A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, December 15, 2013
Matthew 5:38-48; 1 John 4:7-9 NRSV
This one thing is certain: today’s story began in the year 1818 in the small town of Oberndorf, Austria. The main characters were a parish priest and his church organist, who also happened to be the village schoolmaster. Father Joseph Mohr had written a Christmas poem in 1816, two years earlier, while at his previous parish. Now, on Christmas Eve, 1818, Father Mohr walked over to organist Franz Gruber’s home and asked him if he could set the poem to music for the Christmas Eve mass, which the organist did. At this point, there are a number of variations on how the hymn came to be.
Legend has it that the organ of St. Nicholas Church was not working, so Father Mohr wanted a musical composition that could be played upon a guitar. One story has it that mice had damaged the organ’s bellows so that it could not be played. Another version adds that Father Mohr had taken a long walk up a hill on the evening of December 23. And as he looked down the hill at the peaceful, snow-covered village below, and was moved by the majestic scene on that wintry night, he remembered the poem he had written two years earlier. Some have conjectured that Pastor Mohr, who dearly loved the guitar, just wanted a new carol for Christmas.
With only a few hours on Christmas Eve, organist Franz Gruber arranged a melody which could be sung to the accompaniment of a guitar. The plan was that Father Mohr and organist Gruber would sing the melody, accompanied by the guitar, played by Father Mohr himself, and then the choir would join in. So late that Christmas Eve, 1818, for the first time ever, “Stille Nacht” or “Silent Night” was born.
But, as you know, that is not the end of the story. Some weeks later, an organ builder arrived at St. Nicholas Church to repair the organ. When the repairs were finished, the organ builder stepped back to let Gruber, the church organist, test the instrument. When Gruber sat down, he began to play the simple melody he had written for Father Mohr’s Christmas poem. Deeply impressed, he took copies of the words and music of “Silent Night” back to his own Alpine village. There, two well-known families of singers—the Rainers and the Strassers—heard it. Both families, captivated by “Silent Night,” began singing it as they traveled about. The Strasser sisters spread the carol across northern Europe. Twenty years or so after it was written, the Rainer Family brought “Silent Night” to America, singing it in German outside New York City’s Trinity Church. In 1863, nearly 50 years after being first sung in German, “Silent Night” was translated into English. Today “Silent Night” is sung in at least 160, and perhaps as many as 300 languages around the world.
But wait: there is more to the story. One story has it that “Silent Night” was sung simultaneously in French, English, and German by troops during the Christmas truce of 1914 during World War I, as it was one carol that soldiers on both sides of the front lines knew.
As a postscript, Father Joseph Mohr died penniless in 1848, 30 years after “Silent Night” was born, because he had donated all his earnings to be used for eldercare and the education of the children in the area. In a report to Father Mohr’s bishop, one described Father Mohr as “a reliable friend of mankind, toward the poor, a gentle, helping father.” And as the late Paul Harvey would say, “And now, you know the rest of the story!”
It is Mohr’s phrase, “Silent night, holy night, Son of God, love’s pure light,” that I want to focus on for a moment this morning, complementing our Advent Candle of Love. Perhaps Father Mohr had in mind John’s verse in which he said, “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world.”
As early Christian theology developed over the decades, the writers of the books of the New Testament would grow to see Jesus as an expression of God’s love. This is not something that happened in Jesus’ own lifetime, I am wont to think. But rather, it was something that evolved over the decades as the early followers of Jesus tried to make sense of Jesus, who he was, how his life and death fit into the plan of God, and so on. And so, the conclusion that those early followers of Jesus arrived at was Jesus must have been the manifestation of the love of God in human form. Hence, the Apostle John could say, “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world.” And then hymnists, like Charles Wesley, could write:
Love divine, all loves excelling/
Pure, unbounded love thou art.
And Father Joseph Mohr could write:
Son of God, love’s pure light.
And so, the early Christian thinking about love was that the love of God toward humans was preeminently revealed in the person of Jesus said to have been born in Bethlehem.
However, if we can take the words attributed to Jesus by the four gospels at face value, Jesus—in his teachings—had already spoken of love as a thing required of humans. Not only has the love of God toward us been revealed in Jesus, but the call and chief mandate of Jesus is that we—his followers—show love to others. And the love that we show to others authenticates that we understand what it means to be children of the loving God.
Such a call to love makes radical demands. The love Jesus calls for in the Sermon on the Mount is agape, God-like, sacrificial love; the highest form of love. It is a love that forfeits any attempts at getting even with those who wrong us. It is a love that calls us to be flexible, rather than striking back. It is a love extended even to those we consider to be our enemies. So, making love a day-by-day reality means going the extra mile, giving the extra gift, forgiving the extra wrong.
It is somewhat timely, I think, that we have witnessed these past two weeks the death of someone who has been described as a “world giant.” Dead at the age of 95, Nelson Mandela was elected South Africa’s first black president, after serving 27 years in South African prisons because of his anti-apartheid activism. As noted in USA Today, “Undergirding Mandel’s career was an abiding dedication to diversity, inclusion and universal human rights while preserving ethnic and cultural differences.”1 Musician Paul Simon said of Mandela, “He conceived a model for mortal enemies to overcome their hatred and find a way through compassion to rebuild a nation based on truth, justice and power of forgiveness.”1 As Mandela himself once said, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy.” It has been said that “Mandela was eloquent in calling for unity of white and black South Africans and forgiveness for the regime that segregated the two in the racist system known as apartheid.”1 Somehow Nelson Mandela found the courage and strength to extend forgiveness and love to those who had imprisoned him for 27 years.
The spirit of the message is summed up in the simple statement of John where he says in another place, “We love because God first loved us.” We can be grateful for the example of those like Nelson Mandela who, by their life and actions, show us that love can be a day-by-day reality. Amen.
1USA Today, Dec. 6-8, 2013.