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Hark! the Herald Angels

Those who accept the Christ child have Christmas forever in their hearts.

We're thinking together on these Sundays of Advent of the symphony of our salvation, and this morning we come to the third movement of that symphony, which is entitled "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." It is scored for angelic choir and for us.

Christianity is unique among the religions of the world for a variety of reasons. One of the most important of these is that we are a singing faith. Now, our Christmas tree stands in its place of honor, but trees have been objects of worship since the days of the Druids and the Canaanites. And the candles sparkle cheeringly in the aisle and here in the Advent wreath. But candles and fire have been a part of worship, even to this day, for the Parsees of India and the primitive animists of Africa. There is one thing, however, that is part of our worship that is not part of the worship of any other major faith on earth. That is singing. Christianity is the one faith that puts a song in your heart. Confucianism has no chorales. Shintoism has no songs. Islam has no glorias. Atheism has no anthems.

Now, it is good that singing is a part of our faith, because music, more than any other thing we produce from within us, is an expression of our own hearts. You listen to the singing of a man like Paul Robeson or a woman like Leontyne Price; let them sing the black spirituals, and you will know immediately in listening to them something of the faith and the feeling of the history of black people in this country. Listen to a march by John Philip Sousa, or a patriotic song written by Irving Berlin, and almost immediately you will have a sense for that patriotism that is a part of so many Americans. Listen to a love song, and you will hear whispers of intimacy that you will not encounter elsewhere.

Some of you have noticed, I am sure, that after you have lost a loved one to death, one of the hardest things for you to do is to come back to church. And when you do get back to church, the hardest part of the worship service is when the congregation sings. The reason for that is, you see, that a song comes from the heart, and your heart is broken. When you begin to sing or when you hear other people sing, that truth comes very powerfully to the fore. Singing, then, is a part of our worship and an expression of our soul.

At Christmastime, of course, we always sing the songs of Bethlehem. Now, Madison Avenue has tried to take them away from us. Every store you enter has them being blasted over loudspeaker systems, and the chambers of commerce in some towns have them blaring out on the streets so that even the sidewalks soak up the sound. Then you go to a Rotary meeting or a Kiwanis meeting or a Lions meeting, and you hear the raucous rendering of carols. Even in some saloons, you'll hear some beery baritone burp Christmas songs. But no matter how hard these people try, they cannot take the songs of Christmas away from us. The reason is this: those songs belong to the praise of Jesus Christ. It is those given over to Jesus Christ, who love him and seek to serve him, who own those songs and who can sing those songs in a way that no one else can equal.

The first Christmas carol was sung by angels.

This morning, as we come to the third movement in our symphony of salvation, we come to the first Christmas carol. It was the song sung by the angels over those shepherds' fields outside Bethlehem: "Glory be to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those with whom he is pleased."

There are those who don't believe in angels. That's all right; there's nothing that says a person has to believe in angels in order to be a Christian. I myself believe in angels, and I think the day will come when you believe in them, too. The Bible mentions angels more than 300 times, and that's good enough for me. Now, I want to make clear that I don't believe in angels the way most people picture them. They're not chubby little cherubs going around with no clothes on. And they're not great majestic creatures with vast wings. This is not what the Scriptures say of angels. As a matter of fact, the Scriptures say that there are eight different kinds of angels, and that these angels are spiritual beings, not material, physical beings such as we are. It's very important to notice this, you see, because it was their nature as spiritual beings that gave them the prerogative to sing there at that first Christmas.

The angels (and all other spiritual beings) have been around a lot longer than we have. If you look at Genesis chapter 1, verse 1, the Scripture reads, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." The heavens there does not refer to the firmament, the sky; it does not refer to planets and stars and comets, because all of those things are mentioned as being made on later days of that first week. No, the heaven that was referred to there is the spiritual realm, that place where God is in all of his glory and that place that is populated only by spiritual beings. We say the same thing when we say the Lord's Prayer. We pray, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." We don't mean "as it is among the stars" or "as it is somewhere out on the wispy Milky Way." We mean, "May God's will be done here, just as it's done in the kingdom of heaven, which is outside of time, altogether eternal and perfect in every way."

