Rev Dr Edgar Mayer – Living Grace Lutheran Church, Toowoomba – Date: 24 December 2013
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It was Christmas Eve in 1818. In a small village somewhere in Austria (near Salzburg), the church organ broke down which meant that there would be no music at the evening service. The pastor (Fr. Mohr) feared that this would spoil the celebrations and – according to one tradition – quickly wrote the verses of a new hymn – “Silent Night” – which (today) some judge to be the best known and best loved Christmas carol around the world. [The church organist Franz Gruber composed the music.] Back in 1818, the congregation sang this new song without the rousing support of the church organ. They sang in stillness when it was dark in the evening and there was probably snow outside which muffled the sound even further: “Silent night, Holy night / Holy infant so, tender and mild.”
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.
Silent night, Holy night
Shepherds quake, at the sight
Glory streams from heaven afar
Heavenly, hosts sings Hallelujah.
Christ the Saviour is born,
Christ the Saviour is born.
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.
At first, the loss of the church organ – the loss of noise – seemed to be a tragedy but the silence – (judging by the outcome) – was imposed by none other than God and inspired the right words about a silent night when Jesus – the Son of God – was born in another small village – 2000 years ago – in a stable – far away from the hustle and bustle – (the human noise) – of bigger places.
Luke 2:8-20: And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
When almost everyone was asleep – when the whole world had fallen silent – (except for a few shepherds who happened to watch their flocks of sheep), God birthed his son on earth and had the angels announce the good news. The Bible does not spell out reasons for Jesus’ night birth but there is something about God and human silence.
In 1818, the church
organ broke down against the wishes of the pastor – he was forced into
silence – but only recently (late
1990s) another pastor purposed the same
outcome of his own accord:
Song Story: Matt Redman’s “The Heart of Worship” by David Schrader (Thursday, March 25, 2004):
Check the liner notes of almost any modern worship recording, and the name Matt Redman is likely to be among the song-writing credits. Artists and assemblies regularly perform “Let My Words Be Few” (Phillips, Craig & Dean), “Better Is One Day” (Rebecca St. James, Petra), and perhaps most of all, “The Heart of Worship” (Michael W. Smith, Sonic Flood, Passion), a beautifully simple, acoustic confessional ballad. Still, as prolific as these works make him, he says the story behind “The Heart of Worship” in particular is a personal reminder that, “I’m just a little songwriter—and a pretty foolish one at that!”
The song dates back to the late 1990s, born from a period of apathy within Matt’s home church, Soul Survivor, in Watford, England. Despite the country’s overall contribution to the current worship revival, Redman’s congregation was struggling to find meaning in its musical outpouring at the time.
“There was a dynamic missing, so the pastor did a pretty brave thing,” he recalls. “He decided to get rid of the sound system and band for a season, and we gathered together with just our voices. His point was that we’d lost our way in worship, and the way to get back to the heart would be to strip everything away.”
Reminding his church family to be producers in worship, not just consumers, the pastor, Mike Pilavachi, asked, “When you come through the doors on a Sunday, what are you bringing as your offering to God?”
Matt says the question initially led to some embarrassing silence, but eventually people broke into a cappella songs and heartfelt prayers, encountering God in a fresh way.
“Before long, we reintroduced the musicians and sound system, as we’d gained a new perspective that worship is all about Jesus, and He commands a response in the depths of our souls no matter what the circumstance and setting. ‘The Heart of Worship’ simply describes what occurred.”
When the music fades, all is stripped away, and I simply come / Longing just to bring something that’s of worth that will bless your heart… / I’m coming back to the heart of worship, and it’s all about You, Jesus
Redman remembers writing the song quickly in his bedroom soon after the church’s journey together, with no grand intentions, by any means, for it to become an international anthem. He viewed the words simply as his personal, subjective response to what he was learning about worship.
But when Matt shared “The Heart of Worship” with Pilavachi, the pastor suggested making a few small adjustments to the lyrics so any member of the church could relate to it as well.
Amazed by how God has since taken the song around the world for His purposes, the songwriter smiles in regard to his own lack of foresight. “It nearly didn’t go any further than my bedroom. But I love that…”
The trademark tune soon became the title track for Matt Redman’s 1999 album, The Heart of Worship. The recording process was consistent with the artist’s sensitive approach to being in the studio.
