When Marc and I go to an orchestra concert, my favorite pieces are the ones that are loud enough to make my bones rattle. I love the thunder of an orchestra letting it rip. We’ve been listening to music something like over the past few weeks. The songs in Scripture that anticipate Jesus’ birth turn the volume up pretty high. We heard Zechariah’s song—the words that burst out of him after months of being entirely unable to speak. We heard the song of Elizabeth, as she “exclaimed with a loud cry” after being filled with the Holy Spirit in the presence of her unborn Lord. We heard the exultant song that Mary sang in response. And, just a couple days ago we heard, not a solo, but the song of an entire army of angels praising God!
We just heard Isaiah’s triumphant assertions. There is nothing quiet about his prophetic words. It’s a song of a people whose life will be one of joy and prosperity and freedom. It’s a song for people who have lived in deep darkness but will walk in the beams of a great light. They will rejoice at the abundant new life ahead of them. They will exult in safety and security so enduring that their warriors’ uniforms, bearing the marks of previous battles, will be completely and forever more unnecessary, good only to fuel the fires that warm their peaceful homes.
All this, because a child has been born to us. And what a child this is! Upon his shoulders rests the authority to order the entire world, an authority that will grow without stopping. He will be the bringer of peace, but not through military might or political pacts or financial finesse. That way of doing business is over. Instead, this child will establish peace with justice and righteousness, and it will endure forever and ever.
What glorious words these are! It’s no wonder that when George Frideric Handel composed his “Messiah,” he set these words of Isaiah’s to soaring music with the choir repeating “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” These are words that beg to be sung with increasing volume and excitement.
But tonight, we’re not in a concert hall. We’re not standing before a crowd of neighbors, as Zechariah was. We’re not surrounded by an army of singing angels, as the shepherds were. Now, we’re in a stable—a stable that has become a nursery. And nurseries are no place for loud noise, even if it’s the noise of joy and triumph and expectation. The nursery is a place for quiet. It’s a place for gentle songs of love, of comfort, of assurance. The nursery is a place for songs that soothe the anxious heart and troubled spirit. The nursery is a place where lullabies should be sung.
The oldest lullaby we know of is five thousand years old, so surely Mary and Joseph sang a lullaby to Jesus that night so long ago. Accompanied by the shifting hooves of the animals in their stalls, their gentle snuffling and sighs, Mary would have sung words of comfort to her tiny baby, who would one day be called wonderful and mighty. In Joseph’s strong arms, the infant who would rule the world as the Prince of Peace would rest in safety and security.
Perhaps that lullaby is what the shepherds heard as they approached the stable to see what the angels had told them about. Long after the last chords of the praise-filled song of the angels had dissipated in the night sky, a simple tune drifts out through the stable door. Perhaps the shepherds paused before going in, reluctant to interrupt such an intimate moment between parents and child. Or, maybe they paused because needed to hear a lullaby, too.
When they set off to find the baby in the manger, they carried with them all the cares and concerns of their lives. They brought with them to the stable the worries that kept them company while they sleeplessly watched the sheep at three in the morning. If they were anxious or sad or fearful before the angels appeared, it’s likely that their spirits were still troubled when they set off for Bethlehem, in spite of the angel’s announcement. Like the baby in the manger whom they sought, they needed a lullaby, too.
And, who among us doesn’t need a lullaby right now? We come to this place, with all the cares and concerns of our lives. We come, carrying our grief over loved ones we’ve lost, through death or estrangement, or simply because geography and busy lives keep us apart. We come, with illnesses and infirmities that cause us pain or limit our lives in some way. We come, with worries about the bills that will soon be due, the friends and family members who need care, the children who don’t have what they need, a nation in turmoil, a world full of brokenness. We come, feeling lonely in a crowd, yearning to be loved, yearning to be accepted.
Worry and sorrow aren’t the only things we come with, of course. We come with joy and gratitude, too. Maybe we need a quiet moment to appreciate the good things in our lives and give thanks.
And so, we come to the stable. We pause before the open door, and we lay down, just for a few moments, all the things that burden us. We leave them just outside, or on the floor beside us, and we step toward the manger. And there, as we gaze into the face of the Christ Child, God draws us close and sings a lullaby to us. As babies are soothed by their parents’ murmured song, our spirits are soothed as God’s lullaby assures us: “I am here with you, and I will never leave you. I want to hold you close, so close that you can feel my heartbeat, as I feel yours. I want you to hear each breath I take, as I breathe in and out each time you do. You are safe and secure in my arms. I love you, and you are mine.”
As Mary cradled her newborn child, she knew that the days ahead would bring diapers to change and skinned knees to bandage. She knew there would be times when her teenager would assert his independence, and that he would eventually take up the work he had been born to do. Joseph knew there were jobs to be found, mouths to feed, bills to be paid. The shepherds knew that the worries they brought with them were waiting to be shouldered again. We know that, too. In the days to come, we will need songs of triumph and encouragement and confidence to help us face what we need to face and carry out the work we have to do.
But, tonight is a night to sing quietly, as we will in a few moments when we light candles and sing “Silent Night” together. We will gather in a semi-circle, beginning at the side of the nativity scene and forming a circle through the pews. When it is your turn to light your candle, tip your candle into the flame of the candle next to you. Then hold your candle upright, while the next person tips his or her candle into yours. As the candles are lit, we will join in singing “Silent Night,” as though we were singing a lullaby to a baby—and to each other.
Tonight is a night both to sing a lullaby and to listen to one—to listen to the lullaby God sings to us from the stable. It soothes us, and it passes down to us a truth that can sustain us in all the nights to come. From the manger in the stable, through the infant Emmanuel, we hear God’s lullaby: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young