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Mild He Lays His Glory By


  One of my favorite Christmas carols is “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” It was written in 1739 by Charles Wesley. Maybe you remember it as the closing song of A Charlie Brown Christmas.  

But when we get to the line, “Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die,” what does that mean?

It’s the most stunning truth about Christmas.

Paul referred to the same truth in another song. In Philippians 2, most scholars believe he was quoting from an early Christian hymn when he wrote of Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be
used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.

In the words of Wesley, he laid his glory by. He set aside the privileges of being in very nature God, and entered into our world. The Creator visited his creation in person.

Maybe you’re familiar with the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. Dorothy Sayers wrote the series of stories in the 1940s. Lord Wimsey was an eccentric, not always easy to get along with, and alone. But things changed when Sayers introduced into the series a woman named Harriet Vane. They eventually married and Wimsey became the better for it.

Now, here’s the interesting part. Vane was a writer of mystery novels.

Like Sayers.

And Vane was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford.

Like Sayers.

Many believe that Sayers decided to write herself into her novels to save a character she created and loved.

Christmas is where God wrote himself into the story to save the characters he created and loved. Paul’s song in Philippians 2 goes on to say that the Son of God descended down into human experience, even to suffering death on a cross. Jesus said such an act of service would be a “ransom” to rescue us (Matthew 20:28). And thus–

Mild he lays his glory by;
Born that man no more may die.

We don’t normally think of Philippians 2:6-11 as a Christmas passage, but in a way that’s exactly what it is! This is the story behind the manger and the astonished shepherds and the exotic Magi and the bright star. Tim Keller (who was the first to use the Sayers novels to explain Christmas), wrote:

The modern world is filled with people who say they believe in Jesus, they say they understand who he is, but it hasn’t revolutionized their lives. There has been no…lasting change. The only way to explain this is that, contrary to what they claim, they haven’t really grasped the meaning that he is ‘God with us’” (46)….In Jesus the ineffable, unapproachable God becomes a human being who can be known and loved. And, through faith, we can know this love.

This does not stun us as much as it should. Look at the Old Testament. Anytime anyone drew near to God it was completely terrifying. God appears to Abraham as a smoking furnace, to Israel as a pillar of fire, to Job as a hurricane or tornado. When Moses asked to see the face of God, he was told it would kill him, that at best he could only get near God’s outskirts, his ‘back’ (Exodus 33:18-23). When Moses came down off the mountain, his face was so bright with radiance that the people could not look at him (Exodus 34:29-30)—so great, so high and unapproachable is God.

Can you imagine, then, if Moses were present today, and he were to hear the message of Christmas, namely, that ‘the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son’ (John 1:14)? Moses would cry out, ‘Do you realize what this means? This is the very thing I was denied! This means that through Jesus Christ you can meet God. You can know him personally and without terror. He can come into your life. Do you realize what’s going on? Where’s your joy? Where’s your amazement? This should be the driving force of your life!’

Well? Is it ?

“Is this not the greatest conspiracy story ever conceived?”


This is the divine conspiracy that has been in the mind of God almost from the beginning. In a sense, it is not very different from other conspiracies that have appeared in history. Like them, it has inspired magnificent heroism, as well as wretched betrayals. It has sparked wars and created exiles. In its cause it has deployed spies and assassins, soldiers and clerks, mothers and prostitutes. The steadfast march of its purpose has toppled kings and determined the fate of nations. Even so, its consummation depends not on the will of powerful men, but on the appearance of a helpless baby, born to a poor Jewish girl in a cramped stable on a cold night, a night as quiet as falling snow.

“You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High,” an angel told his mother. “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

Is this not the greatest conspiracy story ever conceived?

The Searchers
by Joseph Loconte
pp. 133-34

The Hopes and Fears of All the Years

Simeon in the Temple by Rembrandt

“A sword will pierce your soul.”

That’s a strange thing to say to a new mom, but it was said to Mary by an old man as he held her newborn son in his arms. He prophesied of Jesus, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel.” Then he added a prediction of Mary’s future: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:22-35).

This is Christmas? Yes.

It’s the joy of shepherds, and the wonder of Wise Men, and the celebration of angels, and the light of Bethlehem…

…and it’s also the flight into Egypt, and the slaughter of innocents (Matthew 2:13-18), and an ancient dragon with plans to devour the Child the moment he was born (Revelation 12:4).

Failure to reflect on the whole story results in what Russell Moore calls “the unbearable lightness of Christmas.” In other words, when all we have is half a Christmas story, the bright and happy half, we have a hard time imagining how the story applies to the rough and tumble of our own lives.

Please, let’s not forget the astonished joy of the story, or we’ll deny the activity of God on our behalf. But let’s not forget the darker elements of the story, either, or we’ll deny the reality of our messy, tragic world.

It seems impossible we could remember both sides of the story at the same time. Maybe we should just focus on the joyful parts on those holiday seasons when life is going our way, and then reflect on the darker parts during the holiday seasons when life hurts?

No, that’s not the way to do Christmas.

Instead, we know that “tears can sing and joy shed tears,” as Bruce Cockburn put it. In those years when our Christmas is clouded with heartbreak we must stubbornly rejoice with the shepherds who heard angels sing. Their report is still true and still good. And in the years when there’s hardly room on our Christmas cards to tell all the wonderful news that’s happened to our family, we must not ignore the prophecy of this sword to pierce Mary’s soul. Live long enough and your soul will be pierced, too.

