Do You Hear What I Hear?   (Matthew 2: 9-11; Luke 2:8 -14)

by | Dec 6, 2020 | Sermon Text | 0 comments

The year was 1962, the month was October, and the crisis was the United States’ discovery that the Soviets had secretly installed ballistic missiles in Cuba. The world waited with bated breath as the world’s two superpowers engaged in a dangerous dance of brinksmanship, threatening to embroil the globe in nuclear holocaust. Some of President John Kennedy’s advisors counseled him to launch a preemptive strike on Cuba, but a Georgian named Dean Rusk, who was President Kennedy’s Secretary of State, insisted that all diplomatic channels be exhausted before opting for military action. Eventually, diplomacy worked. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had the missiles removed from Cuba, and ordered his ships carrying additional missiles to turn around and come back home. At that moment Dean Rusk uttered the memorable and enduring line, “We are eyeball to eyeball, and the other fellow just blinked.”

Amidst that tense time, two song writers, Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne, were asked to compose a Christmas song. They were living in New York City, and at the height of the crisis, Noel Regney looked out on the city sidewalks from his apartment window and saw mothers pushing babies in strollers. That sight inspired him to sit down with his wife and compose a song that expressed a plea for peace. Their song has endured as a Christmas classic: Do You Hear What I Hear?

The name of Jesus is never explicitly mentioned, yet the lyrics of this ballad borrow heavily from the Nativity accounts of Matthew and Luke. It begins with a simple line: “Said the night wind to the little lamb, ‘Do you see what I see? Way up in the sky, little lamb, do you see what I see? A star, a star, dancing in the night, with a tail as big as a kite.’“ Then the little lamb recruits the lowly shepherd boy who tends him, “Do you hear what I hear? A song, a song, high above the trees, with a voice as big as the sea.” The shepherd boy then enlightens a mighty king. “Do you know what I know? In your palace warm, mighty king, do you know what I know? A Child, a Child, shivers in the cold. Let us bring him silver and gold. Let us bring Him silver and gold.” And the king addresses his entire populace and implores them, “Pray for peace, people everywhere! Pray for peace!” He alerts them that transcendent good news is on the way: “This Child, this Child, sleeping in the night, He will bring us goodness and light.”

This simple song never mentions Jesus explicitly, yet it articulates four themes fundamental to the Advent message, the first of which is, all of creation participates in announcing the coming of the Prince of Peace. The night wind, a star, a lamb, a shepherd boy, a mighty king, an entire population, all conspire to publicize the coming of the Prince of Peace, the coming of the Lamb of God who inaugurates the coming of the Kingdom of God. The entire cosmos participates in this annunciation of Christ’s coming, from a lamb, to a shepherd boy, to the stars in the sky, to the wind that whistles through the trees – all participate in making known the Good News that the Prince of Peace is on the way.
Second, this simple song underscores a profound truth embedded in our Gospel: God employs the humble, the subtle, the obscure, the lowly to make known universal redemptive truth. The world might have ignored the star, but not the night wind, who alerted the little lamb. The world might have missed the song, but not the lamb, who informed a shepherd boy, who informed a mighty king that an obscure child shivering in the cold would be the one to usher in God’s transcendent gifts. The king ensconced in his warm palace was also ensconced in ignorance. God’s great blessings do not flow down to the populace from the high and mighty. Rather, news of God’s blessings rises from up from the humble, the subtle, the obscure and the lowly – it is a lamb and a shepherd who first catch wind of God’s Good News, even as God first announced Christ’s birth in Bethlehem to a group of shepherds on a hillside. It is the lowly, the humble and the obscure who first articulate God’s message — pray for peace people everywhere!

