First Advent Service                                                                                         
Rev. D. K. Schroeder

Luke 2:4-7 Sermon                                                                                                            
December 7, 2004

Hymns (From "Songs of Praise, Advent and Christmas"):
26 "Gentle Mary Laid Her Child, Lowly In A Manger"
52 "The First Noel"
33 "Once In Royal David's City"
55 "The New-Born King Who Comes Today"


TEXT: “So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belong to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

            Sam and Charlie were talking together after church one day. “Confirmation class… what a drag,” Sam said.  

            “Yeah, I know what you mean,” replied Charlie, “Pastor expects us to memorize the whole second article of the Apostles’ Creed AND the meaning too!”

            Sam said, “Yeah, all this memorization stuff is for the birds. What value could it possibly have?”  

            Charlie added, “All we do is rattle off a bunch of meaningless words that we’ll forget, so why bother?” 

            Unbeknownst to the boys who were talking, a young woman, named Cecil Humphreys overheard what they were saying. And it was something that just kept on haunting her. She was a Sunday School teacher, and was having difficulty teaching various parts of the catechism to her young students in a way that they could understand it.

            “He was conceived by the Holy Ghost, and born of the virgin Mary….” The familiar phrase kept going through her mind. She remembered then the verses from Luke 2 "….they went to Bethlehem, the town of David…she gave birth to her first-born son, wrapped him in swathing bands, and laid him in a manger."

            And so, because of that simple conversation between two boys who were complaining about their confirmation memory work, way back in the early 1840’s, Cecil Frances Humphreys wrote the words,

            “Once in Royal David’s city, stood a lowly cattle shed, where a mother laid her Baby, in a manger for His bed. Mary was that mother mild, Jesus Christ, her little child. He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all, and his shelter was a stable, and his cradle was a stall; with the poor and mean and lowly, lived on earth our Saviour holy.”

            Cecil Frances Humphreys is known to us today by her married name, Alexander. All of her works now carry her married name, and so that is the way I’ll refer to her from here on out.

            This evening these words of Cecil Frances Alexander speak so clearly to us as we look at Jesus, the babe in the manger, our Saviour who is our Shepherd-King.

            A lowly shepherd-king. Jesus wasn’t the only shepherd-king you know. In fact, the most famous of Jesus’ earthly ancestors was also a shepherd-king, an earlier resident of Bethlehem.

            Saul had been rejected as the king of Israel. Samuel had been sent to Bethlehem to anoint who would be the new king. The Lord directed Samuel to the house of Jesse. The new king would be one of Jesse’s sons.

            Seven of the sons, dressed in fine clothing all passed before Samuel, but God selected none of them. Samuel, knowing that he was there to anoint the next king of Israel, asks Jesse if he had any more sons. Jesse replies, “There is still the youngest…but he is tending the sheep.” (I Sam. 16:11) So at the request of Samuel, they send for this young shepherd boy. Oh surely it couldn’t be HIM, now could it? A most illogical choice, at least to Jesse and his seven older sons.

            So in comes David, the youngest. He was a ruddy, but quite handsome. And here he stands, all hot and sweaty in his work clothes. He was definitely not dressed to impress. But God had said earlier that the outward appearance didn’t matter to him. And so in the presence of his father Jesse and his seven brothers, Samuel anoints this young shepherd as king of Israel.

            I doubt if David knew that day what would be happening hundreds of years later, or the vital role he was to play in the history of the world.

            Yes hundreds of years later, in royal David’s city, stands a cattle shed, where the virgin mother Mary lays Jesus, the Saviour of the world, the descendent of David, in a manger. The famous ancestor of the humble shepherd-king, would himself also be a humble shepherd-king. “With the poor, and mean, and lowly, lived on earth, our Saviour holy.”

            In writing her famous hymn, Cecil Alexander wanted to do more than just talk about Christ’s birth. She wanted people, especially children to be able to identify with him. After all, people tended to see Jesus only as an adult; nobody ever talked too much about Jesus being a young boy. But he most certainly did have a childhood. And so Mrs. Alexander read the words of Luke 2:51-52 where Jesus’ boyhood is spoken about. “Then he (Jesus) went down to Nazareth with them (Mary and Joseph) and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” She also considered Matthew 13:55-56 where Jesus’ brothers and sisters are spoken about.

            With this in mind, Mrs. Alexander wrote the words:  “And through all His wondrous childhood, he would honor and obey; love and watch the lowly maiden in whose gentle arms he lay; Christian children all must be, mild, obedient, good as he.”

            Following on with this thought, Mrs. Alexander read the words of Luke 2:40: “And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.”

            So the next verse of the hymn carries through the thought of Jesus’ boyhood: “For he is our childhood’s pattern, day by day like us he grew: he was little, weak, and helpless, tears and smiles like us he knew; and he feeleth for our sadness, and he shareth in our gladness.”

            One of the things that we Christians can find so comforting, is the fact that we have a Saviour who both knows and understands our human frailties. The words of Hebrews 4:15-16 are so meaningful: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

            Yes, tears and smiles like us he knew. But sometimes we forget that. Often when we sin, when we stumble and fall, we don’t think Jesus understands. Jesus was perfect, how can he understand the anger and the lust and the hatred and the selfishness that I have in my heart? How can Jesus really understand?

            We have trouble with this as adults; can you imagine how difficult it must be for a child to think that Jesus understands the various things that happen in school and on the playground and with friends? That’s why it’s important to not only see the adult Jesus, but the child Jesus too. Jesus came to this earth not as an adult, but as a baby. He had to grow up here and experience life as we know it. He had to experience the joys, sorrows, temptations, frustrations and so on that we know in our daily existence, regardless of whether we are an adult or a child.

            He had to walk the path we walk and lead the perfect life so he could be our Saviour from sin. That’s why we can come to him with all of our faults and imperfections and sins, and know that we are completely forgiven through faith in him. Jesus came here so we would know him as our Saviour and friend, knowing that he walks with us every step of the way, and understands everything about us. And when we stumble and fall, he gently picks us up, like a gentle Shepherd, forgives our wrongs, and like a shepherd, leads us on the path of our earthly life, all the way to our heavenly home.

            The idea of the good shepherd leading his children throughout their earthly life into eternal life in heaven was something Mrs. Alexander wanted to express. She read the words of John 14:2: “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.”

            This verse, along with a couple others inspired Mrs. Alexander to write the next stanza: “And our eyes at last shall see him, through his own redeeming love; for that child so dear and gentle, is our Lord in heaven above; and he leads his children on, to the place where he is gone.”

            Here we see our Saviour, our shepherd leading us right to the place where he is in heaven. He leads us through the sin and strife and troubles of this world into a heavenly mansion he has prepared for us. It doesn’t matter how young or old we are, we have that room in that mansion awaiting us where we shall spend eternity in all peace and happiness. This is the place where our shepherd wants us to be, at home with him.

            The picture needed to be complete. Revelation 7:9-17 among several other passages would inspire the final verse of this hymn. Verses 9-10 read: “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

            And so Mrs. Alexander wrote:  “Not in that poor lowly stable, with the oxen standing by, we shall see him but in heaven, set at God’s right hand on high; when like stars his children crowned, all in white shall wait around.”

            Jesus Christ, the Shepherd-king. The man who shared much with his ancestor David, is known to us today sometimes as “great David’s greater son” as it is in one of our hymns.  Just as David was a shepherd of sheep, Jesus is the shepherd of souls. Just as David was King of Israel, Jesus is the King of all creation.

            The King indeed, who left his throne on high, and came to earth as a baby, and grew up as a child into adulthood; the king who knows all about us regardless of how old or young we are; the king who willingly became a shepherd out of love for us, to take us to be with him forever.

            Once in Royal David’s City is indeed quite a remarkable hymn. There’s a lot of theology there, and it is indeed most meaningful. This is a hymn that is usually sung at Christmas time, but you know something, could you think of this also as an appropriate hymn to be sung at a Christian funeral? Could we sing about our hope of heaven any more clearly? Can we picture one of our loved ones whom the Lord has shepherded safely home among those who are pictured as being dressed in white and crowned like stars around the throne of the Lamb? Can any of us sing this hymn without shedding at least a tear as we place a loved one in that picture, as well as ourselves someday?

            Cecil Frances Alexander I’m sure is one of those people. She was born in Ireland in 1818 and died in 1895. She married her husband, the Rev. William Alexander in 1850, who later became the Archbishop of Ireland.

            Two confirmation kids complaining about having to learn the second article of the Apostles' Creed and its meaning provided the springboard for this most noble Christmas hymn, “Once in Royal David’s City.” But it didn’t stop there. This hymn was one of about 30 she wrote in her book, “Hymns for Little Children,” which ran into over 100 editions. Because of her love for children and the importance she placed upon teaching them about their Saviour, she wrote nearly 400 hymns and poems, mostly for children. Her greatest poem is entitled “The Burial of Moses,” of which Alfred Lloyd Tennyson said that he wished he might have been the author.

            Cecil Frances Alexander died in London on October 12, 1895, and has left the legacy of being noted as “The greatest of women hymn writers in English,” and “The queen of children’s hymn writers.” Of the hymns that we might know, she also wrote the Lenten hymn “There is a Green Hill far away” and the St. Andrew hymn “Jesus Calls Us O’er the Tumult.”

            One thing also worth noting is that from the proceeds of her literary work, Mrs. Alexander and her sister were able to found a school for the deaf and dumb.

            Tonight we have had the opportunity to look at not only a faithful Christian woman and author, but the theology she brings out in one of her hymns. Thanks to her God-given talent at hymn writing, we have seen a marvelous picture of our shepherd-king, Jesus Christ.

            And so this Christmas season, as we travel once again in spirit to Royal David’s City, to Bethlehem, and as we behold our new-born Saviour in the manger, let us see him as the shepherd who understands, loves, and forgives us as he continues to lead us through our earthly life into His heavenly kingdom.