“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” I love these words, this imagery, from the prophet Isaiah. Although Isaiah had his own context and other situations and visions in mind, we in the church have not been able to help hearing his words as a Christmas text. Messengers who announce good news, peace, salvation? Visions of the heavenly host of angels singing to shepherds in a field fill our minds.
But for me, the first response I have to this text is to think of my week at Creative Arts Camp at Aldersgate, one of our conference’s church camps, the summer between elementary school and junior high. At Creative Arts Camp, we put on a musical, and our musical that year was The Friendship Company, based on Christian singer Sandi Patty’s album for children. One of the songs on that album? “Beautiful Feet.” Here are some of the lyrics:
There are feet that skip and play
There are feet that run away
There are feet that love a race and win or lose
There are chubby feet and small
And strong feet to kick a ball
But beautiful are the feet that bring good news.
There are feet that sleekly swim
Through the water wearing fins
There are feet that shimmy up the tallest trees
There are happy feet and sad
There are aching feet and mad
But beautiful are the feet that publish peace.
Those are beautiful feet
Dutiful, cute-i-ful lett!
Tried and true-ti-ful feet
Do you have beautiful feet!
I was old enough to outwardly find this song kind of cheesy, and young enough to enjoy singing such a goofy piece, and all these decades later, “But beautiful are the feet that bring good news” still rings in my head - this song won’t let go.
What does it mean to have beautiful feet? Do you have beautiful feet? I’m sure some of us don’t like the way our feet look, and some people don’t like feet altogether. Some people have feet that don’t cooperate with what they want them to do. Some people have injured feet, or don’t have feet at all. But I don’t think this verse is trying to focus on beautiful feet by any typical measures. This verse isn’t about pedicured, polished feet. This passage is praising whatever it is that gets you where you are going to accomplish a most important task: carrying peace, bringing good news, and announcing salvation. This passage is praising the messengers who carry God’s news to people who so need to hear it.
In the Bible, we have a word for people who carry messages for God: angels. When we see the word “angel” in the Bible, it literally means messenger of God. What usually pops into our minds when we think of angels are the haloed figures that we see in Christmas pageants. And indeed, angels, God’s messengers, are key figures in the Christmas story. An angel tells Mary that she will give birth to Jesus. An angel tells Joseph not to divorce Mary and dissolve their relationship. Angels tell the shepherds where to find Jesus, and what Jesus’s birth means. Angels protect Jesus after his birth from Herod’s deadly maneuvers by again speaking to Joseph. They’re pretty central to the story.
But, God’s messengers aren’t just these divine, ethereal beings. The word for regular old human messenger is the same word we use for angels - and that’s because the task is the same. Messengers carry news. And God wants us to be messengers of God’s good news, God’s Christmas message, God’s peace and salvation and joy and justice too. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation.” No halo required.
Who has been a Christmas messenger for you? Who has delivered the Christmas message to you? I’m not just asking about who has told you the nativity story of Luke 2. I’m wondering who has told you the message of the heart of Christmas - that God is with us, the God has been made flesh in Jesus, like we read about in our text from John 1? Who has brought you a message of peace - not just the abstract, fluffy message of peace, but who has shared a message with you that has helped you experience the peace of Christ deep in your heart? Who has helped you receive a message of salvation - a message that God seeks wholeness for your life, and your right relationship with God and neighbor? Who has helped you hear and receive and trust God’s good news of unconditional, unrelenting, unshakable love? How beautiful are those who have brought you these life-changing messages! And how beautiful are you - down to your core - when you are messengers of Christmas, angels in your own right, sharing peace, joy, and salvation!
Aside from the “Beautiful Feet” song that has stuck forever in my mind, there’s another song that our Isaiah text calls to mind - a Christmas carol - and one we’ll sing to close our worship today. “Go, Tell It on the Mountain” also draws on themes from this Isaiah text. It was never a favorite carol of mine growing up, but once I learned more about its history, I started appreciating it more deeply, and it has certainly been on my mind this week.
A few decades after the end of the Civil War, an African American choir director in Tennessee named John Wesley Work, Jr. set out with a goal of preserving the spirituals of black Americans from the years of slavery which had mostly been passed on by oral tradition. Work's project influenced nearby Fisk College, a historically black college, and their choir - the Fisk Jubilee Singers - took the spirituals Work collected on tour with them around the country, and even to England to perform for Queen Victoria. The Fisk Jubilee Singers saved the debt-ridden College from closure with their touring, and they have been credited with keeping the Negro spiritual alive. “[Jubilee] singer Ella Sheppard recalled, ‘The slave songs were never used by us then in public. They were associated with slavery and the dark past and represented the things to be forgotten. Then, too, they were sacred to our parents, who used them in their religious worship.”” (1)
“Go, Tell It on the Mountain” was one of these songs. Theologian James Cone says that the hymn conveys the message: “the conquering King, and the crucified Lord . . . has come to bring peace and justice to the dispossessed of the land. That is why the slave wanted to ‘go tell it on de mountain.” With its peace and justice themed Christmas message, “Go, Tell It” has been adapted many times. It was used as a freedom song during the Civil Rights movement. Peter, Paul and Mary recorded a version. And one version included a verse about segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace. “I wouldn’t be Governor Wallace, I’ll tell you the reason why, I’d be afraid He might call me And I wouldn’t be ready to die.”
The original author of the spiritual is unknown, but thankfully Work included it in his project, and his brother Frederick helps draw attention to it. They paired the text of the spiritual with a joyful tune that seemed to express the hope and liberation of Christmas message. The earliest published version of the hymn included the refrain that’s familiar to us, with some different verses, like “When I was a seeker I sought both night and day. I ask de Lord to help me, An’ He show me de way.” Eventually, John Work Jr.’s son, John Work III, decided to expand on the song - it is unclear if he uncovered existing additional verses that had been lost, or if he wrote his own new verses to the hymn, but in 1940 his version was published, the version we know today. By the mid 1950s, the hymn was being included in some mainline Protestant hymnals. Go, tell it on the mountain! Jesus is born! Let peace and justice be proclaimed.
That’s our task friends. Christmas Day was yesterday. But now in the season of Christmas and beyond, our task is to be messengers of all that we’ve heard and seen at Christmas, all that we’ve experienced of God and God’s peace and justice, all that we’ve known of God’s love. How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those who announce peace, good news, and salvation! So let’s go and tell it - Jesus is born, God become flesh, God with us, always. Amen.
This section of the sermon uses this resource (St. Peter’s) and the one Hawn resource listed below. All quotations come from the Hawn resource. “Advent Devotional Day 7,” St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, https://www.stpeterslutheranyork.com/blog/advent-devotional-day-7
C. Michael Hawn, “History of Hymns: “Go, Tell it On the Mountain,”” Discipleship Ministries. https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-go-tell-it-on-the-mountain-1