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First Christian Church, Grand Junction – Praising God, Changing Lives!

December 27, 2020 At-Home Worship Plan – The Music of Christmas, Part 1

Christmastide 1
At-Home Worship Plan
First Christian Church, Grand Junction
December 27, 2020
The Music of Christmas 1

 

PREPARATION

  • Communion Elements
  • A computer/tablet/phone for looking up the worshipful songs.  You could also use a hymnal and an instrument.
  • YOUTUBE Worship Service and Hymns Playlist – A video of Pastor Brad reading the background of the songs and the scripture readings for this service will be on the First Christian Church Youtube site.  Visit the First Christian Church Grand Junction Colorado YouTube Channel to find the playlists for the sermon and the hymns for the day.  The playlists of the videos for each are also accessible from our website.
  • TO VIEW THE PLAYLIST OF TODAY’S SONGS, click here.

ORDER OF WORSHIP

Invocation

God of Christmas,

We thank you for the most amazing gift that has ever been given, the most amazing gift we could ever hope to receive, the gift of Jesus of Nazareth born in a manger, the gift of a baby who would grow up to be our Savior and the head of our church.  God, grant today and always that we will truly be followers of Jesus, that our lives, our whole identities, will be as followers of Jesus.

We pray these thing in the name of Jesus, who taught us to pray:

Our Father,
Who art in heaven,
Hallowed be Thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
Lead us, not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
And the power, and the glory,
Forever.  Amen.

Introduction

During most years, on the Sunday after Christmas, we sing Christmas Carols during the sermon time.  We gather in the sanctuary and allow anyone to name a favorite Christmas Carol from our hymnal, and Paula plays a few verses of the chosen songs on the keyboard while we all sing.  This year, due to the COVID pandemic that prevents us from gathering in the sanctuary, we can’t do that…so, I’m providing a variation of that theme…and not just for one Sunday but for two Sundays…since this year there are TWO Sundays in Christmastide (which is not always the case.)

The modification is this: since we’re not all together in the sanctuary, Paula can’t play the Christmas carols, and we can’t sing them all together.  Further, since we’re not live, you can’t choose your favorites.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t sing Christmas carols.  Here’s what we’ll do: I’ll select and introduce Christmas Carols – not based on which are my favorites but based on the available background for the carols.  For each Christmas carol I’ll provide a brief backstory of the carol and then allow you to listen to and sing along with a version of the carol.  For as many of them as possible,  the songs will be edited right into the YouTube video for this service.  Also, for all of the carols, I’ll provide a link to a version of the carol on my hymns playlist for today.  Happy singing!

But before we get to the songs for today, let’s start with some scripture reading to set the tone.  Here are the lectionary readings for this first Sunday in Christmastide.

Scripture Readings

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
    my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

11  For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
    to spring up before all the nations.

62:1 For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
    and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
    and her salvation like a burning torch.

2 The nations shall see your vindication,
    and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
    that the mouth of the Lord will give.

3 You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
    and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

Luke 2:22-40

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31  which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”

33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

 

Here ends the reading of God’s word in scripture for this first Sunday of Christmastide.

“Song of Simeon”

You likely don’t think of our scripture from Luke about Simeon as the source of a Christmas song, but it is.  There are many variations of it…set to different tunes.  There are even tune for chanting these words every day, a use that transcends Christmas.  I won’t share with you any particular version of the “Song of Simeon” or “Canticle of Simeon” (as it is known) but encourage you to discover some for yourself on YouTube.  Now, onto The Music of Christmas!

The Music of Christmas

 

“O Little Town of Bethlehem”

Background

In 1865, Philadelphia minister Phillip Brooks took a year-long trip to the Holy Land, a trip that included a Christmas-week horseback ride into Bethlehem and a visit to the fields where it is said the shepherds saw an amazing star and received a visit from angels.  Three years later, in 1868, Brooks remembrance of that visit to Bethlehem was “still singing in his soul.”  And for the children’s Christmas program in 1868, still guided by the memory of that field where shepherds still keep watch over their flocks, Brooks penned the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” to help others experience what happened on that night in Bethlehem so long ago…and he handed off the task of writing a tune for the song to church organist Lewis Redner.  The night before the first rehearsal, Mr. Redner still had no tune for the song…but he was awakened from his sleep that night by “an angel-strain whispering in [his] ear.”  He picked up paper and pencil and wrote it down.  And today, we have a song to remind us of that first Christmas night that sounds like this.  

