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Silent Night! Holy Night!

Series: Songs of Christmas

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Dec 12, 2004

Matthew 1:18-25

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Turn with me now in the Scriptures to Matthew, chapter one, and we're going to read verses 18 through 25; and if you can be ambidextrous this morning, have open before you the hymn, the carol that the choir sang so beautifully (but in slightly different words to the words the choir was singing), so we need the words, not in the bulletin, but in the hymnbook, of 210: the words of Silent Night! Holy Night!.

Now let me remind you that we're in a series in December on well-known Christmas carols, and we're allowing these carols to be windows into the well-known Nativity passages, particularly in Matthew and Luke, and the one before us this morning is Matthew, chapter one, and verses 18 through 25. Before we read it together let's come before God in prayer. Let's pray.

Once again, O Lord, we ask for Your help. We dare not even read the Scriptures without Your help and Your assistance. So come, Holy Spirit, and give us light, and give us understanding for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

This is God's holy and inerrant word:

“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows. When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her, desired to put her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins.’ Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying,
‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a Son,
and they shall call His name Immanuel,’
which translated means, ‘God with us.’ And Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took her as his wife, and kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.”


As the choir were so beautifully singing that very, very well-known melody to Silent Night! Holy Night!, I want you to be transported, if you like, almost two hundred years, 180 years or so, to Austria: beautiful scenery, Alps...mountains...to the city of Salzburg...a concert in which this carol is first sung in a publicly and given sort of national prominence.

This carol is written by Joseph Mohr; it has its own website; there are over a hundred different translations of this carol–from Afrikaans and Armenian to Welsh and Walloon. A full-length movie was made about the writing of this carol, shown on BBC television about five years ago and, as they say, it's available in DVD!

Joseph Mohr was born to an unwed mother. There's something peculiarly apt, I suppose, about the Nativity story and the way this carol came into being. He never knew his father: his father joined the army as a musketeer, and we know nothing more about him. The boy Joseph was to receive an education in the city of Salzburg; the choir master assumed the role of a foster father, and the choir director of St. Peter's in that beautiful city of Salzburg was none other than Franz Josef Haydn.

Now, take a look at the carol with me. It's No. 210 in the hymnbook. I want you to look in stanza three at a little phrase that occurs at the end of the stanza before the refrain. And the phrase is, “...the dawn of redeeming grace.” The dawn of redeeming grace: that's what Christmas is; that's what the Nativity is; that's what the Advent of Jesus is: it's the dawn of redeeming grace: redemption which had been promised down through the centuries of the Old Testament, going back all the way to Genesis 3:15: “...the seed of the woman” that would “bruise the head” of Satan.

And now, finally all the promises, all of the allusions to the coming of the Savior have joined together, they've come together on this momentous, holy night. In the words of the carol we were looking at last week, O Little Town of Bethlehem by Phillips Brooks, “the hopes and dreams of all the years are met in Thee tonight.” And that's what Bethlehem is. That's what the birth of Jesus is. It's the dawn of redeeming grace. It's not the end, it's not the culmination: it's the dawn of it. It's the promise finding fulfillment in the birth of Jesus. But there's much more, of course, to come.

Now, how can I tell you the story of the coming into being, the genesis, of this wonderful carol, Silent Night! Holy Night! without...ah....offending you? Lots of mythology and folklore that surrounds carols–it's Christmas, after all...we're sort of wide open to all such things–and the Christmas carols, many of them, have very favorite stories that get repeated in church bulletins year after year, which are probably ....not true!

Like the one about the First World War, in the trenches of northern France: it's wintertime, it's Christmas Eve...a frozen, horrendous time of massacre. Millions of people were killed, of course, in the First World War...and a truce has been called between the Germans on the one hand, in their trenches, and the British in the other. And they meet in no-man's-land and they exchange gifts and so on, light candles and all that; and...begin to sing, “Stille Nacht, Heil’ge Nacht”–Silent Night, Holy Night–in German, in English. And then a few minutes later they go back to their trenches and they start killing each other! It's a beautiful story...it's probably not true. Historians doubt it very much, but it's a story that's often repeated.

Or, the story about the actual writing of this carol, written by this Austrian assistant pastor of a church in Mariapfarr in Austria, Joseph Mohr. He wrote it probably in 1816, a couple of years before the tune was set, the melody was set to the carol. It originally had six stanzas. In December of 1818, a couple of years later, Mohr was, of course, a Roman Catholic priest, so it would probably be a Christmas Eve mass, the midnight mass, and Joseph Mohr wants this carol to be sung, which he's written himself. And, well, the story is he goes to his friend and musician who lives in an apartment above a schoolhouse in Arnsdorf, and he's having trouble finding the melody. It comes to him in the middle of the night. He goes to the organ and starts playing the melody on the organ, and there's nothing! And the story is that, you know, mice had eaten through the bellows, and so instead they sing this carol to guitar. And, of course, you can imagine–if you don't like an organ but you want a guitar, it's a great story to tell. But it's probably not true! It was probably always intended for the guitar.

It found its way eventually...an organ repairer (which is probably where the story came from) came, possibly up to two years later, discovered this melody and the words and wrote down the music and so it began to spread through Austria. There's a story of a traveling family of folk singers–think of the Von Trapp's of The Sound of Music, something like that–who then began to spread this tune, this melody, and the Christmas carol through Austria, eventually making its way to a Christmas concert in Salzburg in 1832.

Some of the notes of the melody have changed from the ones that you and I sang this morning (go to the website! You can do all the “click” things and you can hear the original melody).

Let's look at this carol together. I want to see four things, one thing from each stanza.

I. The first thing I want us to see is the miraculous birth.

The miraculous birth. “Silent night! Holy night! All is calm, all is bright round yon virgin mother and Child....” and Joseph Mohr paints this beautiful picture: it's a Christmas card picture; it's a painting, isn't it, of the Virgin Mary and her little child, Jesus; and, from the perspective, perhaps, of the shepherds who are looking on at this scene.

And Mary is a virgin. It's part of the biblical testimony of Matthew and Luke. She's a virgin, and she gives birth to a Child. That doesn't mean to say that sexual relations are somehow bad or wrong (and there's been a tradition in the church that has maintained that; that's not right). Nor is this passage saying that Mary remained a virgin for the rest of her life: the perpetual virginity of Mary. The Gospels refer to brothers and sisters of Jesus, and I think we're meant to take those in more than just in the spiritual sense: that they were half-brothers and half-sisters of Jesus.

Now, today, of course, it is said we know better than Matthew and Luke. You know, we're scientists. We send rockets up into space. We've walked on the surface of the moon. We've traced the DNA and codified it. We've done so many things. You can do all kinds of natty little things on your cell phones that were only dreams just a few years before. So you mean to tell me that we now know that...ah...babies don't come from virgins. but Matthew and Luke didn't know this? That's what we're supposed to believe: that somehow or other, back, you know, two thousand years ago, before cell phones and high definition television...you know, they didn't really know that babies didn't come as a result of sexual relations. Right! No one's going to believe that! That is the most nonsensical argument that's ever been brought against the virgin birth.

You've all seen it. This week. Well, some of you have seen it: Newsweek–hot off the press, it's this week's edition. “The Birth of Jesus: Faith and History–How the Story of Christmas Came to Be.” Beautiful, beautiful pictures...the text is not so good! It's written by John Meacham. John Meacham is the managing editor of Newsweek. He was described in the magazine as “one of the most powerful men under 38.” He's often seen on The Charlie Rose Show; Hardball; The O’Reilly Factor. His line on the virgin birth in this article is, on the one hand, to say–and he quotes Shakespeare's Hamlet, that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” In other words, it may be true, but it probably isn't. It may be true, because, you know, scientists don't sniff at the possibility of birth from a virgin. There are some animal species that in fact do just that. And parthenogenesis, to give it its scientific name, is no longer scoffed at in the scientific community. Of course, parthenogenesis, birth from a virgin, would only result in a female child, not a male child. There's the miraculous: there's the intervention of the Holy Spirit.

But here's the problem, Meacham says. And he trots out all of the arguments, and, to be honest, some of the arguments are older than he is. The argument that John doesn't say anything about the virgin birth, Mark doesn't say anything about the virgin birth. Luke doesn't say anything about it in his Acts of the Apostles. Paul never mentions the virgin birth. What do we make of it?

Well, Paul doesn't mention a whole lot of things. He doesn't mention the baptism of Jesus. He doesn't mention the temptation of Jesus. He doesn't mention the transfiguration of Jesus. He doesn't mention any of the parables that Jesus spoke. He doesn't mention any of the miracles that Jesus performed. Now there's “interesting” for you!

Probably the reason why Paul doesn't mention it is because mentioning it would raise automatically the suspicion that Jesus’ birth had been illegitimate. And it didn't serve Paul's end, because his concentration was on the significance of the cross of Jesus, and on Calvary rather than Bethlehem. By the way, it's interesting that a lot of theology has focused on Bethlehem rather than Calvary, and that's a distortion of the emphasis of the Bible itself.

And then Meacham trots out the explanation as alluded to the in the passage in Matthew, chapter one, that the reason why Matthew speaks about a virgin birth is to somehow give credence to the prophecy of Isaiah (the one in chapter seven and verse fifteen: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and be with child, and you will call His name Immanuel...”) and the so-called Jewish expectation that a Messiah would be born of a virgin.

