Christmas Eve – Hark How All the Welkin Rings!

Notes from a sermon preached during a midnight Communion Service on Christmas Eve, 2008

I have discovered over the years that I’ve taken Christmas services (a scary 15 years now!) that on the whole you can’t go wrong. For the hour or so of each service, the stress that sadly surrounds so much of our modern celebrations vanishes as we refocus on what its really all about. The children are excited, and the adults relax and enjoy themselves. Everyone is on your side. Its great!

That’s not to say though, that taking Christmas services is without its dangers. I’ve learnt that there are at least two things that could lead you into difficulties…

The first is that unless you want to be hounded out of church and into the headlines of the Christmas papers, you don’t say that a certain jolly fellow dressed in red doesn’t exist!

The other big mistake is to mess with the carols. Don’t, under any circumstances, change the words or the tunes. This causes at least confusion, if not downright rebellion and anger!

I stumbled across these words the other day that reminded me of this danger:

Hark, how all the welkin rings,
“Glory to the King of kings;
peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
join the triumph of the skies;
universal nature say,
“Christ the Lord is born today!”

Imagine the response if I put these words up for us to sing…

First there would be laughter!
Then there would be the questions – confused voices demanding to know what on earth a welkin is.
Then there would be mutiny… and I’d end up singing a solo.

The irony is that these are the original words, as written by Charles Wesley, the brother of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. The rest of the words are:

Christ, by highest Heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord:
late in time behold him come,
offspring of a Virgin’s womb!
Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see,
hail the incarnate Deity!
pleased as man with men to appear,
Jesus, our Emmanuel here!

Hail, the heavenly Prince of Peace,
Hail, the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
risen with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
born that man no more may die;
born to raise the sons of earth;
born to give them second birth.

Come, Desire of nations, come,
fix in us thy humble home;
rise, the woman’s conquering Seed,
bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display thy saving power,
ruined nature now restore;
now in mystic union join
thine to ours, and ours to thine.

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp thy image in its place.
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.
Let us thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the life, the inner man:
O, to all thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.

I’m now going to make an outrageous claim, and argue that Hark the Herald Angels sing is actually a Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion Christmas Carol (that’s the denomination we belong to). One of our ‘founders’, the most famous preacher of his day, George Whitefield was a great friend of Charles and John Wesley. He had a look at the words, and broke the rules. He changed them to the ones we know today. These words caught on and Charles’s didn’t. George’s introduction of angels singing in the first verse really annoyed Charles, as the Bible says that the angels spoke, not sang…

So what is a welkin? Welkin is an old word for heaven or the skies.

I must confess, that although the words are somewhat clumsy for us to sing today, and they were set to a dirge of a tune, I love the picture that Charles’ original words conjure up. It’s not just the angels that proclaim the birth of Jesus, but the heavens, the nations, the skies – indeed all of creation!

In Romans 8:22, the Apostle Paul wrote that that Creation is groaning, as in childbirth, since sin came into the world and corrupted it. In Charles’ original words, the birth of Jesus becomes the moment when these groans are converted into cheers, as the child who will put all things right is born.

So often Christmas can be centred on all the events that took place around this birth, either mentioned in the Bible or simply traditional, rather than on the child that was born. The focus of these original words, like those of the Bible itself, is on the question – who is this child that has been born?

Listen to some of the titles given to the baby: King of kings, Christ (God’s chosen one), the Lord, God, Emmanuel, Prince of Peace, Sun of Righteousness and the Desire of Nations. That’s quite some adoration.

I’ve found all of those wonderful titles in the Bible except the last, the Desire of Nations, although that one certainly fits with the message of scripture. This frail child, dependent on Mary and Joseph, is none other than the ultimate power and authority. This baby is God himself, the Son of our Heavenly Father. In him God draws close – that’s what Emmanuel means, God with Us. But this is not a ruler like so many of our rulers, exercising their reign through might of arms or the threat of sanctions. No, this infant is the Prince of Peace, the one who will show that true power is found in humility and service.

Charles Wesley’s words doesn’t just tell us who the Babe is, but what he has come to do. Laying aside his heavenly glory, Jesus has been born as one of us, to give us the chance to be raised after death to new life, to have a second birth. As John’s Gospel puts it:

John 1:10-13 – He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

This is a restoration of what was meant to be when God first created, that what was lost in the Garden of Eden – and relationship with God, with each other, and Creation. But even as God told Adam and Eve of the consequences of what they had done, he gave a hint of hope. Talking to the Serpent he said:

Gen 3.15 And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.

As the carol declares, Mary’s offspring is the one this speaks of. Bruise in us the serpent’s head! Jesus has come to put right what was made wrong. He has come to destroy the work of the Serpent, to restore in us God’s image, to restore ruined nature, and to join us to him.

Christmas is a time for invitations. Come to my Christmas party, come see the babe that was born, come. This Carol, and the scriptures behind it, offer another invitation. The invitation is to receive these wonderful gifts, the gifts of life, of being restored to be the people we are meant to be, to have the effects of Adam’s sin replaced with the character of Christ. The offer is to receive new life, relationship with God that goes beyond the grave. This offer declared by the angels and sung by the welkin is to all humanity, open to all who believe.

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