SERMON TITLE: O Holy Night
TEXT: Psalm 85:10-13 (NLT)
SPEAKER: Josh Hanson
Watch the sermon here
Take notes here
Merry Christmas! As always it’s a joy to be with all of you for our Christmas Eve services this weekend at Gateway Church. And there’s one thing I want you to know — and this is true if you’re in town for the holidays — either here or at our North Main Campus — or are regularly part of our faith family — I want you to know that God loves you and that I love you too.
For several weeks we’ve been looking at different Christmas carols that help tell the Christmas story. Carols like Angels from the Realms of Glory, Joy to the World, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. And — our carol for Christmas Eve — is O Holy Night.
Now I hope you’ve enjoyed the recordings of these carols that some of our staff and volunteers have put together. All five carols are available on our YouTube page for you to enjoy. Something you may not know — unless you were there — is that it was ridiculously cold the night we recorded the songs. That was back in October — by the way — and we thought being dressed up in winter coats was going to all be for show. Well the joke was on all of us. Thanks again to everyone who came out for the recording — it was quite the memorable evening.
And now — if you have your Bible — please turn with me to psalm eighty-five. Admittedly the psalms aren’t what we typically think of when we think of Christmas. In modern times we’ve focused on the gospels in the New Testament at Christmas — but in church history — many passages have been used to tell the Christmas story — including the psalms — which is why we’re using a psalm to tell the Christmas story this year.
I’m going to read the entire psalm — and then we’ll focus on its closing verses. We’re in psalm eighty-five — beginning in verse one.
Psalm 85 (NLT)
1 Lord, you poured out blessings on your land! You restored the fortunes of Israel. 2 You forgave the guilt of your people — yes, you covered all their sins. 3 You held back your fury. You kept back your blazing anger. 4 Now restore us again, O God of our salvation. Put aside your anger against us once more. 5 Will you be angry with us always? Will you prolong your wrath to all generations? 6 Won’t you revive us again, so your people can rejoice in you? 7 Show us your unfailing love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation. 8 I listen carefully to what God the Lord is saying, for he speaks peace to his faithful people. But let them not return to their foolish ways. 9 Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him, so our land will be filled with his glory. 10 Unfailing love and truth have met together. Righteousness and peace have kissed! 11 Truth springs up from the earth, and righteousness smiles down from heaven. 12 Yes, the Lord pours down his blessings. Our land will yield its bountiful harvest. 13 Righteousness goes as a herald before him, preparing the way for his steps.
Our carol is O Holy Night — a Christmas carol with an interesting origin story. It’s the year 1847 — we’re in France — where a parish priest has commissioned a poem to be written for the upcoming Christmas mass. Now — it’s important to know that the poet — who the priest hired — didn’t attend church — he wasn’t a Christian — but he took the job. And while traveling to Paris — the poet considered the priest’s request. He knew the poem needed to be religious in nature — it was for church after all — and he wanted to base the poem on Scripture. So he picked Luke’s gospel and imagined being present on the night when Jesus was born. And — by the time his carriage arrived in Paris — he’d finished his poem and titled it Cantique de Noel.
Instinctively he knew that his poem was more than a poem — he knew it was a song — but he wasn’t a musician. So he called on one of his friends and asked him to put the poem to music. His musician friend was Jewish — so let’s pause for a moment and grasp what’s going on. A priest commissioned a poet — who wasn’t a Christian — to write a poem about the birth of Jesus. And this poem became a song because a composer — who also didn’t believe in Jesus — wrote music to accompany the poem’s lyrics.
Three weeks after the music was finished the carol was sung at midnight mass on Christmas Eve. The carol was embraced by the church in France and it began to be sung in churches throughout the country. But then the carol’s story takes an interesting twist.
The poet — who remember wasn’t a Christian — he didn’t even attend church — well — he became involved in the socialist movement in France — and some leaders in the church discovered this. Then they learned that the composer was a Jew and not a Christian. And — suddenly — a carol that had risen to being one of the most popular songs in the church of France was denounced by the church! Why? Well everyone knows you can’t sing a song in church if it’s been written by a socialist atheist and a Jew, right? So the carol was considered — and I quote — “unfit for church services because of its lack of musical taste and total absence of the spirit of religion.” Which is interesting given that the music and the words hadn’t changed. Though the church tried to bury the song — the people continued to sing it — and ten years later an American writer brought the carol to the US.
John Sullivan Dwight was a pastor and abolitionist living in Boston. He translated the carol into English as he hoped the carol would impact slavery in the south. The lyrics that struck him were “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!” The carol quickly grew in popularity in America — especially in the North during the civil war.
Now back in France — the year is 1871 — the carol’s been banned for about twenty years and legend has it that on Christmas Eve — during the war between France and Germany — a French soldier got out of the trench he was fighting from, stood up with no weapon in his hand, and sang three verses of O Holy Night. When he finished — supposedly a German soldier then stood up and sang lyrics from a song written by Martin Luther. And for the next twenty-four hours both armies observed a temporary peace in honor of Christmas day.
One last piece of O Holy Night history that I think you’ll find interesting. On Christmas Eve — in 1906 — Reginald Fessenden did something that was considered impossible at the time. For the first time in history, a man’s voice was broadcast over radio airwaves and it was Fessenden’s voice. And do you know what the first words spoken over radio airwaves were?
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.
