Songs of Christmas
2. What Child Is This? Dan Bidwell, Senior Pastor
Philippians 2:6-11; John 1:1-14 12 December 2021
Seeing baby Jesus from an earthly perspective and grasping his heavenly majesty.
A few years ago I had to take my daughter to the doctor’s office for some blood work. We went into the little room and the doctor introduced herself. We shook hands and as I looked at her face I remembered that I had been her teacher probably 15 years earlier, when she was in the 7th grade. She obviously had the same moment of recognition: “Hello, Mr Bidwell,” she said.
She did the blood work-up, and she was a fantastic doctor. A very clear communicator, very confident in what she was doing, she put Charlotte at ease. But all the time I’m looking at this young woman, this doctor, who I remember as a shy 12 year old kid. And I marveled at how much she had changed, how much she had grown up, the person she had become. Looking back, I never would have guessed it.
As we think about the Christmas story again this morning, we’re going to look back at the baby in the manger and ask, could we have guessed it? Would we have imagined what he would grow up to be? And if we saw him now, how would we react?
That’s where we are headed, so why don’t we begin by praying?
Our heavenly Father, as we open your word today, help us to see the baby Jesus, and help us to see who he became, and who he is today. Help us to see clearly, for his glory’s sake. Amen
All through December we are thinking about Christmas through the lens of the Christmas carols we all love: (I love them anyway!). Because Christmas carols capture deep truths about Jesus and the Christian faith, and so it’s worth reflecting on the words that many of us have known from our childhood.
Last week we started with Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, and we have another carol every week through until Christmas eve when I will share my favorite carol ever... But you’ll have to come Christmas Eve 5:30pm to find out what it is (if you can’t make it Christmas Eve, I’ll actually be giving a sneak preview at our Hymns and Communion on Wednesday 22nd at 10am, our traditional service.)
Today’s carol starts with a question. It asks us to look into the manger and to ponder: What Child Is This?
What Child is this who laid to rest On Mary's lap is sleeping
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet While shepherds watch are keeping
Now if you asked this question in Sunday School, what would every child answer? What child is this? It’s Jesus of course.
But that’s not what the author was getting at. When William Chatterton Dix wrote these words in 1865, he wrote them as a poem named The Manger Throne. It was only later that the traditional Greensleeves tune was added to it and it became a popular Christmas carol.
But the idea behind the poem came from Dix imagining what it must have been like for those who visited Jesus that first Christmas morning. What must they have thought about this baby: the subject of prophecy, attended by angels, yet born in an animal shelter and placed in a manger? What must they have made of the King in the cattle trough? What went through their minds as they gazed upon The Manger Throne?
That’s what we’re exploring today, so let’s jump into the first big idea from the song, which is the idea of humility.
1. Such Mean Estate
The song begins by painting a picture of Mary, with little baby Jesus sleeping in her lap. It could be any new mother with her baby, couldn’t it? But of course it’s not the same. Mary is not in a hospital room. She hasn’t even given birth at home. Mary and Joseph were away from home, traveling back to Joseph’s hometown, to Bethlehem for the census. And there were no rooms available anywhere, but one innkeeper offered to let them stay in his barn, and so Mary and Joseph made do.
BTW this afternoon we have a screening of The Chosen’s Christmas special. The Chosen is a television series dramatizing the life of Jesus, and it’s a world-wide phenomenon. Anyway I watched the Christmas special a few days ago, and the episode is written from the perspective of Mary, and her experience of being visited by an angel and being told that she would carry the Son of God, and how she processed being chosen... It’s fantastic – you should come this afternoon at 5pm. You’ll enjoy it, I promise.
But there is a scene where Mary and Joseph realize they are going to have to stay in the stable. “We can camp out in the stable,” he says: “We’ll make it work.” And she says: “We’ll make it work...”
New parents have expectations of how the birth will go, and I’m guessing the cattle shed was not on Mary’s birth plan.
And so Dix asks us to ponder in the second stanza: 2
Why lies He in such mean estate Where ox and ass are feeding
Why was Jesus born in such humble circumstances? Was it just poor planning, or was there a greater purpose behind the manger scene?