The hopes and fears of all the years were met in the little town of Bethlehem.

Hopes and fears. Met. This is Christmas.


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Relight the Way


CT asked 3 people what fading Christmas tradition they’d suggest be re-introduced. Author Patricia Raybon suggested this:

Such a small thing: Turn on Christmas lights. Even if it’s a small church. Even if it’s a black church. Even if it’s the cold, gray winter of a Jim Crow life. Still you plug in the bulbs and light the night sky with electrified elation.

Look at our church. Look at our Christ. Look at our happy, bright season. And never mind the critics and their gripes about lights: Too expensive. Too bright. Too much. In the gloomy winters of my conflicted childhood, my family’s brightly lit church on a poor Denver street was joy and light, sanctuary and salvation rolled into one. Nothing was better.

“Hand me that strand.”

My daddy and other church trustees gathered every year—on a Saturday after Thanksgiving—to hang the holiday lights. These “Negro men,” insulted on jobs that held them back all week, showed up to untangle the snarl of electric wires and bulbs from boxes, attach the wires to hooks, string lights over doorways, twist them around the two bare catalpa trees in the small churchyard. Then, in the fellowship hall, they flung lights over the stage, above a kitchen pass-through window, through the branches of a determined pine Christmas tree purchased on sale for the season. Finally, upstairs in the modest sanctuary, near the fine shiny cross, they draped electric strands to a fare-thee-well, adorning fragrant pine wreaths and garlands.

And then?

My daddy turned on the lights. And I was in heaven. With a flick of a switch, my dark and scary world was transformed. I credit the lights. With the lights, I forgot that four little black girls were killed that September when a timed bomb exploded under the church stairs next to their Sunday school room in Birmingham. I forgot that another black child, Emmett Till, was murdered a few summers before in Money, Mississippi. I forgot about Medgar Evers, the Little Rock Nine, and the nameless, countless others whose stories never made the news.

Of course I didn’t really forget. Yet because of Christmas lights, displayed with hope in a secondhand church building, I was cheered by the audacity of joy.

So with blatant nostalgia, I sit in the chic unglitter of the fancier church I now attend in a better part of Denver. Nary a bulb gets lit outside at Christmas in this richer place. Too garish. Bad for the environment. That’s what I’m told.

But what if we went back? At least at Christmas?

I argue for Christmas lights on churches for two reasons. One, my youngest daughter has left the church, converting 10 years ago to Islam. Her children don’t celebrate Christmas. Yet they are drawn to the light. As my little granddaughter whispers to me, “Grammy, are you getting a Christmas tree? With lights?”

In her question I hear this: Will you share your light? The world longs for it. But how will the world know him if we don’t light the way?

My second reason: In Christ, we have someone worth shouting about, a true reason to light up the night—and not apologize. So come! Let us adore him! How? Let’s turn on the lights. Again.

Patricia Raybon is an award-winning author. Her forthcoming book is Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace.

O Come Let Us Adore Him

The Singer

It’s not unusual in large cities for pedestrians to pass streetcorner musicians playing for pocket change. But one morning the musician that commuters rushed past in Washington, D.C. was internationally-acclaimed virtuoso, Joshua Bell, playing on a 294-year-old Stradivari violin valued at $3.5 million.

Nearly 1100 people passed by the musician that morning. Only seven stopped what they were doing to hang around and briefly take in the performance.

Gene Weingarten wrote about the event for the Washington Post. “If the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that,” he asked, “then what else are we missing?”

It’s a parable of Christmas. Two thousand years ago a virtuoso appeared in our midst. Are we too busy to hear the excellence of his song? Here’s how Calvin Miller described that appearance in his narrative, The Singer:

The Father and his Troubadour sat down
Upon the outer rim of space.
“And here,
 My Singer,” said Earthmaker,
”is the crown
of all my endless skies –the

green, brown sphere

of all my hopes.”

He reached
and took the round
new planet down,
and held it
to his ear.

“They’re crying, Troubadour,”

he said. “They cry
So helplessly.” He gave the

little ball
Unto his Son, who also held
it by
His ear. “Year after weary
year they all
Keep crying. They seem born to

weep then die.

Our new man taught them crying
in the Fall.”

Earthmaker sent Earth spinning
on its way
And said, “Give me your vast
My son; I’ll wrap it in a bit
of clay.

Then enter Terra microscopically
To love the little souls who
weep away
Their lives.”

“I will,” I said, “set Terra free.”
And then I fell asleep and all

awareness fled.
I felt my very being shrinking down.
My vastness ebbed away. In dwindling dread,
All size decayed. The universe around

Drew back. I woke upon a tiny 

Of straw in one of Terra’s
smaller towns.

It is that birth we celebrate at Christmas. And we celebrate because the Singer grew up to “set Terra free.”

So, come, let us adore him! If you’re in Austin, join us this Sunday at 10am and then on Christmas Eve at 6pm.

About Tom

ANCHOR COURSE LOGO Tom Goodman is a graduate of Baylor University and Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, and he holds a doctorate from New Orleans Seminary. He has served as pastor in Louisiana, north Texas, and overseas in Grand Cayman before becoming the pastor of Hillcrest Church in Austin, Texas. Diane and Tom have been married since their days at Baylor University, and they have two sons, Michael and Stephen. Tom enjoys scuba diving, watching the latest Netflix DVD with Diane, and chasing mis-hit golf balls.