Once in Royal David’s City

Sermon, Living Waters Church, December 5, 2021
Watch or listen here

Our carol for reflection today might be new to some of us but is a well-loved Christmas hymn in other traditions. Once in Royal David’s City is one of those carols which draws out the sharp contrasts surrounding Jesus’ birth in the gospels. Which reminds me of a story. A few years ago I attended a pastors’ conference and was in the washroom in a break between sessions. While I was washing my hands an elderly man came in wearing a well-worn suit (if I were to guess) from seventies. We exchanged pleasantries and moved on. Based on his age and appearance, I assumed he was a long-retired pastor, probably living on a very fixed income, possibly from a small town. At the time I thought to myself: I should have given him more attention. He probably doesn’t have many folks taking an interest in him these days. Well, my assumptions were all wrong, because in the very next session he was invited to the stage for an interview and was introduced as none other than Jimmy Patterson. For those unaware, Patterson was at one point the richest person in Canada and still sits in the top ten list of richest people in Canada today. I had made judgements on outer appearances and was faced with a perceived contrast. What’s the saying – never judge a billionaire by their cover?

This is a season of contrast. It’s dark outside, so we string up lights or burn candles. It’s cold, so we gather around fires. We spend on ourselves, but also remember those in living in poverty and resolve to help where we can. We laugh more loudly, and we grieve more deeply this time of year – a season of contrasts. As I said, Once in Royal David’s City draws on the apparent contrasts found in the nativity story. It was written by Cecil Francis Alexander who was an acclaimed poet, a hymn writer, and an advocate for people living on the margins. Other than her hymns, she’s best known for being a tireless visitor of the poor and sick, donated the proceeds of her publications to build schools for children with hearing and speaking impairments, helped to set up a refuge for vulnerable women, and worked to establish a district nurses service in Northern Ireland. And when you read the lyrics of her Christmas carol, you can see that her convictions about human dignity, solidarity and charity are tightly woven into her understanding of Jesus and his gospel:

Once in royal David’s city,
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby,
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ, her little Child.

He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall:
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.

For He is our childhood’s pattern;
Day by day, like us, He grew;
He was little, weak, and helpless,
Tears and smiles, like us He knew;
And He cares when we are sad,
And he shares when we are glad.

And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love;
For that Child so dear and gentle,
Is our Lord in heaven above:
And He leads His children on,
To the place where He is gone.

About the Carol

Every carol inevitably draws from more than one or two verses of scripture. They aim to pull various parts of Jesus’ story together helping us to remember the salient points. Of course no carol is perfect, and it’s reasonable to ask ourselves if the songs we’re singing in fact reflect scripture or not. As Kirsten mentioned last week, Christmas and Christmas carols have obviously taken on plenty of “story” (we’d have to say) which we don’t find in scripture. Just the other day my two-year-old informed me that the magi brought baby Jesus gifts of an apartment, two nutcrackers and a tea pot. All that said, at least carols get us singing, and can serve to get us thinking on Jesus and his redemptive life, even questioning our traditions around the story we enter each year together. So though it’s not the whole story, I think Once in Royal David’s City does a pretty good job of reflecting Jesus’ birth narratives and the bigger picture of his gospel. One of the passages it evokes most strongly is the Advent reading we heard earlier, Zachariah’s song in Luke 1 (68-69, 78-79):

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,

    because he has come to his people and redeemed them.

