CALL TO WORSHIP — Psalm 98:1-2 Oh sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things! His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him. The Lord has made known his salvation; he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.
Joy to the World
The First Noel
While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night
Hark the Herald Angels Sing
It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
Angels from the Realms of Glory
Angels We Have Heard on High
SERMON — “Be Strong! You Do More Than You Know” – Haggai 2:1-9
Merry Christmas! This week I would like to share 2 songs and videos. The first is a beautiful classic Christmas hymn that we do not often sing. The second is a secular song that we often hear during the Christmas season. Please watch and listen.
After hearing those songs you might be thinking they have little in common, which is incorrect. Both had at least their lyrics written by Benjamin Russell Hanby. Benjamin’s father William was a maker of harnesses and saddles. He was also a minister (later bishop) of the United Brethren Church. Their home in Rushville, Ohio, in Fairfield County, was a noted stop on the Underground Railroad in the 1840’s. Benjamin grew up with the same dedication to God, and to the abolition of slavery as his father. The family eventually moved to Westerville, Ohio, where William helped establish Otterbein University. Benjamin enrolled there at 16, and graduated. He also became a minister in the Brethren Church. The Hanby family continued to assist former slaves by providing shelter and protection in their Westerville home.
Benjamin was a self-taught musician, and loved music. He began to write songs in support of abolition. One of his earliest and most famous songs was “Darling Nelly Gray,” which was based on the account of an escaped slave named Joseph Selby. He planned to save up enough money to free his love, Nelly Gray, who had been sold to a plantation as a slave. Unfortunately Joseph was very ill, and died in the Hanby home before he was able to fulfill his dream. Joseph and his story made a deep impression on Benjamin. “Nelly Gray” became very popular, and was sung by troops on both sides of the Civil War– as inspiration for the Union, and in a derogatory manner by the Confederacy. He wrote several other songs in support of abolition.
He discovered that he loved teaching, especially children. He continued to write musical scores and lyrics. One of the songs he taught to his classes was one designed as a sing along to help his students develop– “Up on the Housetop.” He also wrote many hymns, including “Who is He in Yonder Stall?” He moved to Chicago to work with a music publishing company to produce and publish his music. There he contracted tuberculosis, and passed away at the young age of 33.
I am always impressed by someone like Benjamin Hanby, who was able to make such an impact on so many people in such a short earthly life. Again I am reminded of Jesus’ parable about the talents, where someone who makes the most of their blessings will receive even more. During his lifetime the efforts of his family to help many to freedom and safety was undoubtedly appreciated by many and had a lasting impact. “Darling Nelly Gray” played a role in rallying people to the cause of ending slavery. After his lifetime his songs have lived on. “Who is he in Yonder Stall?” beautifully describes Christ’s person, work, and place in the Kingdom, reminding us of God’s greatest gift. Even a less serious song like “Up on the Housetop” continues to remind people of Christmas and establish the mood of the season.
We know that we do not deserve God’s grace, and can in no way give Him any gift comparable to His gift of Jesus to us. We can accept His gift and try to live a life pleasing to Him. I am reminded of the final words of Christina Rossetti’s carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter”: “Yet what I can I give Him, give my heart.” It is a blessing to see these words lived out in the life of Benjamin Hanby.
CALL TO WORSHIP — Psalm 95:6-7 Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.
Here I Am To Worship
Good Christian Men Rejoice!
GRACE & ASSURANCE — Luke 1:78-79 CSB Because of our God’s merciful compassion, the dawn from on high will visit us to shine on those who live in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Many of the hymns or carols we sing in the Christmas season come from a Western European or British Isles origin. This is natural because these are the areas of origin of most immigrants to America during the time our holiday traditions were being established. Some writers were immigrants or were descended from them. Other carols were brought from their home country and translated to English when necessary. One of our most joyous Christmas songs has a decidedly different origin.