Because the first stanza leaves us in no doubt as to Jesus’ true identity. This, this is Christ the King!
Jesus’ birth is announced by an army of angels, a heavenly host who fill the skies with light and song. That aspect of the story captures Jesus’ heavenly glory and his royal birth.
But even here there is a glimpse of the unexpected. The angels sing to shepherds, who were counted as some of the lowliest in that society. Surely we would expect this royal announcement to be made to dignitaries, to the priests or the teachers of the law, to those who were awaiting the coming of their Christ? Instead God chooses the lowly – the shepherds – to bear witness to Jesus’ birth.
Then there are Mary and Joseph – Joseph was a humble carpenter. Mary was not even yet Joseph’s wife when the angel told her that she would give birth to the Son of God. In the episode of The Chosen we’re showing today, Mary is really brought to life. There is the suggestion that perhaps the reason there were no guest rooms made available is because she was a heavily pregnant unmarried woman. That was frowned upon in that society. No doubt Mary was humiliated a number of times while she carried the holy child. Again God chooses the lowly, not the exalted, as the family of Jesus.
And all those humble circumstances, they reflect the humility of Jesus.
That humility of Jesus is spelled out in Philippians 2:5-7. You can see it there on your handout, and I’ve tried to capture some parallels between the song and the Bible passage.
Look what it says about Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness. (Philippians 2:5-7)
This passage describes the birth of Jesus Christ as God becoming human flesh. The Bible talks about God as three persons – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. They all
share the same nature, which we see there in Philippians 2:6. Jesus had the very same nature as God, and he could have remained enthroned in heaven, holding onto his equality with God.
But this is where we see Christ’s humility. He was willing to take on our nature, our flesh. He was willing to become a servant of humankind. He made himself nothing, our passage says. Literally translated, he emptied himself.
So the manger scene teaches us about the character of Jesus. He is not interested in worldly status. He is not interested in wealth and trinkets. What’s on the inside matters far more than external appearances. That’s why it doesn’t matter if you’re a shepherd or a shipping magnate, a school teacher or a senator, a stay at home mom or a CEO. What matters to Jesus is what’s on the inside. And what’s on the inside is why Jesus loves you.
You see, the Christmas story reminds us that we are loved. Loved by God. Loved so much that Jesus would leave his heavenly dwelling, and step into our world. He would clothe himself in humanity, and experience all the highs and lows that we understand. Jesus knows what your life is like, because he lived it too. God gets you, and he loves you. And he came to win you back.
And that’s why the Christmas story is not just about the birth of a baby. Christmas draws us forward in the story of Jesus’ life, to the day where his life was ended. Because there we find the real reason why God’s Son stepped into the world of flesh and blood.
2. Nails and Spears
The second stanza of the poem continues like this:
Good Christian fear for sinners here The silent Word is pleading
Nails spear shall pierce Him through The cross be borne for me for you
William Chatterton Dix, the author of this poem, wanted us to understand the link between Bethlehem and Golgotha. Between Jesus’ birth and his death.
You see the humility of Jesus’ birth would be followed by even greater humiliation. Unjustly condemned, Jesus was executed as a criminal on a Roman cross, pierced by nails and spear. But his wasn’t a pointless death. The cross [was] borne for me, for you, the carol reminds us.
Jesus’ death was all about dealing with our sin, our own wrongdoing, our own mistakes. Rather than execute judgment on us, Jesus received our execution. He stood in our place, so that we might not face the judgment we deserve.
I love the line in the song:
Good Christian fear for sinners here The silent Word is pleading
It probably requires some punctuation to make more sense, but when we read it the other way around, it says: The silent Word is pleading for sinners.
In the book of John, Jesus is called the Word.
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [...] 14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1, 14)
This glorious Word, the one who was with God from the beginning, who becomes flesh, Jesus, he is here to plead the case for sinners like you and me. He is here as our advocate, our defender, our savior. And so Dix looks at the little baby in the manger, and he see the silent Word who has come to save sinners. A baby whose life led towards cross, the means of our salvation.
