" />

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

Series: Songs of Christmas

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Dec 23, 2004

Luke 2:8-9

Download Audio

Now turn with me if you would to Luke chapter 2, and I'm going to read from verses 8 and 9. But before I do that, I want to draw attention to a verse in I Corinthians 14, and verse 15. And let me read this verse to you first of all: I Corinthians 14:15. And it's the second half of the verse that I want to allude to:

“I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.”

And forgive me, I'm reading from my ESV, and not in whatever version you have, but it's the thought, and it's something that many of you have said in the course of the last couple of weeks, and that is, words like, “I never realized that was what that carol was saying.” And that is true not just of Christmas carols, which we have been looking at this past month and will be concluding this coming Lord's Day, but it's also true, of course, of hymnody and psalmody in general. And it's given Ligon and myself perhaps an idea that we may well need to return to this on another occasion, and actually look at some of the best hymns, and some of the psalms that we sing together, so that we sing not just with our spirits, but that we sing with our minds also.

Well, turn with me then, to Luke, chapter two, and verses eight and nine. And again, I'm reading from the ESV, which I have with me here, words of great familiarity, especially as we draw near to Christmas Day. Before we read these words together, let's come before God in prayer.

Our Father in heaven, we thank You for Your word. It is a solace to us in times of trial and difficulty. Your word is truly as a rock: immovable, sure, dependable, trustworthy; and we ask now, Holy Spirit, that You would open up Your word, write it upon our hearts for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

This is God's word.

“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were filled with fear.”

If you have access to a hymnbook, you’re probably going to need it. The hymn this evening or, the carol this evening, is No. 200, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear. We've got some visitors, guests, friends, with us this evening who haven't been with us in this series, and let me explain that this December we have been looking together at some of the more familiar and well-known–not to say some of the best carols (and the two are not always synonymous, you understand!)–and allowing these carols to be a kind of portal through which we see Scriptural truths being underlined and being expressed in perhaps more poetic form. This particular hymn–it's been a favorite, I understand, partly because of its use particularly during the First and Second World Wars, and especially amongst American troops in the European field. It's a nineteenth century, truly American carol, known in the tune set here (we’ll sing this at the close this evening) by Richard Willis, called CAROL, but also and to me more well-known, better known by another tune called NOEL, written by Gerard Noel.

Sometimes the more you know about the origins of a carol, the less perhaps you’re going to like it! And the more you know about the author of a carol, and sometimes a hymn in general, the more suspicious you become as you read their lines. And I have a suspicion that perhaps that may happen to some of you this evening.

Tonight's carol–and actually, the one that's going to come up on Sunday morning, which will be mine: While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night–both of these carols, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear and While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks...both of them are set with a background of Luke chapter two, the Lukan Advent story. While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks is more or less a paraphrase of the Luke 2 story.

This one–and I want to try and insure that I'm not repeating myself tonight and on Sunday morning–this particular carol was written in 1849, as you can see, by a Unitarian minister, and there I begin the downward slide!–a Unitarian minister of the First Congregational Church of Wayland, Massachusetts: a Dr. Edmund Hamilton Sears. He was writing more or less a Christmas Eve message, and at least a part of the intent was to speak to children, although the carol now is not really regarded any more as a children's carol.

He’d been the minister of this church before; had left the church to go to a larger church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, but illness...a combination of two things: illness and particularly a period of depression, in which his voice was almost rendered inaudible caused him actually to go back to this relatively small church in Wayland in Massachusetts. 1849 is, of course, the period when America is at war with...I say “America”, but you understand...I’ll just speak generally and euphemistically for a second...but, at war with Mexico, and there is probably something of that in the background of this carol, which I’ll explain in a minute.

Sears’ theology is probably dubious on a number of points, and allow me just a second or two to express some of those. Of course, first of all, he's a Unitarian. Well, he at least belonged to a Unitarian denomination; although to be fair to him, his theology of Christ in this particular hymn, whilst it isn't of the order, say, of Wesley's Christology, neither is it explicitly Unitarian in this. And the best that we can say of him, and it's Christmastime, so let's think the best of him, is that he was the right man in the wrong denomination!

