Sunday, December 19, 2010

"No Crying He Makes"? (Christmas Carols Vs the Bible Part 2)

Last week after I preached about the line in Silent Night, “all was calm, all was bright,” someone jokingly rebuked me for ruining one of her favorite Christmas carols. And I feel her pain. I love these songs, too. In fact, before I “ruin” another one, I want to make a point about these songs we often call “Christmas carols.”

You and I know that lots of the typical pageantry surrounding Christmas is without any sort of biblical warrant. By the same token, we also understand that lots of misinformation exists about other Bible doctrines, like grace or the Holy Spirit. These erroneous beliefs present a problem, not only because of the errors inherent in them, but also because of the extreme overreaction they tend to produce. It is easy to fall into the trap of the reactionary who responds to error by embracing the most extreme position opposed to that error. Some people take liberties with God’s grace? Then I’ll do the opposite and only emphasize man’s obedience and God’s judgment. Some people obsess over the Holy Spirit? Then I’ll deal with that by never talking about the Holy Spirit. And the result is yet another set of unbiblical teachings, because it is just as wrong to ignore what the Bible says as it is to pervert what the Bible says.

And the same is true with the birth of Jesus, and hymns that speak of His birth. The Bible devotes a fair amount of attention to His birth, and while many songs fall short of the biblical evidence, some of them are among the greatest hymns ever written. Hark the Herald Angels Sing is saturated with Scripture, but sadly, we have allowed the world to pigeonhole it as a “Christmas carol,” and I never sang that song growing up.

So as I point out some flaws in what we commonly call “Christmas carols,” the last thing I want to do is feed any sort of reactionary spirit which says since the world misunderstands so much about the birth of Jesus the solution is never to say or sing anything about it at all.

Away in the Manger

With that disclaimer in mind, I do want to think with you about another well known song, Away in the Manger. Here is the first verse:

Away in a manger,
No crib for His bed
The little Lord Jesus
Laid down His sweet head
The stars in the bright sky
Looked down where He lay
The little Lord Jesus
Asleep on the hay

So far so good. Jesus was put in a manger, and there was a bright star that night. It is the second verse that veers off course:

The cattle are lowing
The poor Baby wakes
But little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes

“No crying He makes.” This song expects us to believe that stirred awake by the lowing of the cattle, the infant Jesus did not cry.

As I said last week, I understand that poetic license plays a role in all lyrics. My guess is that the point of this line in Away in the Manger is that even though the circumstances of Jesus’ birth we less than ideal that Jesus and His family were at peace. And of course the Bible teaches us that when we are going through tough times that we can also have peace through the care and protection of God.

But to say that the baby Jesus didn’t cry to is to stretch the limits of poetic license to the breaking point. In the first place, the biblical text nowhere says this. And in the second place, how realistic is it to think that Jesus wouldn’t cry? Babies cry. Jesus was a baby. Jesus would have cried and done all of the other things that babies do in the real world.

And that is the point of this lesson, and this series. The birth of Jesus really happened. This is not a fairy tale that assumes some dreamy, fantasy land in which newborns never cry. As well-intentioned as such lyrics may be, they in fact undermine conviction in the story of Jesus as a true depiction of actual historic events.

The Humanity of Jesus

I do think there is another factor at work in this song. It has to do with the unique nature of Jesus as both God and man. The Bible unabashedly claims that Jesus was God in human form.

John 1

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

14And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The Word was God; the Word became flesh. This is the great truth about Jesus’ incarnation, personifying the meaning of His name Immanuel, “God with us.”

This is also a great mystery, and as a mystery, the incarnation leaves lots of unanswered questions for us - questions which theologians through the centuries have been eager to speculate about. And almost inevitably this speculation ends up denying either Jesus’ deity or His humanity. In early church history one heretic named Arius denied that Jesus was truly God, and instead claimed that He was created by God. The modern form of this heresy is the position of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

But other heretics denied that Jesus was truly human. He wasn’t born of a virgin, He did not really died on the cross, and He wasn’t really resurrected in bodily form. An early form of this heresy is apparently what John dealt with in his letters, when he warned his readers about the Antichrist:

2 John

7For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.

To deny the humanity of Jesus is nothing short of being antichrist according to the apostle.

While genuine believers would not object to Jesus’ humanity, there is no question that in early church history many Christians were uneasy with His humanity. They were so zealous to defend the fact that He is God that they sometimes went too far and deemphasized that He was man. One common form this “de-humanizing” of Christ took was to allege that when Jesus was born Mary felt none of the agony of delivery. One 4th century writer said this:

Of Him then His mother's burden was light, the birth immaculate, the delivery without pain, the nativity without defilement, neither beginning from wanton desire, nor brought to pass with sorrow. For as she who by her guilt engrafted death into our nature, was condemned to bring forth in trouble, it was meet that she who brought life into the world should accomplish her delivery with joy." (St Gregory of Nyssa, Homily on the Nativity 4th century)

There is not a shred of evidence in Scripture that this is the case. Yes, Jesus was conceived miraculously, born of the Spirit but also born of woman, so that He could be the perfect mediator between God and humanity. But to extrapolate from this that Mary felt no pain is an enormous jump in reasoning.

And it is exactly that same sort of thinking that I believe lies behind the verse,

But little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes

Certainly Away in the Manger doesn’t dispute Jesus’ humanity, but it clearly undermines it by proposing that unlike any other baby ever born, Jesus as a baby did not cry. And this compulsion to “clean up” the story of Jesus’ birth is sadly typical of the way His incarnation is portrayed.

Here is a typical portrayal of the Nativity. Notice that the newborn Messiah has an enormous halo, and the size of a large toddler! And Jesus appears to be speaking already!

