This Christmas Eve will be my congregation's fifteenth annual Festival of Lessons & Carols service. I know, that sounds so positively Puritan! We use a slight adaptation of the renowned “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” first used in 1918 at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, and now heard every Christmas Eve over BBC radio.
In the tradition in which I minister—Dutch Reformed—Christmas morning services are the norm. But since I minister in my native Southern California beach culture, Christmas Eve services are the norm. The point being that such a service can be adapted to fit local needs even as I know some congregations use a service like this on a Sunday evening.
If you're familiar with the Lessons & Carols service you know that there is no sermon. So what I have done is to add a narrative throughout the lessons as a means of proclamation of the Word. I'd like to share that here:
Abraham Kuyper once lamented that “at no christian feast is the glory of God so little remembered, as at the commemoration of Jesus’ birth” (Keep Thy Solemn Feasts, 15). As we gather again to hear the story of our Savior’s birth, let us cast away all earthly thoughts of family, food, and friends, and instead lift up our hearts and minds to the God who displays his glory by promising to send his eternal Son in the humility of human flesh that he might die the humiliating death of a cross so lowly sinners like you and me may be brought into his eternal kingdom.
We begin after the first light of human history has dawned, in a garden, in a land called Eden. There, God made the pinnacle of his creation, Adam and Eve, distinguishing them, and all humanity, from everything else by creating them in his own image to reflect his glory. As the Heidelberg Catechism says, this was so “that [they] might rightly know God [their] Creator, heartily love him, and live with him in eternal blessedness” (HC, Q&A 6). As image-bearers of God, Adam and Eve were made in a special relationship with their Creator. Tragically they broke that bond of fellowship by transgressing God’s law not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And so, the Lord God came to judge Adam, Eve, and the tempter for what they had done. Yet in the midst of sin, disobedience, and the pronouncement of a curse, we hear a promise of the advent of our Savior. For the first time God announced the news of a coming Savior in the first gospel: from woman would come one to crush the serpent’s head and the sin and death he brought about upon the human race.
The First Lesson: Genesis 3:8–15
Hark! the Herald Angels Sing
The plot of this advent unfolded throughout subsequent generations in the godly line of this promised seed, which began with Abel the first martyr, was renewed with the birth of Seth, was dramatically saved from the Flood of judgment in Noah, and had multiplied in the families of Shem, one of Noah’s three sons. The Lord was then pleased to choose one of Shem’s descendants through whom to bring this one promised seed of the woman—Abram. Abram’s blessed seed would bless not only Abram’s family for generations to come in the nation known as Israel, but would bless the families of the all the people’s on the face of the earth.
The Second Lesson: Genesis 22:15–18
Let the Earth Now Praise the Lord
But after showing generations upon generations his steadfast love, which endures forever, the people of God rebelled, like their first father Adam. Abraham’s great-grandchildren, the sons of Jacob, sold their brother Joseph into slavery; yet the Lord used Joseph in Egypt to preserve Israel from famine, and thus to preserve the line of promise. Two ungrateful Israelites in Egypt caused Moses to go into exile in Midian for forty-years; yet he was the Lord’s anointed one who displayed signs and wonders and led the people out of Egypt. Millions of Israelites, stuck between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s chariots, forgot the Lord’s power to save; yet in his power and grace he split the sea in two and caused them to pass through on dry ground while destroying Pharaoh’s armies in the sea. The people complained about not having bread, water, or meat in the wilderness; yet the Lord sent them manna from heaven, water from a rock, and more quail than they could digest. The people grew impatient at the Lord’s perceived slowness of action and built a golden calf to worship instead of the glorious God who appeared on Sinai; yet the Lord forgave their sin. The spies into the Promised Land did not believe they could overcome the merely mortal inhabitants of the land as the Lord promised; yet the Lord later led them in through Joshua to destroy those very enemies. Generation after generation rebelled until the Lord had enough and allowed his people to be enslaved again in a foreign land by their enemies; yet the Lord delivered them through many judges.
And so we come to the seventh century B.C. when the people that God took as his own had broken their covenant with the Lord—again. The ten northern tribes of Israel were excommunicated from the presence of the Lord into Assyria and the two southern tribes of Judah would be next, going into Babylonia. It was on the eve of exile that the Lord promised to disbelieving King Ahaz that he would climactically save his people once again—this time by coming himself to his people.
The Third Lesson: Isaiah 7:10–14
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
Immanuel, “God with us,” was to be the name of the virgin woman’s son. Greater than the signs in Egypt, greater than the signs in the wilderness, and greater than the signs at Sinai, this surely was to be the Lord’s greatest and most mysterious sign and wonder he would do in the eyes of his people. So what would the birth of this Son mean to the faithful remnant among the people of God? What would the Desire of nations mean to God-fearers outside Israel, who dwelt in the darkness of ignorance, idolatry, and unbelief?