From ancient Biblical times people have enslaved other people to suit their own desires or purposes. In some occasions it was due to indentured servanthood, where people were dedicated to working for others for a given period of time to pay a debt. On other occasions it was due to a conquering nation in a war taking advantage of those conquered. This was the cause of the slavery that the Jews endured in Egypt during the time of Moses. These two occasions were also the cause of slavery in Africa. Indentured servanthood existed, and conquered tribes were taken as servants by their conquering tribes. Beginning in the 7th century or so Arab Muslims and Europeans are believed to have participated in the practice of chattel slavery in Africa, where captured people were seen as property to be bought and sold. Africans captured as property were sold in Europe, and in China and the far east. It is believed that the Portuguese first brought African slaves across the Atlantic in ships to the Americas in the 1600’s. The first ship was supposedly intended for the Spanish inhabitants of the Caribbean and Central America. It only made it as far as a landing near the Jamestown colony, where the slaves were sold instead. Thus began the disgraceful history of slavery in North America.
When the United States became a country in 1776 slavery was an accepted practice. Some slaves were treated well, and many others very poorly. Regardless of their treatment they were seen as belongings without their own personal freedom. In the early 1800’s people began to question the morality of slavery. There was a movement within the country that wanted to declare that all people should be considered free, and not subject to ownership or servitude by others. They wanted this declared at a federal level to guarantee this right to all. Many southern states seceded from the union because they didn’t believe that the federal government should be deciding this, and that states should be able to decide this type of law themselves (calling this “states’ rights”). Hence the Civil War. As we know the Union won, and slavery was ended.
The experience of slaves in America draws a parallel in my mind to the slavery that the Israelites experienced in Egypt and Babylon. They were subjected to a hard, harsh life and looked ahead to the day when they would be free. The feelings of sorrow and despair buoyed by hope in God built the foundation for a very particular type of music that blossomed in the mid 1800’s– the spiritual. Nothing could stop them from worshiping God, and many did. Despite their enslaved status, poor living conditions, and uncertain earthly futures they maintained a strong faith in the God who would save their souls.
Spirituals were songs that were created and taught verbally, and passed to new generations. They weren’t written on fancy sheet music in universities, or practiced on pianos or organs in churches or well to do homes. John Wesley Work III, a musician and music professor at Fisk University, began collecting and documenting spirituals. He wrote them down, transcribed the music, and eventually recorded many of the songs with Fisk students. His 1907 collection, “Folk Songs of the American Negro” included one of our most jubilant Christmas songs– “Go Tell It On the Mountain.”
The verses of the song give an account of the events on the night of Jesus’ birth, and end with the acknowledgement that God will reward those who seek Him and eventually make them great in His sight. In between the verses is the chorus, which declares Christ’s coming boldly and with joy:
Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere.
Go, tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born.
I struggled to locate a version of the song that I believed shared the original intent and feeling that was intended when the song was written. Many of the versions I watched were stylized performance versions that didn’t seem quite right. I finally found one that captured the exuberant spirit I think the song intended. There are a LOT of people singing in this video and they seem genuinely excited. Please step outside your musical comfort zone as I did and feel the joy!
CALL TO WORSHIP — Isaiah 12:5-6, Habakkuk 3:17-18 “Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be made known in all the earth. Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
GRACE & ASSURANCE — Malachi 4:2, Isaiah 7:14 But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
At this early point in December it seems like I have been hearing Christmas music for weeks. Oh, I have! It starts before Thanksgiving, I believe. I might have heard Andy Williams’ rendition of “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” 37 times already. Actually, I like that one. There are others like George Michael’s “Last Christmas” or Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” that I wouldn’t miss if they were never played again. Toss “Santa Baby” on that pile too. I appreciate songs that capture the feeling and essence of Christmas—especially those that share the true meaning of Christmas that we understand as believers. Some songs are based on fictitious characters, like Rudolph, Frosty, the Grinch or the Miser Brothers. Those songs do not normally share a message about Christ or the Gospel. There is one song based on a fictitious character that does.
In 1941 Katherine K. Davis, under the pseudonym C.R.W. Robertson, wrote and published “Carol of the Drum.” Although there is a traditional Czech carol by that name, the head of the music department at Wellesley College (her alma mater) said that was not the inspiration for her song. It was instead inspired by a French carol, “Patapan.” It was recorded first by the Trapp Family Singers (who would later be popularized in “The Sound of Music”) in 1951, and later recorded by the Jack Halloran Singers in 1957. In 1958 it was recorded by the Harry Simeone Chorale after a slight change in arrangement, renaming it to “The Little Drummer Boy.”
The lyrics tell the story of a young boy led to see the newborn King in the manger. He learns that those leading him are bringing their finest gifts to present to the baby. He is poor and has no valuable worldly gifts to offer, so he simply offers to play his drum. Mary allows him to play, and he plays his best. The song ends with the baby Jesus smiling in approval.