Song – “O Little Town of Bethlehem” #144

“Comfort, Comfort You My People”

Background

Sometimes, a song comes almost directly from scripture.  Sure, someone needs to put the words to music…but the words of scripture, especially the poetry of scripture, make for great lyrics.  Take the Advent hymn ‘Comfort, Comfort You My People.”  It’s right from Isaiah 40:1-8.  I know it’s not exactly a Christmas Carol – it’s more of an Advent carol – but it gets to the heart of what Christmas is all about.  

It stems from a time when God’s people had been overtaken by foreign enemies.  First, the northern kingdom of Israel fell  to the Assyrian Empire.  While the southern kingdom of Judah survived almost 140 more years, it, too, fell in 586 BC.  The author of Isaiah 40 is believed to have written during Judah’s exile in Babylon, sharing a message of hope for the Israelites that has been beautifully rendered into this Advent Carol.  Let’s hear and sing it.

Song – “Comfort, Comfort, You My People” #122

Imagine hearing – even singing – these words in the midst of exile, feeling like God has abandoned you and your people, that God has decided to remove your status as God’s chosen people.  And then, through the prophet, God says:

  • Comfort, comfort
  • Peace waits for you
  • God now covers your sins – it’s like they never happened, which means you can be God’s people again
  • God will no longer abandon you – God is here
  • God’s word is never broken – which means God’s word is trustworthy, and that means God’s promise that there will be a king in the line of David forever on the throne is trustworthy, so a king in David’s line will reign again

Even though this song ends with the 8th verse of Isaiah, chapter 40, God has more to say in the next three verses.  To summarize:

  • God is back – meaning that God will appear to be hidden from Judah no more
  • And, God is going to do something amazing

Y’all, that’s what Christmas was about at the time it happened.  God was back – not that God had taken a vacation or disappeared but that God was back to being active on behalf of God’s people Israel, and God was doing something amazing…because God’s word IS trustworthy.

And that should be the message for us every Christmas.  God is back.  Not that God went anywhere…but maybe we lost sight of what God was up to during the year…just a little.  And each and every Christmas, as we celebrate Jesus’ birth, for us, God IS back.

Joy to the World”

Background

In our hymnal, the song “Joy to the World” is listed as a Christmas song, or, more accurately, a song about the birth of Christ.  But, like “Comfort, Comfort, You My People”,  “Joy to the World” would more accurately be classified as an Advent song than a Christmas song.  Here’s why.

Isaac Watts was born in Southampton of the United Kingdom.  When Watts was born, the only songs that could be sung in the Church of England were Psalms put to music.  Which means there were NO Christmas songs in church…because the Psalms are NOT about Jesus.  And even though the Church of England changed its stance on songs other than the Psalms while Watts was a young man, Watts continued to base many of his songs on the Psalms…adapting them to the Christian experience.

The song “Joy to the World” was inspired by Psalm 98, which includes the words: 

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;  break forth into joyous song and sing praises….With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord…Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth.  He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.”  

Psalm 98 was a psalm praising God for God’s deliverance of the Israelites in the past, well before Jesus walked the earth.  And when Watts reinterpreted the psalm through the lens of Christianity, he didn’t even write the lyrics of “Joy to the World” as a way of remembering Christ’s PAST coming that we celebrate each December 25; he wrote the lyrics as a way to celebrate the anticipation of Christ’s FUTURE coming, his SECOND coming.  If you doubt, as you hear and sing this song, pay close attention to some things.  Is a baby ever mentioned?  Or a manger?  Or shepherds? Or angels? Or Joseph and Mary?  Or Wise Men? Or pretty much anything from the birth narrative – Christmas story?

Song –  “Joy to the World” #143 (1-3)

“Silent Night”

Background

The story behind the writing of the song so many congregations sing to conclude their Christmas Eve Candlelight worship services isn’t nearly as interesting – to me – as the the story of what happened to the song after it was written.

In 1816 in Austria, Father Joseph Mohr penned the words to “Silent Night” in the German language, and in 1818 Father Mohr asked his friend Franz Gruber to produce guitar music for the song.  On Christmas Eve of 1818, Mohr played and sang the song for the first time at St. Nicholas Church.