The Fourth Lesson: Isaiah 9:2–7
Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming
The offspring of Eve, of Sarah, and of the virgin would be a king. This king’s kingdom would be known as a kingdom of peace, as he would end the serpent’s reign over his people even as he ended the reign of Pharaoh over his people. Yet where was this king to be born? As humanity in its natural wisdom looked for him to be born in the palatial palaces of princes, royalty and aristocracy, God’s wisdom announced another location.
The Fifth Lesson: Micah 5:2–5a
O Little Town of Bethlehem
Promises, promises—so many precious promises. And those we’ve just read are just the beginning. Yet for languishing Israelites and godly Gentiles the question was this: after so many generations where was this promise of God coming in the flesh? Where was this seed of the woman to crush the serpent? Where was Abraham’s offspring who would bless? Where was the virgin’s son, the king upon David’s throne who was to sit there forever? Where was this Lord of whom Israel sang, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. . . . Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me?” (Ps. 23:1, 4) You see, after Isaiah’s and Micah’s powerful and prophetic preaching, the faithful still lived in a state of expectation for another seven hundred years without their prophecies coming to pass! Yet now the strife between serpent and son is ended! Now the wait it over! Now God is no longer silent! O Israel of God, cry out with the Psalmist: “Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted in me? hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance” (Ps. 42:5). Friends, lift up your hearts and heads, hear the long-expected words of fulfillment.
The Sixth Lesson: Luke 1:26–38
Sing Out, My Soul, with Praise
In the wondrous providence of God, the very year in which Mary was to give birth to the Son of God, Jesus Christ our Lord, Caesar Augustus called for a taxation of the Roman Empire, including Palestine. And in order for this to be pulled off, everyone had to return to their own hometown. For Joseph and Mary, this meant returning to Bethlehem, in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled. With this, the stage was set. As one commentator said:
Throughout the centuries God had so led the course of history that everything was now prepared for the coming of His Son. The preparatory Old Testament revelation had been completed long ago; the weary, longing spirit of mankind was in dire need of His coming; His forerunner, John, had already been born; the ‘fulness [sic.] of time” had arrived. And at last, the promised Redeemer, whose coming had been looked forward to with so much heartfelt yearning, is born. In a few verses – written simply, in a matter-of-fact and natural way – Luke here relates the tremendous and all-important event. The extreme simplicity of the narrative forms the strongest contrast to the stupendous significance of the occurrence that is recounted (Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke, 99).
The Seventh Lesson: Luke 2:1–7
What Child Is This
After this stupendous wonder of God was accomplished in the birth of Jesus, who is Immanuel, God with us, we see the true nature of Jesus Christ’s kingdom revealed in those who first beheld him and in what state he was found. He was not adored by throngs of millions, thousands, or even hundreds, but by some shepherds who just happened to be in an adjacent field. He was not at first visited by the powerful, by the influential, by the important in the eyes of the world, but by the ordinary men of this world. And when the angel told them where to find this child, it was not on a throne in a palace, but as wrapped in the “royal” garb of the swaddling cloths of an ordinary baby and “enthroned” in an animal trough! Truly, as Paul said, “though [Jesus] was rich [being the eternal Son of God], yet for your sake he became poor [being born a man], so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
The Eighth Lesson: Luke 2:8–16
While Shepherds Watched
Now after Jesus was born, he was visited by three Magi. These were studious men from the east who studied the stars to determine God’s course of human history. What is important is that in the Scriptures, to go east is to go “east of Eden,” that is, away from the presence of God. And which way are these Magi traveling? They are coming from the east to west. Why? Because they are approaching the very Holy of Holies that dwelt in the temple, but instead, was now found in the person of the baby Jesus, in whom Paul said the “whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). Yet while being worshipped, the age-old strife between the two seeds, the woman and the serpent, Christ and Satan, the godly and the ungodly, is active. Thus we see the reason he came in John’s words: “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).
The Ninth Lesson: Matthew 2:1–12
We Three Kings
What an amazing wonder God has done! He has sent his eternal Son to become a man, yet all the while remaining God. The apostle John gives us the maturest theological reflection on the incarnation, that is, the birth of God in the flesh. For here we see that the seed of the woman, the seed of Abraham, the son of the virgin, the son given unto us, the one who was to be a ruler from Bethlehem, was in truth, God in the flesh. As we will sing, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see! Hail the Incarnate Deity!”
The Tenth Lesson: John 1:1–14
And that fullness of grace that alone can forgive the sins of a misspent past, the rebelliousness of the present, and the certain disobedience against God in the future, is offered to all of you tonight. How does it become more than an offer but a possession? Turn away from yourself, and turn to Jesus. Repent of your sins and self-righteous attempts to save yourself. Become as helpless and naked as a newborn child. Then come to Jesus in faith with an empty, open hand. Believe that the humiliation, lowliness, suffering, and shame of him who came from heaven to earth will lead you from earth to heaven. Amen. Thanks be to God!
Hark! the Herald Angels Sing