He has raised up a horn of salvation for us

    in the house of his servant David…

….because of the tender mercy of our God,

    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven

 to shine on those living in darkness

    and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

We’re very used to thinking about baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the animals and shepherds, the whole myth of nativity that’s grown up around the gospels. Some parts accurate, some parts half-true, some parts completely fabricated. But Once in Royal David’s City reiterates what we hear at the source in Luke 1. This isn’t just a cuddly fable, and mangers aren’t that cozy. This isn’t just an exceptionally well-behaved baby who will grow up to be an exceptionally nice guy, so nice that every December 25 we throw him a strange birthday party. Luke 1 and 2 tell us that in Jesus we’re meeting the Israelite God of ancient history, come to make good on his promises to the Hebrew people and by extension, the rest of the world. As the carol says, “He came down to earth from heaven, Who is God and Lord of all…”, “And our eyes at last shall see Him, Through His own redeeming love; For that Child so dear and gentle, Is our Lord in heaven above”. Hard to sing those words if Jesus is just a moral example or one god among many. Reflecting Luke 1, the carol reiterates that Jesus’ is the Creator God revealed and redeeming, also making note of God’s character: “With the poor, and mean, and lowly, Lived on earth our Saviour holy. For He is our childhood’s pattern; Day by day, like us, He grew; He was little, weak, and helpless, Tears and smiles, like us He knew; And He cares when we are sad, And he shares when we are glad.” So what comes through the whole carol is that sense of apparent contrast as mentioned earlier. Imagine if God really was so committed to our world that he loved and restored it through Jesus; imagine if God could be best understood by looking at Jesus. If there is a God, we might expect plenty of power and authority, but we’re flummoxed every year by the humility of God, as seen through the baby born in Bethlehem or the man on the cross outside the walls of Jerusalem. So whatever contrast we see in Christmas, the story of Christmas itself is about how Jesus closes these various gaps.

Closing the Gap

What gap is Jesus closing at Christmas? Well, first, it’s the gap we think exists between God’s authority, or power, and God’s kindness. Are we willing to acknowledge that we’ve come up with a lot of ideas about God apart from Jesus that are proving at best unhelpful, at worst destructive? We’re growing increasingly skeptical of authority these days (often understandably so) but the gospels say that in Jesus we’re meeting real authority and real kindness held together on a personal, yet cosmic scale. Part of what we reflect on at Christmas is that the universe (including you and me) can rely on this person to handle the problems we’ve created and can’t solve, and that this person is undeniably compassionate in a way no one else has been. This is what business leaders are now calling the vital combination a “warmth and competency” in leadership – a very rare combination! When placing our trust often feels precarious, finally here is someone who is truly trustworthy. Full of authority, competent, able to restore. 

Full of compassion, warm, willing to love. So at Christmas and Easter especially, Jesus closes the gaps on our assumptions about God’s character. Power and love comingle.

What other gap is Jesus closing at Christmas? Perhaps the actual the gap we’ve made through human self-assurance and rebellion. Are we willing to acknowledge that there is a gap between us and God that needs to be closed, or do we think we’re doing fine on our own? The baby in a manger mysteriously becomes a kind of mirror this time of year. Peering in we ask ourelves: am I really okay? Are we ready to admit we need help as persons, groups, societies? This metaphor has its shortcomings, but for me over the years the nativity story has begun to feel like a kind of intervention staged by God, where I’m forced to take another look at myself in the mirror. Now that the helper is here again, am I willing to admit I need help? 

On the other hand, if we acknowledge there’s a gap, if we have taken stock of our own poverty (as persons, groups, societies) do we now feel the pressure to somehow close the gap ourselves, through behaviors we hope will make us good enough for God to like us? And that’s when and must hear the gospel at Christmas. The goods news that we are loved, but we are lost, and that we can give up the lost cause of trying to rescue ourselves. Jesus has closed the gap, done the heavy lifting, and we can find peace through him. The past two years have at the very least reminded us on an international scale that we are finite and limited creatures. We haven’t given ourselves life, and we can’t find the path in the dark alone. One of the themes Jesus seemed to come back to again and again in his story telling is that of lost things being found. So, one of the most helpful things we can hear at Christmas is that there is a Messiah, there is someone come to rescue, and I’m not him! 

Once in Royal David’s City points us back to Luke 1 and Zachariah’s song, “he has come to his people and redeemed them…because of the tender mercy of our God…” This time of year reminds us that there is a gap, but God’s done something to close it, and great joy follows when we accept his rescue and renewal, putting our lives fully in his trustworthy hands, confident he will “guide our feet into the path of peace” as Zachariah says in Luke 1. We have moved or can move from darkness to light, from death to life, because of Jesus. And the carol would also add that God is leading us into the future hope of his healing presence in eternity. So, Christ-mas is a great time to become a Christ-ian – a follower of Jesus. To put our hands up and say, “there is a God and I’m not him. I’m lost and need to be found by the one who made me. That one, seems to be laying there in a manger. Let me take a look.”