“We decided to not get all complicated, and just let the song ‘breathe.’ We’re always trying to create more of a church atmosphere in the studio rather than just a technical musical gathering. Something happens when the people of God gather together and play out the praises of God in the presence of God. Hopefully something of that passion and purpose transcends beyond that studio room onto the recordings themselves.”
Following Matt’s original release, which featured a guest vocal appearance by Martin Smith, lead singer of Delirious, “The Heart of Worship” became a new standard of the modern worship music movement, sung by fellow artists, choirs, and church families alike. Among the ever-rising number of reinterpretations, Redman is especially fond of Michael W. Smith’s from his 2001 classic, Worship.
“I honestly like them all,” he admits. “It’s a great encouragement when people take the songs and run with them. Perhaps my favourite is Michael’s— maybe because it’s a live version and therefore really captures and conveys the heart of the song’s theme.”
Even more encouraging, he says, is when other pastors get in touch to let Matt know how God has used the song to take their congregations through a situation similar to the one his church experienced.
As teachable as “The Heart of Worship” has become, Matt Redman continues to learn about true worship and will journey further into that heart in summer 2004 with a new album, Facedown.
“It’s such a biblical posture in worship that speaks of reverence. If you look through the Bible, there’s a whole host of people who faced up to the glory of God and found themselves face-down in worship. So the album weaves through a theme of reverence, wonder, and mystery in worship, things I feel we really need to grasp more of in our worship expressions. I know that I do!”
Is this what you need, this Christmas – silence – the stripping away of noise and agendas and your own busy ideas of serving God? If you held still – for a moment – what would bubble up? Would it be worship? Would it be all about Jesus?
Chances are that – once we are still – worship and the praises of God are not what come up first from our hearts. The reason why we struggle with silence – the reason why we like keeping busy – is precisely the confronting nature of silence: There is the unmasking of our desires (our real feelings) – the risk of buried memories resurfacing – the processing of failures. Silence gets rid of all the distractions and we are left with ourselves and is that always great? The pastor, who cancelled the use of music instruments for a season, knew that there was work to be done in silence before true worship – the heart of worship – could emerge again because we need silence to find our way back to humility and repentance – praising God and not taking pride in our performance.
Silence is confronting – especially if you have an awareness of your sinfulness before God. You rather want the noise and running around than risking the stillness where you may actually hear God speaking to you. What will he say?
With one pastor, God took some radical steps to make him listen. This man was not avoiding silence because he feared the truth. He just didn’t know any better:
The Bible word for glory – kaboth – means weight/heaviness and – in the Bible – more than once the glory weight of God – when it came – pinned everyone down in worship so that the requirement of stillness was not even optional. God himself imposed the stillness that alone is fitting next to him – Exodus 40:34-35: “… Moses could not enter … because … the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” 2 Chronicles 5:13-14: “… Then the temple of the Lord was filled with a cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God.”
One pastor writes: “The first time I came under the glory of God occurred in … 1995 … I found myself face down on the platform of the altar unable to move for well over an hour. I could not move any part of my body, although I was conscious of what was going on around me … The second time this occurred in … 1996 … As I stood in the pulpit, I literally collapsed on the red brick floor from the sheer weight of the glory. Just before I fell, my words to the people began to slur and came off my tongue slowly and with great effort. Finally, my mouth didn’t work anymore. My flesh fell hard to the ground. God shows us He shares the stage with no man. All flesh must bow and die before him …” (Francis J. Sizer: Into His Presence, Shippensburg: Destiny Image 2007, p164).
It is interesting that in this pastor’s case the glory of God did not just pin him down but also silenced him – stilled his body and his mouth. The same occurred to another Christian who had sought after God with a passion. He did everything that he could – prayed in tongues for hours – prayed with praise and worship and intercession. When he decided to pray for an hour, he would pray for an hour and he was loud about it. He wanted a breakthrough. But – according to his testimony – his way of praying took him not into the presence of God but out of the presence of God. He had developed a routine. In intercession he prayed in tongues for fifteen minutes, praised for fifteen minutes and worshipped for fifteen minutes. It had become the duty of prayer and it was always the same. He cried out in holy desperation. However, his prayer life was so busy. When he prayed for an hour, he probably was the one talking for fifty-five minutes.
I quote now from his testimony: “And one day in the middle of all that business, because I was hungry, the Holy Ghost, in the middle of a prayer, took the words right out of my mouth and I went mute. Mute! I was like, ‘Hey, Jesus’ – nothing. Just like that, mute. And I was forced, and I was just in my chair … no words. Then it was like literally, liquid honey, which was the Glory of the Lord. And it was warm hovering in the living room. I was in the Glory of the Lord. And the weight of glory was falling on me, the Presence of the Lord grew to such intensity that I was bent over and fell off my chair onto my face. And I lied there in God’s glory for I don’t know how long, not being able to talk or move.”
This is the key: God wants us to be still. He says in the Bible – Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.” God wants a deeper intimacy which goes beyond words. I continue with the testimony: “… the Holy Spirit said: ‘I’m trying to teach you something. I’m trying to teach you how to receive. I’m trying to teach you that you don’t have to strive. I know you’re hungry and I want to reveal myself to you more than you want me to reveal myself to you. But, you’ve got to quiet yourself. You’ve got to become still. That’s why I took the words out of your mouth, that’s why I’m pouring out such glory on you. It’s to get you positioned in quietness and at my feet and in the place of stillness so I can speak to you.” Cf. Exodus 25:22: “There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the Ark of the Testimony, I will meet with you and give you all my commands …”
God – again – imposed silence because true communication happens when we hold still before him – when our hearts are open – and we listen to him. New songs – new insights – new attachments to God – are birthed in this kind of silence and – I promise – you will make the joyful discovery that – in the presence of God – silence cannot confront you into depression and destruction. When you are mute and God speaks, he speaks love and encouragement to you and this is precisely what we celebrate at Christmas:
Silent night, Holy night …
Christ the Saviour is born,
Christ the Saviour is born.
Silent night, Holy night
Son of God, love’s pure light …
the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth.
Luke 2:8-20: And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord …”
The shepherds were not better than other people. They were terrified when the angel appeared and the glory of God shone around them. They were flawed people like the rest of us and just happened to be alert in the silence of the night. However, they heard the good news first and they were told that this good news of Jesus’ birth would be for all people which includes you – no matter what you have done:
Romans 5:8-10: But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!
Because of Christmas – because of Jesus’ birth: the “dawn of redeeming grace” – you can risk the silence and become still before God and then hear him speak to you. There is much to discover.
One pastor described his own experience of drawing closer to God in worship. This is how it feels for him to progress from the Outer Court to the Holy Place and then the Holy of Holies. Everyone begins to pray in the flesh which means that you are pretty much starting in your own strength. You begin with what you know (prayer lists, immediate concerns). You are busy confessing your sin and at this stage you suffer from distractions – your emotions and then also your natural senses are getting in the way. The body is tired – worn out. The legs hurt. You get up and move around. Then you are back on your knees. Prayer is repetitious: “O Jesus, where are you. O Jesus.” Nothing seems to happen. The clock is ticking so slowly. The dog barks. The phone rings. Muscles ache. You just have to get something to eat.
If you haven’t prayed in a while, this phase in the Outer Court may last for two hours before you feel anything or even three hours. It may take longer than most of us are prepared to pray. However, if you are in the habit of praying, then it may take you only fifteen minutes to move on to the next stage. According to this pastor while you are in the Outer Court you do not actually know how much you have progressed to the Holy Place because the flesh – your natural senses – cannot discern the spiritual progress. You may only be minutes away from your breakthrough in prayer but you don’t know and therefore you go and fix yourself a sandwich.
When you come to the Holy Place there is suddenly an explosion of praise. The flesh no longer fights you. You are no longer aware of distractions or the clock. The words become wealthy. God begins to talk to you. Worship comes in. Tears begin to flow. There are no longer repetitious prayers but we quit talking to him according to what we seem to know and let him take over. Jesus becomes so real to us. Everything is just right. There is the peace that surpasses all understanding. Feels so good!
