A Word for a Weary World

Introduction – O Holy Night

This week in our Advent series we are looking at the beautiful song, O Holy Night. It is a hymn of particular power and sacredness. Every rendition seems to be a holy moment. Patti Smith, who once sang “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine,” sang this song in a concert before Pope Francis. Amazing. Such is the power of this melody. But what do the words mean?


Ephesians 2:1-3: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining.”


Oh holy night!

The stars are brightly shining

It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!

Long lay the world in sin and error pining


Notice the beginning of the song. The world is trapped in sin and error. Together these words point to all the wrongdoing of our society. Sin is deliberately breaking a command. Error is doing wrong even as we try to do something else. Together it means a lot of hurt and pain. To pine means to yearn deeply; suffer with longing; long painfully. On the night Jesus was born the world was filled with longing for something, even as it was bound up in sin and error. This strikes us powerfully because each generation hears the song and can identify how sin, spiritual rebellion, error, on-going stupidity and inability to bring peace has scarred our word. It was true in the first century and it is true today.

There are many “secular” Christmas songs and in some of them you can hear the longing.


  • I’ll have a blue Christmas without you
  • All I want for Christmas is you
  • Please come home for Christmas
  • Baby It’s Cold Outside
  • Have Yourself a Merry set of Unrealistic Expectations

Perhaps the most poignant example of this longing is – “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This is from a poem he wrote on Christmas Day living as a widower after his wife died and nursing his son who was gravely injured fighting in the Civil War.


I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old familiar carols play

And wild and sweet the words repeat

Of peace on earth goodwill to men


I thought how as the day had come

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along unbroken song

Of peace on earth goodwill to men


And in despair I bowed my head

There is no peace on earth I said

For hate is strong that mocks the song

Of peace on earth goodwill to men


One of the worst things about the violence that we see all around us is that there is no one easy explanation for it. The shooting in San Bernardino is clearly a terrorist act, but Columbine and OK City were not religious terrorism. I don’t think anyone ever figured out what happened at Sandy Hook. The situations of violence between police and civilians are not all the same. Sometime they are sin and sometimes error. The world in sin and error pining.


What would scripture say about this?



As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live (walk) when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh [sinful nature] and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.


Paul is writing to a group of Christians in a pagan city who grew up without the knowledge of God. But here he is writing about all of us. We follow the way of the world. This means the way humans organize their souls without God. It is the image of success the need for power, the manipulation of other people, the selfishness, the ignoring of God, the way of living. We live in this system and so we follow its habits, dreams and passions

But there is a spiritual side to this as well. Not all spiritual forces that act on you, motivate you or tempt you, are from God. Satan, God’s enemy, actively seeks to draw you away from God into despair, disobedience and death

And then there is just us, the cravings of our sinful nature. Here the word “flesh” does not mean our physical bodies. The desires of our bodies — for love, for food, for sleep, for sex, for significance — are not bad. God made us to desire these. It is our unwillingness to have those desire align with God that leads to death.

So before we know it – all we want for Christmas is not spiritual growth and worship – but the person we have a crush on. Or all we want for Christmas is some image of a perfect family and we will manipulate everyone to get it. We want what we want – which leads to war, broken relationships and bad Christmas music.


“But God:” the song begins with the longing of the world but it moves to what God does and what that means.


Ephesians 2:4-5 “Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth”


Look how the song writers points to the coming of Jesus. He appeared and the “soul felt its worth.” In this world of longing, despair and error, Jesus appears.


Long lay the world in sin and error pining

Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!


Into the longing of our dark world, a light has dawned. And the soul felt its worth.

So much of the sin and error in our lives springs from the seeming futility and boredom of meaningless life. We want to do or say something that makes us feel alive. But now God has come to us. God is revealed as a Father who cares enough even to die for us. Perhaps this is what the writer means by feeling worth.

Would it make any difference in your opinion of yourself and your life if I told you that God came to earth for you? There is a God, you can know him and call him father. You can start life over again.


The scriptures says this:


But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,


Here it is obvious that the motivation for the light in our dark world is not our own lovability or our promise of good behavior, but God’s love and his mercy. Jesus was dead and God raised him. When you identify yourself with Jesus you, who are already, dead are made alive as well. It is the love and mercy of God which changes us and leads to the real surprise at the end of the song. His love becomes our love.


Ephesians 2:19-20 (Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother…)

Here is the lyric

Truly He taught us to love one another

His law is love and His gospel is peace

Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother

And in His name all oppression shall cease


His love in us becomes our love for one another

His mercy in us becomes our mercy for another even to those on the margins of society oppressed by the world system. The world traps us in its system of opposing God, but here the hymn writer shows that the radical love of God for his people will break the power system of an oppressive world.


Ephesians also talks about this progression this way:


First chapter 2

10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.


This action of making you alive by his love and mercy re-creates you for a purpose. You are now created “in” Christ Jesus, to do good works and they are works he prepared for you to do.



This final twist reveals another way the soul feels its worth. Christmas is not only about God’s love for you as expressed in the life death and resurrection of Jesus. It is also about how God’s love transforms you and make you part of the Kingdom of God which stands against the destructive sinful world that traps so many. You are rescued out of the world, but in rescuing you God also calls you to good works which he himself has prepared for you to do.

The world lay in sin and error. But he appeared, and in his name all oppression, and all the power of sin will cease. It works first in us and then through us to those whom God also loves.