“Shepherds Guard and Angels Sing” Colchester Federated Church, December 1, 2019, (Matthew 24:36-44) First Sunday of Advent

Advent has begun!  This Liturgical Season centers on hopeful waiting for the birth of Jesus Christ into our midst.  We take time to prepare our hearts for Emmanuel—God with us.  Advent is about waiting and ultimately trusting in the promises of God.  Benedictine nun and worship scholar Joan Chittister explains: “The liturgical year does not begin at the heart of the Christian enterprise.  It does not immediately plunge us into the chaos of the Crucifixion or the giddy confusion of the Resurrection.  Instead the year opens with Advent, the season that teaches us to wait for what it beyond the obvious.  It trains us to see what is beyond the apparent.  Advent makes us look for God in all those places we have, until now, ignored.”[1]

Advent begins with apocalyptic texts from the Gospels, showing us a potential future of chaos and judgment while imploring us to stay alert and be watchful.  For we never know the day that Jesus will return.  Matthew writes, “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.  Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.  Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”[2]  This whole text is strange if we’re honest about it.  But perhaps we can see these apocalyptic texts as that call to look for God in all those places we have until now ignored.  We can see them as a call for hope—that God is a God of compassion and that without justice there can be no lasting peace.  Therefore, God is at work in our world in unexpected ways and justice matters to God.  We need to keep awake!  And when we see injustice, we can sound the alarm and get to work to make things right.

Let’s be clear that there are several ways to understand this Day of Judgment Matthew seems to be referring to—that day that no one knows about except God.  This is helpfully outlined by John P. Burgess in one my favorite lectionary resources Feasting on the Word.  Now some Christians believe that the Day of Judgment will be a literal event at a specific time in history.  God’s elect will be raptured while the rest of humanity will be left behind to face God’s wrath.  We need to be ready because these things may very well take place in our lifetimes.  That’s one view of the Day of Judgment.

Another way Christians understand the Day of Judgment is that it won’t occur at the end of human history, but at the time of every person’s death.  Each of us will stand before God and account for our lives—the good and the bad.  Though again, we can’t put off doing what Jesus commanded us to do while he was walking among us.  Because we won’t know for sure when we will die.  So we better act like good disciples of Jesus Christ before it’s too late.

The final way Christians understand this Day of Judgement is by seeing Jesus’ language as more symbolic.  The point isn’t to speculate about a Day of Judgment sometime in the future (whether that’s in our human history or at the time of our own individual deaths.)  Rather, we must consider the radical claims that God has on our lives every single day.  In this understanding, every day is like a day of judgment where we can ask ourselves: “Am I living in the way of Christ?”  “Am I trusting in him alone?”  “Have I allowed myself to be distracted by selfish cares?”[3]  Though the point is that these apocalyptic texts are open to interpretation and people have different ideas about what the Day of Judgement means in the first place.

So let’s not just throw out these apocalyptic Advent texts like we heard in Matthew 24 this morning just because it’s a little strange.  Instead, maybe we can take to heart what Jesus is saying here and the deeper meaning.  We must keep awake and focus on what really matters every day—loving God, loving our neighbors, loving ourselves.  If we want to shine our lights in the world, hope is essential and we must be about the work of justice.

Sometimes it’s really hard to be grounded in that hope we ultimately find in God.  There’s a quote about being grounded by author Iain Thomas who wrote, “And every day, the world will drag you by the hand, yelling, ‘This is important! And this is important! And this is important! You need to worry about this! And this! And this!’ And each day, it’s up to you to yank your hand back, put it on your heart and say, ‘No. This is what’s important.’”  My friends, this holy season of slowing down and pausing and deep darkness before the light of Christ will shine fully in the world helps us put our hands on our hearts and say, “No.  This is what’s important.”[4]

We spend time each Sunday in Advent contemplating what’s important—focusing on those timeless themes: hope, peace, joy, and love.  And this year to change it up a bit, we’ll be exploring the stories behind a few Christmas Carols.  Today we are focused on hope and the Christmas Carol that helps us on our way is “What Child Is This?”[5]  The lyrics were written by William Chatterton Dix who was born in Somerset, England in 1837.  He was born at a time when not many people ventured more than 50 miles from their place of birth.  Yet Dix found himself working as the manager of a marine insurance company in Glasgow, Scotland.  He was in insurance as his trade, but was always a poet at heart.  Many people over the years even accused him of pursing poetry as his passion and only working to be able to support his family, and that accusation was probably true.  His writing had a range of thoughts and subjects, but it lacked focus until tragedy struck.