According to this pastor most Christian think that this is it but there is more. If they stayed just a little longer – maybe another half hour in prayer – then Jesus would bring them into the Holy of Holies where it is indescribable. One minute in there changes your life forever and – maybe the estimate is right – only very few people have ever entered into this place. There words are inadequate. God sits on his throne and we are on our knees. This is no longer the time where we say: “I need this. I need that.” But God speaks and says: “I need this. Go and tell them this. Go and do that.” This is also the place of silence where we are still and know that he is God. He satisfies our souls. Deep communicates unto deep (Psalm 42:7).
The pastor had one experience where he was in the Holy of Holies for the very first time. He was surprised and amazed and he just mouthed the word: “Hallelujah.” But when he did so, the presence of God withdrew – at once – which puzzled him and frightened him. Didn’t God want praise? Immediately the Spirit said to him: “In here, even your words are unacceptable.” This was not the place for the mind to function – for words or feelings to be expressed. Here heart talks to heart – spirit to spirit. The soul finds rest and is satisfied.
God – again – imposed silence and this time it was not because a person or congregation had lost their way. This pastor was praying sincerely and intensely but – as the presence of God intensified – silence was still mandatory because God was holy – absolutely in another league from a human. Before his greatness – before his immeasurable power – before his unbelievable goodness – the only proper response is to be silent. What can we add to God? Nothing! He speaks and we submit and I think – in 1818 – the pastor of a small village in Austria had an awareness of this truth. Therefore, all the verses of the Christmas carol begin with the same line. Three times we sing: “Silent night, holy night”. The night of Jesus’ birth had to be silent because it was holy – the Son of God himself was born as a human baby. What astounding miracle!
Tonight, try it out for yourselves. Seek the silence where God is and speaks. Happy Christmas! Amen.
APPENDIX – PHENOMENON OF WAKING UP AT THREE A.M. ALSO EXPERIENCED BY PROTESTANT, WITH EXPLANATION (http://www.spiritdaily.net/stonebook2.htm):
For quite some time, for about ten years, we have on occasion brought up the subject of waking up at three a.m. -- that is, how many Catholics out there say they are stirred from sleep at exactly that time, feeling the need to pray; sensing the Presence of God (or angels, or deceased loved ones, or saints), or finding themselves in the midst of spiritual warfare (or all the above). It’s so common that when the question of how many experience this has been asked at our retreats, up to half of those present have raised their hands, or nearly half. Various explanations for the apparent phenomenon have been posited: that three a.m. is a time when the veil is especially thin; that it is the hour of conclusion for occult rituals; that it is the night-time version of the Mercy Hour.
Countless are those who have described waking up sensing a spiritual presence -- good or evil -- and feeling the need to pray, which seems the only way to get back to sleep. Perhaps it is heightening as spiritual warfare seems to be heightening (especially in the past few months).
It turns out that Protestants report the same phenomenon, or at least a prominent one, author Perry Stone of Cleveland, Tennessee, who writes:
“During many years of ministry I observed that it was common for me to awake at exactly three o’clock in the morning. During my evangelistic travels, on a consistent basis I would awaken and look at the digital clock on the dresser to see the time -- exactly 3:00. Not 2:59 or 3:01, but exactly 3:00 a.m. I would share this information with other believers and discovered that they too were having the same experience. At times I would minister on early-morning intercession and was amazed when I would ask a large congregation of believers, ‘How many of you often wake up at three o’clock in the morning?’ At times, up to ninety percent of the congregation would raise their hands, affirming the same experience I had for many years.”
So what’s his theory?
“I began to research the Scriptures to see if there was a biblical precedent,” he writes (in his new book, Purging Your House, Pruning Your Family Tree) -- finding that Romans divided the time of day into four “watches”:
From six in the evening to nine at night as the “first watch,” from nine to midnight was the “second watch,” from midnight to three was the third, and from three in the morning to six a.m. was the fourth.
In Scripture, Christ said His Second Coming could be during any of these watches (and thus to remain alert). (“Blessed are those servants whom the Master, when He comes, will find watching... And if he should come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants,” says Luke 12:37-40).
Might it be during the third?
Meantime, it was during the fourth watch -- which starts at three a.m. -- that Jesus walked on water to His disciples!
One rabbi told Stone “of a strong Jewish tradition stating that several hours before the sun rises, God restrains the presence of evil and visits the earth with His Divine Presence. The timeframe begins about three in the morning and continues until just before sunrise.”
