The Sound of Music – Part 3 of our Truth of Christmas Advent Series

The WAR on Christmas!
The WAR on Christmas! – Really?

There is a war on Christmas!

And it’s not being fought in the trenches of the outside world, but right here in the church! Can you guess what it is? Is it about the commercialization of Christmas? No. Is it about the pros and cons of gift-giving? No. The war, the secret war, being fought in the church is about singing Christmas carols before Christmas! Shocking isn’t it? Now most of you are probably laughing but are you laughing for different reasons? Some of you are saying, “Well, how silly! Of course we should sing Christmas carols before Christmas. It’s the Christmas season!” While others of you are saying, “Well, how silly! Of course we shouldn’t sing Christmas carols before Christmas. It’s not Christmas.” So which camp do you land in?

No war on Christmas - whew
No war on Christmas – whew

Whether we play them in church or not, Christmas carols infiltrate the season.

We hear them on the radio, in shopping malls, in elevators, and it seems like such a natural part of the holidays that for many of us it wouldn’t be Christmas without Christmas songs. It seems obvious to most people that we would play them in church, too. But did you know that the singing of joyous Christmas songs in church occurred only within the past 150 years? It happened for the first time in Cornwall, England back in 1880.[1] 1880! When we think of “the church” we think of the span of years from the birth of Christ until now which is a little over 2000 years and to think that Christmas songs of joy and cheer only happened within the last 150 years is pretty incredulous. Less than 10% of Christian history had us singing Christmas carols in the church. Up until 1880, Christmas carols were sung in the streets, at festivals, at parties or social gatherings, but not in the church. When the church played music at all, they would often play somber tunes, usually in Latin, about church theology.[2] Sometimes they were celebratory, but since they were in Latin, nobody knew what they meant. There was a hungering among the people to celebrate the life of Christ using words and harmonies that they could rejoice with, and so the Christmas carols we know and love sprang to life. The songs that we hold as standards – “Silent Night,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful” – came into their current form only in the 18th century. In fact, “O Come, All Ye Faithful” one of the most famous and dearly loved Christmas carols ever was originally written in Latin. That was fitting since the author John Wade was a Catholic cleric and he was used to hearing songs sung in Latin. It didn’t get translated into English until 1841 and by then the authorship of the song had become so muddled that some even called it “the Portugese Hymn,” not after the country but after the composer Marcos Portugal. It’s still known by that name in some places today.

So the idea of singing Christmas songs in church is relatively new.

At least compared to the long history of the church. But just as there was 150 years ago a hungering among the people to sing those songs, there is a hunger among us to sing those songs today. And I think that hunger comes from a place deep in our hearts placed there by God. We are wired to praise God and to give thanks for our blessings. In so many different books of the Bible, we find that the people of God cry out to him in song and shout to him in both praise and despair. These kinds of expression are not only meaningful to God but to the people who do them. We’re going to read Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus this morning where he writes specifically about this topic. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, please go to Ephesians 5:15-20. Ephesians 5:15-20. In our sermon series over the last couple of weeks and into next Sunday, we have been talking about the “Truth of Christmas” at times challenging long-held beliefs, and as is the case today looking at things with a different perspective. We sometimes get trapped in tradition and forget the foundation of our faith. We sometimes get trapped in tradition and forget the foundation of our faith. Meaning that our traditions sometimes take root in our life and they end up meaning more to us than our faith itself. But listen to these words from Paul. For Paul is appealing to us to fill ourselves with the Spirit of God, and although he means the Holy Spirit, I don’t think he would object to saying that we also need to be filled with the spirit of how and why we are created as children of God.

15 Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. 18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Singing praise songs in worship
Singing praise songs in worship

Singing is central to worship.

