The Gospel According to Christmas Carols- "Oh Holy Night?"
Pastor Terry Inman
Astronomers got an early present Christmas Eve when an asteroid flew by Earth at a distance of 6.8 million miles. According to NASA the closest it came to Santa and reindeer is about 28 times the distance between Earth and the moon.
The Kings the bible calls Magi got a celestial omen leading them to the infant king in Bethlehem. It’s the subject of both fact and folklore, “We Three Kings” is actually an after Christmas carol.” It was up to two years before the Magi actually reached Jesus nursery in Bethlehem.
Today we conclude our series, “The Gospel According to Christmas Carols”. I hope you have been aware of opportunities to tune in and share the story of Jesus though the music of this season.
Carols were actually part of the first Christmas. Three songs recorded by Luke are part of the nativity story. Mary sang the “Magnificent”. It was her response to the Archangel’s announcement that she would give birth to the most important child ever born.
The opening line says, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed,for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.” Luke 1.46-49 NIV
Then there is Zechariah’s prophetic song, “The Benedictus” or blessing over his son, John the Baptist, and the destiny of the coming Messiah.
Luke says, He was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied. “Give praise to the Lord, the God of Israel! He has come and set his people free. He has acted with great power and has saved us.” Luke 1.67-69 NIV
The most famous of the nativity carols is the angelic serenade to Shepherds. “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” Luke 2.13-14 NIV
Some of our greatest hymns are Christmas carols that tell the story of the ages--the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ! The carol that focuses on the eastern star search is titled, “We Three Kings”.
John Henry Hopkins wrote “We Three Kings” in 1857. It was the first American Christmas Carol. He was a journalist and a law student who joined the Episcopal clergy. He was also the first to compose both the lyrics and the music for a Christmas Pageant in New York.
Three male vocalists sang the first and last verses together, and each one of them sang solo on the three middle verses that feature the gifts they brought to the infant king. The chorus highlighted the star of wonder.
Of the Christmas characters the three kings or Magi seem to get the humorous parts of contemporary Christmas pageants. I thought you might like this Claymation version of the song, “We Three Kings”.
Angels. Animals, shepherds and Kings, locals and foreigners—it certainly all makes for a wonderful set of characters for our Christmas displays. However much of this is legend.
Animals are not mentioned in the scriptures, the bible simply says, “Mary wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” The shepherds visited him there but there is no mention of kings or Magi. They came much later as told my Matthew.
According to the Bible, magi in the East were alerted to the birth of Jesus and were led toward Bethlehem by a bright star—a celestial phenomenon. Some suggest a comet. There is a lot of speculation on this.
The text simply says, “the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.” (Matt. 2.10 NIV)
This event itself was actually alignment of super stars. Eastern Magi were distinguished luminaries themselves! They were probably not Kings but were certainly from the King’s court of advisors. The paparazzi would have popped out of the sand dunes to catch this caravan of celebrities.
The dazzling sign in the sky was only a reflection of their star search. They were secular but sincere seekers of a future star, an infant King.
The magi are good examples of people searching for Christ. Tradition has it that they were three wise men. The scripture does not mention how many were in the entourage. That probably came from the fact that three gifts are mentioned. Matthew identifies them “magi”.
The Magi became the supreme priestly caste of the Persian Empire. Our word "magic" comes from the same root, but these seekers were not magicians they were more like members of the King’s religious court.
We get the term “magistrate” which is closer to their governmental role.
As years passed, the traditions became increasingly embellished. A 14th century Armenian tradition identifies them as Balthazar, King of Arabia; Melchior, King of Persia; and Gasper, King of India.
One of the responsibilities of this elite group of foreign emissaries was to confirm the selection of their Persian King. It’s no wonder that Herod, the King of Jews, was troubled by their search for an “omen” announcing a new ruler in Israel.
Herod consulted with his priests and teachers of the law. They informed him of the ancient prophecies. “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.” Matt. 2.6
He asked the magi for the exact time the star appeared so he could calculate the threat of his competition. By this time, Herod in his later years, was ill, and so paranoid that he had his own wife and two sons killed in addition to the massacre of all Jewish infants in Bethlehem.
The magi continued to pursue the “star” and the stories until they found the Christ child. The guiding star was poised over the house. The bible says, “When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.” (Matt. 2.10 NIV)
Matthew uses language alluding to prophecy in Numbers 24:17: “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.”
Their excitement over this cosmic sign led to devotion. Upon arriving at the home of the infant King they bowed in adoration. They came with gifts appropriate to a King.
Matthew says, “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.” (Matt. 2.11NIV)
The gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh prophetically, speak of the Lord's roles of king, priest, and savior. Gold speaks of His kingship; frankincense was a spice used in the priestly duties; and myrrh was an embalming ointment anticipating His death.
In His Millennium Kingdom, He will also receive the gifts of gold and frankincense; but no myrrh: His death was once and for all! (Rev. 18.13)
Before they left town the “magi” were warned in a dream not to return. Again this form of communication would have suited them well. Knowing they would incur Herod’s wrath they took an unfamiliar route back home. Jesus is still revealing himself to mid-eastern seekers though dreams!
The Magi left their influence on the house. After they left Joseph also had a dream. The “angel of the Lord” appeared warning him of Herod’s murderous plot. They escaped to Egypt in the middle of the night.
After Herod’s death the angel appeared a second time in a dream and told Joseph it was safe to return. He avoided any threat of Herod’s son in Jerusalem and raised Jesus in Nazareth of Galilee. Matthew who focuses on prophetic fulfillment notes that God’s son was predicted to “come out of Egypt” and would be called a Nazarene. (Matt. 2.15,17 NIV)
This fascinating story of the Journey of the Magi, can teach us something about searching for Christ and seeking to know him.
I think the story of the Magi makes a huge statement about God’s love of all of humanity. I couldn’t think of more likely recipients of such an honor than these dignitaries of a foreign race and religion.
It is obvious that they were sincere seekers. God responds to anyone with the slightest hunger to know him. He is the initiator of equal opportunity with out respect to religion, race or gender. “I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me.” (Prov. 8.17 NIV)
As misguided as their astrological stargazing might have been he still chose to show them the light. “I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me.” (Isa. 65.1NIV)
God responds to our slightest quest! Are you seeking to really know Jesus? He wants to make himself fully known to you. Just ask.
An unusual star led the magi. God will use whatever means to get our attention. You can look into the sky on a clear night and sense the presence of our creator. The bible says the universe talks.
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. (Psa. 19:3 NIV)
God reveals himself in his creation. It’s called natural revelation. “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (Rom. 1.20 NIV)
We are accountable for the revelation we have. The Magi pursued their revelation until they reached their destination. At first it may have just been driven by a fascination occasioned by their profession but when they encountered the supernatural star they were overcome with joy.
It was more than scientific curiosity. With all their notoriety and dignity they humbled themselves, bowed in awe and worshiped Christ.
Finally the bible says they “opened their treasures” and gave him meaningful gifts reflective of his royal identity. The most significant way to celebrate Jesus birthday is to “open your heart” and give him your life. Make him your savior, Lord and King! You will be overjoyed!
“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)