Third, this simple song, for all of its simplicity, marks a progression of recruitment. The night wind recruits the little lamb, who in turn alerts the shepherd boy to the music of the song, and the shepherd boy in turn alerts the king to the significance of the shivering child, and the king in turn alerts the people for the need to pray for peace. It is not the mighty king who can usher in God’s transcendent gifts, but rather the obscure child who shivers in the cold. This child can deliver blessings that the mighty king cannot confer. And the progression marked by this song mirrors and parallels the narrative of our Hanging of the Green ceremony, as a brown sanctuary is turned to green and red and white and gold – all marking the inexorable coming of the Kingdom of God.
Fourth and finally, this little song speaks to the fact that only the gifts brought by the Christ, only the transcendent gifts brought by the Spirit of God, can adequately answer the questions posed by developments in our modern world. I should tell you that for years Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne who composed this song could not bring themselves to sing it. They remembered the context of extreme crisis in which it was written, and every time they tried to sing it, they broke down in tears. From the vantage point of their apartment window, where they could look out on mothers pushing babies in strollers, they realized that our world had reached such a point of technological savvy that we could now obliterate millions of people in an afternoon. We had reached a point in the world’s development that with the push of a button those mothers and their babies could have been instantly vaporized. The only sane alternative to that kind of global terror is the gift of peace, the gift of transcendent peace wrought by a God whose wisdom and power are beyond our comprehension, a God who can grant us gifts that we cannot manufacture ourselves. Pray for peace, people everywhere! Pray for peace, people everywhere! We are called to be instruments of peace! In our broken, divided, fractured world, do we truly live as instruments of Christ’s peace? Pray for peace people everywhere!
The truth is, the world was in far more danger during that crisis than anyone realized. A Soviet sub, carrying nuclear missiles, had sunk to the abyss of the ocean, so deep that US Naval ships could not detect its presence. It had also sunk so deep that it could not receive radio messages from Moscow. The commander of that submarine, in consultation with his political liaison, had decided that war must have broken out between the US and Russia, and concluded that the only prudent thing to do was to launch his nuclear missiles against the US. The US had no idea that this submarine was even equipped with nuclear missiles! But aboard that sub was also a man named Vasily Arkhipov, the admiral who commanded the entire Soviet submarine force. Vasily Akhipov declared that he did not believe the current crisis would have precipitated war between the US and Russia. He vowed that he would not be the one who broke the peace!

It was not until 2002 that the world actually learned how perilous that moment was and how close the world had come to nuclear war. That was when a Soviet admiral admitted that he was aboard that sub and that the overwhelming sentiment was to launch their missiles. All that stopped them was Vasily Arkhipov’s refusal to approve the order, because he was determined not to be an instrument of breaking the peace. Experts say that had that submarine launched those missiles, the US would have immediately retaliated, and 200 million people would have died – including most of us. Maybe we need to hear the plea of Do You Hear What I Hear? yet again! Pray for peace people everywhere! Historian Arthur Schlesinger did not exaggerate when he said of Arkhipov’s decision, “This was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. It was the most dangerous moment in human history.”

Dean Rusk, John Kennedy’s Secretary of State during the crisis, made an interesting observation about this ordeal in his memoir. Rusk admitted that during the whole crisis, one question haunted him and continued to haunt him long afterward. It was the question posed by the Westminster Catechism of the Presbyterian Church, the catechism that Rusk had memorized as a little boy in Atlanta. The question was, “What is the chief end of humanity?” Rusk remembered the catechism’s answer: “To glorify God and to enjoy God forever.” Rusk admitted that the Cuban Missile Crisis forced him reflect long upon the question, ‘What is the purpose of life? What is life really all about?” He couldn’t come up with a better answer than the one he learned as a child, “The chief purpose of life is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.”

Rusk’s answer is not so very different from the message articulated by the song that Angela and the children sang this morning — Do You Hear What I Hear? The Child, the Child who shivers in the cold, He will indeed bring us goodness and light. He is the Prince of Peace to whom people everywhere should lift their prayers and praise. The whole point of our Advent preparation is to prepare our souls to open our being fully to the transcendent gifts of the Light of the world. All this Light asks in response is that we honor Him by being instruments of peace ourselves.

Like most of the pivotal moments in spiritual history, this one was unplanned.  A priest named Isaiah entered the temple to perform his usual priestly duties.  And, WHOA! There was the presence of the reality of God before him!  Isaiah offered us this simple sentence: “In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up . . . “

Of course, extraordinary details of this encounter were seared into Isaiah’s memory:  God’s radiance, his holy effulgence, filled the entire Temple.  Magical winged creatures called seraphim surrounded God’s Presence, performing the dual functions of accentuating God’s greatness, but also to some degree shielding Isaiah from beholding the fullness of God’s sacred radiance, lest he be destroyed. One of them also heralded to Isaiah the significance of God’s presence:  “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts!  The whole earth is full of his glory!”

Isaiah’s immediate response was one of an overwhelming sense of unworthiness.  He cried out like a leper, “Unclean! Unclean!”  Indeed, he sensed that not only he, but the whole world in which he lived, was unworthy to be blessed with a visitation of God’s pure goodness. He screamed, “Woe is me! For I am lost.  I am a man of unclean lips who lives amidst a people of unclean lips!”  He knew that he was experiencing a blessing, a glimpse of God’s Presence, and it was exhilarating:  “Mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”  But he also knew that he was absolutely unworthy of this honor.  In the presence of the God of life, all he could think of was that this divine visitation must result in death to him.

