The Performance Vs The Plan

Sermon Text – 07.28.2019
[Luke 2:1-16 and Psalm 98:1-9]
          In the last century, one of the most prominent and well known theologians world-wide was a man named Karl Barth. Originally from Switzerland, he died in 1968, and while many of his teachings were considered odd or even controversial – he was almost always one of the figures discussed. Whether you agree or disagree – Karl Barth was a big deal. In 1962, during a trip to the U.S. he was going on a lecture tour. Apparently he was speaking at Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago, and after the lecture a student got up during the Q&A and asked, “can you summarize your life’s work in theology in a single sentence?” Now remember he was one of the most prominent teachers of religion in the world – writer of dozens of books on theology. It was an unusual request – can you summarize your life’s work in a single sentence? And Karl Barth answered, “Yes, I can. In the words of a song I learned at my mother’s knee: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the bible tells me so.”

          Today is the final sermon is our series; School of Rock: Hymnal Edition. For the last month we have taken some of our favorite and classic hymns and pulled them apart. We’ve heard the stories of where they come from, and the scriptures they are based on. We have seen that more often than not, the lyrics of these hymns are so much more than just music – they are deep spiritual truths, lessons for us each to learn about God – put in a format that helps us remember and soak up the good news. Now it might seem a little odd to be singing Silent Night at the end of July – but the Christmas story is good news all year round, and so today we will be looking at the text of Silent Night and Joy to the World.


          200 years ago, in Germany in 1816, there was an assistant Pastor named Josef Mohr who wrote a poem. He wrote a poem, and then he put it on a shelf and forgot about it. Two years later, there was a traveling group of actors who went all around the countryside performing the story of Christmas. They were supposed to perform in the church, but the organ in the church was broken and needed to be repaired. The repairmen lived far away, and so he wasn’t going to make it before Christmas. SO the actors performed the Christmas story in a private home. The Pastor was invited to attend. After the play, the Pastor was feeling meditative, and so he went for a long walk around the village. His feet brought him to a hilltop where he could look down on the tiny village, all peaceful, covered in snow. When he suddenly remembered the poem he had written a couple years before. So he quickly went home and found the organist Franz Xaver Gruber and asked him to write some music for guitar (because, remember, the organ was broken) so they could sing the poem on Christmas Eve. Franz got to work, but he only had a few hours to put the song together. And that little church in Germany, almost 200 years ago, sang Silent Night for the very first time with a guitar on Christmas Eve. A few weeks later, the organ repairman named Karl arrived and fixed the organ. The organist sat down and played the melody he had written for guitar, on the organ. The repairman was so impressed with the song, he took the music back to his village and the song spread from there. Eventually it was translated from German to English and now it is one of the most famous Christmas Songs of all time – Silent Night. 100 years later, in 1914 during World War One on Christmas Eve – German Troops started singing Silent Night in German. The melody is the same, and so the British troops started singing the English version – which caused both sides to exchange Christmas greetings with one another, which ultimately lead to the unofficial Christmas Truce of 1914 – with French, British, and German Troops mingling on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

        It’s a powerful song, Silent Night – most Churches sing it every single year on Christmas Eve, maybe even with candles. The lyrics to the song paint a beautiful picture of the Christmas story. Verse one paints a picture of heavenly peace where all is calm. Verse 2 talks about shepherds and heavenly hosts. Verse 4 talks about the star in the sky, and verse 3 talks about who Jesus is. Son of God, love’s pure light, the dawn of redeeming grace, lord at his birth. It’s funny because the song is called Silent Night – but most of us know that Christmas Eve was a loud and scary night. If you remember the Christmas story, first there were angels appearing in the sky singing and making lots of noise, scaring the shepherds and their sheep. Then there were all the animals in the stable where Mary and Joseph stayed – probably making lots of noise. And then of course a baby coming into the world – usually makes a lot of noise. And yet, in all that crazy disorder and confusion – there is a peace. A moment when the angels go back into heaven, when the animals go to sleep and the baby stops crying. Maybe there was a moment, just one moment, where all was calm and all was bright. You see, life is anarchy with just a few moments of glory. Life is pandemonium – we spend so much time running around like chickens with our heads cut off, and at the end we wonder what did I spend all that time doing? What was I so busy with? Life is mayhem with just a few moments of glory. What’s beautiful about both the Christmas story and the story of Silent Night is that nothing went as planned. Mary couldn’t find a bed or a doctor. God came into the world – not in glory and armor riding on a cloud of awesomeness, but as a baby. The organ didn’t work, the music was written last minute. And yet – in all that mess, something beautiful emerged. The song wasn’t what was expected – and yet I’m so glad we have it. Jesus didn’t turn out like the religious experts thought, but I’m so glad we have him. Sometimes there is a difference between the plan on the paper and the performance we experience. It’s a little non-traditional to talk about it in July, but I think it’s a great song and a great story year round.
      Moving over to our second song, which is much older. Way way back, for a long time in the church, only Psalms could be sung in worship services. So Isaac Watts took Psalm 98, our second scripture lesson for today, and he paraphrased it and put it in his book which came out in 1719, 300 years ago. But here’s the part that threw me. Joy to the World was NOT meant to be a Christmas song! If you look closely at the lyrics – there is NO mention of shepherds, mangers, babies, wise men, angels or any of the basic elements of the Christmas story. Isaac Watts actually wrote the song Joy To the World to talk about Jesus’ SECOND coming, not his first. Christians believe that Jesus came into the world all those years ago, as the Christmas story tells us. But we also believe that when he rose from the dead, before he ascended into heaven – Jesus promised to return. He promised to set the world right, and bring justice to the entire world. To set up a new heaven and a new earth and wipe away all pain, and death, and sorrow and evil that is found in this life. That second coming of Jesus is what Joy to the World is all about. It’s not a Christmas song – we just always sing it around Christmas.


