Sweet Little Jesus Boy

by Dr. Becky Luman

One song that I cherish and often sing under my breath during the Christmas season is Sweet Little Jesus Boy. I enjoy this carol because it reflects much of the realistic pathos of Jesus’ birth, life, and mission. The choice of Father, Son, and Spirit to save the world in such a self-giving, vulnerable way is astonishing.

The very Son of God was born into unfavorable circumstances, amidst misunderstanding and shame, poverty and peril. Throughout His life, even during his public years of fame, the majority of folk, including his disciples, really “didn’t know who [He] was.”

The lyrics vary as different artists sing it, but a popular version of the opening verse is below:

Sweet little Jesus Boy, they made you be born in a manger
Sweet little holy Child, we didn’t know who you were

Didn’t know you come to save us, Lord, to take our sins away
Our eyes was blind; we could not see. We didn’t know who you were.

In the style of a traditional “spiritual,” this song was composed—both lyrics and music—by American Robert MacGimsey in 1934. According to the account in Our Daily Bread, the composer was walking in New York City on Christmas Eve and passed by many noisy night clubs where the so called “celebration” of Christmas had no connection with who Jesus Christ is and why he came.

“As an apology to Jesus,” MacGimsey wrote Sweet Little Jesus Boy with the repeated refrain “We didn’t know who you were.”

Know the Story

We assume that in the United States most people know at least the story of Christ’s birth and identity. In my former role as a children’s pastor, I did encounter a few children who didn’t know the story at all. Christmas to them had always and only been about Santa, the tree, the presents.

What a thrill to tell the Christmas story–Mary, Joseph, Jesus, stable, manger, angels, shepherds, star, wise men—to a sweet six-year-old girl from a poor, unchurched, broken family for the first time. Her eyes were wide; she had lots of questions.

It is an amazing narrative—full of surprising twists and turns, joy and danger, ironic juxtaposition of awesome greatness wrapped in humble poverty. God breaking into human history in a wildly unexpected way to rescue us.

The mission of the church to “Go into all the world and preach the good news” remains unfinished. Ministers of the gospel, including WBS graduates, are on the front lines around the world telling the incredible, almost unbelievable story to those who have not yet heard.

One of our alumni from India is involved by means of Vacation Bible School and Operation Christmas Child. The latter ministry has spread the Christmas good news through small boxes of gifts given over to 124 million children. Enclosed in each box is the gospel message in each person’s language.

Through such ministries, people can know the story of Christmas. Knowing the story, however, is only the beginning.

Know the Savior

Those of us who know the story well do not always “know” the Savior. We may know in a general way that He “came to save us, to take our sins away,” but we aren’t personally connected to our great Rescuer; we haven’t allowed Him to forgive us and make us a child of God.

John Wesley was such a person until the “heart-warming” experience in his adult years. A preacher’s son and ordained for ministry in the Church of England, he knew all about Christ but did not yet have a personal and saving relationship with Him. As the song says, “our eyes was blind, we could not see.”

Though God’s prevenient and eye-opening grace, I came to “see” as a teenager just weeks after Christmas in 1969 that I knew but did not know Jesus. To me, He was THE Savior, but not MY Savior. So many church people have yet to make this life-changing discovery.

What a fertile time the Advent season is for the Church to proclaim the Bethlehem story of how far God was willing to go to reach and rescue us. What an opportunity to publicly press the invitation for a personal transformational relationship with Jesus Christ.

Know and Share

Because we know the story and Savior, we have an urgent and joyful responsibility: to share Christ’s message and mission with others. Advent and Christmas is a prime occasion to do this. Here are a few very user-friendly ideas:

  • Share your testimony about how you became a believer with children and grandchildren, either at a family holiday gathering or in a Christmas letter. I know my parents’ specific conversion stories—at what age, when, where, how, the lasting effects of their experience. This gift has been a timeless treasure to me.
  • Honor Christ at the present-opening time by
    reading a nativity account and recounting what God has done for the family since the last Christmas celebration.
  • Take (not just “invite” but actually take) friends and family members to an engaging, creative Christmas event that emphasizes the timeless message of Christmas and specifically urges personal commitment.
  • Participate in spreading the gospel by generously helping strangers, both near and far. Gather several Operation Christmas Child boxes. Be involved with the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree.
  • Give a specific “gift to Jesus” every year and encourage the tradition in your family. Why should Jesus himself be the only person who doesn’t get a gift— on HIS birthday? Develop a family practice of helping someone in secret as a birthday present for Christ. He said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40 NIV).
On this side of the Cross and Resurrection, through the Scripture and through His saving presence in our lives, we can in every sense of the word “know” who Jesus is.
The Charles Wesley classic carol Hark the Herald Angels Sing celebrates him as “the newborn King,” “Everlasting Lord,” “the incarnate Deity,” “our Emmanuel,” “Prince of Peace,” and proclaims His mission: “born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.”

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