A few moments ago we recited the words of the Nicene Creed: "I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible." Visible refers to this earth, the material, us. But the invisible realm is the realm where the spiritual creatures are, and among those creatures are angels. They do not have material existence, but spiritual existence. And that's very important, because you notice that the carol begins, "Glory be to God in the highest" in the highest heaven and we're not there. The shepherds were not there in the highest heavens, either. Only the angels were there. Only the angels could sing those first glories to God. They're not given to us, except to echo.

It's important that we hold on to this fact: We are created beings, but they are glorified, spiritual beings. Angels, archangels, seraphim, and 're the ones that can praise God in the highest heaven. And because they have been there since before all physical things came into existence, that means they have known God's Son from the very beginning. In all those prodigious ages before even this planet was created, they knew the only begotten Son of God. They saw him in all of his power and in all of his glory, and they knew the promise that one day he would come here. While our ancestors were struggling up through prehistoric times, while the beauties of Egypt were being created, while the songs of expectancy so much a part of the history of Israel were being sung, when the adder of oriental mysticism was taken by the Greeks and turned into the perfection of Greek wisdom during all that time, the spiritual creatures, the angels, beheld Christ in the glories of heaven. But then, at long last, there came that moment when the Infinite became definite, when Christ left heaven and came to earth. Since they had seen him from the very beginning, can you imagine the joy and wonderment and amazement that must have been theirs when they saw the Holy Spirit swoop down upon that little town in Israel of old, that little place called Bethlehem, and there with a stable, and in a stall, and with straw, that glorious Son became flesh? That's the reason those angels could sing, "Glory to God in the highest heaven." They saw it all from the very beginning, and I mean from the very beginning.

The angels sang of peace on earth and God with us.

The message they sing, of course, is about peace on earth, that the God of the galaxies has come to be with us. Occasionally I have people tell me that they rejoice in seeing God in nature. That's good. But I will confess to you that I'm not much impressed by that kind of testimony. I mean, can anyone who can look at the colors in a peacock's tail or the splendor of Beethoven's symphonies, or contemplate the work of the hands of Michelangelo, who can see perfect truth jutting into our world in the purity of a Parthenon or a Taj Mahal or the Lincoln Memorial, who can see those things of magnificence and splendor and beauty call them nothing more than accidental bubbles on this cosmic mud pie we're riding through space? Anyone who says they see God in those things, well, I think that's natural. It would take an immense amount of gullibility rather than good sense not to see that. So I'm not too impressed when someone says he or she sees God in nature.

But when people say to me they have experienced and seen God in the sanctity of their own hearts, when they talk about experiencing him not just as he's evidenced in the stars but as he's evidenced in their own souls, well, that's the kind of person I know has been to Bethlehem. They've heard the song about peace on earth.

It's escaped us for a long time, of course. I've been told that there are places in Europe where you can sink a spade into the earth, and in just two or three spadefuls of earth, you can dig up prehistoric artifacts and also bits of metal from much more modern times. In one spadeful of earth you might come up with a flint fist hatchet, which was used in prehistoric times to crush the skull of an enemy, and in that same bunch of earth, you will also find a bit of shrapnel from some shell fired during the Second World War. Crushing the skull in the one instance, blowing a person to bits in the other that is a kind of parable of the history of humankind, isn't it? War after war after war. The absence of peace.

Why? Well, if you ask most people why there has been no peace, they'll say it's the other fellow's fault. A few years ago Ann Landers wrote a column in which she tried to depict what the earth would be like after a nuclear war. And she asked all of her readers to clip the article and to send it to the White House. The President wrote her a letter about two weeks later in which he acknowledged that he had received over two hundred clippings. But then he went on to suggest, "I think you sent them to the wrong place. They should have been sent to the Kremlin." The problem is with those other guys. That's always the problem with peace, isn't it?

But you see, when a soul has been at Bethlehem, when a soul has seen the sacrifice in the love of God, when a soul has experienced the grace and the peace that come only from God, that kind of soul begins to become an agent of peace not a peaceful person only, but a peacemaking and peaceful person.

