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God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

Series: Songs of Christmas

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Dec 2, 2004

Luke 2:10

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Now have your hymnbooks at the ready as well as the Bible, of course. We’re going to look first of all at Luke, chapter two, and I'm going to read from verse eight through to verse twenty-one. Our text is going to be Luke 2:10, but of course as this series unfolds, the window through which we want to see these particular Scriptures, narratives, concerning the birth and incarnation of our blessed Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ...the window is going to be a very well-known Christmas carol; and this evening's will be 211 in the hymnbook: God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.

Turn first of all, however, to the Scriptures, to Luke chapter two at verse eight. And before we read the passage together, let's come before God in prayer. Let's pray.

Father, again we bow in Your presence. We need Your blessing, Your grace, Your enlightenment, Your insight, Your wisdom. We ask as we read the Scriptures together that we might read, mark, learn and inwardly digest for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Hear with me the word of God as we find it now in Luke chapter two, and beginning at verse eight:

“And in the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields, and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. And the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

‘Glory to God in the highest,

And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.’

And it came about when the angels had gone away form them into heaven, that the shepherds began saying to one another, ‘Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.’ And they came in haste and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. And when they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.”

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

Now as I indicated a few minutes ago, we are beginning this evening a series of studies somewhat unusually, I think, for us here–certainly for myself and for Ligon; and it's a wonderful, wonderful time of the year, when we have an opportunity to think through together one of the great doctrines and one of the great redemptive moments in history: the incarnation of the Son of God.

Now let me say what we're not doing in this series. We’re not just preaching on Christmas carols. We believe here at First Presbyterian Church that all of our worship and all of our preaching must be governed by the Scriptures, by the word of God. We’ll be using these carols as windows through which to view the great truths of Scripture, and in particular the great truth of the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

We’re not suggesting that there is something holy about Christmas day, or the Christmas season. We’re Presbyterians, after all! And Presbyterians, let me remind you, have died and shed their blood for these principles–and I mean that quite literally. We differ with our very close friends who have liturgical calendars for the year; no, we regard all days as holy, and if there is one day to be considered more holy than another it is the Lord's Day. It is the Sabbath Day.

So some of us well might take exception to a line or two in the carol that we have before us this evening; the reference, for example, in the very first verse:

“God rest you merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay,

remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day.”

Well, probably not! We don't know when He was born. There are all kinds of theories as to the month and day that He was born. To be sure, it was wintertime, probably 5 BC; possibly 6 BC, but almost certainly not zero BC.

The original carol we’ll be looking at in a minute actually had six verses. There's a verse and probably the compilers (and Dr. Wymond, I think, was one of them)...the compilers of the Trinity Hymnal decided not to put in the sixth verse, which reads like this:

“Now to the Lord sing praises, all you within this place,

And with true love and brotherhood each other now embrace.

This holy tide of Christmas all others doth deface...”

Well, we probably don't agree with that! We’re not saying that everything in these carols has biblical warrant. There's some poetry in these carols. We've just sung with gusto verse four of this carol this evening, which poetically speaks of the shepherds leaving “their flocks afeeding, in tempest, storm, and wind...” and you’ll search in vain to find in the Scriptures to find the proof that there was such a thing.

Carols became hugely popular during the Medieval period, especially during the period of Francis of Assisi and onwards. At a time when there were no Bibles, and there were no Scriptures for people to read for themselves before the printing press, bands of minstrels would go from town to town performing various things–some Christian, some not–and there was a tremendous amount of the singing of Christmas carols, some of which would include material that would have nothing to do with Scripture. “I Saw Three Ships”, for example, a very famous carol, has its origin during that period.

It's for reasons like that that the Puritans, for example, banned the singing of Christmas carols. And not just the English Puritans, now, but the New England Puritans: Puritans like John Cotten, Puritans like Cotton Mather and his father, Increase Mather. In Puritan New England Christmas remained a working day, the violation of which was punishable by a fine and even dismissal.

In 1659, the Massachusetts Puritans declared that the observation of Christmas was a criminal offense. They passed the so-called Five-Shilling Anti-Christmas Law:

“Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing labor, feasting, or any other way upon such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for each offense five shillings as a fine to the country.”

