


Other times the form of a question expresses awe and wonder about something we know to be true, but find almost too good to be true.


Some things just require and exclamatory question. Like when your watching Steph Curry of the Warriors make a three point shot that’s impossible. You might say, what kind shot was that?


When the disciples found themselves in a great windstorm, with waves breaking into the boat, and Jesus calmed the storm, they said,
Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41 NIV).


They knew the answer from Scripture. Psa. 89.9 says,
“You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them.”

Only God, himself can still the seas. This, somehow, must be God.A begging question like, “Who is this” invites everyone into the wonder?

That’s what this magnificent carol does. It invites us to discover who this child really is. “What child is this?” We know the answer. It has been plainly revealed. And it is almost too wonderful to be true. God himself has joined humanity in this vulnerable infant, and has come to rescue us.


The first verse of this carol elaborates on the question…

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?

What newborn gets visits by heavenly singers and earthy sheepherders? Angels cheer for God and serve us. Shepherds take care of lambs. This was the lamb of God sleeping on his mothers lap. His divinity and his humanity were affirmed by the guest list. He was both God and man.


Why is it so important that our savior have this dual identity?


The next verse hints at the answer…

This, this is Christ the King,

Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:

Haste, haste to bring Him laud,

The babe, the son of Mary.


First, Jesus Christ had to come as a man to rule on the throne of David, the first king of Israel (Isaiah 9:6). The Bible teaches that a king would come to save God’s people from their troubles and set the world right.


Jesus Jewish genealogy is crucial. The New Testament book of Matthew reveals that Jesus was born into the royal family line through Joseph. Therefore, he has the right to rule on the Davidic throne. (Matthew 1:1).


Secondly, Jesus became a man to reveal the Father. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (tented) We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1.14 NIV


No one has seen God in all His glory except His very special Son who has a unique relationship with the Father. His life here has clearly explained Him.

The first letter of John says we have seen, touched, and held the very Son of God who became a man to reveal the Father.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” (1 John 1.1 NIV)


Lastly, Jesus Christ had to become a man to redeem mankind. He had to have a human body in order to pay the penalty for sin. The bible says, without the shedding of blood there is no removal of sin. He also had to be God to fully satisfy the legal demand for a sinless or perfect sacrifice.


Therefore, Jesus became a man to rule, to reveal, and redeem. So it is fitting at Christmas—to wonder, to marvel, and to declare in awe, “What kind of child is this?”


The lyrics of this carol are a bit old English but the meaning is powerful.


The next verse says…

Why lies He in such mean estate, (nasty, unpleasant, poor)

Where ox and donkeys are feeding?

Good Christians, fear, for sinners here

The silent Word is pleading.


God came as a man, but “mean estate” is a low birth. My Dad was raised on a farm. When I left the door open as a kid he would say, “what’s wrong with you boy were you born in a barn? Jesus was.


That’s not the kind of arrival we would expect. He was born into poverty. There wasn’t even a vacancy at motel 6. It’s pretty amazing that angels sang but it wasn’t in the white house. It was to lowly shepherds.


You would expect the heir to David’s throne to be born in a palace and angels singing in a temple. Shepherds, not the most respected vocation, should take a number behind the Rabbis, Priests and other dignitaries.


Nope—angels sang to shepherds in the middle of the night on a cold hillside near the sheep caves. He came to lift the poor and broken. Mary sang,
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things. Luke 1.53 NIV


Psa. 113.7 says, He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap. Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Luke 5.32 NIV

The maternity room wasn’t exactly cozy and sterol, he was delivered near cow pies and dirty straw. He came to deliver messy humanity! But he was much more than a reformer. He was a redeemer. What Child is this?


The next verse reveals his primary purpose.

Nails, spears shall pierce him through,

the cross he bore for me, for you.

Hail, hail the Word made flesh,

the Babe, the Son of Mary.


What Child is this? This is God taking a humiliating bow to redeem us.


The bible says, “Though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men and being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross”” (Phil. 2:6–8 NIV).


There is a link between the humility of the cresh and the sacrifice of the cross. Christmas celebrates more than his birth. It also presses us forward in his story, beyond the lowliness of the manger to a life of lowly sacrifice. Finally it takes us to the ultimate lowliness, a repulsive public execution, condemned unjustly as a criminal.


It may feel like we are souring the joy of Christmas when we sing, “Nails, spears shall pierce him through . . .” Can’t we leave that for Good Friday? Let us have our nice, little, cuddly Baby Jesus in the straw at Christmas. No nails, no blood, no death, no thank you.


But the Word-made-flesh, coming without a cross, is not good news.

The light and joy of Christmas are hollow at best. He did this for us.


Christmas is for us only because his life is for us, and his death is for us. His triumphant resurrection on the other side is for us. “Nails, spears shall pierce him through” doesn’t ruin Christmas. It gives the season its power.

We are all invited to celebrate his birth, his life and his death. Angels, shepherds and kings all have something to sing about.


The next verse says…

So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh,

Come, peasant, king, to own him.

The King of kings salvation brings,

Let loving hearts enthrone him.


Lowly shepherds and lofty kings all take a bow before the only one who earned the right to be King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The weak and the strong, the wise and the foolish, the low and despised, kneel side by side.  I like this line. “Let loving hearts enthrone him.”


Is he your king? Take a knee before his crib, his cross and his crown. The bible says one day…“As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.’” Rom. 14.11NIV


“If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Rom.10.9 NIV


The final verse of this carol invites us to join the song.


Raise, raise a song on high,

The virgin sings her lullaby

Joy, joy for Christ is born,

The babe, the Son of Mary.


The manger is for all sinners because the cross is for all sinners. And this is all too much for simple fact-finding, cool-headed analysis, and calculated articulations. This is the stuff of singing. This is the time to say, to declare in the awe and wonder of worship…


“What child is this?”


This, this is Christ the King,

Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:

Haste, haste to bring Him laud,

The babe, the son of Mary.