Christmas Eve sermon: Silent Night, Holy Night

silent night

Texts used – Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-20

  • Once upon a silent night, there was a pastor at a little white church. It was Christmas Eve. The snow fell softly and picturesquely from the sky, covering the ground, the trees, and everything for miles around in a soft, fresh blanket of white. Outside, the air was brisk and chilly. Inside, the church was just beginning to warm up for the Christmas Eve service. But there was a problem. Inside that little white church on that quiet Christmas Eve day, the organ refused to work.
    • The year: 1818
    • The church: the Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, Austria just north of Salzburg and only a few miles from the Austrian/German border
    • The pastor: Father Joseph Mohr
      • Young priest
      • Had only been at the church for about a year
      • Had a serious problem on his hands: the organ at his little country church wasn’t working (due to mice or rust, no one really knows), and there was no way it could be repaired before Christmas
      • While contemplating a particularly moving theatrical performance of the birth of Christ that he has witnessed earlier that day, Fr. Mohr decided to take a long walk that led him to the top of a hill from which he could view the whole village laid out in its silent, serene splendor. And as he gazed on that beautiful sight, Fr. Mohr remembered a poem he had written a year earlier – a poem about the night of Jesus’ birth, and the angels proclamation to the shepherds, and Jesus’ mother, Mary.[1] And in that moment, Fr. Mohr thought that his poem just might make a good carol for the Christmas Eve service.
      • Went and visited the church organist, Franz Gruber, and asked him to compose a melody to go with the poem
        • Instrument: not the organ but a simple guitar
        • Made its way around Austria and Germany via a couple of well-known family singing groups at the time
        • Authorship finally attributed to Mohr/Gruber 30+ yrs. later
    • Song that those 2 men composed that night 200 yrs. ago has become one of the most beloved Christmas carols of all time: Silent Night
      • Translated into English 50 yrs. after it was written and brought to American by German Methodist immigrants
      • More than 200 versions of this song have been recorded
      • Translated into hundreds of languages around the world
      • Song that has crossed borders and boundaries far beyond what Fr. Mohr and Mr. Gruber probably envisioned that night
        • E.g. – sung simultaneously in French, German, and English on Christmas Eve 1914 by soldiers in the trenches during the Christmas truce → chosen because it was the only carol that all the soldiers on both sides knew
        • Song that has come to embody reverence, sacredness, and above all, peace
    • All inspired by another night, so silent and so holy …
  • “Silent night, holy night! All is calm, all is bright ‘round yon virgin mother and child! Holy Infant, so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.” → All is calm, all is bright as Emmanuel, God-With-Us comes to this earth. All is calm, all is bright as the Almighty Creator of All That Is, Was, and Will Be breaks into human existence in a whole new way – a way that’s not powerful or commanding but vulnerable and unassuming: the Divine Extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary, the Sacred Uncommon in the most common of places.
    • Bethlehem was not a town of power or prestige
      • Small village situated far from the seat of power
      • “Nothing special,” as we would probably call it today
      • And yet into that “nothing special” came the One Who Would Change Everything: Jesus Christ, the Savior, the Lord God Almighty in human flesh.
    • Text: Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expected a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.[2] → Once upon a silent night, a man and a woman were seeking whatever shelter they could find. They had traveled long. They had traveled hard. They had finally reached their destination, and they were exhausted. But the city was too full – it was overcrowded, and there were no places for them to find even a moment alone, a moment of privacy, a moment of respite. They knocked on every door and inquired at every inn. Finally, the last innkeeper took pity on them and gave them space in the stable with the animals. And there – there in that place that was simple and humble and unassuming … there among the animals and the hay … there in a time that no one expected and a place that no one knew – there, God came to earth.