Well, we've come a long way, I suppose, since then.

Well, how are we doing? We’re allowing these carols—the biblical carols, the carols that find their way into the Trinity Hymnal–we're allowing them to be windows: windows through which the familiar lines and the familiar melodies bring to the surface great truths; the greatest of truths, the profoundest of truths.

Now let's look at this particular carol, “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.” This carol has remained popular, and is very popular today probably more because of its tune rather than because of what it actually says, although much of what it says is but a poetic form of the narrative that I just read from Luke chapter two, the famous story of the shepherds on the hillside and of the angel Gabriel coming and saying to the shepherds, “Fear not, I bring you glad tidings, good tidings of great joy.” So that's the theme of this particular carol. It has this wonderful refrain quoting Scripture: “O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy....” It's a carol about joy, and it's particularly a carol about why it is that we should be joyful.

The principle text of the carol is given for us at the head of the carol, No. 211 in the Trinity Hymnal. You’ll see it's verse ten: “Do not be afraid...” Gabriel speaking to the shepherds. “...I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be for all people.” It's about not being afraid. It's about being strong in the Lord.

Now let me suggest that what we hear as we sing the opening line of this carol is probably nothing like what the original singers of the carol heard. I have to confess I can't sing it without at least for a second or two thinking of Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol. And this carol finds its way, as you remember, into Dickens’ Christmas Carol. Dickens wrote that Christmas Carol in 1843, the same year as the Free Church disruption. Imagine! But words change, and when we sing, “God rest you merry, gentlemen” —at least when I sing “God rest you merry, gentlemen” I have in mind Bryn Terfel– a great Welshman of great size, tankard in hand, red cap, singing (a little tipsy)–you know, that kind of image that sometimes finds its way onto a Christmas carol. And of course that's not what this carol is saying.

The original word merry means “happy” for us. But the original word “merry” means strong — “God rest you strong, gentlemen...” You know, Robin Hood's band of Merry Men were not happy men–they may well have been happy men, but that's not the point of Robin Hood's Merry Men. They were strong men: “God make you strong, gentlemen.”

And then the verb: “God rest you....” The original word rest means “to make”; “God make you strong, gentlemen.”

Now once you see that, the entire meaning of the carol suddenly sort of changes, doesn't it? And you put out that picture of Bryn Terfel and his tankard, and now it's a wonderful pastoral word to Christians, to be strong in the Lord! “God make you strong, comma...” and the comma is essential. “God make you strong, gentlemen.”

Now, why? Why should we be strong, in the context of Luke chapter two? And let me suggest three reasons. And I'm going to confine myself just to verse ten, and that because we're going to be looking at some of the other verses during the course of this series. Let me suggest three reasons.

I. “God make you strong” because the incarnation of Jesus is good news.

”Do not be afraid, for I bring you good news.” It's the word evangel; it's the word evangelical. It's good news! It's good news1 It's a good message that the angel is bringing to the shepherds.

This word–Luke is very fond of it. He uses it a dozen times in the course of the Gospel alone, let alone the Acts of the Apostles. It's a word that goes all the way back into the Old Testament. The Old Testament, when it was translated into Greek, utilized this very word: good news. It's associated in the Greek translation of the Old Testament with God's covenant with Abraham, God's covenant with Moses, God's covenant with David. It's associated with what God was promising to do with His people. It's a word that goes all the way back to the original promise of God, what we sometimes call the protoevangelum, the first gospel promise of Genesis 3:15 of the seed of the woman that would crush the very head of Satan.

Do you notice in the carol in verse one, at the end of verse one, the reference to Satan? And then at the end of verse three of the carol: “To save us from Satan's power...” and then at the end of verse three: “...to free all those who trust in Him from Satan's power and might.”

The gospel is good news because it frees us; it delivers us from the bondage and the tyranny in which Satan holds us because of our sin, because of our iniquity, because of our union with Adam. That's what Jesus Christ has come to do. That's what Paul says in Colossians, chapter two. If you have your Bible, turn to Colossians, chapter two, and in verses 13 through 15:

“And you who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This He set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to an open shame by triumphing over them in Him.”

Christ triumphing over Satan, over all of Satan's claims–that's the good news. Good news that God keeps His promise; good news that God's covenant is sure and amen; good news that He can be trusted; good news because history has a purpose and a direction and a goal, and God is in charge of it; good news because God is determined to save His people, and He sends Jesus Christ into the world in order to do that.

In a world so full of bad news, this is good news: that Jesus saves...that Jesus saves. Not that Buddha saves, or Mohammed saves, or Krishna saves, but that Jesus saves. Not the good news of pluralism that says that all religions are climbing the same mountain; not even the good news, so-called, of inclusivism that suggests that even those who have never heard of Jesus will be saved, but the good news that Jesus saves.

II. Be strong, because the incarnation of Jesus is good news. Be strong because this message of good news is for all people...for all people.

Lots of commentaries think that what Luke is really saying is that this good news is for all people, meaning Israel. I was staggered as I was checking the many commentaries on Luke that I have on my shelf, many of them coming from the Dallas sort of direction, of course, suggesting that the good news was for all people, namely the Jews...namely Israel.

Just glance down in chapter two to what we sometimes call the nunc dimittis of Simeon, verses 29-32. Simeon, taking the baby Jesus into his arms:

“Lord, lettest now Thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen Your salvation that You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for the revelation...[a light for revelation] to the Gentiles.”

Yes! To the Gentiles! This is good news not just for Israel, not just for the Jews, but for all peoples, for all the nations of the world. Good news for America. Good news for Mexico. Good news for Canada. Good news for Iraq. Good news for Myanmar. Good news for India and Pakistan. Good news for all of those countries ending with “-stan”–good news for you, then. Good news for you, my friend, because you’re one of the “all people.”

Whoever you are tonight, in whatever condition you are tonight, because the good news is that God has found a way to be just and the justifier of him who believes in Jesus. Good news for you, because God made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be reckoned the righteousness of God in Him. Good news for you that through the birth and life and death of this One, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Lord of glory, you may be made anew and justified, and adopted and sanctified, and glorified.

Good news for you who are weary and are heavy laden, who come yet again on a Wednesday evening with a load of care, burdens too great to repeat with all but your best friends. Good news for you, my friend; good news for the entire world. Good news for all people.

III. And thirdly, good news for all people. “God make you strong” because it's good news. God make you strong because it's for all people, and therefore it's for you.

God make you strong, because it's great joy. This is a message of great joy. I'm ready for joy, aren't you? I'm ready for great joy. Aren't you?

It's what God intends for you and for me: “Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him....” Oh, it was Puritans who wrote that, by the way! To glorify God and to enjoy Him–isn't that what Adam and Eve had in the Garden of Eden, the pleasure garden? As God, in the euphemistic language of Genesis “walked about in the cool of the day”–isn't that beautiful, that they communed with Him and had fellowship with Him, and enjoyed His presence? “Rarely, rarely comest Thou, Spirit of Delight...” wrote Shelley - not surprisingly, because he was an avowed and passionate and stubborn atheist - but not for you, and not for me. “Often, often comest Thou, Spirit of Delight..” And may it come more often than it does: the kind of joy that Jesus speaks of in the upper room, mind you, on the eve of His execution, when He says to His disciples “...that My joy might be in you and that your joy might be full.” That was Jesus’ concern, His dying concern that we might know joy, solid joy and lasting treasure; the kind of joy that enabled Paul and Silas in prison in Philippi at midnight, shackled, to sing songs to God; the kind of joy that Paul exhorts the Philippians from another prison, in Rome, to “rejoice in the Lord, and again I say rejoice”; the kind of joy that comes from knowing that we are embraced in the love of God that manifests itself in God's sending His Son into the world.

“Loved with everlasting love, love led by grace that love to know...” the kind of joy that Paul speaks of when he says, “May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” And again, “To Him who is able to keep us from falling and to present you faultless before His presence, without fault and with great joy.” “To the only wise God our Savior be glory and majesty and power and dominion through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore. Amen.”

God make you strong. God make you strong. God make you strong as you reflect on what it means that God should send His Son, His only Son into this sin-torn, ravaged world for the likes of you and me, that “whosoever believes upon Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Friend, whatever burdens you may carry as a child of God this evening, cast them upon the Lord, because He cares for you.


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© First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.