Francis Asbury United Methodist Church
Christmas Eve, 2017
Reverend David Melville
Silent night? Anything but …
I would wager that the night Jesus was born was in reality anything but a silent night. Normally a birth is not a quiet occasion, is it? Today it is a big production with “Lights! Camera! Action!” in a room large enough for the whole family to attend the premier of a new child. Little Johnny is filmed entering the world and immediately broadcast on YouTube. I’m surprised there is not a buffet in the room for a necessary repast if the delivery takes longer than expected.
We have immortalized the cattle lowing and the animals purring in the stable scene of Jesus’ birth, but anyone who has had animals around them knows they are not quiet. All kinds of yelping, groaning, scratching, clucking and emitting can be heard, right? And the writer of the hymn, Away in a Manger suggests, “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Come on … babies cry. They’re supposed to cry. In fact, if they don’t cry we’ve got something to worry about.
As for the hillside above Bethlehem from whence the shepherds walked to see what all the commotion was about, I don’t know how quiet a scene it was. Nature just makes noise. Even wind can whip up some strange sounds. The sheep were undoubtedly bleating away. The shepherds were probably talking “guy talk,” perhaps even “locker room talk.” Verse 9 of the second chapter of Luke’s gospel, tells of the shepherds being terrified when the angels snuck up on them. Verse 2 of the hymn, Silent Night, says “shepherds quake at the sight.”
If there was a great heavenly host singing and praising God to the highest, it may have been pretty, but it was noise nonetheless. When Jesus was born, the shepherds “spread the word” [Luke 2: 17], as probably did others looking on. “Spreading the word” – even if by whispering — is noise-producing activity. Luke 2:20 reports the shepherds returned to their flocks “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.” I wouldn’t be surprised if some in the area thought the shepherds were drunk after a night in town, just as those speaking in tongues in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost were accused of being drunk.
I believe the words “quake at the sight” from verse two of Silent Night are more accurate in describing the night Jesus was born than “all is calm” from verse 1. And I don’t know how many slept in heavenly peace. The shepherds were working, the lodging at the inn next to the manger was probably not conducive to a good night’s rest –I doubt they had posturepedic mattresses or a thermostat on the wall – and we know that parents of a new-born don’t “sleep in heavenly peace” for quite a few weeks. They sleep with one eye open.
But thank goodness we don’t have to have silence to feel peace. Thank goodness we don’t have to have silence to know God through His Son. We don’t. I think the best words of the Luke birth narrative are about Jesus’ mother, Mary: Luke 2, verse 19 says beautifully, “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Mary could be in this world, but not of this world. And so can we.
The world in which we are born is always full of noise and chatter and distractions. It is always filled with temptations and alternative views. We must block out the unimportant and only hear the holy. Then we will sleep in “heavenly peace.”
When the Lord is involved, there can be reverent, holy silence in the most unlikely of places. Some of you may have heard about the amazing Christmas day in 1914 somewhere along the five hundred mile line of trenches and barbed wire separating German forces and the Allies. Not everywhere, but at some points along the way, a night characterized by gunfire turned into silence from gunfire Christmas morning. A Christmas truce had been requested by Pope Benedict XV, but had been rejected. Yet a few Christian soldiers on both sides made their own peace and honored Christ’s birth, at least for a few hours.
The legend has grown over the past century, claiming everything from joint hymn singing, to soldiers crossing “no-man’s land” to offer “smokes” to their enemies, to both sides having a friendly soccer match. We can’t completely verify everything that did or did not take place, but we have enough letters from truce participants to know that – just as on a night about two thousand years ago — something wonderful and transformative happened on December 25, 1914.
Alfred Anderson, from the Fifth Battalion of the Black Watch, recalled, “I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence.” As with the night Jesus was born, there were other sounds in the air, there was chatter and nervous laughter by the soldiers, but there was a Marian kind of silence as some of the soldiers pondered things in their heart.
Of course the truce was not uniform, and was not repeated in 1915 or 1916. Millions of individuals and animals were slaughtered. It was so bad that it was thought and hoped that such a world war would never be repeated; it was supposed to be the “war to end all wars.” Yet just three decades later war was repeated. And some of you survived that war to be able to sing Silent Night at Francis Asbury United Methodist Church tonight. Hallelujah!
In modern day Bethlehem it is not silent. Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, is war-torn … a city divided and barricaded, with as many Christian tourists as Christian citizens. It is not silent in the entire Mideast. Will it ever be? Only if the peace of Christ is sought, sensed and shared. I pray the clergy, the politicians and the people can one day have a silent night in the best sense of the word silent, and that children who have known nothing but war for their entire lives, can sleep in heavenly peace.
A communion table can be too noisy, rather than silent and reverent … unless we approach it with the right heart. I am guilty sometimes of chatting with a supplicant rather than looking him or her directly in the eyes and simply offering a moment of peaceful silence from all the stuff going on in their life … simply offering them the peace of Christ. Lord forgive me when I fail to do that. That’s my job … that’s my privilege.
If, at the communion table in our hearts we seek peace with God and our fellow human beings; if we forgive and are forgiven; if we are grateful for the birth and death of Jesus, we will know a kind of peace … a kind of silence that only such hearts can know. I pray that you experience that kind of silence wherever you find yourself in 2018 … blocking out Satan … blocking out the world … blocking out anyone and anything that interrupts a oneness with our Heavenly Father. Jesus came, lived and died so that we might find that oneness. And that’s why we still celebrate His birth two- thousand-plus years later, and that’s why we still receive the sacrament of Holy Communion two-thousand-plus years later. I don’t know how silent the night of Jesus’ birth actually was, but I do know that He woke up a lot of people, and is still doing so today. May you as a disciple and follower of the baby Jesus, and may we as a church, do our part to continue waking up others from their silent, or not-so-silent night.
Sacrament of Holy Communion, followed by singing of “Silent Night”
Image Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/waitingfortheword/6369656709