Let me begin by acknowledging an obvious truth: if ever there was a time for a short sermon, this is it. We have just heard eight lessons, running from the first sin through the birth of Christ. We have just sung eight hymns praising God for the gift of his Son. And we still have another lesson and another carol to go! That is just about enough. And the good news for the moment is, I know that. So I promise to be brief, at least to try to be brief!
Mostly I want to comment on the value of this service. It is good for us to do something a little different every once in a while, if only so that we can better appreciate our routine when we return to it next week.
But the service of Lessons and Carols does more than simply vary our routine. It points us to two things that we could possibly miss in our regular services.
In our regular services, we work through the entire Bible story over the course of our three-year cycle of readings. But because we only get little pieces of the story each week, we can easily miss its truly epic unity.
The first great blessing of Lessons and Carols is that it helps us to see the sweep of salvation history and how the Bible as a whole proclaims the good news of God in Christ. By putting together in a single service so many lessons drawing from so many different books, we remind ourselves that the Bible is all connected and that all the pieces work together to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The Bible is ultimately one grand story, revolving around Jesus Christ.
The majority of our lessons this morning come from the Old Testament. Some Christians do not know or do not much like the Old Testament. But that is a mistake. The Old Testament tells us that God created all things, that God blesses all of creation, that God desires good for all of creation. That is good news.
Unfortunately, creation as we know it has been marred by human sin. The Bible tells us that too. And so begins God’s grand project of redeeming and restoring all of creation. That is the story the Bible tells, the story of God’s relentless love for us and for all of creation.
And so we get the calling of Abraham to be the father of the chosen people. We get the deliverance of God’s people from bondage in Egypt and the gift of the law at Mount Sinai. We get the rise and the fall and then the semi-rise once again of the Israelite kingdom. Through it all, the prophets help their people to see God’s hand at work in the world all around them, in the many tragic things that happen as well as in the great blessings.
That whole long, rich, and complicated story is our story. We, too, are called. We suffer bondage and experience liberation. Our fortunes rise and fall. And through it all, God is at work in us. So, we try to learn from Israelite history, to do our best to heed the wisdom of the prophets, and, to see God’s work all around us as God worked in and through them.
That brings us to the threshold of the New Testament. There, of course, we hear most clearly about the great gift of Christ himself, the one who stands at the very center of the story, the very center of salvation history. Christ comes as the light in the darkness. Christ comes to offer us grace and truth. Christ comes to reshape us into the beloved children of God.
That is where we are in our service. That’s where we are in our lives, too. All of Israel’s hopes have come together in Christ, whose birth we continue to celebrate on this second day of the Christmas season and whose story we will follow though his ministry, his crucifixion, and his resurrection in the next few months.
And yet, despite all that Christ has done, God’s kingdom can still seem far away. Terrible things continue to happen. And so, like the ancient Israelites before us, we long for more. We long for a fuller vision of God. We long to see God’s full redemption of creation, the redemption that we know in Christ but that seems so painfully incomplete every time we look around us. Obviously the story of God’s redemption is not over.
Thankfully we still have one reading left, a vision from the book of Revelation, a vision of hope, a vision of the final consummation of all things. Only then, with the establishment of God’s kingdom, will the Bible story truly come to an end. Only then will creation be restored to God’s original vision for it. And today, we get a glimpse of the whole sweep from creation to consummation, the whole story of God’s love for us.
When we return to our regular service next week, remember that each reading is part of that grand sweep. Use each reading to meditate on the magnificence of God who brings about salvation for us in the midst of all the complexity of human history and who has given us the incredible gift of his Word as an encouragement and as a testimony to that salvation.
That is the first thing we can see in this service. The second thing we can see so clearly in the service of Lessons and Carols is the importance of music in Christian worship.
As many of you know, I am all about the word—the lessons part of our service. The carols part comes less naturally to me. If and when the pandemic eases, I hope to resume my occasional singing lessons with the ever-patient Seaburys. Still, my singing is very much a work in progress.
But despite my inability to stay in tune, I know this: music is the true language of worship. There is no better way to express our praise and adoration to God than to sing it. Singing God’s praises is especially fun at Christmastime because there are so many great carols that we all know. That means those of us who are less musically gifted can be a little less self-conscious when we sing and a little more conscious of the one to whom we direct our songs. And that is what worship is all about.
Together the lessons and the carols are a kind of conversation. In the lessons, we listen to God talk to us. In the hymns we respond to God with songs of praise.
That is true of our worship every week, of course. Every week, we listen for God especially when we hear God’s word read and proclaimed. And every week we talk to God, especially when we pray and sing.
But today the dialogue of worship is built into the structure of our service, with its alternating lessons and carols. Today our dialogue with God in worship is peculiarly visible.
And so I end with thanks to God for his Word and for the opportunity to celebrate that Word in songs of praise. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan