VIDEO A Midnight Clear



The middle of the nineteenth century in America was a volatile time:

  • In 1848, the United States concluded a controversial, costly, and casualty-heavy two-year war with Mexico. The Mexican-American War cast a dark shadow over the nation.
  • By 1850 the Industrial Revolution had enticed multitudes of people to exchange their marginal rural lives for even more marginal city lives, swapping one kind of poverty and insecurity for another.
  • When gold was discovered in California in 1848, hundreds of thousands of American men joined the California Gold Rush to pursue the fantasy of striking it rich, leaving women and children to fend for themselves.
  • Reverberations of the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe were unsettling our government as well as the millions of immigrants to America whose relatives were suffering in their homelands.
  • Opposition to slavery in America was increasing from a simmer to a rolling boil that would soon spill over into a war between the states.

These national storm clouds were reflected in the lives of individuals as well, people like Reverend Edmund Sears, a Unitarian minister in Massachusetts. Though he was a Unitarian, he personally believed in the deity of Jesus Christ and found refuge in his faith at a difficult time. After a trying period in his ministry, he suffered a breakdown. During the dark night of his soul, as he looked around at the state of his nation, he longed for there to be peace on earth, goodwill to men—and peace in his own soul as well.

That was 1849, the year Reverend Sears put pen to paper and poured out the longing of his heart in a long poem of five stanzas. He wrote about a “midnight clear” when the world had once “in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.” He described the “weary world” he witnessed and its “sad and lowly plains” over which heavenly songs from angels were needed. He described the “sin and strife,” the “two thousand years of wrong,” and “life’s crushing load”—and how badly the world needed to hear from “heaven’s all-gracious King.” But he concluded in hope: “When peace shall over all the earth, its ancient splendors fling, and the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing.”

His poem became the beloved Christmas carol, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” an annual favorite of Christians around the world. He focused his hymn on that “midnight clear” when the angels announced to Bethlehem’s shepherds the birth of the baby Jesus. It was the angels’ message of “peace on earth, goodwill to men” that Edmund Sears longed to experience both nationally and personally.

It is no surprise that he wrote his hymn in the Christmas season (it was first published as a poem on December 29, 1849). Christmas, more than any other time of the year, is the season that gives us clarity about life. If the angels appeared to the shepherds on a “midnight clear,” then Christmas is our annual “season clear”—the time when we are able to see what is most important in our lives.

If 1849 motivated Edmund Sears to long for a more peaceful life and world, how much more has 2015 said the same to us? And if we have felt unsettled and concerned all through this year, how much more does Christmas give us clarity about the only Person who can bring peace on earth and goodwill to men—including at the personal and family level?

In this issue of Turning Point, we will speak to the subject of clarity at Christmas—how and why Christmas can be a time in which we see everything in the glorious light of the birth of Christ. Because Christmas involves giving and serving, it reminds us of the One who came to serve and give Himself to the world. When we remember what He has done for us, we are reminded to do the same for others.

Christmas can be a maze of commercialism if we let it. Instead, let’s make it a moment of clarity in which we view our sometimes confusing and threatening world against the backdrop of God’s gift to us: the Prince of Peace who was announced by angels on that original “midnight clear.”




It Came upon the Midnight Clear

Disputing The Pagan Roots Of Christmas

Christmas tree

If Jesus had never been born, to borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis, it would be “always winter, but never Christmas.”

But some Christians, even today, think of the celebration of Christmas as a pagan holiday. When the Pilgrims and the Puritans had the opportunity to assert their influence, they did not celebrate Christmas. I agree with the Pilgrims and the Puritans on many things, but this is not one of them.

One of the main points is that Christmas is often celebrated in ways that exalt pagan revelry. I agree that it should not be, but that is guilt by association. It is also argued that Christmas is the appropriation of a pagan holiday.

Why is December 25th the day that we celebrate as Jesus’ birthday? Sometimes if you look this up, sources will say things to the effect that in the 300s, there was a pope who took the pagan worship, Saturnalia, around the time of the winter solstice, and he baptized it and brought it into Christianity.

My rebuttal would be, actually there is some historical evidence that Jesus was born in the winter time of 5-4 BC. And it’s possible that the actual day was December 25.

Dr. Jack Kinneer, professor of Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary of Pittsburgh, once explained to my radio audience that when Zecharaiah, the father of John the Baptist, was in the temple in Jerusalem, and the angel appeared to him and foretold him of the birth of his son, John the Baptist, who would be the forerunner of the Lord, this was at the time of the Day of Atonement in September. Zechariah then goes home to be with his formerly barren wife, Elizabeth.

When John has been in utero for six months, Mary receives the word from the angel that she will conceive through the power of the Holy Spirit. Mary and Elizabeth, who are cousins, have a joyous reunion at that time, presumably in late March. This is described in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel.

Do the math. When Mary, who was just at the beginning of her pregnancy with Jesus, visits her cousin Elizabeth, the latter was about 6 months pregnant. Nine months later brings us to late December. So December 25 is a plausible date for the birth of Christ.

This would be in the winter of 5-4 B.C.. That is based on the death of Herod the Great, which was in the spring, 4 B.C. Christmas is not as pagan in origins as some want to make it out to be.

Furthermore, Dr. Kinneer points out that there is a list of feast days of martyrs, the anniversaries of their deaths, and included in that list from the early church is that December 25 is the day honored as Jesus’ birthday. That list is from the 300s. By ancient standards, that too is plausible.

Some have said that shepherds to whom the angels declared His birth on the evening of His birth would not have been in the fields at winter time. But other theologians have countered that the shepherds were watching the flocks in Bethlehem that were slated to be sacrificed in nearby Jerusalem.

That being the case, how fitting that at the moment of Jesus’ birth, we would be reminded of the reason He came. He was born to die—to offer Himself up as the ultimate Lamb of God, the ultimate sacrifice who would take away the sins of the world.

Furthermore, the wise men came with three gifts listed—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The last one was a spice used for burial. Jesus was born that He might die, that we might truly live.

In his book, , There Really is a Santa Claus: The History of Saint Nicholas & Christmas Holiday Traditions, Bill Federer notes that in 567, the Council of Tours attempted to reconcile the Western celebration of Christmas on December 25 with the Eastern Church’s celebration of same on January 6—Epiphany, the feast of the visit of the Wise Men.

No agreement was made, but a compromise of 12 holy days between Christmas and Epiphany—otherwise known as the 12 Days of Christmas. So, even the Twelve Days of Christmas has Christian origins.

Regardless of the actual date of Christ’s birth, what really counts is that the fact of it. He was born, so that He could fulfill the plan to save those who believe in Him from their sins. He has become the focal point of all history. And it all began on that first Christmas.

As C. S. Lewis once put it, “The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became Man. Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this.”



Christmas: A Time For Giving

Luke 2:1-20

Christmas is one of the happiest holidays. During this season, people often are more generous. Families gather to help neighbors; donations are made to people in need. The practice of giving is not a recent innovation—it began on the first Christmas when Jesus was born. Everyone in the story had something to give.

When Mary submitted to God’s plan, she gave her body to be the first home of the incarnated Savior (Luke 1:30-38). Not only that, she surrendered her good reputation to fulfill the Lord’s calling for her life.

Joseph offered his love and protection to Mary and the child who was not his own (Matt. 1:18-25).

An angel gave an announcement of the Messiah’s birth to some lowly shepherds watching their flocks at night.

A heavenly host of angels offered praise and glory to God.

The shepherds shared the first personal testimony about the Messiah.

The wise men relinquished the comfort of home to seek the newborn King and give Him gifts worthy of royalty (Matt. 2:1-11).

At first glance, these gifts may seem to pertain only to the first Christmas, but they each have application for us today. Believers are called to give of themselves to the Lord and to one another in similar ways.

Look at this list again. What gifts could you give to Christ today? Maybe you need to submit to His will in a difficult area or endure misunderstanding to obey Him. And how about gifts to those around you? Who needs your protection, love, time, or perhaps the good news of salvation in Christ?

Mary and the Grace of God

“And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.” (Luke 1:30)

This announcement by the angel Gabriel to the virgin Mary, that she had been chosen as the mother of the coming Savior, contains the first mention in the New Testament of the Greek word for grace (charis). Mary was chosen, not for anything she had done, but because she had “found grace.”