However, he did write some things which are highly dubious. He wrote a book called Athanasia, really about death and resurrection, in which he referred to death as “the emergence of a person's inner nature which comes out of the natural body as a rose out of a bursting calyx.” And at best that's platonic, and at worst it's definitely not what the Bible teaches about death and resurrection! More seriously, he viewed other religions as provisional, and said of them that “all the great faiths of the world have enough in them of the good and true to save the people who live under them, if they live obedient thereunto.”

Well, perhaps you’ll wish you’d never heard me say that about him! He was, and I won't go into it now, but he was sympathetic to Swedenborgianism, which is an errant theology going back to the late sixteenth, early seventeenth century, and amongst other things denied the Trinity and the vicarious atonement of Christ, and somewhat denied the deity of the Holy Spirit, also. It has currently something like 15,000 adherents in the United States. Of more importance for this particular hymn, or carol, is the fact that he was an avowed pacifist, and even to the point of advocating that when the President of the United States sends men to war, it is the President himself who needs to be called to account and punished for sending men to war. He was also strongly in print against the issue of slavery.

Well, this hymn began a poem, and in the back of your bulletin, the four verses of the poem which had been written some ten years previously, I've put in there. But more significantly, on the top of the bulletin is the missing verse, the fifth verse. It's actually the second verse in the carol as it first appeared, and as you can see, there's probably a reason why it was dropped:

“Yet with the woes of sin and strife

The world hath suffered long.

Beneath the angels strain have rolled

Two thousand years of wrong;

And man at war with man hears not

The love song which they bring;

O hush the noise, ye men of strife,

And hear the angels sing.”

Well, it's not blatantly pacifist, but there are probably pacifist strains in that verse, sufficient that when it became popular, especially in the First and Second World Wars by American troops, who loved to sing it probably more because of the tune than because of the words, as is often the case, and that verse was dropped.

The printing of this particular hymn, the writing of this particular hymn sparked a decade of writing of carols in the 1850's, many of the well-known carols, not particularly of the Christian variety–I was thinking of We Three Kings of Orient Are and Jingle Bells, were written in 1850–and Professor William Studwell, who is the principal cataloguer of the Founders Memorial Library of Northern Illinois University, has written four books about Christmas carols. He's regarded, at least by some, as being one of the authorities on Christmas carols–in the year 2000 expressed his view that the “Carols of the Year” for 2000 (and there were two of them) were this one, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, and Frosty, the Snowman! Well, we’ll pass that by!

He chose this one, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, because, and I quote him now, “...based upon the song's rolling religious melody and its message of optimism, good will, and pacifism, the song tells us about the birth of Jesus, singing angels, and expresses unfaltering hope for the spiritual prosperity for all.” Studwell said, “A carol such as this, that touches the heart, is a timeless piece.”

Well, as I said, you probably wish I'd never said any of that, because we're going to try and sing this at the end this evening!

As it stands, and I do think that it's more than possible for us to almost ignore all of that and still sing the truth that emerges from this carol.

There are two things I want us to think about over the next few minutes, and the first is this:

I. The Christmas angels

Because the first two stanzas of this carol, as indeed many of the carols for obvious reasons focus especially on the ministry of angels, and the Christmas angels in particular.

“It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old,

from angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold:

“Peace on the earth, good will to men, from heav’n's all-gracious King”;

the world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.

“Still through the cloven skies they come, with peaceful wings unfurled,

And still their heav’nly music floats o’er all the weary world:

Above its sad and lowly plains they bend on hov’ring wing,

And ever o’er its Babel sounds the blessed angels sing.”

And there's something about Christmas, especially, that ought to remind us of a deeply neglected truth, and a deeply neglected doctrine, particularly amongst Protestants, and, I think, particularly amongst Presbyterians; and that is, the theology of, and the ministry of angels.

