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Away in a Manger

Series: Songs of Christmas

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Dec 16, 2004

Luke 2:7

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Now turn with me, if you would, to the Gospel of Luke, and in chapter two, and verse seven. The Gospel of Luke, in chapter two, and verse seven. And if you would, have open before you the carol that is the focus of our attention this evening, Away in a Manger, which you’ll find at 204 and 205; and we’ll be singing from the version and the melody of 205 at the close of our service this evening.

This is by far and away, I suppose, one of the most well-known of all the carols. It's hard to imagine Christmas without the singing of Away in a Manger. Problematic as the carol somewhat is (and we’ll come to that in a second or two), it's hard to believe the carol is, in fact, just over a hundred years old — 120, 125 years old — and it's even more difficult for me to believe, and bear with me and allow me to finish the sentence, that this is in fact an all-American carol! And I mean no disparagement to the Americans, but for a long time I actually did think it was a German carol, and because of its attribution to Martin Luther. And none of that, of course, is true; the carol was in fact written, as we shall see, in the nineteenth century and in the northern states. We’ll come to that in a second.

Let's come to the Scriptures, to Luke 2:7. Luke, chapter two, and verse seven. Before we read the passage, let's come before God in prayer. Let's pray together.

Father, we rejoice in the prospect that from out of Your word come good things that nourish and instruct and edify and encourage our souls. And we bless You for the instruction that You give us in the Scriptures concerning Your dear Son, and the birth of Your Son in Bethlehem, Judea. And we ask now, Holy Spirit, that You would once again attend our time together; that we might read, mark, learn and inwardly digest, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Verse seven of Luke, chapter two:

“And she gave birth to her first-born son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

Amen. May God add His blessing to the reading of His holy and inerrant word.

I was once accused of heresy. It came from one of my deacons. Not here, now, you understand; this was in Belfast in Northern Ireland. It came, as these things often do, in the form of a very long, a very long letter that first of all came to me, and then a copy of it was sent to the Clerk of Session, and then further copies were sent to the Presbytery. And I was being charged with heresy, according to his interpretation of Scripture and according to his understanding of The Westminster Confession of Faith, because I had said something in a sermon. And what I had said in a sermon–and of course you must understand there was a context to what I was saying– but what I had said in the sermon was that Jesus did not know everything. I was, of course, referring to Jesus in His human nature. I was referring to the human mind of Jesus, not the divine mind of Jesus. But I uttered those words: Jesus did not know everything (despite the fact that Jesus Himself tells us that of the day and hour of the Second Coming He did not know, but only the Father).

Well, as you can see, I survived the ordeal. It didn't last all that long. There was a somewhat embarrassed and hastily called meeting of the Presbytery, a commission of the Presbytery, and I remember an afternoon–it was quite an experience–before my colleagues and being quizzed for about two hours. These were serious men, and the charge was taken very seriously. And I began by pointing out that the view that my friend and colleague, my deacon friend who's now in heaven (and I hope knows better)...but I pointed out that what he was actually saying in the letter had in fact been condemned by the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. as heresy, and that if we wished to pursue this line of heresy charges, I had one of my own. But anyway, we agreed in the best of terms to shred these letters, and I doubt that you will ever find it. It's not in the records anymore, they’re gone, and if my biography is ever written...I hope it's never written, but if it is I don't think anything of that will ever come up!

But the reason for my saying the statement “Jesus did not know everything” had actually arisen in a comment that I had made in the context of saying something about this carol, Away in a Manger. Ah, but more of that anon! I have to hold you in the air now for a few minutes, while we go into this carol. I promise I’ll come back to that in a second.

This is a thoroughly American carol. The words and the tune come from the nineteenth century. Its association with a more Teutonic, Germanic origin lies in the fact that it was labeled, at least, one of the tunes associated with this carol was at one time referred to as Luther's Cradle Song, and probably because of that attribution that was made, the view was generated and spread, especially in Europe, and especially in Germany for a while, that actually this carol was written by Martin Luther, which it certainly was not.

