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:
CALL TO WORSHIP — Psalm 36:5-9 Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the mountains of God;
your judgments are like the great deep; How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings. For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light do we see light.
Go on up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good news;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good news;
lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Behold your God!”
Behold, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
We have many Christmas movies and specials that mean a lot to us for different reasons. Thanksgiving, not so many. When I was in junior high school, I believe, one of the local T.V. stations (probably channel 43) showed two movies on Thanksgiving day for a number of years in a row: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Snow White and the Three Stooges. I have to admit I liked both of them (although the Stooges’ shorts were much more artistic than their full length movies). How they related specifically with Thanksgiving is anybody’s guess. A number of years later a movie with Thanksgiving as the driving force of its plot appeared.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles was introduced in 1987. It was written, produced, and directed by John Hughes, who specialized in movies that focused on human relationships. The plot revolves around two men who meet by chance due to travel difficulties as Thanksgiving approaches. Neal Page (Steve Martin) is a straight-laced business executive that is trying to get back to his home and family in Chicago in time for Thanksgiving. Del Griffith (John Candy) is a shower curtain ring salesman traveling for business. They are polar opposites in personality. Neal is serious, reserved and restrained in his actions. Del is a joker, open and talkative. After their initial travel plans fall through due to bad weather, Del promises Neal he will get him home in time for Thanksgiving, because he feels at least partially responsible for Neal’s predicament.
Their trip becomes a comedy of errors and hardships, traveling on, yes– planes, trains, and automobiles, and also trucks. Throughout the journey Del remains focused on his goal of trying to get Neal home to Chicago in time for his big family Thanksgiving dinner. Neal also remains focused on his goal of trying to get home in time for his big family Thanksgiving dinner. Along the way Neal changes. He has to move out of his comfort zone. He has to learn to “fly by the seat of his pants,” so to speak. He has to adjust to things outside of his control, which seems foreign to him. He learns that he has to accept Del for who he is– he can’t change him to be the way he would like him to be. He also learns to laugh.
Eventually Del does get Neal back to Chicago on Thanksgiving day. He will make it in time for dinner. As the two men part ways on the platform of the El in Chicago they both appreciate what they have been through. The change in Neal becomes apparent as he rides on the train, reflecting on the past few days. As he remembers events and conversations his mind turns away from himself and toward Del. He returns back to the station where he got on the train and finds Del sitting in the station alone. When he asks why he is there he learns that Del’s wife had passed away 8 years ago and that he is alone and homeless. He takes Del home with him, so that his new friend can share Thanksgiving with his family.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look not to his own interests, but rather to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4, CSB)
It would have been easy for Neal Page to continue home on the train, and forget about Del Griffith. The experiences of the past few days could have been a lost exercise in frustration. Instead they turned out to be a lesson in humility brought about from considering another man’s situation instead of his own. He gained a true friend.
Although Planes, Trains and Automobiles doesn’t quote Scripture and can’t really be considered a Christian movie, it has at its heart the message of Philippians 2:3-4. Del always seemed genuinely concerned for Neal’s welfare. For the majority of the journey Neal was oblivious to Del’s needs. His lesson in turning his mind to someone else rather than himself is a reminder that each of us needs from time to time. Pastor James’ emphasis the past month or two has been on considering others and being in harmony. Philippians 2 at its core emphasizes considering others and working together. From beginning to end, so does Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Even a Thanksgiving comedy movie can serve as a positive example, and lead us to remember Scripture!
I have attached a clip of the ending of the movie. It is about 7 minutes in length. If you have enough time, please watch.
CALL TO WORSHIP — Psalm 100 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name! For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.
GRACE & ASSURANCE — 1 John 2:1-2
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.
But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.
He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
This year Jim Sperry has shared a few messages with the church. Although the Scripture texts has varied the underlying message has been consistent: “God is awesome!” That theme reminds me of one hymn in particular—How Great Thou Art. Since I was young this hymn has been one of the most common hymns that would be considered among a small group of foundational classics that come immediately to mind (to my mind at least), including Amazing Grace, Sweet Hour of Prayer, Just As I Am, and A Mighty Fortress. Many hymns were written by noted hymn writers and musicians, and were originally written for use in worship services. How Great Thou Art took a longer, more winding path.
In 1885 a Swedish editor named Carl Boberg was walking home along a coastline. He was generally enjoying nature when a sudden thunderstorm arose. He found cover until the worst of the storm passed, and then rushed to get home. After he got home he opened his windows to see a clear beautiful sky. He listened to the birds and heard church bells ringing. He sat down and wrote a poem that he called. “O Store Gud” (which is Swedish for “A Mighty God”). He shared the poem, and it was eventually published in the local newspaper. A songwriter saw it and matched the words with a Swedish folk song. In the early 1900’s it was translated to German. Later a Russian version appeared. It was translated to English in 1925 by E. Gustav Johnson to a version unlike what we have today. In the 1930’s British missionary Stuart K. Hine heard the Russian version while he was in Ukraine. He translated that version into English. In 1949 he introduced his version with a new title, “How Great Thou Art.”