  • “Silent night, holy night! Shepherds quake at the sign; glories stream from heaven afar, heavenly hosts sing ‘Alleluia: Christ the Savior is born; Christ the Savior is born!” → Another silent night that started out so simple and ended up so holy. The shepherds were just doing what they did every other day of the year. Surely nothing seemed out-of-the-ordinary on the hillside that night as they hunkered down in the grass to catch some rest while their sheep grazed around them. Maybe they talked and laughed. Maybe they built a fire and shared a meal together. Maybe their heavy eyelids had just closed in exhaustion and comfort. I suppose they could have expected interruptions – bandits and thieves, predators, maybe a lost sheep or two. But I think it’s safe to guess that declarative angels and a multitude of the heavenly host weren’t on their list of potential nocturnal interruptions.
    • Silent night that quickly became not-so-silent – full of light and angels and voices proclaiming good news from every angle
    • Mundane night that quickly became oh-so-holy – full of promise and hope and salvation … full of Messiah
    • Most powerful part: God broke into their everyday lives!! – text: In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.[3] → God came into the ordinary and made it extraordinary. God came into the familiar and made it ineffable. God came into the settled and made it sacred.
      • Yes, that night started off silent BUT …
      • God made that night holy
  • “Silent night, holy night! Son of God, love’s pure light radiant beams from thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord, at thy birth, Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.” → That night may have started out silent, but it didn’t stay that way for long – not for the angels, not for the shepherds, and not for Mary and Joseph. Mary and Joseph suddenly had a newborn on their hands. The angels had news to deliver. The shepherds had a Savior to witness. And they all had a God to praise.
    • Text: So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about the child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.[4]
      • Praise for love that surely radiated from that tiny face
      • Praise for long-awaited redemption now at hand
      • Praise for hope that radiated from presence of God among them
      • The people had waited long – oh, so long! – for the coming of this Savior. – OT text from Is mentioned “the people who walked in darkness” and described a bit of that darkness – text: For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.[5] → The history through with Mary’s people, Joseph’s people, the shepherd’s people had waited was long and hard, painful and bloody, full of oppression and distress.
    • And yet in the midst of that darkness, on that dark and silent night, came God’s light – text: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined. … For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.[6] → In the midst of the darkness, on that dark and silent night, came God’s light, pure and bright, radiant and bold, full of love and hope and the promise of a long-awaited redemption. A redemption that rings out true and holy even on another silent night …
  • Once upon a silent night, there was a pastor at a little white church. It was Christmas Eve. The snow covered the ground, the trees, and everything for miles around in a blanket of white. Outside, the air was brisk and chilly. Inside, the church was just beginning to warm up for the Christmas Eve service. Inside were friends and family – those who had known each other their whole lives, those who had just met each other 5 minutes ago, and everything in between. Inside were people who came together to worship and pray, to sing and to praise, to remind each other of the sacredness of that night so long ago and to make this night sacred for each other. After all, isn’t that why we’re here?
    • Bring a moment of holiness and peace into our holiday celebrations
    • Remind ourselves and each other that there’s more to this season that all the busyness → I think that too often, we get wrapped up in the busyness of this season – in the pressure and the push to buy more, host more, decorate more, bake more, try more, do more, be more. We love the festiveness of the holiday season … and yet we are also exhausted by it.
      • Contemporary Christmas song by Amy Grant – “I Need a Silent Night”[7]

  • So on this night – this night 200 years after the birth of a treasured song and more than 2000 years after the birth of a treasured Savior – let us remind each other of the importance of silence and sacredness, holiness and hope. Let us witness again the power and majesty of angels bringing good news. Let us fall on our knees in awe together at the sight of salvation and peace wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. For a child has indeed been born for us, a son given to us. – “Silent night, holy night! Wondrous star, lend thy light; with the angels let us sing Alleluia to our King: Christ the Savior is born; Christ the Savior is born!” Amen.


[2] Lk 2:4-7 (NRSV).

[3] Lk 2:8-11 (NRSV).

[4] Lk 2:16-20 (NRSV).

[5] Is 9:4-5 (NRSV).

[6] Is 9:1, 6 (NRSV, emphasis added).

[7] Amy Grant and Chris Eaton. “I Need a Silent Night” from The Christmas Collection, © BMG Rights Management, 2008.

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