Christmas on the Blue Ridge

This will go down as a strange Christmas. Christmas Eve is always rushed. This is especially true when Christmas falls on a Sunday, which means I have two messages to prepare… This year, I thought I would get ahead of myself. Partly, I was forced to because the guy who tapes the sermon for Mayberry Church was leaving town for the holidays. So I taped the sermon on Tuesday. Because he was traveling and a number of people in the church had come down with COVID, we took precautions and wore masks or stood (as with the taping) on opposite ends of the sanctuary.

Then I woke up on Wednesday, feeling congested and not very well. I tested myself. After almost three years of avoiding the virus, I was positive. The quarantine started… Thankfully, my library (and visitor guest room) is almost done in the basement, so I moved down stairs). I would not be there for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day (which I never got around to preparing a sermon for). I am thankful for many people who stepped up and help make sure worship will continue.

Then there’s this bomb cyclone that much of the country faced over the past two days. Last night, when I went to bed, the temperature was at -2 with winds gusting. This morning, I got up at 6 AM and the temperature was -6, with the winds sustained around 18 mph and gusting much higher. Lots of people lost power. For a time, it was questionable if we’d have the service at Mayberry tonight, as their power was out, but it’s come back on. The power is still out at Bluemont Church and Appalachian Power doesn’t think they’ll get it back before tomorrow night, so we cancelled the Christmas Day service that was to be held there…

As for COVID, I was very congested for the first two days. Now, I don’t feel bad, but will abide by the recommended quarantine. I hope I’ll be back to normal next week. Here’s the sermon I was going to preach tonight. Instead, it will be shone to those who brave the cold on a big screen TV.

Have a Merry Christmas everyone!

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry Presbyterian Church
December 24, 2022

Isaiah 9:2-7

Homily taped at Mayberry on Tuesday, December 20, 2022

This evening, I’m drawing my homily from a well-known passage from Isaiah, one often read during the Christmas season. As I have been reminding you through Advent, the first 2/3s of Isaiah is filled with judgment with a few kernels of hope sprinkled in. We’ve been looking at these passages of hope. This is another one of these passages. As we’ve just past the winter solstice with the longest night of the year, it’s good to be reminded that darkness never has the final word.  Read Isaiah 9:2-7.

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Benighted is a word that is often used by mountaineers. It refers to getting caught in the darkness when climbing or hiking.[1] Generally, one doesn’t plan to get caught out like that, but I often go out for a walk as the sun sets, so that I might hike back in the night. I love watching the light fade from the horizon and the stars to pop out in the sky as I acknowledge each constellation as old friends. If I’m walking back up Laurel Fork Road, some of the hayfields allows for long views off the west and in the winter, I can see lights twinkle at Crooked Oak and toward Hillsville. I take comfort in these lights, knowing they represent homes where people are warm and safe.

It’s a little more troubling to hike at night when there is no light. I’ve been caught a few times like that, when it’s dark and you can’t see more than a few feet ahead. Once, in a backpacking trip in Yosemite, I’d walked out to a ledge about a half mile from where we’d camped to watch the sunset. I stayed a little longer than planned and was making my way back in the dark. Suddenly, a bear coming down the path in the other direction, stood up in front of me. It was as startled as me, and thankfully took off in another direction. Darkness can be scary. 

Without vision, there is no comprehension of what’s out there, what’s around you. It’s all about what’s with the next step or within our reach. You walk slower and try to avoid running into things. It can be scary. We become confused and find ourselves lost. We’re become anxious and apprehensive, as I was the rest of the way back to my camp. 

This is the situation Isaiah addresses in this oracle. People walking in darkness, living in a land of absent of light. Tonight, millions of people in Ukraine live in darkness because Russia constantly bombards their electrical grid in an attack of civilians. Those civilians could identify with those whom Isaiah addressed in this passage. We’ve all dealt with similar darkness during ice storms. It’s frightening, but Isaiah offers hope. There is a promise of light filling the land. The light brings joy, there is a renewed confidence. As with the breaking of dawn, things are changing.  

We take light for granted. We flip the switch and like magic, light appears. We are troubled when the power doesn’t work, which is why many of us have generators. Candles and flashlights just don’t do it for us anymore. Especially now, at the time of the year when the nights are at their longest and the air is cold.

Yet, despite the easy availability of light, we still suffer from depression and want. The metaphor of darkness still applies to us as we worry about the present and fret over the future. We need to hear and experience Isaiah’s words again. 

This passage of Isaiah, possibility originally written for the birth of one of Jerusalem’s kings, offers hope to a people oppressed.[2] As a nation, Israel and Judah stood at the crossroads of mighty nations. In world affairs, they were a pawn, in the middle of a chessboard, with the powers of the Fertile Crescent on each side. The dark pieces of the chessboard could have been Egypt and the white pieces could represent a variety of nations (Assyria, Babylon, or Persia) depending on the era of history. Sitting in this crucible, Israel always felt insecure. But at the time of a new king there would be hope that alien rule would come to an end and their enemies would be defeated as the new king restores the prominence of Israel to what it had been under David. It would be centuries before Jesus’ came, fulfilling this prophecy.

In verse 4, Isaiah recalls the victories of Gideon at Midian, where he led the Israelites into battle. Over 32,000 Israelite men responded to the call to arms to save their nation, but God had Gideon whittle down the number of soldiers. In the end, he kept a force of only 300 who slipped into the Midianite and their allies, the Amalekites, camp and routed them. With just a handful of men, but more importantly with God’s help, they were victorious over a much larger army.[3]The promises in our passage all link to God working to end their oppression as God had done in the days of Gideon. This leads to verse 6, which is perhaps the most hopeful verse in scripture, where Isaiah’s oracle announces the birth of a child. But sadly, no such king was born during Isaiah’s era.