William Chatterton Dix suffered a near-fatal illness and was confined to his bed for months.  He lay near death and began to reflect on his Christian faith.  He turned to the Bible and studied respected theologians of the time.  He ended up taking to heart that God could move in his own life.  After regaining some strength, he went on to write some of the greatest hymns that were ever written by an English layman like “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus!” (which we sang last Sunday in worship) and “As with Gladness, Men of Old.”  These are hymns just like “What Child is This?” that continue to be sung by Christians the world over.  Though the focus and inspiration of his work came only after he suffered from his illness and almost died.

What’s especially interesting about “What Child is This?” is that it was written before Christians celebrated Christmas with the kind of gusto that we do today.  There was a time when Christians (like the Puritans—who are one of the groups that we trace our faith ancestry back to in the United Church of Christ) didn’t celebrate Christmas.  Giving gifts, decorating, or even acknowledging the day was actually forbidden because Puritans felt that it distracted from religious discipline and that some of the traditions within Christmas celebrations were too pagan.  In 1659 the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony even banned the celebration of Christmas and that ban wasn’t lifted until 1681.  If you were found to take the day off work, have a feast, or put up Christmas decorations you would be fined five shillings.

So even though William Chatterton Dix was born in England in the 1800s it wasn’t all that common for people to write poems that were focused solely on Christmas because it just wasn’t celebrated like we do today.  The poem he wrote was called “The Manger Throne” and it presents a unique view of the birth of Jesus Christ almost from the viewpoint of someone who is confused about the identity of this child.  He imagines visitors going to Bethlehem and wondering what child was lying before them.  “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?”  Questions are found throughout the stanzas, with the chorus eventually serving as an answer to those questions in the hymn.  “This, this is the Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing; haste, haste to bring Him laud, the Babe, the Son of Mary!”  By the end of the verses, there’s even declarations of faith, “The King of kings salvations brings” and the invitation to “let loving hearts enthrone Him.”

It was a wonderful poem that was imported to the United States right around the time that the Civil War was ending, and it became a well-known Christmas poem in both the North and the South.  Though in the beginning, the poem was simply used in church services and printed in magazines and newspapers.  An unknown Englishman took the poem and set it to the famous English melody “Greensleeves.”  That is when the poem “The Manger Throne” became the Christmas hymn “What Child is This?” and the much-loved Christmas Carol that we sing today.

A quick note on “Greensleeves” is that most people associate the tune with King Henry VIII and there might have been lyrics that went along to the tune that he used when courting Anne Boleyn.  And we all know how well that turned out, yikes!  William Shakespeare even used the tune in his play The Merry Wives of Windsor.  But this haunting melody (which is often associated with the guitar or harpsichord solos), predates Henry VIII by hundreds of years as it was an ancient English folk song with more than twenty different known sets of lyrics associated with it.  It actually was associated with pubs and was a drinking song.

So, how amazing is it that someone thought to put William Chatterton Dix’s poem “The Manger Throne” to the timeless, haunting, (possible drinking song) English tune of “Greensleeves” and gift us with a beautiful Christmas Carol that helps us consider what child this is for you and for me.  It ends up that God can move in our lives, sometimes when we least expect it.  And the movements of God can always give us reason to hope.  “The King of kings salvation brings; let loving hearts enthrone Him.”  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life, 59.
[2] Matthew 24:40-42, NRSV.
[3] John P. Burgess, Theological Perspective of Matthew 24:36-44 in Feasting on the Word: A Thematic Resource for Preaching and Worship, Advent Companion, Eds. David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Kimberly Bracken Long, 39-41.
[4] Iain Thomas quote on goodreads.com.
[5] Ace Collins, “What Child is This?,” Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, 183-187.