But no: one of these magical winged creatures swooped down and took a hot rock from the sanctuary altar and placed it upon Isaiah’s lips.  It was a vivid act of cleansing and forgiveness.  Surely that moment was extraordinarily painful, but Isaiah’s focus was completely on what happened next.  He heard the voice of the living God asking, “Whom shall I send?  Who will go for me?”  Isaiah heard God crying out for an ambassador for God’s Kingdom, a champion for God’s cause.  Isaiah’s soul swelled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude at being allowed to hear that question and cried out, “Here am I! Send me! Send me!”

Few of us have ever been granted such a vivid vision of God’s Presence as Isaiah experienced.  Yet I would be willing to bet that most of you at one time or another have experienced a profound sense of God’s reality in your life, and that experience of God’s glory, however subtle the moment, engendered within you an overwhelming sense of gratitude.  I recall such a moment in my own life.  It was years ago, and I was enjoying my vacation at the beach.  I had arisen absurdly early and walked out on my porch, looking eastward across the expanse of a lagoon, awaiting the day’s first light.  As that miraculous daily rheostat of illumination we call dawn began revealing the placid water, I was suddenly overwhelmed with an intense awareness of God’s Presence in my life.   There were no flying seraphim; but I did see flying herons and sea gulls– and I could hear cooing doves.  Like Isaiah, I had walked into an unexpected moment of being visited with the reality of glorious Transcendence.   The radiance of the rising sun communicated to me the radiance of the Light of God.  I felt the Presence of God intensely, suffusing my entire being.   I suddenly felt this overwhelming sense of gratitude to God for the gift of being alive.

Like Isaiah, I felt unworthy of experiencing such wonder.  I stepped back into the beach house and beheld my beautiful slumbering wife, walked down the hall where slumbered my beautiful children.  I thought of the friends who were scattered about the house and who had brought such joy into my life, and I thought of my parents, just a few miles away, who would be sharing the day with us.  All of these thoughts conveyed to me again a piercing, penetrating sense of privilege, and, reflexively I began to utter a prayer of sheer gratitude to God, trying to enumerate my blessings, but realizing in the process that doing so was beyond my capabilities:  my blessings were innumerable, incalculable.  Filled with an awareness of the divine privilege of being blessed with life, I could not help but ask the question, ‘How can I respond to God’s graciousness upon my life? What can anyone give God in response to the gift of existence?’  The only proper answer is that of Isaiah’s.  We can only give God the whole of our being. In response to God’s blessedness, we can only give God our life.  We can only say like Isaiah, in response to God’s graciousness, “Here am I.  Send me.  Send me.”

I am sure that most every one of you here has had some vivid experience where you felt the fullness of God’s glorious Presence and were aware, at least in part, of the depth of your blessedness. Perhaps you have allowed the memory of that experience of God’s nearness to fade.  But, trust me, such moments will come again.  For the seraphim are right, the whole world is full of the glory of God.  The whole world shines with God’s radiant goodness and love.  We are privileged to experience the glory of God and reflect that glory into the eyes of others.   We are privileged to shine with God’s glory!  That is God’s gift to us.  That is also our gift to others.  We are created with the purpose of shining with God’s Presence as a gift to those around us.  Do we really do so?

We know that the symbols of this Supper speak to us of what our God of love has done for us.  The broken bread and poured out wine symbolize the absolute self-giving life of God. But the Supper also issues a summons.  You see, from our perspective, Christ represents what God has done through His Son for us.  But from God’s perspective, the Son’s obedience to the Father represents the potential of our human service unto God.  The Supper is a dual parable:  it speaks of what God has done for us, but it also speaks of what we are to do in gratitude back unto God.  In response to God’s total self-giving unto us, we are to give God all of our being in return.

Advent is about preparing our souls to receive fully the Light of the world.  But Advent is also about preparing our souls to give back to that Light all that we have, all that we are.  The glory of God has fallen upon us, and we are to be filled with gratitude.  The only proper response to what Christ has done for us is to offer our lives back to God as living sacrifices.  The only proper response to the Christ gift, having received the spiritual gifts conveyed by Advent, is the response of Isaiah, “Here am I!  Send me! Send me!”