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Christmas Eve or Day: The Child

Old Testament: Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalter: Psalm 96
Epistle: Titus 2:11-14
Gospel: Luke 2:1-14

Isaiah concludes the eighth chapter by describing a darkness so deep that people who experience it will have no dawn. Everywhere they look they will see distress and the gloom of anguish; and they will be thrust into deep darkness.

The old system was unworkable. God seemed to be a stranger in the land. Light would sometimes flicker to revive fading hopes, only to be quenched by darkness that drove the nation into deeper disarray. Was this the last chapter? Was Judah in the twilight of her times, and would this prove to be the national sunset?

Isaiah had announced that Judah would be turned into a pastoral wasteland. The land would be overgrown with weeds, briars, and thorns. Cattle would run loose, and sheep would wander without shepherds (7:23-25). The lights were going out, and all would be "thrust into thick darkness."

Isaiah is compelled by a prophetic insight that will not let him go. The prophet believes that it is darkest before the dawn rather than before a total blackout. He believes that God has promised to honor the throne and house of David and that some way, some day, God will revive the fortunes of the chosen people. David's heir will be raised up; he will return and reign. Isaiah remembers that promise in 2 Samuel:

I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who mil come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
—2 Samuel 7:12-13

What God promises, God really does provide. Because of this conviction, the prophet says: "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned" (Isa. 9:2).

In chapter 7 Isaiah had pinned his hopes on the enigmatic sign of a child who would be nicknamed "Immanuel." In chapter 11, Isaiah, in describing the "peaceable kingdom," announces that "a little child will lead them" (11:6). The newness and freshness of a child of promise is what is called for.

Was it possible that Isaiah was heralding the birth of the new king Hezekiah and placing these mighty accolades on this promising monarch? Hezekiah was a remarkable alternative to the bland and vacillating kings that preceded him: "Hezekiah trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him" (2 Kings 18:5). Hezekiah put pride, piety, and progress back into the Judean portfolio. He launched a moral reformation, after which political, military and financial affairs thrived and prospered.

But as good as Hezekiah was, he was not so good as to honorably wear the titles Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. If these are intended to be accurate designations for The Chosen One who would lead God's people from darkness into light; whose burden would be light and his yoke easy (9:4); who would grow in authority and in favor with God and humanity; who would bring in a reign of endless peace; whose policies would be tied exclusively to justice and righteousness—then Hezekiah was an almost but not quite!

As was often the case, the prophet's promise was fulfilled in Hezekiah—but only partially. With each fulfillment was born a new promise that required the prophet to peer still deeper into the fog and to stretch further into the future. In the end what Isaiah could forecast with certainty was, "The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this" (9:7).

When on Christmas morn another child was born, Matthew was confident that Isaiah's image of "Immanuel" was the perfect baby picture of the new child. This little lad, Jesus, was truly "God with us." In him the name was no sign, no partial truth—it was who he was.

When we ponder the mystery of "The Word made flesh," we return to Isaiah's images. No, Isaiah did not know the Christ, but he knew there was more yet to come. The down payment, seen in Hezekiah, would become full payment in Jesus, the Anointed One. What Isaiah glimpsed from afar, the church now knows up close and personal and sings on Christmas Day: "Wonderful Counselor,  Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" of he who for us is the "Lord of Lords and King of Kings" (Rev 17:14).

Suggested Anthems

Adult Choir Anthems "Christmas Fanfare," Young
[Flammer]

"O Magnum Misterium," Victoria
[Schirmer]

"O Morn of Beauty" Sibelius
[Ditson]

"Ring Those Christmas Bells," Levene
[Shawnee]

"Shepherd's Christmas Song," Dickinson
[Gray]

"The Snow Lay on the Ground," arr. Coates
[Shawnee]

"There Were Shepherds," Mueller
[Flammer]

"While Shepherds Watched Their Sheep," Jungst
[Gray]

Especially for Children
"Gloria in Excelsis," Jolley
[Shawnee]

"Glory to God," Handel
[from Messiah (Schirmer)]

"Jesu Bambino," Yon
[Fischer]

"O Holy Night," Adam
[Gray]

"Special Delivery" Harris
[Fischer]

"The Birthday of a King," Nerdlinger
[Schirmer]

"The Snow Lay on the Ground," arr. Sowerby
[Gray]

"Three Austrian Carols," arr. Track
[Shawnee]

"What Strangers Are These?" Scottish
[Birchard]

Handbell Anthems
"Alleluia, Alleluia," Saint-Saens
[Schirmer]

"Carols Three," Zaninelli
[Shawnee]

"Christmas Bell Canon," Dare
[Shawnee]

"Glory to God in the Highest," Pergolesi
[Ditson]

"Ring Christmas Bells," Roesch
[Flammer]

"There Were Shepherds," Saint-Saens
[Schirmer]

(Note: Many other suggestions for congregational and choral music based on Scripture lessons for Christmas Eve or Day are included on pages 31-32).

For the Children

Preparation: Place a small manger in a large box. Wrap the box and lid separately with gold or silver foil paper. Place a large bow on the lid.

Show the children the box and wonder with them what might be in it: I have something inside this box for each of you. I can promise you that it is the best present you will ever receive. Let's see if you can guess what the gift is. I will give you some hints. (1) In this box is something so valuable that money cannot buy it. (2) The gift in this box has made millions of people happy. (3) It is a gift that no one can take or steal from you. (4) It is truly a gift of love from your heavenly Father.

Open the box and hold up the manger, holding baby Jesus. Today . . . unto us a child us born, unto us a son is given. Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, the best Christmas gift ever!