It's also known as Be Near Me, Lord Jesus; sometimes known as The Cradle Song; and sometimes known as Luther's Cradle Song. It began life, or so it seems, as a two-verse carol. The third verse was written later and by someone else. We don't know who wrote the first two verses. James Murray, as you can see if you turn to the carol, especially if you turn to the version in number 204 and you look at the bottom right-hand side, you’ll see a tune; and notice it's a German-named tune MUELLER –again, for a very complicated reason. But James R. Murray is the man who published it. He was a composer who published a children's song book called Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lassies–and you can tell that wasn't written in the twenty-first century! Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lassies, in which the tune for this carol was called Luther's Cradle Hymn.

Now, the origin of the first two verses probably lies in the middle of the nineteenth century, and roughly around 1880 or so. The General Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America published this two-versed carol in their Little Children's Book for School and Families, and to an entirely different tune — neither of the tunes here in the Trinity Hymnal. And then, in 1892, Charles Hutchinson Gabriel, the music director of Chicago's Grace Methodist Episcopal Church, discovered a three-verse edition and published it in a little songbook called Gabriel's Vineyard Songs. The third verse is thought to have been written by a John Thomas McFarland, about whom we know absolutely nothing at all.

The tune that is most familiar to me is not the tune that we sang earlier, although that tune is familiar to me, but the one that readily comes to mind as we think of Away in the Manger is the one that we’ll be singing right at the end, and it's No. 205; and you notice it's actually called there Cradle Song, and in a former life had actually been known as Luther's Cradle Song, and written by William J. Kirkpatrick. And Kirkpatrick is known to most of us as a northerner. I was about to say “Yankee”, but a northerner from the late nineteenth century. He was born in Duncannon in Pennsylvania. He joined the army, the Union army, of course, during the Civil War as a musician. He was part of the 91st Regiment of the Union army, and he's most well-known, I suppose, as the author of some very famous nineteenth-century tunes that are still sung: We Have Heard the Joyful Sound; ‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus; Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It; He Hideth My Soul; We Have an Anchor, and so on. All of those are very familiar hymns - all of which have a certain feel to them. They sound like campfire songs, to be honest; and they have that somewhat affected, it's very easy to typify them as late nineteenth-century, perhaps “revivalist” sounding tunes. And he apparently is the author of this very well-known tune of Away in a Manger.

It's a children's carol. Well, sort of. Certainly we think of children, not only because it's a depiction of the Baby Jesus, but it talks about little children, and little children at night, and little children going to sleep in their cradles at night, and Jesus watching over them. But it's not really a children's hymn as such, written for children to sing, as such. But it's actually put in the sort of mind, and in the mouth, perhaps, of a mother singing on behalf of children. And when we sing this hymn, it's a prayer on behalf of children.

I want to see three things: The reality of the incarnation; the fullness of the incarnation; and the consequence of the incarnation.

I. The reality of the incarnation

First of all, I want us to see the reality of the incarnation from verse one:

“Away in a manager, no crib for a bed,

The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head;

The stars in the bright sky looked down where He lay,

The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.”

Well, it's not the best poetry in the world. It's a very simple poetry, but it's perhaps the most staggering picture that anyone can draw: the Creator of the universe is lying asleep in a manger in Bethlehem. And my friends, if that thought doesn't take your breath away, if it doesn't cause you to gasp, then you’re not thinking about it. You’re not really dwelling on what's being said here. The little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay, in the manger–beautiful and somewhat affected as that may sound in the language of this carol–is the most profound thought and concept that you can ever grapple with: that the God of the universe, the Lord of glory, the One who created the heavens and the earth, the One who sustains all things by the word of His power is a little infant lying in some hay, surrounded (in the language of this carol, you understand–not particularly drawing from anything in Scripture) with oxen looking on...and all those Christmas card pictures that are coming into your mind, I'm sure, even as we're trying to paint this picture.

Charles Wesley, perhaps the greatest of the Christmas poets–and Ligon has the fun of doing perhaps the very greatest of all the Christmas carols, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (and he needs 143 points to do Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, because every phrase and syllable is full of the profoundest theology)–but one of Charles Wesley's Christmas carols that we don't sing — and partly because the language is a little too complicated, perhaps — is this one:

“Let earth and heaven combine, angels and men agree

To praise in songs divine the incarnate Deity.

Our God contracted to a span,

Incomprehensibly made man.”