The Christmas carols ask us some pretty big questions, and invite us into truth. That truth of course, extends beyond thinking just about how we relate to Jesus, but of course how we relate to one another because of Jesus. The “tender mercy” of God in Luke 1 turns up in our carol today as we’ve heard: “Tears and smiles, like us He knew; And He cares when we are sad, And he shares when we are glad.” As we see in the gospels, getting to know the real God through Jesus means we’ll again begin to reflect the character of the one who made us. Which is why, I suspect, a carol like Once in Royal David’s City can be written in the first place by a woman convinced that God’s love for the world should naturally translate to her love for her neighbour. It’s not explicit in the lyrics, but you can’t read those lines about God’s solidarity with humanity through the person of Jesus, and miss the connection to our own solidarity with suffering or vulnerable people. It’s desperately important to remember that convictions about God’s nature, human need, and God’s action, can never be just thoughts or words. They must be words made flesh. That’s the compassion of Jesus in the gospels, or the first Christians feeding widows, or James, Paul or John telling us that because of God’s tender mercy, we must be tender and merciful with one another. In other words, if God’s lovingly closed the gap for me, I’m bound and empowered by that same love to close the gap for others.

How do we close the gaps between us? Well, for Alexander it became very practical. It came down to noticing needs around her and meeting them, remembering the forgotten and closing the gap between the marginalized and human dignity. For us, it’s the same. And it’s why we encourage one another to share what we can, and serve how we can this time of year. And when we give through Living Waters, for example, we can be confident that our resources aren’t only going towards keeping the lights on, but to lighting up the darkness with financial generosity – coming alongside various groups dedicated to supporting and empowering vulnerable people in our neighbourhoods and beyond. And at risk of stating the blindingly obvious, closing the gap between me and my neighbour is also about embodying the Christmas story ourselves, rolling up our sleeves and becoming the limbs of Jesus through things like Helping Hands. Christmas is never really Christmas without a joyful and earnest focus on doing some physical good. It’s honestly as much for our own apprenticeship to Jesus as it is about meeting the needs of others. I’m reminded of that famous scene in Dickens’ cautionary tale, A Christmas Carol, when Jacob Marley’s ghost, lamenting and chained, points out to Ebenezer Scrooge that Scrooge himself bears an invisible chain of un-charity, and that every year he ignores the needs around him he “labours” on that chain, adding another heavy link. Every Christmas we don’t aim to close the gap between ourselves and our neighbours, in various ways, the gaps grow wider and wider, the chain of uncharity around our legs grows heavier and heavier. Jesus comes to break that chain, to bring us freedom, to teach us to love.

Are there any more gaps? Well finally, there’s no better time of year to consider the gaps between us filled with resentment and hurt, our chains of unforgiveness, remembering that they won’t magically disappear without our openness to change. Many of us have stories about the pain others have caused us around the holidays, but how many of us have stories about forgiveness? Christmas is a good time to take forgiveness seriously, trusting that the redeeming love of Jesus can make possible what seems impossible in a fractured relationship; humbling ourselves to ask another person for grace because we need it; choosing to give grace to someone else because they need it, (whether they know it or not); or choosing to forgive yet again this year, turning our pain over to God on the long but necessary road to healing. Learning to be gracious with one another is after all the glue of any kind of true community. When we refuse to be gracious, when we paint only in black and white, we make it impossible to be family. That isn’t to say that being gracious is easy. We are going to step on one another’s toes, we are going to disappoint one another, we are going to fail on another. But if Jesus’ incarnation (his whole life with us) tells us anything, it’s that healing usually takes time, isn’t easy, but is possible. So we shouldn’t worry about the time it takes to work with one another, to try and listen to one another. Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean there’s a lack of progress. If we’re in a place like that, where division is challenging, where the wound is raw, it helps to ask “am I, are we, doing our best to lean towardhealing, rather than away from it?” Sometimes that’s just enough to hold open the door to possible reconciliation. And that’s all God needs, just that gap in the door we’ve left open, just that manger laying open under the radar in Bethlehem. So, Christmas is a good time to ask for forgiveness and healing again, or for the very first time. Healing began Once in Royal David’s City, it can continue in our lives, in our homes, this week.

This is a season of contrast, of the gaps closing – the genuine hope and peace which springs from the experience of God’s love. This is the season to celebrate that a light is shining for all those living in darkness and in the shadow of death. A light to guide our feet onto the path of peace. A light which can still be seen today, can still fill us today: And our eyes at last shall see Him, Through His own redeeming love; For that Child so dear and gentle, is our Lord in Heaven above.