The early church quickly realized how this passage applied to Jesus, whose birth we celebrate tonight. Jesus came in humility, yet had the authority of God, was God with us. Jesus offers us a new way of enjoying peace. Of course, his reign hasn’t been fully realized and there are still those who oppose his kingdom, but his victory over evil and death has been won on the cross and it’s only a matter of time. For as we celebrate his birth, we also long for his return and the everlasting kingdom.  

On these dark winter nights, when you see lights glimmering in the distance, think of the hope we have in Jesus, the light of the world. As we heard earlier this evening from the prelude to the Gospel of John, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.”[4]

There is a legend that one winter, the great church reformer, Martin Luther was walking in the woods at night. There was a cedar tree frosted with snow on a hill above. As he looked up at this sight, he could see the stars flickering behind and through the branches of the tree. He was so moved that he had a tree cut down and brought inside his home and decorated it with lights to recapture the glory he’d witnessed. This season, I hope you can capture that same glory when you look at the lights all around us and be reminded of the hope we have in Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate this evening. For in Jesus Christ, born of Mary, God came into our world and lived among us, showing us how to live, and reminding us that we’re not alone. We should no longer live in the fear of the darkness, for unto us a child has been born….  Amen.  


[1] This word came from a Twitter post by Cian McCarthy: https://twitter.com/arealmofwonder/status/1605101212554117120

[2] For a more fuller discussion of this passage as an enthronement oracle, see Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 1:12, Old Testament Library, Second Edition, John Bowden, translator, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 210-214.

[3] See Judges 7.

[4] John 1:5.

A decoration on my tree

Silent Night and Christmas Celebrations

Below is an article I wrote a few years ago and reworked for local newspapers for this year. This is going to be a Christmas to remember for I tested positive for COVID this morning. I had already recored my Christmas Eve homily which hopefully can be shown as I will still be in quarantine this weekend. I have spent the past three years trying to avoid this, but it finally came home with me. Thankfully, so far, it’s like a sinus infection with my head feeling like someone stuff a bale of cotton in it. I hope you have a Merry Christmas and stay warm (as it promises to be cold here this weekend).

Silent Night, Holy Night
All is calm, all is bright… 

My Christmas tree

       Of all the Christmas Carols, Silent Night is perhaps best known. The carol which is often sung in candlelight at the end of Christmas Eve services is over two hundred years old.

         On Christmas Eve 1818, Austrian pastor Joseph Franz Mohr was frantic. The Salzach River had flooded and the waters seeped into the church organ. With his evening service approaching and no musical accompaniment, he wasn’t sure what to do. But he remembered a Christmas poem he’d written a few years earlier. He took the poem to his friend, Franz Xavier Gruber, who also served as the church organist and choir director. In a few hours, Gruber was able to put music to the poem and that evening in St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria, Mohr and Gruber, accompanied by a guitar and a local choir, sang “Stille Nacht,” as it’s known in German, for the first time. 

         Slowly the carol, which is so loved today, became better known. After Christmas, Karl Mauracher was hired by the church to repair the organ. While working on it, Mohr sang the song to him. Obtaining a copy, Mauracher shared the carol with other churches as he traveled around maintaining organs. In 1831, the song was sung at the Leipzig fair, where it received wider attention. In time, minor changes were made to the words and composition to create the arrangement we know today. The music was first published in 1838.

         As German-speaking immigrants made their way to America, they brought the carol with them. It was first published in the United States in the 1849 Methodist hymnal. The translation that is most popular today was made by John Freeman Young when he was the Episcopal priest at Trinity Church in New York City. He published the carol in 1863 in a collection of Sunday School songs.

         As the carol become more popular, no one seemed to know who had written it. It was often thought of as an unknown work by one of the great composers, perhaps even Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven. Mohr died in 1848, before the carol become known world-wide. Shortly before his death in 1863, Gruber shared the story of the carol’s history, but many doubted the story. Decades later, a hand written copy of the hymn was found. After extensive examination, it was found to be written by Mohr and on the top right of the page he’d written “Melodie von Fr. Xav. Gruber.” The story was authenticated.  

         Silent Night grew in popularity around the time that Christmas, as we know it, was becoming popular in the English speaking world. Two centuries earlier, the Puritans banned Christmas in both England and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Although the ban ended following the restoration of the monarch with Charles II in 1660, for decades it wasn’t seen so much as a religious holiday as it was an opportunity for drinking and revelry. One of George Washington’s great victories in the Revolutionary War can be credited to the American’s lack of celebration of the holiday. On a cold Christmas night in 1776, Washington was able to move his army across the Deleware River and attack the German Hessian troops fighting for the British. These troops, who were staying in Trenton, New Jersey, had spent the evening celebrating. They were taken by surprise. 

          However, on both sides of the Atlantic, Christmas celebrations began to change in the 19thCentury. In America, the publication of Clement Clarke Moore’s, “The Night Before Christmas,” along with the writings of Washington Irving brought Christmas customs back into the minds of the people. About that time, large numbers of German immigrants began to flow into the country bringing Christmas customs with them. In England, the publication of Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol,” linked the holiday with doing good for the less fortunate. The marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert, a German, also brought German Christmas customs to England. In America, Christmas trees, which were first noticed in the homes of Pennsylvania Dutch in the early 1800s, became an accepted part of the holiday by mid-century.   