Now the poetry, and let's say it's just the poetry, of this particular carol does express two myths with regard to angels. One is that they have wings. There is no mention in the Bible of angels having wings. Cherubim certainly have two wings, and seraphs have six, but there's actually no specific mention of angels having wings in the Bible.

And the second is that they play harps. There are 54 references to harps in the Bible, and none of them refer to angels playing harps, and I say that as a Welshman, and the national instrument of Wales is the harp! So, nothing against harps, but it's a bit of folklore about angels playing harps.

I think of the Medieval Augustine in his magnum opus, his Summa Theologici, which is the equivalent of Calvin's Institutes for Roman Catholic seminary students, and enormously complicated to read, and even more complicated to understand. It is Aquinas who mentions the conundrum about how many angels can dance on the point of a needle, and that is because of what is said in Luke 8 about “legion”– about having been possessed by a “legion” of fallen angels, of demons who are fallen angels, and that the truth that emerged, or, at least the perceived truth that emerged, that angels can occupy the same point of space, and many angels can occupy the same point of space. Angels are not closed and bound by the laws of physics, of Newtonian mechanics of this particular world. They’re spiritual beings.

There are Greek words for angels, and there are Hebrew words for angels, and there are two words in both Greek and Hebrew for angels. All of those words simply mean messengers. They are messengers of God, to do God's bidding, to come to our aid and support and comfort. One thinks of Psalm 104, “...who makes His angels spirits, and His messengers a flame of fire.”

Now, there are two sorts of angels in general: there are fallen angels (or demons) and I won't say anything more about them now, this evening; but amongst faithful angels there is an order of angelic being and existence.

We know of at least two archangels: Michael and Gabriel. We aren't told the identity of the announcer at the hillside, the Judean hillside, to the shepherds. There are archangels, and there are angels, and there are cherubim, and there are seraphim; and there are probably beings of angels about which God in the Scriptures has not actually revealed to us, and perhaps it is part of what Scripture means when it says, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man what God hath prepared for those that love Him.”

And what angels do, and what this carol does, and what the Nativity stories, especially with their emphasis upon angels, do, is first of all remind us of the worldview of the Bible, which is utterly different from the worldview of the world in which you and I live this evening: that the world is more than that which can be seen and heard and touched; that there is a spiritual existence; and that from time to time God sends His messengers, or He sends His angels, who from time to time have taken on physical form. And the Book of Hebrews reminds us of the possibility of “entertaining angels unawares”, a verse that has intrigued me and continues to intrigue me as to precisely what that means; and I often wonder if perhaps on a happenstance I may have bumped into an angel, one of God's special messengers.

But all of that is fascinating, and I think it allows us to, with a sanctified imagination, begin to wonder at the complexity of that which God has made in the heavens and in the earth; and wonder that it is to the race of mankind especially that God sends a Savior. No savior was sent to the fallen race of angels, but it is to the race of mankind, to Bethlehem, to a stable, to the Virgin Mary, that God sends His only begotten Son. And Scripture reminds us, and Peter especially, in I Peter reminds us, that the angels are fascinated–they are absolutely fascinated!–by the redemptive purposes of Almighty God. The gospel in all of its ramifications is something which the angels of heaven simply glory in, and perhaps even now as we sit in Hutton Chapel, and as we think and meditate upon the angels, that is precisely what the angels are now doing in heaven: singing their hallelujah choruses to the praise of God, at the sheer wonder, at the sheer glory, at the sheer mystery, at the sheer incomprehensibility that God the Son should be contracted to a span for the likes of you and me.

Well, a practical application, then, from this carol, as this carol serves as the portal into the Scriptures. Let's, over the next few days, allow ourselves to contemplate the riches of God's grace in His creation of and employment of angels: His special messengers to help us. To help as Scripture seems to hint, especially little children; to support and encourage, and perhaps from time to time intervene.

The second thing I want us to see from this carol, not only the Christmas angels emphasis, but the second emphasis falls upon this troubled world and its redemption.