Let’s take a closer look at those lyrics, hymn number 246 if you’re curios. Verse 1 – Joy to the World, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King; let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing. What we find in verse 1 is the observation that the entire earth is FULL of evidence that God is in control, that God is king. Verse 2 – Joy the world, the Savior reigns! Let all their songs employ; while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeating the sounding joy. If you’re wondering, this is verse 7-8 of the Psalm. Again we see this theme of all creation worshipping the creator. Verse 3 – No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; he comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found. Verse 3 introduces a new idea – the idea that when God comes back, no more will pain and sorrow have a place in the world. His blessing will flow as far as the curse is found. You can call it judgment, you can call it the end of the world, you can call it heaven on earth – whatever words you choose, I’m so excited for that moment. If you’re ever overwhelmed by the garbage of this world, cling to this picture, cling to this promise. God will wipe away evil someday. No more sin, sorrow, thorns, no more curse upon the world. Verse 4 is the next step in the narrative – God is king. It says, He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness, and the wonders of this love. I don’t mind singing this song at Christmas time, but the truth is that this is all about hope – a hope for a better future that tomorrow will bring.


    So what we get from these two songs is this story of hopeful expectation where nothing goes as planned. When I was in high school, I was in a symphony band. It’s a unique experience, and we were a pretty large band, roughly 130 kids in the group. I didn’t listen to classical music very much – that wasn’t really cool with my friend group. But in band class, we experienced the music in a way that’s hard to describe. Playing as a part of a massive group. Each piece having a completely different part, coming together to create something beautiful. And sometimes the band director would realize something was off. He would stop the music, and make different instruments play. He would cut us off and say, “alright, just the trumpets.” Or “alright, just the horns” or whatever until he found which group was wrong and bring us back on track. And I realized every time he did that, I’d grimace a little bit. Because the individual parts don’t make any sense! They sounds so weird all by themselves, without the rest of the group completing the picture. And I think about the story of Silent Night – with the broken organ, and the traveling group, the forgotten poem, and the last minute guitar arrangement.  All these pieces coming together to create something perfect. And then I think about the Christmas story itself – the weird story of three wise men following a star around, the unfortunate story of a unmarried pregnant lady stuck in a barn at the last minute, the ridiculous tale of a bunch of spooked shepherds claiming they saw angels telling them to come inside the city – and yet, it all comes together in stunning picture we call the nativity.
        In life, there’s this tension between the plan we have in our heads and the performance that plays out in reality. But then I realized, that for God, there is no tension. God performs the plan. The symphony, the collection of every single story coming together into the picture that is the history of the world is God’s business. God performs the plan. Our lives are just one part, one instrument in a tapestry of lives woven into a melody that God is creating. God performs the plan. And when we play the wrong notes, or everything falls apart and our instrument breaks and we feel like we can’t keep playing the song of our soul – God is somehow able to bring us back on track and take our brokenness and weave it into the melody of the universe. It’s this amazing thing we call redemption. God takes your mistakes, your brokenness, and lifts it back into harmony with His melody. For God the performance IS the plan. When we feel like we are losing control – remember that God is In control.

In this last year, I have spoken out against the way we have been attacking one another on various issues. The negative, hateful way we have been engaging people we disagree with. And sometimes folks came up and asked me, “Well then what can we do?” Sometimes it feels like we are so helpless and insignificant. When we are faced with some of the HUGE problems of this world, we are confronted with the question – what can we do to make a difference? What can I do, I’m just one person. Racism, Sexism, unemployment, the wage gaps, the issue of rising credit card debt in our country, healthcare reform, immigration issues, international wars, drug problems in our own backyard, high school drop outs, teen pregnancies – all these massive problems and overwhelming obstacles that are just too much for just little ol’ me to handle. What can I possibly do to make a difference in the world? But I want you to remember something. A symphony is created one instrument at a time. A fire is created one spark at a time, an ocean is created one drop at a time. Mother Teresa once said, “We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But if that drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something.”  

And so the application this morning is to let go of your plan, and with it your worries. Let go of the picture you had in your head of how life was supposed to go. The symphony is God’s business. The collection of individual parts coming together to create something greater is not something we have to worry about. We just have to focus on the performance of our part in the story. Now we’ve focused mostly on traditional hymns for this sermon series, but there’s a contemporary group called Newsboys and they have a song called “That’s how we change the world.” It’s simple, but it’s profound. And it says, It’s a prayer in an empty room. Little things we do when nobody’s around. A hand reaching out. To a heart in doubt. It’s the smallest spark that can light the dark. That’s how you change the world. A million little drops of rain can be enough to cause a tidal wave. A flood of your love that no one can contain. Remember, God loves to work in unexpected ways. To take something that seems insignificant and turn it into something unforgettable. You never know when God might be doing that with your life.

So we live our lives as best we can, after the example of Jesus, the way God taught us. Love God, love your neighbor – and we add one more drop to God’s ocean, one more voice to God’s melody, one more instrument to God’s symphony of love in the world. And so I’ll leave you with this. In the mayhem of life, may you remember that God performs the plan, May we play our part to the best of our ability and leave the symphony to God. May we lift our voice, with hopeful expectation, trusting in God to do something incredible with our simple melody. Amen.   

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