         In 1914, almost a hundred years after the carol was first sung, much of the world was bogged down into a war that had begun in August. In the trenches on the Western Front, German and English soldiers huddled inside cold and wet trenches, sniping at each other when someone raised a head. Both sides would charge the other line, only to be cut down by machine gun fire and mortar barrages.  Between the lines was no-man’s land, where barbed wire had been strung and corpses laid on the frozen ground. As Christmas 1914 approached, a storm brought more freezing rain and snow. Pope Benedict XV had called for the observance of a Christmas truce, an idea ignored by the leaders of both sides. It was looking to be a bleak Christmas.

Bluemont Christmas Ornament

         On Christmas Eve, however, the weather changed. The clouds disappeared and the moon lighted the darkened landscape. Then, at various pockets along the lines, the German soldiers decorated and lighted trees and placed them along their trenches as they began to sing, Stille Nacht. While the language may have been foreign, the tune was familiar to many of the British soldiers who sang “Silent Night” back to the Germans. Other carols were sung. In places along the trenches, soldiers called for an informal truce and began to move out into no-man’s land to greet those they were trying to kill only hours earlier. The soldier’s shared drinks and exchanged candy and food. On Christmas Day, a couple of impromptu soccer matches occurred. The dead were able to be retrieved and buried. Sadly, this truce didn’t occur along the entire line, but was common along the section where the British faced the Germans.

         The Christmas truce of 1914 was a brief respite in a terrible war, partly facilitated by a popular carol that both sides knew. Sadly, it would be the only such truce during the war. In 1914, only four months into the war, most were still hoping for a quick victory. By Christmas 1915, there were millions more dead soldiers and civilians. As the war raged on, it became uglier as new weapons such as tanks, airplanes, and poisonous gas were utilized, each side trying to gain an advantage. 

Bluemont Christmas orament

         This beloved carol still brings peace to the hearts of those who sing it. Its beginning reminds us of how that which rises from difficulty, such as Saint Nicholas Church having no organ, can have a profound impact on the world. The carol, as it brought together the soldiers of two warring sides during that First World War, reminds us of the possibilities for peace that come when warring sides take a risk and see the humanity of their foes. It is my hope that in this holiday season, when you hear or sing this carol, perhaps while holding a flickering candle in church at night, that you will experience peace. 

         If you do not have a church home, I invite you to join us up on the Blue Ridge Parkway at one of the Rock Churches this Christmas. Christmas Eve services will be at Mayberry Church, just south of Meadows of Dan at milepost 180, at 6 PM. On Christmas Day, we’ll celebrate Christmas at Bluemont Church, at milepost 192. 

Bluemont and Mayberry at night

The Peaceful Kingdom & the Importance of Children

This is a talk I gave to the Kiwanis Club of Skidaway Island on December 14, 2017. There were three of us. who gave a short talk on the holidays. The other two were Lutheran and Jewish. That’s why I began by poking fun at my colleagues at the head table.

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An occupational hazard of being a Presbyterian minister is that its hard to stand before a group of people to talk without focusing on a Bible passage. It’s what we do. If I was a Lutheran from Minnesota, like Jason, I’d probably be touting some made-up virtue of godless-Vikings. I’d insist the purple color of Advent is deeper than its liturgical meaning.[1] And if I was Jewish, I’d be thanking God for yamakas, like Rabbi Haas wears. I don’t understand our God. Robert has nearly a full head of hair and has to hide it. Me, well, I’m just trying to figure out how to make such a head covering a part of my religious tradition.  

My Bible verse for the morning comes from the Hebrew portion of our Bible…  See, Robert, I’m trying hard to earn one of those caps.  Isaiah 11:6-9:

 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
    on all my holy mountain…

From Wikiart.org “The Peaceful Kingdom”. Edward Hicks, 1780-1849

The painting I displayed on the screen was based on this verse in Scripture. The artist, Edward Hick’s painted over a hundred variations of this painting. Hicks was a 19th Century Pennsylvanian artist and he titled this work, “The Peaceful Kingdom.” With so many paintings of the same subject, you’d think he fell into a rut. But he was a Quaker, and in addition to oatmeal, peace is something they do a better job striving for than most of us. The passage captivated Hicks.Highlighted in each piece is a child (or in some cases, children) along with the animals depicted in the poetry of the prophet.  

         And a little child shall lead them…  

Often, I think, we hear this passage and think we’re to follow that child. However, that’s not the point. The child in Hicks’ painting as well as the one referred to in Isaiah is leading wild and dangerous animals. In our world, the parents of such a child would be charged with neglect. Who let’s their children play with wild animals? Our world is too violent, too dangerous, as was Isaiah’s. The prophet’s vision, his longing, is for the peaceful kingdom to come about, and that’s something only God can instill. For Christians, we see this beginning with a child born in a manager. We are to follow thia child when he’s no longer in swaddling clothes, but crowned in righteousness, as we work to protect children and strive for a peaceful world as envisioned by the prophet. We have our work cut out for us.

For Christians, Christmas remains a season for children.  My best memories of the season is as a child. I didn’t have to worry about sermons back then. What few gifts I had to give were homemade and, I can assure you, a parent’s love is greater than a child’s skill. So, for a moment, think about the holiday when you were a child.  

How about that time you bravely climbed up into Santa’s lap and boldly told him you’d been a good boy or girl all year.  And remember how the old man in red could still be heard laughing as your mother dragged you out of the store?  

Or how about your first candlelight service on Christmas Eve, the mystery of the evening and the joy of the music filling the hour. Think about how especially proud you were when you were first able to hold a lighted candle by yourself. I know I thought I’d made the big leagues. And then, because we live in a fallen world, think about how you realized you could tip the candle just right and wax would drop, missing the guard, and plop on your sister’s hand she unsuspectingly rest it on the rail of the pew in front. I don’t know about you. I was married and with kids before my mother trusted me with another candle. One of the congregations I served must have heard of my sin and insisted on using battery powered candles. 

Think of how excited you were as a child to wake up on Christmas morning and discover the treasures left under a tree. In my family, there were three of us and we’d have to all be ready at the same moment to enter the living room where the loot had been stashed by St. Nick. We never understood how he managed this since we didn’t have a chimney. 

What we did have was a Super 8 motion picture camera and my dad wanted to capture all the action. We enter the room together, only to be hit by the flood lights with an illumination of a small nuclear explosion. The camera recorded us raising our hands over our bleached faces to shield our eyes. It would be another thirty minutes before our eyes adjusted enough to make out what was under the tree. But it was a magical day and we completely overlooked our parents’ exhaustion. (I never could understand why they didn’t go to bed like the rest of us on Christmas Eve.)

And those carefree Christmas Days were special. We’d play with friends and cousins, trying out everyone’s new toys. Early in the afternoon, we’d be called to a feast with an insane amount of food, which none of us were interested because we’d already been into the stuffing (that is the candy stuffed in the stockings Santa left).

That child born in Bethlehem serves as an inspiration for those of us who strive to follow him. And years later, when he was grown and wandering around the backroads of Galilee, calling the disciples and others to follow, Jesus reminded them (and us) of the importance of childhood. Jesus encourages us to hold on to the awe and innocence of a child, telling us that in order for us to enter the kingdom of Heaven, we must come as one.  

As Kiwanians, I know you’re about helping children make and experience such memories. During this season, I encourage you to watch the children and capture some of their excitement. Then, hopefully, you’ll be inspired as Kiwanians to continue the kind of building, Kiwanis is known to do with children around the world. Until God ushers in that Peaceful Kingdom, we have work to do.  Thank you. 


[1] Just in case you didn’t get my reference, look at the color of the Minnesota Viking uniforms.

Christmas Eve Homily

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Presbyterian Churches
Christmas Eve 2021
Luke 2:1-20 (verse 19)

This video contains a whole service that includes music along with the homily

Growing up, I never felt like our Christmas tree was the real thing. Yeah, it was a live tree; we’d never go for the artificial variety. But it was store bought, purchased from the Optimist Club, which was logical since they supported the local Little League program.

On the night we put up the tree, we’d all wait patiently—or maybe not so patiently—for Dad to come home from work. When he arrived, we’d pile in the car and drive to the lot on Oleander Drive. It was a makeshift operation, some bare bulbs hanging from wires overhead illuminating the lot that in summer was a putt-putt golf course. Trees stood up against wires running between poles. We’d go through the lot looking at 100s of them. None ever seem perfect. And the ones I liked, my brother or sister wouldn’t like. Or it was too big. It was hard to get all of us to agree. After 15 minutes of this fruitless exercise, my parents assumed authority and picked out a tree. Dad paid for it. Then he tied it to the top of our car for the ride home. 

In some ways, it’s odd that my dad purchased a tree instead of finding a place to cut one. He’s the type of man who never brought anything he could make, and that included our tree stand. Had the bomb dropped on our house, something kids worried about in the 60s, I’m sure Dad’s tree stand would have been the only thing to survive. I was in Middle School before I could pick it up. It was constructed from a large flat piece of 3/8-inch plate steel with a four-inch steel tube welded to it. The trunk went into the tube. At the top of the tube, he’d drilled holes and tapped it so the bolts could be tightened to hold the tree in place. It was hard to get water into the tube, so after the first year, he drilled a bunch of holes in the side of the tube and then welded a shorter eight-inch pipe over it. We could pour water into the larger tube, and it would seep into the trunk. This tree stand was so solid that the tree’s trunk would have broken before it would have toppled. 

As a child, I wondered why we didn’t have one of those red stands with green legs made of tin, like all other families. I was envious of those flimsy tree stands sold at J. C. Fields. As an adult, before moving to an artificial tree, I found myself wishing for Dad’s old stand. The tree in that stand would have survived kids, dogs, cats, and rowdy guests, all of which have been known to topple a tree my living room.

My maternal grandparents still lived on a farm and never had a store-bought tree. For me, they had a real tree—an Eastern Cedar—thick and full and fragrant compared to the scrawny firs the Optimist Club imported from Canada. My mother, obviously trying to console us, said firs brought down from Canada were better because you had more room between branches on which to hang ornaments. She was trying to convince herself, I’m sure. Deep down, she knew that for a tree to be authentic, you had to select the one for the sacrifice, and cut it you’re your own hands.  

Of all the trees I’ve seen in my life, the one that stands out as the ideal tree was the one my grandmother and grandfather Faircloth had for Christmas 1966. It was a full, well-shaped cedar my grandfather had cut near the branch that ran behind his tobacco barn. Although I didn’t witness the harvesting of this tree, I imagine him, sitting on top of his orange Allis Chambers tractor, with the tree tied behind the seat, hauling it back home. This tree took up a quarter of their living room and its scent filled their home. Grandma decorated it simply: white lights, red bulbs, and silver icicles. And, of course, there were presents underneath along with boxes of nuts and fruit.