People listening to their radios — used to only hearing coded impulses — were shocked to hear the gospel of Luke coming from their speakers. Fessenden probably had no idea the sensation he was causing — people rushing to hear this Christmas Eve miracle. And — after finishing his reading about the birth of Christ — he picked up his violin and played the melody to O Holy Night. The first words spoken were about the birth of Christ and the first song to be heard on the radio was our carol.
I share all of this because — in many ways — the history of O Holy Night is as much as what Christmas is about as the lyrics of the carol are. In the carol’s history we see God’s providence at work — how he is at work — behind the scenes — in all things. If not for God, how would an atheist and a Jew come together to write a Christmas carol that tells the gospel story? And the history of the carol reminds us of the effects that sin has had in our world — war and slavery — and why Christ was born — to bring peace on earth. And the history of our carol reminds us that things we often get worked up about today often don’t mean much in a few hundred years. That doesn’t mean they’re unimportant now — just that they’re probably not nearly as important as we make them out to be — which also means that something else — something really important — is probably being overlooked.
Yes — the history of our carol — has much to teach us — and so does God’s Word. So let’s turn to the final verses in our psalm and find the hope, love, joy, and peace that’s offered to us in Jesus Christ.
O Holy Night
Again the words of our psalm remind us that...
Psalm 85:10–13 (NLT)
10 Unfailing love and truth have met together. Righteousness and peace have kissed! 11 Truth springs up from the earth, and righteousness smiles down from heaven. 12 Yes, the Lord pours down his blessings. Our land will yield its bountiful harvest. 13 Righteousness goes as a herald before him, preparing the way for his steps.
The questions for us to answer are: Where did unfailing love and truth meet? Where did righteousness — righteousness means being right with God — where did righteousness and peace kiss? When did truth spring up from the earth? When did righteousness smile down from heaven? And who was righteousness preparing the way for?
Well — this is Christmas — so the one answer to our many questions — I think — is obvious. Love and truth met in Jesus Christ. Righteousness and peace came together in him. Truth sprang up from the earth when Jesus rose from the grave — for he is the way, the truth, and the life. And how comforting it is to know that he is smiling down from heaven as he looks upon his people in whom he is well pleased — his people whom he loves to pour out his blessings. And righteousness prepared the way for the Messiah to come on that holy night of long ago — when Jesus — the Christ child — was born.
The fulfillment of our psalm’s verses all come together in Jesus. In us, the characteristics mentioned in our verses are disconnected and often in conflict with each other. For example, it’s common for people to justify not telling the truth as they pursue something they love. Yet — in Christ — all of these characteristics and qualities are in harmony with each other — no disharmony — just beautiful, radiant harmony of love and truth, righteousness and peace, blessings and harvest. And this idea of harmony — or the lack of it — brings us back to our carol.
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!
Pining isn’t a word we use much these days. It means to “suffer a mental and physical decline, especially because of a broken heart.” The world — including all of us — because of sin — is in decline — mental decline, relational decline, physical decline, spiritual decline — we see this all around us — AND — there’s a brokenness to our hearts. What dark and hopeless news — what disharmony. But God — anytime you hear those words know that Good News is coming — but God — in seeing the brokenness of our hearts — in seeing our suffering and decline — sent his Son to be born — to appear — so your soul and mine would experience the thrill of an eternal hope — a reason to rejoice in this weary world — for in the birth of Christ a new day has dawned!
Then — after this glorious news — the carol reminds us that...
Truly he taught us to love one another;
His law is love and his gospel is peace.
Do you know where Jesus taught us to love one another? In John’s gospel Jesus says…
John 15:12–13 (NLT)
12 This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. 13 There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Many of us are searching for our purpose in life — why are we here — what’s the point of all of this? Sometimes we’re so focused on ourselves that we forget that every person that’s ever lived was born with a purpose — including Jesus. Jesus was born to make the unrighteous, righteous. He was born to give hope to the hopeless. To release captives from their enslavement to sin, death, and fear. Jesus was born to show us what it means to both be loved and what it means to love one another. And for those who receive his love — believing that Jesus is the Savior of the world — a thrill of hope is exactly what they experience. And they become part of a hopeful people who rejoice in this weary world.
I wonder if there’s any rejoicing in your life this Christmas — if you have real hope in this weary world? I wonder if there’s peace in your life versus the warring and conflict that so often defines relationships in our day? I wonder if you know of God’s unfailing love for you — the love displayed in Jesus laying down his life for you?
My prayer for you — for all of us — is that this would be a Merry Christmas indeed. A Christmas where God’s love for you — in Jesus Christ — would open your heart to receiving the gifts of hope, love, joy, and peace that are found in the child who was born on that O Holy Night. Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, what a holy night that first Christmas was and still is. For it is the night of our dear Savior’s birth — your plan of rescue — in action — a plan you made before time began.
Holy Spirit, remind us of the reasons we have to be joyful. Remind us of the hope we have. The peace we’ve been offered. The unfailing love that’s been displayed to and for us in Jesus Christ.
And — Jesus — you are the reason for our thrill of hope — for you have shown us what it means to be loved when you laid down your life for us and rose up from the grave — springing up from the earth — with a new and glorious truth: Satan, sin, death, and Hell have been defeated on behalf of your people. And — in response to these great promises — we join together to rejoice in this weary world. In your name we pray. Amen.
May you go with hope and peace — in love and with joy — for Christ your Savior is born. Amen.
God loves you. I love you. Merry Christmas! And you are sent.