The accounts we have of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke do not mention a poor boy with a drum. Songs sometimes do not capture Scripture completely accurately. The three wise men, or more accurately, probably astrologers, are understood to be kings in songs like “We Three Kings.” It, “We Saw Three Ships,” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas” were written to recognize the Epiphany, a day established in the church calendar to commemorate the day that the wise men were led to see Jesus. The twelve days of Christmas begin on Christmas day, and go to January 5th or 6th (the Epiphany), depending on which churches’ counting you adopt. Neither the observance or the date of the Epiphany is indicated in Scripture, and are the result of churches creating a liturgical calendar.
In recent years I have learned to appreciate “The Little Drummer Boy” more, especially in view of some of the creative license taken in some of the other Christmas songs and carols. Maybe I am mellowing with age. At the very least the song promotes solid Biblical teaching. Two teachings from Jesus immediately come to mind in considering the drummer boy.
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:1-4)
The boy in the song came to see Jesus in openness and honesty, to see and honor Him. Yet the fact that he was poor did not keep him from giving what he could. He could play his drum. This reminds me of another teaching from Jesus. In teaching His disciples about the offering of a widow, He said:
“And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:43-44)
The wise men and others undoubtedly brought Jesus gifts that had been expensive to buy and had great monetary value. Although the drummer boy had nothing comparable he gave all he had– himself and his talent for playing the drum.
Sometimes I get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season, worrying about appropriate gifts to give people who are close to me. We like to honor and please those we love. Treating our family and friends well in every way is indeed Biblical instruction. We like to be charitable at Christmas, attempting to follow God’s example. What can we possibly give God, who has given us His Son, and all we have to live for? Like the little drummer boy, ourselves and our talents. Thank you for the lesson in your song, Ms. Davis.
CALL TO WORSHIP — Isaiah 9:2, 6 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
GRACE & ASSURANCE — Psalm 80:1-2, 19 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock. You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth. Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh, stir up your might and come to save us! Restore us, O Lord God of hosts! Let your face shine, that we may be saved!
“And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here, I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’” (Matthew 25:20-21, ESV)
Phillips Brooks was a man who dedicated his life in service to God. He was born in Boston in 1835. He wanted to preach, and ended up becoming an Episcopalian minister. He graduated from Harvard University, and the Virginia Theological Seminary. He eventually became the preacher and rector (a clergyman who is assigned responsibility of a parish in the Episcopal Church) of the Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia. During the Civil War years he was an active supporter and speaker for the abolition of slavery. After the end of the war he was recognized for his sermons after the death of Abraham Lincoln, and to recognize the sacrifice of the Civil War dead. He was a respected and appreciated teacher in schools and universities. Later in life he received honorary degrees from Harvard, Columbia, and Oxford Universities. He is credited with introducing Helen Keller to the Christian faith, and to her teacher Anne Sullivan. He was a man well respected and loved by all who knew him or were affected by his ministry. Despite the impactful life that he lived he tends to be remembered most for something else.
In 1865 he made a trip to the Holy Land. He stayed in Jerusalem and was chosen to participate in the Christmas Eve service at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It was established around 360 A.D., and was built on the site believed to be the location of the manger where Jesus was born. Before the evening service he rode the distance of approximately 6 or 7 miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on horseback. After an approximately 5 hour Christmas Eve service he returned exhilarated. The evening turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of his life. He later wrote:
“Before dark we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it, in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds. . . . Somewhere in those fields we rode through, the shepherds must have been. As we passed, the shepherds were still ‘keeping watch over their flocks,’ or leading them home to fold.” (credit: https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-o-little-town-of-bethlehem)
After returning home to Pennsylvania he wrote the words to a ballad that captured his thoughts from his experience in Bethlehem. The music to accompany his words was written by Holy Trinity’s Sunday School superintendent and organist, Louis H. Redner.
The song was first sung by the churches’ children’s choir. That may have been the first time, but certainly would not be the last time his song, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” would be sung.
What additional talents or blessings could a man who seemingly had made the most of what God had given him receive? How about the ability to capture God’s greatness and love for mankind in a Christmas hymn that would far outlive him.
I hope you are as blessed by the message of his song as I am: