Throughout the past three Sundays of Advent, I have been sharing a series of messages designed just for this yuletide season titled, “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow!” Each week we have focused our attention, both in sermon and song, on a classic African-American Christmas spiritual. These imaginative and artistic carols capture the meaning of the birth of Christ in ways that defy cultural norms, and task us to envision the Christ Child in dissimilar ways. In short, they speak the angelic announcement of “peace on earth and goodwill toward all people” in a fresh voice.
This coming Sunday, the most sacred day before Christmas Eve, we will consider one of my favorites, Sweet Little Jesus Boy. This African-American carol is often mistaken to be an old spiritual sung by slaves in the South in the 19th century. And while this carol dates to that time and is always included among the corpus of Black spirituals, it was actually written by a white American composer named Robert MacGimsey.
Born in Louisiana, MacGimsey was a lawyer who had a passion for composing African-American music of his era. MacGimsey may have been white but he was raised in the company of blacks who gave him a rich background in the gospel music of the South. His nanny, who he affectionately referred to as Aunt Becky, was an African-American woman who would sing spirituals to him as a baby.
His self-confessed intent in writing Sweet Little Jesus Boy was to portray the deep faith of the African-American culture that he grew up in, and how they expressed their faith through music.
Like so many of the songs of Christmas, MacGimsey was influenced by his own personal circumstances. One snowy Christmas Eve in New York City, walking home following a candlelight and Holy Communion worship service, MacGimsey passed by a home where a party was in full swing. He stood watching the people through the front window and how some spilled out on to the front lawn in total drunken decadence. He was saddened that they had turned such a holy evening in to such a shallow holiday. He wondered how people could be so disconnected from the real message of the season. How could they have forgotten Christ? Did they really even know who he was?
MacGimsey channeled his disappointment when he reached his apartment and began to compose a Christmas carol. He drew on the histories and family stories of the sacredness of Christmas from his black friends and neighbors in Louisiana. To them, he recalled, Christmas was a time of worship and a time of drawing closer to God with very personal forms of prayer and deeply meaningful songs of praise.
Notice how this carol begins with a stark telling of how Christ as a child, and later as a man, would not be accepted of the world:
Sweet little Jesus Boy —
They made you be born in a manger.
Sweet little Holy Child —
Didn’t know who you was.
Didn’t know you’d come to save us, Lord;
To take our sins away.
Our eyes was blind, we couldn’t see,
We didn’t know who you was.
MacGimsey’s carol then takes an immediate personal turn as it acknowledges how Christ knows the troubles of all of us:
Long time ago, you was born,
Born in a manger low,
Sweet little Jesus Boy.
The world treat you mean, Lord,
Treat me mean too,
But that’s how things is down here —
We don’t know who you is.
With genuine humility, the song concludes by expressing the message of Christ understood by some but missed by so many:
You done told us how, we is a tryin’!
Master, you done show’d us how,
even when you was dyin’.
Just seem like we can’t do right,
Look how we treated you.
But please, sir, forgive us, Lord —
We didn’t know ’twas you.
We talk about the inn-keeper turning Mary and Joseph away…about the crowds that came and went in the hustle and bustle of Bethlehem at tax collecting time, about the guests that enjoyed the comfort and security of the quaint roadside inn while Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable out back; they didn’t know what they were missing. History passed them by and they seem to make no note of its passing.
The amazing thing is not that they didn’t know who he was. The onus is on us. Do we know who He was? Do we know who He is? Let’s probe this question by asking it in these ways:
Where is Jesus in our world today?
…in our communities where people are shut out because of the color of their skin;
…in our world where the stream of hungry people could circle the earth twenty-five times if they marched in single file;
…in our world where even before I finish this sentence one of our human brothers or sisters will die of starvation, and that will go on every five seconds of every day;
…in our nation, the richest of all nations where millions of people are yet in the grips of poverty.
Where is Jesus in our daily lives?
…in our drive for success and security;
…in our competitive stance that values things more than persons;
…and so our families are threatened and little boys and girls grow up without the comfort and security of their parents being there when they need them.
Where is He in our lives when we allow our government to spend more of our tax money on migrant birds than we spend on migrant people?
What then, does it mean to say, as we confess in The Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in…Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord”? The Bible itself doesn’t really speak much about belief. It speaks instead of faith. Both the Hebrew and Greek words for “faith” mean not mentally accepting certain theological propositions, but rather trust: trusting in God. Faith is betting your life on what God has done in Jesus Christ. Because of Christ we have a clue to that gracious ultimate reality which lies at the root of all existence – what the renowned theologian Paul Tillich called the “ground of being” – manifest in Jesus.
But why do so many people – why do we – why do I – keep missing the reality of who Jesus really is? All this and more I will take up in my concluding sermon for Advent this coming Sunday at the 8:30 and 11:00 a.m. Traditions worship services in the main sanctuary. The chancel choir will also be continuing their presentation of the beautiful music of Christmas. I know it will be a marvelous day of worship.
Bring a friend and I will look forward to seeing you there!
Wishing you the merriest of Christmases!
P.S. Don’t forget about our four Christmas Eve worship opportunities on Monday, December 24. I’ll be preaching at 4:00, 8:00 and 11:00 p.m. in the Sanctuary and Rev. Kelsey Grissom will lead The Bridge at 6:00 p.m. in Williams Chapel. Unto Us a Child Is Born…let’s celebrate Christ’s coming with praise and thanksgiving!