The problem with that is that the Jews did not expect that the Messiah would be born of a virgin, and since Matthew is writing to Jews, that theory just doesn't stand up. The whole point of Matthew's citing Isaiah 7:15 is that it is to be “a sign.” And the argument is–and it's been trotted out for many, many decades now–that the Greek translation of the Hebrew got it wrong, that actually it wasn't that ‘a virgin would be with child’; it should have been that ‘a young woman shall be with child’ because that's what the Hebrew text says.

But when the Hebrew text says ‘young woman’ it is assumed that young women are usually virgins. And if it is to be a sign, a sign of momentous significance, why would a young woman giving birth to a child be a sign of anything? Young women have been giving birth to children from the time of Eve! That's not particularly a sign! The sign is that she's a virgin.

So, what Joseph Mohr is doing is painting this beautiful picture. Here's the scene: the entrance and the exit of Jesus. At the entrance, there's a virgin birth; a sovereign, miraculous, Holy Spirit empowered birth. On the exit, there is a resurrection from the tomb. Two pillars, as it were, declaring there is something about Jesus that is different from all the other men that ever was and even will be; that if salvation is going to come to you and to me, it cannot come from within ourselves. Something from out of this world has to come into this world to save us: a miraculous birth, a virgin Mary.

II. But secondly, the second stanza, the reverential accompaniment. The reverential accompaniment:

“Silent night! Holy night! Shepherds quake at the sight.

Glories stream from heaven afar;

Heavenly hosts sing ‘Alleluia!’

Christ, the Savior, is born. Christ, the Savior, is born.”

We move from the stable in Bethlehem to the hillsides at Bethlehem, and the shepherds, and the star, and Gabriel speaking. And the shepherds are afraid, because fear would be normal if you saw Gabriel, and he spoke to you! And then a mighty host of angels appear, and they’re singing the greatest rendition of the “Hallelujah!” chorus ever! It's a holy night! It's a holy night...it's a night that's different from any other night that's ever been, because the trappings of transcendent glory are dawning on this night. “Glories stream from afar; heavenly hosts sing ‘Alleluia!’ Angels glorifying God, because glorifying God is the highest activity of rational creatures. Gloria in excelsis! That is, in the highest, in the heavens! Gloria in excelsis Deo! These are the herald angels singing! And they’re singing the praise of God! And why? Because a Savior is born! A Savior is born....

III. And thirdly, a shining love.
A miraculous birth; a reverential accompaniment; a shining love. Stanza three: “Silent night! Holy night! Son of God, love's pure light....” It's poetry, you understand–left-brain, right brain thing–it's poetry. Joseph Mohr is saying, look, not literally, you understand, but from the face of Jesus...forget all the haloes and things like that, but from the face of Jesus, there shines love! That's what the poetry is saying.

Theologians have spoken about a covenant made between the Father and the Son in the councils of eternity. They call that covenant “‘the covenant of redemption.” It's when the Father and the Son agree to save a people for eternity from their sins.

Can you imagine for a minute the Father speaking to His Son? And He says to His Son, “Son, I want to save a great company of men and women, and boys and girls from their sins; from the fallen race of humanity. I want to save a great number of people. It's going to require that Someone goes down into the world, that Someone perforates into time and space; that Someone becomes like Adam, to do what Adam could not do: to undo the consequences of what Adam did. My Son, will You...? Will You do that?”

And Jesus says, “I will, Father. I will.”

And the Father says to His Son, “You understand, my Son, what that will mean: You understand You will become the target of satanic attack in a way that has never been the case with any man of woman before?”

“I understand,” Jesus says, “I understand.”

“You understand that You will have to obey every facet and every detail of the Law?”

“I understand,” Jesus says.

“You understand that if You become the substitute for sinners, they will take You and they will nail You to a cross. You understand that?”

“I understand,” Jesus says.

“Do You understand, My Son, that I will have to be just, and I will have to pour out My unmitigated wrath upon that sin which You assume to Yourself? Not wrath as it's ever been seen before, but unmitigated wrath. You understand, My Son? There will come a time when You will not be conscious that I am Your Father. You understand that? You will cry from the cross, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’ Do You understand that, My Son?”

And He says, “Father, I understand that.”

“And will You still become the Savior of sinners?”

“Yes!” Jesus says, “Yes, I will.”

“Why?” the Father says.

“Because I love them. Because I love them.”

Greater love hath no man than this: “...love's pure light” beaming from His face, Mohr says in this poetic way.

And then in the fourth stanza, there's a choral response: “Silent Night! Holy Night! Wondrous star, lend thy light. With the angels let us sing, ‘Alleluia!’ to our King.” Let's do that. Let's do it from our hearts. Let's do it from the bottom of our souls. If you know your sins are forgiven, if you trust in Jesus Christ, if you’re building on the solid Rock of Jesus Christ this morning, then join with the angels and with the archangels and sing ‘Alleluia!’ Let's sing this carol. It's No. 210. We’ll stand to sing, Silent Night! Holy Night! Let's stand.

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.