The hymn was published in a missionary magazine called “Grace and Peace.” J. Edwin Orr, an evangelist, was traveling in India and heard an Indian choir singing the hymn. He loved it and brought that English version back home to America. He had it performed at a conference he was holding for college students, where it was heard by Tim Spencer’s children. Tim was a singer formerly in the Sons of the Pioneers, Roy Rogers’ cowboy band. He owned Mana Music and bought the song rights. It was mostly unknown until 1954, when George Beverly Shea heard it.
He and Billy Graham loved it and used it as the theme song of a world crusade he was conducting at the time. From that point its fame spread and it was recorded by many, including Elvis Presley, Loretta Lynn, and Tennessee Ernie Ford. Over the years since it has been performed and recorded an immeasurable number of times. It became a worship standard in English speaking churches.
I was motivated to consider this song because I heard a performance version of it that I had not previously heard. YouTube suggested that I watch a video of it performed by a group called GQ (“Girls Quartet”). I have watched several other performances by them. They are not very commercially famous to my knowledge. It is a group of women who met years ago while they were in college in Baltimore County, Maryland. They began singing together, writing and/or arranging a lot of their own music. They graduated long ago, and I believe at least three of them are now teachers in schools. They continued to perform after college.
I am usually a traditionalist about a lot of things. Sometimes I hear different or modernized versions of hymns and songs that simply turn me off. At other times I am motivated to appreciate one in a new light. This heartfelt version by GQ is in the latter category. It took me out of my comfortable place of hearing the same melody in the same style (great though it is), and caused me to focus on the words again, and feel the emotion behind the song. I hope it does that for you also:
CALL TO WORSHIP — Psalm 92:1-2, 4
It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High;
to declare your steadfast love in the morning,
and your faithfulness by night, For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work;
at the works of your hands I sing for joy.
GRACE & ASSURANCE — James 1:2-4 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,
for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.
And let steadfastness have its full effect,
that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
Today’s date, November 10th, is one that catches my attention every year. It is the date in 1975 the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior during a terrible storm. The event is forever ingrained in the memory of those directly affected by it—surviving family members of the crew, friends of the crewmen, fellow shipping crews on the Great Lakes, and even shipping crews of the future through changed and updated safety regulations for shipping. Many who were not directly affected by the tragedy became familiar with it through a ballad written by Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” The song is largely based on the facts of the event, but there are some details in the song provided through legend and poetic license.
“The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead When the skies of November turn gloomy”
Lake Superior has an average depth of almost 500 feet. At its deepest it is 1,332 feet. The Fitzgerald rests about 535 feet from the surface. The average water temperature during the year is 40 degrees. At its deepest parts it is colder. The verse in the song above has a basis in fact. When a physical organic body–plant, fish, or human sinks to the bottom of a warm body of water, bacteria and other tiny creatures cause decomposition. As this happens tissue bloats and expands, which normally causes objects to rise to the top of the water. In water as cold as the depths of Lake Superior there is little to no bacteria to decompose organic objects. They stay at the bottom of the lake and are preserved for a long time. Therefore the lake never gives up its dead.
That characteristic of large and deep bodies of water is only one of the many reasons that deep water, and the oceans especially still hide mysteries from us. Every year scientists discover creatures and plants in the depths of the oceans that have escaped our gaze and study. During more ancient Biblical times even greater mystery surrounded the watery depths.
In the New Testament the Greek word translated as “sea” is “thalassa”. It generally indicates a natural body of water: an ocean, sea, lake, seashore, or body of water in general. It doesn’t always mean “ocean” in the largest bodies of water on Earth sense. The Sea of Galilee is a freshwater lake and is much smaller than any of the Great Lakes. Yet the fishermen and travelers of Biblical times were very wary of it and its weather and waves. Much more fear entailed as people entered the Mediterranean Sea. It is much larger and deeper, and held creatures in its depths that the Sea of Galilee did not. Reports in ancient times of fearful creatures like the kraken were probably not fanciful fiction but borne by encounters with creatures like the giant squid or octopus. A trip out on a boat or ship, especially on a large body of water brought no guarantee of a safe return home. A thalassa meant uncertainty, lack of control, danger, fear, and possibly disappearance and death to the people of the New Testament period.
“Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.” (Revelation 21:1)
I believe that the sea mentioned in this verse represents the fear and uncertainty people feel for unexpected and unseen danger and death. Some apply a literal meaning to this term, saying that it means that the physical New Earth will have no seas or large bodies of water. I don’t believe this harmonizes well with the other obviously figurative language in the following verses of the chapter. Did John literally see the Holy City “prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (v.2)? He is trying to describe what he saw in the most applicable human terms possible to show the beauty and grandeur of the occasion.
The disappearance of the sea coincides with the second sentence of verse 4: “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” The theme continues in verse 5: “He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’” His “making everything new” doesn’t simply mean our physical home on Earth. It means the entire system in which we exist. We won’t have the separation from God, death, sorrow, sickness, and pain that we face now as consequences of sin. For true believers who have accepted Christ as savior this means being in His presence for eternity as a member of His family. The sea is no more. Hallelujah!