John Rutter is one of the most famous composers of choral music in the 20th century. He is known as the founder and director of the Cambridge Singers, and his compositions and arrangements are widely known and sung throughout the world and especially here in the United States.
I recently became aware of a Christmas carol written by Rutter in 1990. The carol is entitled “Christmas Lullaby,” and Tara and I have the opportunity to sing it with a chamber choir this coming weekend. The lyrics to this carol are particularly meaningful to me this year, so I’d like to share them with you here.
Clear in the darkness a light shines in Bethlehem:
Angels are singing, their sound fills the air.
Wise men have journeyed to greet their Messiah,
But only a mother and baby lie there.
Throughout this Advent season, our sermons have been focusing on the theme of light: Jesus comes into the world as a light shining in the darkness. In many ways, light remains a mystery to us on a scientific level; for instance, it moves more quickly and weighs less than anything made by people. Yet one thing is certain: light makes a fundamental change to its environment simply by being there and doing what it does. The difference between light and darkness is immense. Could it be that the light of the world truly begins and ends with this most unlikely of sources, a baby in Bethlehem?
Where are his courtiers, and who are his people?
Why does he bear neither sceptre nor crown?
Shepherds his courtiers, the poor for his people,
With peace as his sceptre and love for his crown.
Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior of the world. But his arrival in Bethlehem as the untimely son of a peasant girl is representative of the nature of his lordship. Jesus’s reign as King of kings is fundamentally different than what we might expect, as different as light is from darkness. He does not arrive in our world with thousands of soldiers, launch codes for nuclear weapons, huge stocks of gold reserves, or the popular support of millions of people. Even from the beginning, he does not surround himself with the rich, the powerful, the famous, the influential. His people are shepherds. His people are the poor. His power is found in peace. His crowning achievement is his self-sacrificial love.
What though your treasures are not gold or incense?
Lay them before him with hearts full of love.
Praise to the Christ child, and praise to his mother
Who bore us a Saviour by grace from above.
Yes, Jesus was given rich gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh. But those were simply signs of his status as true King and Messiah. Notice that the gospel stories of Jesus never again mentioned those valuable gifts . Jesus grew up in a working-class family as the son of a carpenter and had very little in terms of personal possessions.
Do you ever feel inadequate to present yourself before Jesus? Do you ever think that your best offerings just aren’t good enough for him? Then you are not alone. As Rutter asks, so what if you don’t have gold or incense to give to Jesus? Give what you have with a heart full of love. It’s only through emptying yourself of the things that you consider valuable that you will create space for the life of Jesus to take root within you. After all, this is what Jesus practiced perfectly when he was born two millennia ago:
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness… (Philippians 2:5-7 NIV)
What if we sacrificed our inclination toward war and took on Jesus’s peace? What if we sacrificed our tendency to hate those unlike us and took on Jesus’s self-giving love?
What if we really took seriously this “Christ in us, the hope of glory” business? (See Colossians 1:24-29.)
What if we allowed the light of Christ to shine into the darkest, most protected areas of our lives: our political opinions, our sexual activities, our financial decisions, our language toward others, our use of violence, our attitude toward outsiders?
Wouldn’t that make for a pretty radical Christmas?