A span is this distance, from here to here. “Our God contracted to a span... incomprehensibly made man.” The word made flesh; the Lord of glory lying asleep on the hay; the God of the universe, whom Elijah–do you remember-teasing the prophets of Baal as though the great God of heaven could be asleep? And yet, now here is the God of heaven, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, lying asleep in the hay in Bethlehem, in this nowhere place...five, six, seven miles southwest of Jerusalem on the hillsides of Judea, with shepherds and grain fields and olive trees all around on this clear night, with stars and one particular star which will eventually come. This staggering, staggering thought, as George Buttrick, a famous Presbyterian preacher of a previous generation suggested, that God came down the back stairs at Bethlehem, lest He blind us by excessive light. He came down the back stairs in Bethlehem, lest He blind us by excessive light.

The great God, the infinite God, who knows all things, who is everywhere present, who has all power and all authority; who merely has to speak, and it is done; who only has to say “Let there be light” and there was light...and He's lying there, in the manger as a little infant with a body, and arms and legs and eyes and nose and ears....and hair, presumably...a real baby. And all of you mothers, and fathers, too, these days, you remember your first-born, and the sense of unbelief, disbelief that through all of this messy process, this little child would be born–breathing, crying, we’ll come to that in a minute...making sounds, alive, warm. You can touch...and here's the great God of heaven and earth, and He's contracted to a span. He's become poor, for our sakes. “Though He was rich, He thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but He's made Himself of no reputation,” and He's been born in a stable in Bethlehem, utterly dependent — utterly and completely dependent on Mary to feed Him and nurse Him, and change Him. It's unimaginable. It's incomprehensible. He became man.

II. Secondly, the fulness of the incarnation.

Now, the carol goes into some poetry here:

“The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,

but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.”

And that line is a little troublesome. It's troublesome for some to the extent that they don't sing that line. I've been in many a church service, and I have to say, I've had trouble with it myself on occasion. I've sort of mumbled those words, not fully persuaded in my conscience that this was correct: that this was a piece of unorthodox theology that had crept into the hymn.

This isn't Scripture, you understand. Let's remember that. It's not Scripture. It doesn't bear the mark of infallibility. It's only the Bible that's infallible. These are the writings and the thoughts of a man, or maybe a woman. It's not on a par with Scripture. We must never do that. The Scripture alone is infallible. The Scripture alone is breathed out by God and free from error. It's more than possible that error can come into hymnody; indeed, there are those who would suggest that some of the greatest heresies of the church have come in by hymnody.

There are two problems that are possible here. Let's...I’ll save this carol towards the end! I can redeem this carol towards the end, so hold onto that thought! But I'm going to take a little detour now, because there are two problems–two problems that emerged in the early church.

One is the problem that is sometimes called Doceitism. Docecitism is a word that come from the Greek dokein, which means “to seem”, and it's the idea that Marcion, Cerinthus and some others– in different forms expressed that Jesus’ humanity, Jesus’ human nature wasn't real; it wasn't the full thing, it wasn't genuine. He looked human, but He wasn't fully human; that there was more ‘God-ness’ to Him that humanness; that His body was a kind of apparition: not a ghost exactly, but something close to that, a bit like the hologram on Star Trek Voyage, or The Doctor, if you follow that (but if you don't, forget it).

Docitism was condemned. It was condemned as a heresy. If Jesus didn't become fully man, like you and me, flesh and blood, then He couldn't be our Savior; He couldn't be our Redeemer; He couldn't save us.

Close to that, but much more complicated was another issue that emerged in the middle, beginning middle of the fourth century. It's called Appolonarism, after a man by the name of Appolonarius. Appolonarius is one of those great tragedies of the early church, because Appolonarus was a genuinely good man. He was a very godly man, and his motivation, I think, was a good motivation. He wanted to defend the Deity of Jesus against those who were trying to disparage the Deity of Jesus, but he went too far and he defended the Deity of Jesus at the expense of advocating the full humanity of Jesus, and what Appolonarus said and what Appolonarism said was that Jesus did not have a human mind; He didn't have a human will; He didn't have human affections. He was more God than man. It was condemned by the Council of Constantinople in 381.

Well, let's go back to the hymn:

“The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,

the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.”