They gave me a Kodak Instamatic Camera, that year, the kind that used the drop-in 126-film cartridges and those square disposable flashes that mounted on top.  It was the closest thing to a foolproof camera ever built. I got good use out of that camera. It’d be nearly another decade before I replaced it with a 35 millimeter. My grandfather did not feel good that Christmas, but after some coaxing, I came outside so I could take a picture of him and my grandmother in front of the house. 

Even though I lost this picture years ago, I can still visualize the snapshot in my mind. Grandma and Granddad stood in front of their porch, by one of the large holly bushes that framed their steps. My slender grandmother, a bit taller than her husband, has her arm around him. They’re both smiling. Granddad sports his usual crew cut. In the picture, my grandparents are a bit off-center and crooked, for the camera in the hands of a kid wasn’t as foolproof as Kodak led everyone to believe. But the image was sharp. It still is, in my mind.

My granddad never raised another crop of tobacco. Although I don’t know for sure, he may have never even driven his tractor again, for early that January, his heart gave out. Perhaps that’s why the memory is so vivid.  

I’m sure my Christmas memories are normal. You probably have similar ones—some are good, and others are of Christmases that didn’t live up to expectation. And then there are those sad Christmases in which we lost loved ones. There’s nothing wrong with a normal Christmas, for if you look at the birth narrative in Luke’s gospel, that’s what the first one was all about. It was business as usual. Mary and Joseph have traveled to Bethlehem to do their civic duty, registering for the census. You have shepherds working the graveyard shift. Even birth itself is normal. It’s how we all came into this world. In this ordinary world God enters. Good news! God appears in an ordinary world, in an ordinary life, just like ours. We don’t have to do anything special to experience God. The Almighty finds us waiting in line to meet a government bureaucrat or while working the nightshift. God finds us where we are, that’s one of the messages of Christmas.

The Good Book tells us that after the shepherds left the Baby Jesus, rejoicing and praising God, Mary pondered in her heart all the things she’d heard and experienced. The late Raymond Brown, a well-known scholar who wrote the most detailed commentary on the birth narratives of the Gospels, says the word “pondered” literally means “thrown side by side.”[1] Mary brought together in her heart all the events occurring in Bethlehem and during her pregnancy and juggled them around in an attempt to understand. 

There must have been a variety of emotions of which we can only speculate. How much of her Son’s future did she really understand? Possibly not much. It would be thirty years before Jesus’ ministry would begin. And even after he started his ministry, there were times Mary and her family tried to talk Jesus out of it.[2] A normal mother, trying to protect her son. The birth of any child is miraculous to the mother, so maybe Mary just thought all that happened that night in Bethlehem was normal. As the years went by forgot about the angels and the prophecies concerning her son.  

Mary is important to the story, not only because she is the mother of our Savior. Mary’s the only person mentioned in the gospels whose presence bridge the life of Jesus. She gives birth, she’s at the cross with her heart heavy with sorry, probably still pondering and wondering, and on the first day of the week is there to experience the resurrection.[3]

Ever since that first Christmas some 2000 years ago in the small town of Bethlehem, the day has been one in which we ponder its meaning while creating our own memories. The picture etched in my mind of me photographing my grandparents reminds me of the family from which I sprung, a family who saw to it that I had a chance to know the Christ-child as someone more just a reason to receive gifts. 

Those trees I remember from my childhood, whose roots historically are pagan, have become a symbol for the life Christ brought into the world, the greatest gift we can receive. The impossibility of finding the perfect tree, a task so daunting for my family, always seemed so silly afterwards for even imperfect ones become perfect when decorated. And God works the same miracles in us, taking what is weak and imperfect and using it to carry out his mission in the world. And if I wanted to stretch it, I could even point to my Dad’s Christmas tree stand as a metaphor for the solid foundation we all need in our lives! The memories of Christmas that stay with me are not of receiving gifts. It is the assurance of being loved, by parents and grandparents, and ultimately by God.  

Tonight, ponder what this all means. I suppose for most of us, our fondest Christmas memories are as children or when we had children of our own. In a profound way, Christmas is about children. Think of the possibilities that rest in an infant.

The birth of a child in Bethlehem, the joy of a child tearing into wrapped presents and then hugging a parent, the twinkle of candlelight in our eyes as we sing Silent Night help remind us what it’s all about. And when we hear those words from Jesus’ adult ministry, that unless we come as a child, we will never enter the kingdom of God,[4] we can think about how we viewed things as a child. Perhaps this is what we should be pondering as we once again recall and celebrate God’s entry into our world. How might we become child-like and accept our Savior into our heart?  Amen.  

Recently, I came across another wonderful mediation about Christmas and children from “The Plough,” a devotional site for Christmas. Click here to read it.


[1]Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 406.

[2] In John 7:5, we see that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him.  Was this the reason his brothers and Mary were trying to see Jesus in Matthew 12:46 and Mark 3:31?

[3] Not only was Mary present at the death, she’s listed as being present with the early church.  See Acts 1:14.

[4] Luke 18:17.

“Joy to the World” A History of a Carol

I wrote this article for in 2019, on the 300th anniversary of the hymn, for The Skinnie, a magazine for Skidaway Island. I have slightly altered the text for this blog post.

Issac Watt’s Role

This year, with a young puppy in the house, the tree is locked up

A little over three hundred years ago, in 1719, English hymn-writer Isaac Watts published the words we know today as “Joy to the World.” Today it’s one of the most popular Christmas carols in America, with its hopeful and joyful message. However, “Joy to the World” was not written as a Christmas carol. It would take nearly 120 years before the carol we know was first sung. 

