Posted by: rcottrill | May 31, 2013

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

Words: Edmund Hamilton Sears (b. Apr. 6, 1810; d. Jan. 14, 1876)
Music: Carol, by Richard Storrs Willis (b. Feb. 10, 1819; d. May 7, 1900)

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: Edmund Sears served as the pastor of several small Unitarian churches in Massachusetts. The carol was written at the request of his friend and fellow pastor in Quincy, W. P. Lunt. The original title was “Peace on Earth.”

CH-1) It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold;
“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
From heaven’s all gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.

Perhaps the startling thing about this Christmas carol is that it does not make a single reference to Christ or His birth, in any of its five original stanzas. All the stranger since it’s about the angel’s message to the shepherds, which begins by telling them the One in whom “peace” can be found (Lk. 2:11). Perhaps we might be inclined to put that down to the fact that Sears was a Harvard-graduated Unitarian, and that group does not believe in the deity of Christ. However, Pastor Sears seems to have been a Unitarian more in name than in practice, since he believed and preached that Christ is God the Son.

There is another strain in this carol that not all evangelicals would espouse. It’s among the first American hymns to be rooted in the social gospel, the idea that if we just do good works, correct social wrongs, and love their neighbours, “the age of gold” (CH-5) will be ushered in, a kind of heaven on earth. And therefore that the church should put its focus on helping the poor and downtrodden, rather than on calling people to eternal salvation through Christ.

The social gospel seems to have been a particularly American phenomenon, and the middle of the nineteenth century was a great breeding ground for it. Opposition to slavery was seething and there was a growing unrest as north and south took sides–conflict that would eventually lead to the Civil War. In addition, 1849 brought the California Gold Rush, with its passionate greed for gain, and attendant wickedness. After nearly two millennia, the peace and good will of the angelic announcement of Christ’s birth (Lk. 2: 14) seemed farther away than ever.

CH-3) Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife
And hear the angels sing.

There are a couple of issues that need to be addressed, with regard to this emphasis:

1) The Gospel. To put our focus on preaching the gospel of imperishable grace, and on the need for sinners to prepare for eternity, does not mean Christians should fail to be concerned about what is going on around them in society. It’s a matter of emphasis and focus. Helping the poor, and speaking out against social wrongs must not replace the mandate of the church to preach the gospel (Mk. 16:15). And the gospel is not, at its core, a message of temporal social betterment. Here is the gospel:

“I declare to you the gospel…that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (I Cor. 15:1, 3). “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).

The gospel (the good news) is that through faith in Christ we can be delivered from eternal condemnation and receive God’s gift of everlasting life (Jn. 3:16; cf. Eph. 1:7, 13-14; Col. 1:3-5; II Tim. 1:9-10). Whatever else we do, in compassion and mercy to others in need, we cannot forget or minimize that.

2) The Golden Age. As CH-5 proclaims, there is indeed an “age of gold” coming up ahead. But it will not be brought about by social action, or peace treaties, or any of the feeble and faltering efforts of man. It will be ushered in at the return of Christ, when He rules over the earth, bringing in the Kingdom Age of peace and plenty. The “prophet-bards foretold” it, many times (e.g. Isa. 2:1-4; 9:6-7; Dan. 7:13-14; Amos 9:11-15; cf. Rev. 20:1-4).

But, that is not how the Bible portrays the present age, as we look forward to Christ’s return. “In latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons” (I Tim. 4:1). “Evil men and imposters will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived” (II Tim. 3:13).

“In the last days perilous times will come: for men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power” (II Tim. 3:1-5).

Yes, a better day is coming with the return of the glorified Son of God. But not yet. And we pray with John, “Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20).

1) Even when world “peace” eludes us, what aspects of peace can we experience now, by the grace of God?

2) How can Christians and local churches maintain a balance between social action on the one hand, and the mandate of the Great Commission on the other?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


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