II. The ultimate fulfilling of God's peace on earth.

And if you look at verse two again, stanza two again, there are references to “this weary world” with its “Babel sounds”; and in verse three especially: “And ye, beneath life's crushing load...” and there are many of you here tonight who can empathize with the language of the author of this carol about life's crushing load, “whose forms are bending low...” stooped over by the cares and concerns and trials and tribulations that this fallen world brings;

“...who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow

look now! for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing:

O rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.”

And something similar again in stanza four:

“For lo, the days are hast’ning on, by prophet bards foretold,

when with the evercircling years come round the age of gold;

when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,

and the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing.”

Now, a number of issues emerge in the language of that. First of all, the recognition of the fallenness of this world; the trials and tribulations and burdens which God's people know and share in this fallen world; but also the language that now emerges, not only of a troubled world, but of the redemption of this troubled world.

Now, there are various translations of this carol about, and in verse four, “...when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling”...and there are renditions of this carol which–well, let me back up, because it is possible and perhaps probable that the author of this carol is expressing a hope that there will come a time when such peace, the peace spoken of by the Christmas angels on the hillsides of Bethlehem, peace and good will toward men, and that verse of course is rendered differently in different translations, and we’ll hear more of that on Sunday morning, but it's more than probable that the author of this hymn, Edmund Sears, believed that the world would get better and better. There are some not given to Sears’ theology who utilize the language of this carol to express a postmillennial belief, namely that there will come a day when the blessings of the gospel in the world will be such that the knowledge of God will, as it were, cover the earth as the waters cover the sea; that there will be a golden age in which the gospel will spread from shore to shore with all of the ramifications of that. And in some circles there are theonomic ramifications, and in other circles there are reconstructionist ramifications, none of which would even remotely have dawned on the mind, I think, of Edmund Sears, whose vision of the future was probably much more governed by the nineteenth century view of man.

So, this carol has been retranslated by some so that the fourth stanza reads not “all the earth” as though the blessing of peace and gospel prosperity was meant for this worldly existence, but rather that that blessing will only be known in the fullness to which those Christmas angels spoke, in the new heavens and in the new earth in which righteousness will dwell.

That probably opens the door–and I have one minute to say it, and what a relief that is! Because you want to know where my eschatology is, and my eschatology is decidedly not postmillennial! I just cannot reconcile the teaching of Jesus, and the teaching of Paul especially, with the notion that there will come a day in this world's existence when wars and rumors of wars will be, as it were, no more. And rather, that view of the future, of peace and prosperity and wellbeing, is to be wholly interpreted in terms, I think, of the new heavens and the new earth in which righteousness will dwell.

So, what's this carol saying to us tonight? It's saying that there is coming a day when that which began in a manger in Bethlehem and went to the cross in Jerusalem, and to an empty tomb in Jerusalem, and to an ascension to the right hand of God, namely the redemptive purposes of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior; that which began in the manger will reach its zenith and conclusion and climax when all of God's children, all of the elect, all for whom Christ died and shed His blood, will be gathered unto Him and will be brought into that everlasting dominion in which this world will give way to the new heavens and the new earth.

“Let not your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says. “In my Father's house are many mansions.” Not that in this world you will find your peace and blessedness in all of its greatness, but in the world which is to come. “In my Father's house are many mansions.”

“For lo, the days are hast’ning on, by prophet bards foretold...” and perhaps he's thinking of those prophecies of Isaiah, chapters two and eleven, and Micah, chapter four, of the lion and the lamb lying down together, and the child putting his hand on the viper's den and so on: those beautiful pictures of a renewed heavens and a renewed earth, in which the sting of sin and all of its fallenness has been removed, and Eden has been restored.

“When with the evercircling years come round the age of gold;

When peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,

And the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing.”

So, definitely to be sung in an amillennial sense, and not in a postmillennial sense! But I may have offended some of you in saying that!

Well, let's come before God. Let's sing this hymn together, but only with a spirit that, as Paul says, with the understanding also. Perhaps we should stand to sing No. 200.

Receive the Lord's benediction.

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

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the web page. 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 permissions information, please visit the FPC Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.

© 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.