Isaac Watts is perhaps the greatest author of hymns ever. Supposedly, when he was a boy, he complained to his father about church music. Like a good parent, his father suggested that instead of complaining, he should work to make it better. From this challenge Watts, set out to write hymns, a relatively new style of music for Protestant Churches in the early 17th Century. At this time, especially in the English world, the Psalms served as the main source of lyrics for music sung in churches. As a pastor in a dissenting English Church, Watts began writing hymns. While he often drew from the Psalms, upon which he would modernize the language and Christianize the content, he also wrote hymns that reflected a trust in an Almighty God and in a Savior who was willing to die for humanity. Churches in Britain and America quickly adopted Watts’ hymns. These hymns include “I Sing the Mighty Power of God,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “From All that Dwell Below the Skies,” and of course, “Joy to the World.” 

Influence of Psalm 96

“Joy to the World” was based on Psalm 96, a royal Psalm of God’s enthronement as King. King David sings this Psalm, we learn in 1st Chronicles, as he moves the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. At a time in history, nearly a millennia before Christ, most nations had their own gods. Psalm 94 proclaims the God of the Hebrews, the God of Abraham, as reigning not just over the Hebrew people, or just in Jerusalem, but over the world. The God of the Psalmist is supreme throughout the world. God will rule fairly. God will administer justice with equity. God’s deeds are such that all will stand in awe and, along with all that is in heaven and on earth, will sing out in joy. 

Watts took Psalm 96 and tweaked it in a manner that reflects Christ’s second coming. In addition to the three traditional stanzas of the Psalm, which he modified, he added a fourth (which he inserted between the second and third stanzas).

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground;

He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found, 
Far as the curse is found, far as, far as the curse is found.

This stanza reflects Watt’s eschatological hope based on Christ’s return. God reverses the curse of Eden. It was a wonderful poem of the Second Coming. Watt’s titled his piece, “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.”

The words for the carol were written three hundred years ago. However, it required more creativity for this poem to became the beloved Christmas Carol we now know.

The Role of George Frederick Handel

The composer for the music who he combined with Watt’s poem was George Frederick Handel of Germany. Handel and Watts were contemporaries and were both living in England at the same time, but the two of them did not work on this carol. The music comes from Handel’s “Messiah,” a popular piece often sung by choirs and in concerts during the Christmas season.  But this adaptation of the two works did not occur for another century and on another continent, long after the deaths of Watts and Handel. 

The Role of Lowell Mason

 Lowell Mason was born in 1792, into a musically talented family in Medfield, Massachusetts. As a child and young man, he learned to play the clarinet, violin, cello, flute, piano and organ and became a choir director in his home town at the age of 17. A few years later, he moved to Savannah, where he worked in a dry-goods store and later in a bank. During this time, he studied under a Frederick Abel, a music teacher from Germany and began to serve as the choir director and organist at Independent Presbyterian Church. Mason helped create the first African-American Sunday School at Savannah’s First Bryan Baptist Church. This was at a time when the education of slaves was condemned throughout the South. 

After returning north, he later served as music director for the well-known abolitionist preacher Lyman Beecher. While working in Savannah, Mason became interested in musical composition and had to travel to Boston in 1922 to have his first collection of arrangements published as there were no publishers in the South with the capacity to print musical fonts. 

         Mason moved to Boston in 1827, where he served as organist and choirmaster for several prominent churches. He worked for a time as music director for the well-known abolitionist preacher, Lyman Beecher. During this era, he became an American proponent for European-styled music. At the time, adherents of the traditional American “shape-note” tradition satirized the European-style as the “Better Music Boys.” However, because of Lowell and others insisted on music education in schools, America eventually adopted the European styled music. 

         Mason was an important figure in music in early America who wrote, arranged, or composed music for hundreds of hymns including “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” He also wrote secular music including the popular nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”  

         Mason’s most popular tune, however, is “Joy to the World, in which he arranged the words of Isaac Watts’ poem with tunes of Handel to create the popular Christmas carol. “Joy to the World” is considered the most loved carol in America.  Almost every congregation will sing it during the Christmas season and just about every artist who has recorded Christmas Carols have included this hymn in their repertoire. The song is uplifting, as it reflects the Christian hope of a new and peaceful world in which Christ will reign as King.  

         This year, as you hear this song sung on the radio or perhaps in a Candlelight service on Christmas Eve, may you experience joy. 

         For Christmas Eve services along the Blue Ridge, Bluemont will hold its service at 4 PM and Mayberry at 6 PM. Both churches will be celebrating communion and invite you all to attend. 

Meadows of Dan Christmas Parade

Floyd High School Band

Small communities tend to do the best with Christmas parades, and the Meadows of Dan Christmas parade was no exception. The line was long and involved so many people that you would think there wouldn’t be anyone watching. But the street was filled with folks, especially kids with bags as the parade is like Mardi Gras, with people throwing candy (I didn’t see any beads). 

Roger pulls the float into town for the parade
Richard not only helped built the float, he was also the Parade Marshall

Cedar City UT Christmas Parade 1996 (some of those kids now have children as old as they were then)

This year, the good folks at Mayberry Presbyterian Church decided to create a church float. This was a community effort, which I suggested based on something we’d done when I was a pastor in Utah. Shep purchased the 2x4s, most of which he and Richard split into 2x2s. Fred loaned us the trailer. A frame was built with the help of Joey, Mike and Linda, Richard, and Henri. Then Richard and I ran down to a place near Martinsburg, where we were able to obtain the MDF board at $7 a sheet. These we brought back and cut out the windows and doors. A team the consisted of Mike and Linda , Angie and Shep, Richard and Ann painted the rocks and the roof to match the church. Sharon fed us with hot dogs from Jane’s Country Cafe. 