In a remarkable parallel, certainly implying divine inspiration, the first mention of grace in the Old Testament is also associated with the coming of a new dispensation in God’s dealings with men. “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD” (Genesis 6:8).

Just as Mary found grace, so Noah had found grace. Grace is not something one earns or purchases; grace is a treasure that is found! When a person finally realizes that salvation is only by the grace of God, received through faith in the saving work of Christ, he or she has made the greatest discovery that could ever be made, for it brings eternal life.

But there is an even greater dimension to the grace of God. When we do “find” grace, it is actually because God in His infinitely precious grace has found us and revealed to us the Savior of our souls. Just as God found Moses in the desert and found Paul on the road to Damascus, then saved and called them to His service, so He finds us, and then we also find His saving grace.

Mary’s discovery of God’s grace in salvation, through the coming of the “seed of the woman” into the world, is revealed in her Magnificat: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour” (Luke 1:46-47). This could well have also been the testimony of Noah long ago, and it surely should be the testimony of each of us who has found grace today. HMM

We Forget

And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect. —Hebrews 11:39-40

Then there is the matter of constant consolation and peace—the promise of always feeling relaxed and at rest and enjoying ourselves inwardly.

This, I say, has been held up as being quite the proper goal to be sought in the evil hour in which we live. We forget that our Lord was a Man of sorrow and acquainted with grief We forget the arrows of grief and pain which went through the heart of Jesus’ mother, Mary. We forget that all of the apostles except John died a martyr’s death. We forget that there were 13 million Christians slain during the first two generations of the Christian era. We forget that they languished in prison, that they were starved, were thrown over cliffs, were fed to the lions, were drowned, that they were sewn in sacks and thrown into the ocean….

But there is something better than being comfortable, and the followers of Christ ought to find it out— the poor, soft, overstuffed Christians of our time ought to find it out!…

We Protestants have forgotten altogether that there is such a thing as discipline and suffering.

Forgive me for complaining, Lord, about the few trials I’ve experienced. Amen.

A Blessed Fact: God Has Never Been Silent

God… hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things…. Hebrews 1:1, 2

I think it may be accepted as axiomatic that God is constantly trying to speak to man. He desires to communicate Himself, to impart holy ideas to those of His creatures capable of receiving them. The Second Person of the Godhead is called the Word of God, that is, the mind of God in expression.

Are you aware that many Christians appear to believe that God spoke the Holy Scriptures into being and then lapsed into silence, a silence that will not be broken until God calls all men before Him into judgment? If that is true, we have the Bible as a deposit of embalmed truth which scribe and theologian must decipher as they can.

This view is extremely injurious to the Christian’s soul, for it holds that God is no longer speaking, and thus we are shut up to our intellects for the understanding and apprehension of truth. According to this notion the human mind becomes the final arbiter of truth as well as the organ for its reception into the soul.

Now, the blessed fact is that God is not silent and has never been silent, but is speaking in His universe. The written Word is effective because, and only because, the Living Word is speaking in Heaven and the Living Voice is sounding in the earth! “And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth. For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one” (1 John 5:6, 7).

Joy and Wonder

Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy. LUKE 2:10

It is tragic that men and women everywhere are losing the sense of wonder, confessing now only one interest in life—and that is utility! Even Christmas Day has been degraded.

We ignore the beautiful and the majestic, asking only, “How can I use it? How much profit will it bring?”

The believing children of God once upon a time saw God in everything. They were enraptured with everything before them. There was no common hill—they were all the hills of God! There was no common cloud—they were the chariots of God! They saw God in everything. In our day we never look up in happy surprise!

But let me tell you that it has been a never-failing delight throughout my years to watch little children on Christmas morning. The gifts may be humble, but the child’s burst of spontaneous delight and wonder is genuine and rewarding. That incredulous look on the child’s face—everything is full of wonder and beauty!

Sad, indeed, for adults to lose the wonder in worship—for worship is wonder and wonder is worship!

Lord, the announcement of “good tidings of great joy” is every bit as important today as it was 2,000 years ago—for we are still a fallen race, and the Babe in the manger is still the Savior of the world. Praise God!