Singing is central to worship. Not a controversial stance, I know. But Paul doesn’t make a distinction here about what kind of songs we should sing or when. Those again are rules that we impose for the “order and structure” of the church. Those are rules that we impose for the “order and structure” of the church. It’s kind of like praying. I’ve had people come up to me and tell me they don’t like to pray because they don’t know how to do it. The thing is, there aren’t any hard and fast rules to prayer just as there are not any hard and fast rules to singing. Jesus does give us guidelines about how to pray in Matthew 6, what we today call “the Lord’s prayer,” but even then he doesn’t tell us WHAT we should pray but HOW we should pray. And the way he teaches us to pray has the same message as Paul has about singing that we just heard. Paul, in this passage, only gives us one guideline. Only one. We hear it in verse 19 when he says, “Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord…” I love that the authors who put in the verse numbers cut it off right there mid-sentence because it highlights that part. “Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.” If it comes from your heart, then it honors God and that’s the only requirement for what we should sing and when, a song that comes from the heart. It sums up what God expects from us in all that we do. And just as Jesus taught us how to pray, Paul goes on to tell us that our singing and praise should always point to God. He writes, “…always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” When we have those components in place, then we know we are doing it in a way that honor God and we open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit.

The only “right way” to sing is with this in mind.

The early church often adopted customs and traditions of the surrounding culture, sometimes to legitimize the position of the church and sometimes to make it more friendly to those they were trying to reach. Flexibility in our traditions and approach to the Gospel is the key component to being successful in reaching others for Christ. Flexibility in our traditions and approach to the Gospel is the key component to being successful in reaching others for Christ. But that doesn’t always happen. One United Methodist minister was even quoted in USA Today as saying, “You would not sing Christ the Lord is Risen Today on Good Friday…You don’t throw in Christmas hymns for the sake of appeasing people who want to sing.”[3] But is that something worth planting your flag over? Is that what’s going to break apart our faith? In our desire for “order and structure” or to keep things just the way “we like them,” we inadvertently show an unloving side of ourselves, which is the last thing we want to do during the Christmas season. When I was in high school, I was admittedly pretty good at math. I had always received “A’s” pretty easily. So it came as a shock when my first Calculus test got me a C-. Especially since I got all the answers correctly. Turns out my teacher didn’t appreciate how I did it since it was different than how she showed us. I showed all my work, but saw the problem differently than she did and so she gave me a bad grade. She didn’t teach me math. She taught me that the process was more important than the result. To do things differently was bad. That kind of inflexibility, the inability to recognize that there may be more than one way to look at a problem, is often what portrays the church as unloving and out of touch. If we sing songs during Advent that honor Christ and help us to remember the spirit of the season, can that really be wrong? Do we have to be so structured that we lose out on opportunities to reach others for Christ?

There’s nothing wrong with singing Advent songs during Advent.

Or for preferring to sing Advent songs in anticipation of Christmas. We should honor all aspects of our journey of faith. Pentecost, Easter, Good Friday, and Christmas are all important times to remember our history as Christians and need to be taught. The point of today’s message is simply to keep in mind that we must be willing to be flexible to reach others for Christ. We must be willing to show love through our ability to adapt and change to the world around us. We must never compromise the message of Christ, but we can alter the delivery to help others be able to see Christ in their lives. Singing Christmas songs during this season is no more right or wrong than doing it any other way. As we hold tightly to traditions that offer us comfort and give us order, we may inadvertently be closing the doors around us. Keep in mind that almost all of the traditions we hold to be inviolate were created by human beings. Advent itself was created and has changed many times throughout the history of the church. What we consider tradition today didn’t exist at all in the early church. The way we do church didn’t exist in the early church. Christmas didn’t exist the way it does today in the early church. All of it is made up. But the message of Christmas, that God came to Earth to save us from our sin, is the only truth of Christmas we need to hold on to. For those who believe, every day is Christmas. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_carol ; http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/carols_history.shtml

[2] Ace Collins, Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, p. 53.

[3] http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/2010-12-13-column13_ST_N.htm

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