The frame on Fred’s trailer

Painting rocks
Panels drying (notice the real church in the background)

After the panels were try, we screwed the walls and roof to the frame. We taped plastic over the windows, put up a tree inside the church, and taped battery-operated candles onto the windows. 

Steeple Jacks Mona and Norris in front of the float after the parade

At the same time, Norris and Mona were constructing the steeple. If he gets tired of being a financial planner, Norris could have a career as a steeple jack!  We installed the steeple while waiting for the parade to begin, feeling it might be a bit dangerous to drive it the 3 ½ miles to where the parade lined up. We were not sure if the steeple (held on with a few screws) could survived a 45 mile an hour wind.  

For the parade, Roger drove Mike N’s truck, pulling the float. In front of the church, sitting on hay bales, were Mary and Joseph with baby Jesus laying the manger.  Madison and Kegon Played Mary and Joseph with Jesus being played by a Mattel doll. Standing in the seat of the truck, head poked out of the sunroof, was Happy. Dressed as an angel, she harked the coming of the season. She also threw out candy canes with information about our Christmas Eve services and one of the many “legends” of

the candy cane on the back.

Lining up for the parade

The parade was probably two miles long (for a business district that is about two blocks long). Not to be overly proud, but we took first-place. Thanks everyone for your hard work!  (I hope I didn’t forget anyone). 

This year’s Christmas Eve services for the Rock Churches: Bluemont at 4 PM and Mayberry at 6 PM.  There will also be a Christmas Eve program available on our YouTube Channel after 5 PM. If you’re not in our area, please check out the program! Also, if you like it, please like, and subscribe to our YouTube channel.    

Santa waiting to bring up the rear

A Christmas Eve Story

This is a short Christmas program for those at home. I tell the following story in the program followed by “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”

I have told this story several times including in an article published in Nevada Magazine’s online edition.

1988 was the first time I was without family on Christmas. It was also my first white Christmas. And it was a holy Christmas. I had taken a year off from seminary to serve as a student pastor in Virginia City, Nevada, the old mining town made famous by the TV show, Bonanza.

The week leading up to Christmas had been hectic. To top it off, a zephyr blew in two days before Christmas. I watched the clouds rolled angrily across the Sierras. Soon snow flew. The gale force wind made the frigid air feel even colder. I wore heavy sweaters even inside. By late morning of Christmas Eve, there was enough snow to ski on the streets of Virginia City. Having taken care of everything for the evening service, I joined a group of friends skiing down the old railroad grade to Gold Hill.

When we got back, we stopped by the church to shovel the snow off the steps. I turned up the heat inside. Snow drifted and the high winds made travel dangerous. About an hour before the service, word came that the steep roads into town from Carson City and Reno were closed. Now, my preparedness was for naught. Our “lessons and carols” service featured a number of readers, many of whom lived off the mountain and couldn’t make it in. Howard, our organist, assured me everything would work out. St. Mary’s of the Mountain, the Catholic Church in town, had already contacted him to play for their Midnight Mass as their organist wasn’t able to make it in.

It was a great service. Despite the cold and ice, people from town flock in. We recruited readers. As the service began, the building creaked and groaned against the gale. At times, wind seeped into the building and caused the candles to flicker. Our worship service closed with candles challenging the dark as we sang “Silent Night.”

Afterwards, a group of us headed to the Mark Twain, one of the many saloons along C Street. We had good conversations while waiting for the midnight hour to head down to St Mary’s of the Mountain for Midnight Mass. We wanted to support Howard, who was playing the organ. 

When I say, “we went down,” that’s just what we did as Virginia City sits on the eastern flank of Mt. Davidson and every block you travel you gain or lose significant elevation.

Sometime during the Mass, the raging storm blew itself out. When we stepped out of the church, clear skies greeted us. Crisp cold air billowed from my mouth like a locomotive. I zipped my coat tight, bid my friends a Merry Christmas and headed home, walking up the hill toward the lighted V, high on Mount Davidson. Snow squeaked under my feet due to the cold. The scent of pinion pine burning in woodstoves filled the air. A few cars were parked by one of the saloons on C Street. Otherwise, the street was deserted. When I reached B Street, where I lived, I was nearly out of breath.  

I paused to survey the town. In a few houses, lights still burned. They stood as cheery refuges from the cold. But most were dark. Folks had settled in for a long winter’s nap. Then I looked up into the dark sky dotted with brilliant stars. Orion the hunter stood high overhead, followed to the southeast by his faithful dog. To the north, the Dipper was rising. Although alone, I felt a presence…

Things had worked out. Our worship serve was special and several of us were blessed with a second service at midnight. Even though my family were thousands of miles away, I was with good friends. And I felt God’s love, a love that had come into this world in a child. 

The hymns and carols of the evening echoed in my head. “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” seemed appropriate I had experienced something holy and silent awe was a fitting response.

This ancient hymn has its roots in the early church and is used as the beginning of the Communion rite in the Orthodox Churches. In English, we sing the words which recall God’s mystery to Picardy, an old French folk melody. The music is haunting, as it should be when we contemplate the incarnation, God coming to us in the flesh.

This Christmas, may we spend some time in awe, pondering the mystery of what happened so long ago. And while 2020 has appeared as a storm to us, we know that after the storm passes, there are good times. As followers of Jesus, we need to have faith. 

May we also be aware that that child, born in Bethlehem, will come again and claim his throne. That’s where our ultimate hope lies. Until then, we hold on to hope and dedicate ourselves to him, our true Lord and our only Savior. Amen 

C Street, Virginia City, Winter of 1988-89

Christmas Evening 2019

The tree at my house (we put it in the dining room this year so it can be seen better from outside).

