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000childcandleDear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love. This is how the love of God is revealed to us: God has sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him. This is love: it is not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as the sacrifice that deals with our sins. (1 John 4: 7-10 CEB)

Have you ever heard the story behind the beloved carol “Silent Night?” I hadn’t, until I prepared to teach our adult Sunday School lesson at Community United Methodist Church for the 4th week of Advent. We were doing a Christmas study by Pete Briscoe, and honestly, I had been a bit less than impressed, until I heard Pastor Briscoe talk about this song.

In the year 1818, Father Joseph Mohr was stationed in church in Austria. On Christmas Eve Father Mohr was informed by his organist, Franz Gruber, that the church organ was broken and would not be able to be used at Midnight Mass. How do you have Midnight Mass without an organ? Father Mohr asked the helpless Gruber to attempt to fix it and went out in the night air to clear his head by making some pastoral visits. During this time he went to see a couple from his parish that had just had a baby that evening. As fortune would have it, the father of the newborn was a carpenter, though I’m guessing the mother wasn’t a virgin!

Anyway, Father Mohr visited the couple and the new child, and as he was walking back to the church in the cold, the comparisons between the night when Christ was born and that very evening began to occupy his thoughts, and the first words to a new poem came to his mind. Upon arrival back at the church, he went in immediately penned the words and filled in the poem.

Here is the original German. I think we’ll all be familiar with the English version:

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Hirten erst kundgemacht
Durch der Engel Halleluja,
Tönt es laut von fern und nah:
Christ, der Retter ist da!
Christ, der Retter ist da!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Gottes Sohn, o wie lacht
Lieb’ aus deinem göttlichen Mund,
Da uns schlägt die rettende Stund’.
Christ, in deiner Geburt!
Christ, in deiner Geburt!

Gruber’s organ was still beyond repair, so Father Mohr asked him to write up a tune real quick to go with the poem that he wrote. Gruber protested that he wasn’t much of a guitarist, but he knew three chords and used those.

That night, Mohr and Gruber performed for the first time one of the most beloved Christmas carols of all time: Silent Night. Did the priest and the organist realize that they had written a hit that would last 200 years plus? I doubt it. To this day, the Bing Crosby recording of Silent Night is still the number three best selling single of ALL TIME.

And we would have never heard of it if it weren’t for a broken organ.

Isn’t it funny how God works?

God took that broken organ and made something beautiful out of it through the poetic talents of Father Mohr and the musical talent of Franz Gruber. These days “Silent Night” is a mainstay of Christmas Eve services in Protestant churches and Midnight Mass in many Catholic churches. It’s one of the first songs I remember singing, seated on the floor in the gym of my elementary school back in the early 80s as all the kids gathered in on the morning of the last day of school before Christmas break to sing carols while a teacher played the piano.

Have you ever felt like a broken organ? Have you ever felt so down and out that you were beyond repair, and that not even God himself could make something beautiful out of you? I know I’ve been there. I was there for many years.

But guess what? I have “good news” for you!

Nothing is impossible with God! Gabriel said that exact thing when Mary questioned how she could become pregnant without ever being with a man (Luke 1:27). The LORD has worked plenty of miracles over the years. He made old, barren Elizabeth pregnant. He made a young teenager named Mary pregnant without any sexual intercourse or contact. He came among us himself in a frail, fragile, finite human body in the man of Ye’shua or in Greek “Jesus.” Jesus was then raised from the dead three days after being executed on a cross.

And you think he can’t do anything with you? Oh yes he can, and if you let him, he will. His grace and love are more than sufficient for anything you can ever do.

Let’s get this straight right here, right now: There is nothing you can do that will make God love you less, period. There is no crime you can commit, no wrong so horrible that will put you outside of his grace. Also, there is nothing you can do to make God love you more. There is no work you can perform, no prayer that you pray, no mission that you can serve, no church, temple, or cathedral that you can attend to move you up on God’s pecking order.

He loves you to the max already, and he’s not going to stop, ever. As Pastor Gary is fond of saying, “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.” His love is perfect, even though you are not, even though I am far from it. How do we know that? Well as the verses from 1 John say above, he sent his only Son to dwell among us that we might be saved through him. That is what we celebrate this Christmas. I don’t care how many other people tell you it’s about something else, it might be for them, but for me it’s about the Christ and his love and grace.

That’s hard to grasp though isn’t it? Even for me, someone who ponders this on a regular basis, it can be hard to put a fine point on. However last night, I did.

Many United Methodist churches have a tradition for Christmas Eve Candlelight Service. Maybe your church does something similar. With all the lights off in the church except for the Christ candle in the middle of the Advent Wreath, the Pastor will light his or her candle. They in turn light the candles of a few ushers who move down the aisles, lighting the candles of the person on the end of each row.  That person in turn lights the candle of the person next to them saying “May the peace of Jesus Christ be with you.” The person receiving the light then says, “And also with you,” then they light the candle of the next person and so on until everyone in the church is holding a lit candle.

The darkness, so prominent just minutes earlier, is banished in the light that came from the Christ candle. There are fewer, more beautiful sights in the world, especially like last night when the snow was visible through the front window of the church as it gently settled on the ground.

And as we light the candles, we sing “Silent Night,” that old carol penned nearly 200 years ago, that no one would have ever known without a broken organ. It brings me to tears every year. It is the moment when Christmas finally comes for me.

Something special happened last night though. There was a family with a young girl sitting a couple of pews in front of us. As I held my light and sang words like “With the dawn or redeeming grace,” I noticed the child. Her face was aglow from the candlelight, and her mouth moved to the words that even her young mind knew. Her eyes were wide with delight and wonder at the flame, the light, the music, the season, and the great mystery of the Incarnation.

I cried a bit more because I realized something:

Maybe one of the best ways to grasp the grace and love of Jesus Christ is through the innocent, bewildered eyes of a child.

Think on it.

Merry Christmas and in the words of another small child from a Christmas tale “And may God bless us, everyone!”

Brandon Carter,
25 December, 2016
Ogden, Utah.