Indeed, is it not three when the bars closed, when the evil of what is done in the dark -- robberies, murders, prostitution -- have often concluded; when cleansing comes (when angels battle the demons)?
Whatever the case, that veil indeed seems thinnest at this “witching” (let us turn it into a “holy”) hour.
“I also recalled what I had heard from numerous nurses,” says Stone.
“It is a known fact that three in the morning is a pivotal time for anyone who is sick or in a critical condition. One of my ministry partners from Virginia, Ellen Kanode, directs several hospitals in Virginia. She has confirmed to me that three in the morning is often the timeframe when a person will begin to experience a recovery or face death. It has remained a mystery as to why, but even fevers tend to break after three in the morning.”
On December 31, 1978, recalls this evangelist, he went to sleep and was abruptly awakened by a hand almost violently shaking his leg. At first he thought it was a prank -- a member of his family. “As I sat up, he recalls, “I could see the nightlight and the digital clock, which read 3:00 a.m.
“Then something happened that is difficult to explain,” he continues in his bestselling general Christian book. “Within three feet from my face I saw the face of a handsome man. His features were perfect, and his eyes were full of compassion. I thought an angel of the Lord had entered the room.
“Suddenly the face became contorted,
twisted with an evil stare followed by demonic laughter. This angel of light was no angel of God! It was the visible face of a fierce evil spirit that was literally laughing at me.”
Stone prayed and found himself rising up against this force with a command from deep in his own spirit to dispel it.
And at that instant he heard a voice, Stone writes. “The Holy Spirit spoke to my spirit, saying, ‘Son, as long as you live, Satan will use what you see and what you hear against you. It is time that you stand on the only thing that can never be shaken or changed; stand upon My Word!’
“Instantly the shaking ceased, and the image of this face of wickedness evaporated into thin air. A surge of peace and fresh anointing filled my spirit. I felt as though a huge weight had been lifted. The atmosphere cleared, and peace flooded the room. That was on January 1, 1979, and according to my clock, it was exactly three o’clock in the morning!”
 Silent Night – There are several variations on the story of the writing of this hymn, but they all center on the little Church of St. Nicholas in Obendorf, a village near Salzburg, Austria, on Christmas Eve, 1818 –– and they all recount a church organ that wouldn’t play and a priest who was determined not to let the broken organ spoil the Christmas Eve service.
In one telling of the story, a band of roving actors came to Obendorf with their Christmas play, which so inspired Fr. Joseph Mohr that he wrote this song. In another telling of the story, when Fr. Mohr discovered that the organ was broken, he remembered a poem that he had written two years earlier. He took the poem to the church organist, Franz Gruber, who set it to music.
But the story most frequently told has Fr. Mohr discovering that the organ was broken. Distraught over the possibility that the Christmas Eve service might be ruined, he sat down and quickly wrote these verses –– and then took them to Franz Gruber, who composed the music.
At this point, the facts are lost in antiquity –– and the variations all support a central theme of adversity and inspiration and determination to save the evening. From that point the stories merge into one.
Fr. Mohr did write the words for this carol. Franz Gruber composed the music. It was first sung on Christmas Eve, 1818, in the Church of St. Nicholas in Obendorf, and the original accompaniment was a guitar. All the stories agree on those facts.
Later, when Karl Mauracher came to repair the organ, he heard the story and obtained a copy of the song. As he went about his business, he made the story and song known to other churches in the region.
Then a family of glovemakers –– the Strasser family –– came into possession of a copy of the song. As they traveled through the villages in the area selling their gloves, their children would sing songs to entertain passersby and to draw attention to their merchandise –– and they added this song to their repertoire. They also sang the song at the Leipzig fair, which spread its fame further.
Then, in 1838, “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” was published in a German Catholic hymnal –– and in 1839 the Rainers, another musical family from Austria, traveled to New York City, where they sang “Stille Nacht!” at Trinity Church –– and German immigrants brought the song with them and sang it in their churches.
By the time of the Civil War, “Silent Night” had long since been translated into English, and was a Christmas favorite in both North and South. Today it is the best known and loved Christmas carol around the world.
Copyright 2008, Richard Niell Donovan