Merry Christmas everyone. Today was beautiful in South Georgia, a nice day for a walk with the dog, after opening present, playing a new board game (Ticket to Ride: Rails and Sails), and continually snacking on ham. For the past few days, we’ve experienced a deluge (6 inches of so of rain). But yesterday afternoon, the clouds dispersed in times for us to line the church driveway with luminaries for our evening service. Our sanctuary is most beautiful when decorated and filled with candles. Unfortunately, I’ve been fighting a head cold for the past week, but thankfully I was on an uptick yesterday, which made the evening much more pleasant. I will work tomorrow and then be on vacation for the rest of the year. But I do have a few more post. Below is my message for the candlelight service last night.

 

Christmas Eve Meditation 2019
Jeff Garrison

Bethlehem wasn’t a thriving town. It wasn’t the capital. It was off the beaten path. It’d seen its better years as Jerusalem grew and became the place to be. When you entered the city limits, there might have been a commentative sign acknowledging their favorite son, David, who went on to be the King of Israel. But I bet there were some who still harbored ill feelings toward David. He was the one who put Jerusalem on the map, positioning the Ark of the Covenant on the spot where Solomon would build the temple. Since those two, David and Solomon, almost a 1000 years earlier, Jerusalem prospered while Bethlehem slipped into a second-rate town.

Bethlehem was the type of town easily by-passed or driven through without taking a second glace. It might have had a blinking stoplight, or maybe not, like the towns we drive through when we get off the interstate.

Bethlehem could have been a setting for an Edward Hopper painting. He’s mostly known for “Nighthawks” a painting of an empty town at night with just a handful of lonely people hanging out in a diner. It’s often been parodied in art, with folks like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe sitting at counter. But all his paintings are sparsely populated, providing a sense that time has passed his urban landscapes by. Or maybe the town could be a setting for a Tom Wait’s song—the roughness of his voice describing lonely and rejected people, struggling through life.

In many ways, Luke sets up Bethlehem by placing the birth of the Prince of Peace in a historical context. In Rome, we have Augustus, the son of Julius Caesar. Some twenty-five years earlier, he had defeated all his enemies and the entire empire is now at peace. The glory of Rome far outshines even Jerusalem and makes Bethlehem seem like a dot on a map. Caesar has the power that can be felt in a place like Bethlehem, but he probably never even heard of the hamlet. And, of course, the peace Rome provides is conditional. This peace is maintained at the sharp points of its Legion’s spears and swords and, for those who would like to challenge the forced peace, the threat of crucifixion. Luke also tells us Quirinus is the governor of Syria.

The tree in our sanctuary. Photo by Lynne Kaley

Those rulers are in high places. They dress in fancy robes, eat at elaborate banquets, and live in lavished palaces. They aren’t bothered by the inconvenience their decrees place on folks like Mary and Joseph. This couple is one of a million peons caught up in the clog of the empire’s machinery. If the empire says, jump, they ask how high. If the empire says go to their ancestral city, they pack their bags. It’s easy and a lot safer to blindly follow directions than to challenge the system. So, Mary and Joseph, along with others, pack their bags and head out into a world with no McDonalds and Holiday Inns at interchanges. For Mary and Joseph, they head south, toward Bethlehem.

If there were anyone with even less joy than those who lived or stayed in Bethlehem, and those who are making their way to the home of their ancestors, ancestors who may not have lived there for generations, it would be the shepherds. The sheepherders are near the bottom of the economic ladder. They spend their time, especially at night, with their flocks out grazing. The sheep are all they have. They have to protect them. They can’t risk a wolf or lion eating one of their lambs. So, they camp out with the sheep, with a staff and rocks at hand to ward off any intruder. They don’t even like going to town because people look down on them and complain that they smell.

You can’t get much more isolated than this—a couple who can’t find proper lodging in Bethlehem, with the wife that’s pregnant, and some shepherds watching their flocks at night. But their hopelessness quickly changes as Mary gives birth and places her baby in a manger. There is something about a baby, a newborn, which delights us all. Perhaps it’s the hope that a child represents. Or the child serves as an acknowledgement that we, as a specie, will live on. While birth is a special time for parents and grandparents, an infant child has a way to melt the hearts of strangers who smile and make funny faces and feel blessed if the mother allows them to hold the child for just a moment.

This child that comes into this town and brings joy. Joy comes not just to the parents, but also to the angels. The angels share the joy with the shepherds. The shepherds want in on the act, so they leave their flocks and seek out the child. All heaven is singing and sharing the song with a handful of folks on earth. The shepherds also are let on the secret that, so far, only Mary and Elizabeth and their families share. This child, who is to be named Jesus, which is the same word that in the Old Testament is translated as Joshua, is coming to save the world. Soon, in a few generations, the song will spread around the known world.

And for this night, the sleepy hamlet of Bethlehem is filled with joy. The darkness cannot hide the joy in the hearts of this young mother and father and the shepherds. Something has changed. Yes, a child has been born. But more importantly, this child is the incarnation. God has come in the flesh, in a way that we can understand. God has come in a way to reach all people, from the lowly shepherds, to the oppressed people on the edge of the empire, to all the world. This child, whose birth we celebrate, has brought joy to the world.

Friends, as we light candles and recall that night in song, may you be filled with the joy of hope that comes from placing our trust in Jesus. Amen.

©2019

Click here to read my latest article in The Skinnie, as I reflect on the carol, “Joy to the World, it’s 300 year history (including a Savannah connection).