Can I be honest with you? In private I call these last three Sundays “Twilight Zone Sundays.” As in “I am so out of it. I feel as if I’m double parked in the Twilight Zone.” In most churches, the closer it gets to Christmas, the more church family comes home. For instance, in another ministry, I remember watching my church orchestra grow and grow with better and better players until the week before Christmas. In our church, our college students go home for Christmas (to help out their church choirs and orchestras!), and a lot of our church families travel away for the holidays. So our church Christmas “cantata” is early in the season. This year it was December 9. Then each Sunday after that I watch the numbers in church choir and orchestra go down and down. The first Sunday, I lose some orchestra players. By the second Sunday, I am down to less than half in church orchestra. And by the third week, we are operating on the few and the faithful only. In addition to that phenomenon, families travel over the holidays. And our schedules get thrown off by holiday festivities and illness. So there really is potential for some difficult Sundays! I am so glad that worshipping God is not based on numbers or even musical skill. Scripture is clear that the qualifying factors for Godly worship are that our worship be done “in spirit and in truth.”
I explain all of that to say these two things: 1) If you noticed that our church services were different from the usual, there is a reason. I work very hard to make sure these “Twilight Zone services” don’t become a distraction to our Sunday worship. The wise man sees the evil day approaching and prepares for it, right? And 2) that I am so thankful for the faithful folks in our ministry who continue to serve even when schedules are wonky.
I used “What Child Is This” as a theme song for this past Sunday. Our hymnal uses a refrain “This, This is Christ the King . . .” after each stanza. But there are other words that traditionally are sung for that “chorus.” I used those words this Sunday. After opening the service with stanza one. We sang “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Though it has been recorded by folks who don’t know the truth of the gospel, it is a true spiritual, and expresses a great truth that the shepherds told abroad all that they had seen and heard (Luke 2:16-18). And we, too, should tell others about the Good News of the Savior!
I also altered the order of the stanzas. We sang the third stanza second because it talks about bringing Him “incense, gold, and myrrh/Come, peasant, king to own Him.” So that third stanza led right into the choir and orchestra presenting the hymn “We Three Kings.” This Christmas hymn is sometimes treated as a novelty song. (Remember the three Claymation camels singing a jazzy version of that song?) Or it is dismissed as unbiblical because “the Bible never says that there were three kings.” This is, of course, true. But the Bible does mention three gifts. And rather than focus on unknowns, I like to focus on those three gifts (Matthew 2:11). The choir sang a setting of “We Three Kings” from our Christmas “cantata” giving the congregation time to meditate on the significance of those three gifts as they musically painted a picture of each gift: gold as befits a King, frankincense is an incense that often represents the Holy Spirit or prayer, and myrrh that is used to prepare a body for burial, telling us of Jesus’ eventual death for us. Let us praise Him, the last stanza says, “King and God and Sacrifice!”
Then we sang the second stanza of “What Child Is This” with its foreshadowing of Christ’s death: “Nails, nails shall pierce Him through/The cross He bore for me for you.” The choir had another song prepared to sing here: “Emmanuel” with Stephen Ramsey on vocal solo. It reminds us that God is with us—not just at Christmas time but always. But it was the third week of the “Twilight Zone Sundays.” And we just couldn’t pull it off successfully. It is a difficult a cappella setting (without any instruments, choir alone). With college students gone and so many families traveling—and five people called in sick that morning!—we decided to cut that choir song 15 minutes before the service. I don’t do that very often. But these TZSs are unpredictable.
But I had designed the service so that we sang “There Is a Redeemer” right after that choir song. So if I had to cut it, we could just go on with the service without a huge disruption. “There Is a Redeemer” fit in so well because it echoes “What Child Is This” by calling Jesus Christ our Savior, our Redeemer. And it echoes the Trinitarian doctrine of “We Three Kings” as well on the chorus. People like to sing it because after the rather static melody on the stanzas there is an emotional octave leap in the chorus. But I chose it because it reinforced the Biblical truth that we were singing about this particular Sunday.
Pastor Mike preached on “The Word of God.” And so the words from “What Child Is This” that say, “Hail, hail, the Word made flesh” fit very nicely with his message.
The offertory was a ripping trumpet solo of “Good Christian Men, Rejoice.” It was a snappy setting with jaunty mixed meters. Joe Pluth played the trumpet. And he switched to the piccolo trumpet for the last chorus. It was a fitting ending to the music of the Christmas season.
Next Sunday we are coming out of TZSs. So people are back in their usual places. But it will take the choir 3-4 weeks to get the musical flywheel spinning again. We have been four weeks without rehearsals! So the plan is to sing “Jesus Is Lord” this Sunday. It is a church (and choir) favorite that is musically not difficult. We will be able to practice it in the 15 minute warm-up rehearsal and have a successful ministry in the morning service. Now the question is: since the truth that God is with us is not just for the Christmas season, should we sing “Emmanuel” in the coming weeks? Or should we put it away until next Christmas?