Several years later – probably in 1820 – Gruber prepared an organ arrangement for the song, which set some things in motion.  It is believed that an organ repairman was likely responsible for taking the song around that part of Austria, where two singing families – akin to real-life versions of the von Trappe family from “The Sound of Music” – performed it during their concerts, inside and outside of Austria.  The song was first performed in the United States by the Rainer family in 1939 and was translated into English in 1863.

By the early portion of the 20th century, the song had become so popular in multiple nations that in 1914, during what is known as the Christmas Truce of World War I, troops on both sides sang “Silent Night” because it was the only song known by soldiers on both sides of the conflict.

And so it was that a song about love’s pure light coming to shine in the darkness, a song about heavenly peace, a song about a savior who would calm the world…actually had the effect of calming warring hostilities among people 1900 years later.  That’s what Christmas is about.

Song – “Silent Night, Holy Night” #145

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

Background

The story behind the well-known Christmas Carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” brings us back around to the topic of Isaiah 40.  It’s not that the carol is based on Isaiah 40 so much as how the story behind the carol demonstrates the message of God’s words through the prophet Isaiah: what God was doing in sending the Messiah to us had the power to change lives, to remind us all that God is near and God is active, that God IS back, even when our circumstances are dire.

On December 25, 1864, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem called “Christmas Bells.”  The poem was seven stanzas in length, and it reflected the great emotional pain Longfellow was experiencing.  

On April 12, 1861, the first shots of the American Civil War were fired.  Later that same year, Longfellow’s wife, Fanny, tragically died in a fire when a few drops of the hot sealing wax she was using to seal some cuttings of her daughter’s hair fell on her dress and caught fire.  Longfellow, who tried to smother the fire first by wrapping a throw rug around Fanny and then by wrapping his arms around her, was badly burned on his face, arms, and hands.  On the first Christmas after Fanny’s death, Longfellow wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.”  His journal entry for Christmas the next year, 1862, reads: “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”  Then, in 1863, Longfellow’s oldest son, Charles, was wounded by a bullet in the Civil War.  It was while the Civil War was still ongoing and while the pain of Fanny’s death still weighed upon him and while waiting for his son to fully heal and return that Longfellow wrote “Christmas Bells”.

The poem is about the bells ringing on Christmas day as a way of proclaiming “peace on earth, good will to men.”  But the poem also reflects Longfellow’s pain and anguish that the promised peace had not yet become a reality.  From Longfellow’s perspective, the war was evidence that “peace on earth, good will to men” was NOT being experienced by the nation:

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South
And with the Sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

As he continues, Longfellow’s words suggest that the he, personally, had not experienced the peace in his own life, as well, but rather despair:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

I imagine the Judeans of Isaiah’s time might have written similar words.  An army from Babylon rocked the nation.  Those individual Judeans who survived knew well the face of death, knew well the horrors of great pain and anguish.  But God said, “Comfort, comfort, you my people.”

And in those bells ringing on Christmas Day in 1864, Longfellow must have found some kind of comfort and hope in God, for he concluded the poem with these words:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.

Having survived the worst experiences of life in just a few short years, while reflecting on the meaning of Christmas as a result of the music of Christmas found in those church bells, Longfellow found God right there with him.  When “Christmas Bells” was put to music and called “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, the verses about the Civil War and Longfellow’s reflections on it were removed, but the message of the song remains powerful today.

Song – “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (traditional)

One last thing I want to point out is the significance the music can make to the meaning of a song.  The music contributes greatly to how you are impacted by the song and to the message you receive.

Consider the song we just sung, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” when performed to a different tune.

“Song” – “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day’ by Casting Crowns

So…what do you think?  Does the music make a difference?

Transition

Allright, our time focused on the music of Christmas for this day comes to an end.  We’ll continue now with the rest of our worship service.  Tune in next week for even more Christmas songs and to sing and hear…and more background about the music of Christmas.   (If you’re watching this on YouTube, it’s time to switch to a copy of the At-Home worship service because the video ends here.)

MorningPrayer

(Share joys and concerns, then have someone pray the following prayer or one of your own.)

God of Christmas,

We thank you for the gift of your Son, your amazing Light to this world.