Now, is the carol saying that Jesus would never have cried, because to cry would be to express some kind of sinful human emotion–of some kind? Well, the problem with that is that the adult Jesus cried. He wept — Jerusalem — “Oh, Jerusalem! Jerusalem!” He wept at the tomb of Lazarus, His friend in Bethany, with Mary and Martha, where He stayed on numerous occasions. And the portrait of Jesus in the Gospels is one of not only a defense of His absolute Deity, but also a defense of the full humanity of Jesus. He had a truly human body; He had human affections; He had a human mind, a human psyche. Everything, in fact, that constitutes true humanity Jesus was in possession of; and, therefore, if the carol is saying that the reason why Jesus doesn't cry is because crying is an expression of human emotion, and human emotion is an expression of some kind of sinful behavior on the part of man, then the carol is wrong and there's just no way of redeeming the carol. And if that's what it's saying, then...well...I can't sing it, because you can't sing something that's wrong.

Actually, I don't think that that is what the carol is saying–and aren't you relieved, because you've just sung it! And I've given this carol a great deal of thought this week. It worried me, because once Ligon had assigned this carol to me, and, you notice, he assigned this one to me, I thought, “What am I going to say?... because I'm going to offend someone.”

And I just can't imagine that the author...we don't know who the author is, so we can't go back and do what was the intent of the author, because we don't know who the author was...and I think all that the author is doing is painting a picture, that's all: painting a picture of a scene in the manger with Jesus lying there, perhaps looking in wonder and astonishment at these cows. You know, if you’re the size of a little infant and you've got these big cows looking down at you, and they’re lowing, and they’re making these great big noises...you can imagine, you know, the eyes popping open, and there's a startle, and...but think about that! This is Jesus! This is the One who made these cows! You know, this is the One who in eternity said, “Cow!” and “Cow” came into being! And now, this is the astonishment of the incarnation: He's lying there astonished by that which He himself has made, because it is part of the very nature of man, created in the image of God, to be astonished, to be taken in wonder by that which God has made. And there is a sense in which the carol may well be expressing that Jesus is astonished by His own Deity; that the human quality of Jesus is astonished by His own Deity, by that which He himself has made.

Anyway, that's the way I want to sing it, because that way I can sing it with a good conscience; and whatsoever is contrary to conscience, you understand, is always a sin.

So, there's the reality of the incarnation, and the fullness of the incarnation, and then thirdly, there's the consequence of the incarnation, and it's the third verse.

III. The consequence of the incarnation.

Actually, it occurs at the end of the second verse:

“I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky...”

and you notice the change that's taken. You’re looking at the baby Jesus who's sleeping in the cradle, but now Lord Jesus is looking down from the sky.

It's the ascended Jesus. It's no longer the scene in Bethlehem now, because the scene has suddenly changed, and Jesus has risen from the dead. He's ascended to the right hand of God, and now it's becoming a prayer not so much about Jesus in the manger in Bethlehem; it's about a mother praying for her children, and perhaps all of God's children, and asking Jesus from the sky, from the ascended glory, from the right hand of God, to “stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.” And, it belongs to a strain of poems, lullabies, bedtime prayers that was common in New England. One thinks of the very famous one of 1784:

“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

And that so-called New England Primer...I sort of wonder if perhaps that strain of thought, of lullabies that become prayers on behalf of one's children as they sleep at night, was perhaps the inspiration for this carol.

And then this third verse, written by someone else:

“Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay

Close by me forever, and love me, I pray.

Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care

And fit us for heaven, to live with Thee there.”

And, do you see? The carol has gone from the manger in Bethlehem to the idea that Jesus came into this world to save His children and make them–and look at the verb–to make them fit for heaven, because by nature we are unfit for heaven. By nature children are not fit for heaven; even covenant children are not fit for heaven.

And Jesus would say to a covenant child... Nicodemus...a covenant child, ‘Unless you are born again, unless you are born from above, you cannot enter: you cannot see the kingdom of God.’ So, here's this little prayer. It's a prayer now for the conversion of little children; not just a prayer for Jesus to watch over the little children as they sleep, but a prayer that these little children might be converted and made fit for heaven, “to live with Thee there.” And there's a sense in which, parents, you can sing this carol at night when you put your children into bed. It would be a most fitting prayer, I think, in terms of the sheer beauty...simplicity and beauty...of this carol.

Now may God bless it to us. Now let's sing the carol together.

Please stand, receive the Lord's benediction.

Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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