Paul puts it this way in Philippians 2:8 (there on your handout):
8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
When we look at the nativity scene, at the baby Jesus in the manger, What Child Is This reminds us of the man Jesus would become. It reminds us that sometimes humility leads to extraordinary greatness.
Dr James Allen Frances described Jesus’ greatness like this:
He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He worked in a carpentry shop until he was thirty, and then for three years he was an itinerant preacher. When the tide of popular opinion turned against him, his friends ran away. He was turned over to his enemies. He was tried and convicted. He was nailed upon a cross between two thieves. When he was dead, he was laid in a borrowed grave. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never owned a home. He never travelled more than two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompanies greatness. Yet all the armies that ever marched, and all the governments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned, have not affected life upon this earth as powerfully as that One Solitary Life.
3. Come Peasant, King
We had our kids’ cookie decorating event here yesterday afternoon. It was so much fun! Our Kids minister Charlotte, along with Jamie and another friend called Bryan, entertained a group of little girls and boys for the afternoon. There was cookie decorating (which the kids loved) but the most fun was the Christmas story that Charlotte told. Every child participated because Charlotte broke the story into segments, and there was a different game for each part of the story.
I loved watching 3 and 4 and 5 year olds learning the story of Jesus. And 6 year olds and 7 year olds. They learned about the angels, and the shepherds, and the star, and the wise men. We had a nativity scene right out there in the theatre, and it was clear who the star of the show was – it was Jesus!
What I love the most about the Christmas story is that everybody is invited to look into the manger scene and to meet the baby Jesus. The shepherds were invited, the wise men were invited, and every human since that day has been invited to meet Jesus.
Because one day we will all meet Jesus. Not as a baby, but as the Lord. Read the next part of Philippians 2 with me, starting at v9:
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
You see Jesus steps out of heaven, humbles himself by taking on our humanity, even humbles himself to death on a cross. But his destiny is to be restored to the place he had at his Father’s side, just like when he was the Word who was with God from the beginning. More than that, God has elevated Jesus to be the Lord over all, to have a name that is above every name. And one day, to see every knee bow before him, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Jesus wasn’t just any baby. He is our King and our Lord, and he’s the King and Lord of every human whether they know it or not. That’s why we share Jesus here at Yountville Community Church. We want everyone to know Jesus and the hope he brings for this life and the next. But that hope only comes through knowing Jesus.
So I want to finish with one of the ideas from the song. It’s the idea of enthroning Jesus. Listen with me to the third stanza:
So bring Him incense gold and myrrh Come peasant king to own Him
The King of kings salvation brings
Let loving hearts enthrone Him
How do we let loving hearts enthrone him? How do you enthrone Jesus in your life?
The song has a few suggestions.
First, follow the lead of the wise men. Bring him incense, gold and myrrh.
Now I’m not quite sure how you fit those in the offering boxes. We might need to make the slots bigger, and perhaps watertight (I think myrrh is an oil or a perfume...)
But seriously, what does it mean to bring gifts to Jesus? When we enthrone Jesus in our hearts, we offer our best to him. When you read the Old Testament, every time a king visits another king, they always come bearing lavish gifts, of gold and jewels. We do the same when we visit someone’s house for dinner. We bring them gifts as a way of thanking them for their hospitality.
And so as those who enthrone Jesus in our hearts, we also ought to offer him whatever our best is. That doesn’t only mean money. It might humbly offering ourselves as servants of the King, just as Jesus served us. It means offering our time, our talents and our treasure to help Jesus build his kingdom here on earth.
And it means living a life that brings praise to Jesus, that honors him, that uplifts him. That idea is repeated in each stanza of the song:
Haste, haste to bring Him laud (that is praise) Hail, hail the Word made flesh
Raise, raise the song on high.
This Christmas, God is inviting you to the manger scene, he’s inviting you to look again at the baby in the manger throne. And to ask yourself, what child is this?