And here is another depiction:

I guess the thing that stands out in this version is how clean the stable and the animals are. Those sheep look as well groomed as dogs preparing for the Westminster dog show!

Once again we have a highly sanitized version of the story of Jesus. In the real world childbirth is painful and bloody. Stables are smelly and dirty. And newborn babies are blotchy and don’t arrive with glowing cylinders around their head!

And of course, in the real world, little babies cry. And that is the insidious danger of lyrics like “no crying He makes.” Babies that don’t cry are in the world of make-believe, not the world that any of us live in. The gospel story needs to be more real for all of us, not less real. This is not a book of make-believe, and we do not do the gospels justice when we accept such fantasy notions as a baby that doesn’t cry.

Every time I preach I hear the refutation of Away in the Manger! We have been blessed with lots of babies, and we have more on the way. Sometimes it makes for a noisy assembly! And honestly, I would much prefer to be in a congregation that has lots of crying babies than in one where the silence is deafening because there aren’t any young families around. Babies rarely bothers me when I preach. Grownups sometimes bother me, but not babies!

After all, crying is the only way a baby has to let you know when something needs fixing. There is an “I’m hungry” cry, an “I’m tired” cry, an “I need to be changed cry.” Maybe there is a “I wish this sermon was over” cry! My point is that crying is a God-given way for a baby to express various basic needs that are vital to human existence. Why should it possibly bother us to think Jesus would have cried as a baby – unless it is just too uncomfortable for us to conceive of Jesus as a human being like one of us.

Yet the Bible is emphatic that Jesus was both God and man, and in His humanity He experienced the full range of the human condition emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Luke 2:52 says that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.” I thought Jesus was divine? He was. But He was also a man, and in His humanity He could become smarter and grow taller. He was the Son of God and the Son of Man, but also grew in His relationship with God and man.

The Word who became flesh could also become hungry (Matt. 21:18), thirsty (John 19:28), weary (John 4:6). He could be beaten and bruised, He could bleed, and He could die.

Jesus also knew human emotion. In Mark 3 we read this account:

1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. 2And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3And he said to the man with the withered hand, "Come here." 4And he said to them, "Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?" But they were silent. 5And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.

In one verse Jesus felt anger and grief, the kind of mix of emotions you may feel when you see your children do something wrong and you are upset with them.

Christ also felt compassion, as in Matthew 9:36-

“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

Jesus’ heart went out to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

And just as you and I sometimes feel overwhelmed by crises, the gospels describe in unvarnished language the passion of the Lord in the Garden.

Mark 14

32 And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, "Sit here while I pray." 33And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. 34And he said to them, "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch." 35And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.

This same man who could calm the raging storm on the Sea of Galilee sometimes felt the swirling emotions of distress and sorrow, and most of all on that night in Gethsemane.

Jesus Wept

Later the writer of Hebrews reflected on this moment and wrote in Heb. 5:

Hebrews 5

7In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. 8Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.

Why would we think that Jesus wouldn’t cry as an infant when we know for a fact He cried as an adult – with “loud cries and tears.”

And it wasn’t just at the prospect of His own death that Jesus broke down. You remember the story of Lazarus in John 11, and the shortest verse in the English Bible which speaks volumes about Jesus’ humanity-

John 11

32Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. 34And he said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." 35 Jesus wept.

Why did Jesus cry? He knew that Lazarus was not going to be dead for long, that He was going to raise him. But as verse 33 points out, when He saw the grief in Mary and the rest, He was troubled. Yes, Jesus cried in the Garden as He contemplated His own death, but He also cried when He saw the pain death brought to someone else. Christ is grieved by our grief.

One other passage speaks of the tears of Jesus. It is found in Luke 19, as He approached the city of Jerusalem one last time and prophesied over the coming judgment that faced its people:

Luke 19

41 And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42saying, "Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side 44 and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation."

The people of Jerusalem would soon cry for Jesus’ blood to be on their heads, and that of their children, and tragically, that prayer would be answered when the Roman armies of Vespasian and Titus devastated the city 40 years later. Christ knew this, and the bleak future that awaited the city of God was heartbreaking to Him. And so He wept.

Some of you may have recently seen the 60 Minutes interview with the new Speaker of the House, John Boehner. Much has been made of the fact that he broke down and cried during the interview, sobbing over how much he was concerned about the future of America’s children. A couple of days later I heard a pundit express discomfort with this – she said it made her feel really awkward to see a grown man cry. Years ago a Senator named Edmund Muskie was doing pretty well in one of the presidential primaries until he was caught crying on video – then he was finished. To a lot of people that is a sign of weakness – not the sign of a strong leader.

That is the way the world thinks, a world that mistakes cruelty for courage and arrogance with strength. But that kind of phony machismo is a pathetic substitute for the strength and courage of our Lord. I have been reading and learning a lot about some of history’s worst dictators, and while they come from all points on the political spectrum, one common trait is that none of them lived like the people they ruled. Dictators live privileged lives of pleasure. But the King of Kings courageously chose to live as one of His subjects, to enter the human condition and summon the strength to endure. And precisely because He lived as one of us, and felt what we feel, He cried.

Uninspired songs might have the tendency to diminish Jesus’ full humanity, but the inspired song of Isaiah 53 did not. The third verse of that song describes Jesus as “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3).

I am glad my Savior cries, because it means He cares. He cares for me when I am stricken with grief. He cares for me when I wander way from Him. He cares for me when I face crisis and distress. And because He cried and because He cares, I can go to him with confidence that as I pray through my tears He hears me and knows exactly what I am going through.

Hebrews 4

14Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

We may be embarrassed to think of Jesus as a human being, but as Hebrews 2:11 says, He is not ashamed to call us brothers.

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