As we continue our celebration of Jesus’ birth this Christmastide, fill our hearts with the joy of a very special birth which has led to a new beginning for us all.  Fill our hearts with the warm knowledge of your unfailing love.  Grant that we will come to know your love by each experience of Christmas joy we have this season, experiences like those mentioned in this service of worship.  And grant that by each experience we will respond to you with hearts and voices and lives that will make Messiah known to all the world.

Even as we give thanks for the joys you make possible, we know there are people who struggle to find joys you make possible – even the joys of Christmas, and so we ask also for your strength to entrust the needs of this world and its inhabitants to you.  We entrust to your care this day:

  • All who are on our congregation’s prayer list, and all who have been mentioned by name in our worship;
  • All who suffer from abuse or oppression;
  • All who struggle with anxiety or distress;
  • All who suffer from lack of food, water, shelter, or loving relationships;
  • All who suffer from injury or illness;
  • All who mourn or grieve;
  • All who struggle with quarantines and lockdowns, as well as those whose bodies are being ravaged by COVID-19;
  • All who struggle in their efforts to follow Jesus;
  • All who refuse to seek you;
  • All who struggle to experience the joy of this season;
  • For all who have need but who go unnamed;

For all who have need of your intervention, O God, grant them what you know they need; respond to these prayers in the way you see as being best, the way that will turn shouts of pain and suffering into shouts of joy, the way that will bring glory to your name.

God of Christmas joy, strengthen us now, in this moment, strengthen us always, to sing Christmas into our lives and into the world…that you might make your gift of Jesus known through us.

We pray, as we live, through Jesus whose birth we celebrate, and by the power of your Holy Spirit…Amen.

Offering

Invitation.  In mere anticipation of the amazing thing God MIGHT do in the future, very likely the thing we now celebrate each Christmas, the prophet isaiah said:

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
    my whole being shall exult in my God;

I wonder, what would it look like for your whole being to exult in God?  What would it look like for the financial/material part of your being to exult in God?  Would it look like how you currently live, or would it look different?

My friends, Isaiah anticipated what God might do with the birth of the Christ child.  We live after – in response to – what God actually did a little more than 2,000 years ago.  How should we respond?  Let’s be in the spirit of Christian giving!

Response.  If you feel called to respond by making a monetary gift to continue God’s work through FCCGJ, you can do so right now in one of three ways:

    1. Write a check to First Christian Church and mail it to FCCGJ, 1326 N. 1st Street, Grand Junction, CO 81501.
    2. On your cellphone, text GIVE2FCCGJ (plus the dollar amount you want to give) to 73256.  For example, if you want to offer $50, text GIVE2FCCGJ $50 to 73256.
    3. Via the internet on your computer, go to our congregation’s website at gjdisciples.org, click “online giving” on the top menu bar, and then click on the link under the second bullet point to make an online contribution.

Offering Prayer.  Say a prayer asking for God’s blessing upon whatever gift/commitment you made to God, as well as all the other commitments Jesus’ followers are making this morning.

Communion

Invitation to Communion:  In today’s gospel reading, Simeon appeared to be content to die, he felt like his life had been made complete, by his encounter with Jesus as a child, a baby.  How much more content should WE be that we know not only of Jesus’ humble birth but ALSO of the culmination of his ministry, which began with this meal of which we partake each and every Sunday!

I wonder sometimes if we live as if we have been completed by what and WHO we encounter at this table.   Consider how Jesus’ birth is made complete – and how your life is made complete – by the events we remember as we prepare to partake of Holy Communion. 

Communion Hymn – “What Child is This” #162

Communion Prayer:  

God who gave your Son that we might have life…bless this bread and cup, and help us by our partaking of these elements to remember and know your love for us.  Help us to know and remember in a way that will change us so that we will not live like everyone else around us but so that we might live as people who know, who really know, your unending love for us and for all the world.  I pray these things in the name of Jesus and by the power of your Holy Spirit, Amen.

Words of Institution:  We remember that on the night Jesus was to be betrayed, he sat around a table with his disciples and shared a meal.  While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread and, after giving thanks, broke it and gave it to them, saying, “Take, eat.  This is my body, broken for you.”  In the same way, Jesus took a cup, and after blessing it, said, “This is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.  Do this in remembrance of me.”

Partake of the bread and cup in your own time.

Closing Song

“Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” #150

Benediction

Go now with Christmas joy,
Knowing the God who made you
Loves you enough to send you a Savior,
Loves you enough to make you right before God.
Go in the name of Jesus
And by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen!