I love the service of Lessons and Carols!
It’s fun just to mix up our routine a bit, if only so that we better appreciate our regular service of Holy Eucharist when we resume it next week. But I love more about Lessons and Carols than just the fact that it is different. I love hearing all the readings. And I especially love the chance to sing the carols. The Christmas season always moves by so fast that we don’t get to sing as much Christmas music as I would like.
The message of this service is carried by the readings and the hymns. A sermon isn’t really necessary, and a long sermon isn’t desirable!! Especially on New Year’s Day! But I want to draw your attention again this year to a couple of things this service illustrates more clearly than our regular services can.
In our regular services, we work through most of the Bible over the course of our three-year cycle of readings. Over the three years, we get the grand story, which all revolves around Jesus Christ. But because we only get little pieces of the story each week, we can easily miss the Bible’s truly epic unity.
And reading the Bible on our own doesn’t necessarily help that much, at least not if we are new to it. The Bible is not organized like a story. Parts of the Bible are confusing or off-putting. And it’s long!
The first great blessing of Lessons and Carols is that it makes the biblical story manageable by packing it into a single service. This service 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 so many lessons drawn 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.
Our service tells the whole story in miniature. I’m going to tell it again right now in even more miniature.
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 begins by telling 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 is 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.
In rapid sequence, 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, too, 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 Israel’s 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 for another five days, 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. It is all too obvious that 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.
But singing together, particularly in this season, is a great gift. At our Advent session on joy, the presenter asked us to share something that gives us joy. Lots of people said music, including me.
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