There was a time during the most horrible persecutions of the Jews by the Nazis in Poland that an old Jewish cemetery keeper came into the cemetery one morning and found that during the night a woman had crept into an open grave and there given birth to a son. And she had died. The cemetery keeper found this child, and he thought to himself and told others, "This must be the Messiah, for only the Messiah could choose to be born in a grave." Well, it wasn't the Messiah; the child died before noon of that day. But the truth of which that cemetery keeper spoke is absolutely accurate. Only the Messiah of God could choose to be born in a grave. Only a God who loves as our God loves could come into the midst of all the pain of life and death and bring his grace. The message of Christmas is that God is with us. That's written in meteors, yes, but it's personalized at Christmas: Love so great that nothing can eclipse it. A love that says that God is with us in the midst of our heartbreaks, and that he's with us in our grief, and that he's with us in our loneliness and our fear. That he stands beside us when we try to stumble our way through a misshapen marriage. That he's with us when we look into the cold hatred of an enemy's eyes. The song says, you see, that God is with us by the gravesides of all of our hopes and dreams when they come to naught. And the reason he is with us is to teach us and to show us and to give to us the way to peace, which is the way of love.

Someone comes to me and says that she has learned that lesson, that you make peace by being yourself an agent of God's love, filled with peace. When someone comes and tells me that, I know that that woman has been to Bethlehem.

The angels sang of peace among "those with whom he is ."

Of course, not all those who have been to Bethlehem get the message. Notice how the carol concludes: "Glory be to God in the highest heavens, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased." Or, as it is sometimes translated, "among those of good will." The Bible's right up front when it says that most people who heard the song didn't pay much attention to it. John notes that "the world knew Christ not," that "he came to his home, and to his own people, but they received him not." Matthew talks about a star but notes that only a few people followed it. Luke tells us about this song of the angels, but there's no evidence that a great number of people heard it or responded to it.

We've all experienced that, haven't we? We know that unless you're a veritable Scrooge, you feel something different at Christmas. There's a strange aura about. There is a good spirit so that even the most sour sometimes smile. And it will all climax on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. But then, for the majority of people, it won't last. It will tarnish and disappear. They'll read about the deaths on the highways, or there will be arguments in the very best families, and after Christmas dinner there will be all those dirty dishes to do. And for some of those people, you see, Christmas will go down the drain just like that dirty dishwater does. They acknowledge the fact that somehow they've been moved at this season, but it'll all be gone very fast, and they'll pack it away with their tree lights, somewhere up in the attic or perhaps down in the basement. But for those who are of good will, for those with whom God is pleased, for those who hear God and obey God, for those who welcome the Christ Child into their lives, Christmas is forever.

Did you ever read Bret Harte's story The Luck of Roaring Camp? Roaring Camp was supposed to be, according to the story, the meanest, toughest mining town in the West. There were murders and was a terrible place inhabited entirely by men, except for one woman who tried to serve them all. Her name was Cherokee Sal. She died while giving birth to a baby. Well, the men took the baby, and they put her in a box with some old rags under her. When they looked at her, they decided that didn't look right, so they sent one of the men 80 miles away to buy a rosewood cradle. He brought it back, and they put the rags and the baby in the rosewood cradle. And the rags didn't look right there. So they sent another of their number to Sacramento, and he came back with some beautiful silk and lace blankets. And they put the baby, wrapped around with those blankets, in the rosewood cradle. It looked fine until someone happened to notice that the floor was so filthy. So these hardened, tough men got down on their hands and knees, and with their hardened and horny hands, and they scrubbed that floor until it was clean. Of course, what that did was to make the walls and the ceiling and the dirty windows without curtains look absolutely terrible. So they washed down the walls and the ceiling, and they put curtains at the windows. And now things were beginning to look as they thought they should look. But of course, they had to give up a lot of their fighting, because the baby slept a lot, and babies can't sleep during a brawl. So the whole temperature of Roaring Camp seemed to go down. They used to take her out and set her by the entrance to the mine in her rosewood cradle so they could see her when they came up. Then somebody noticed what a dirty place that was, so they planted flowers, and they made a very nice garden there. It looked quite beautiful. And they would bring her shiny little stones and things that they would find in the mine. But when they would put their hands down next to hers, their hands looked so dirty. Pretty soon the general store was all sold out of soap and shaving gear and perfume. . . the baby changed everything.

That's the way it is for those of good will. That's the way it is for those who please God. The baby enters into their lives, and he slips into every crevice of their experience, until they say "Hark! Listen, the herald angels sing! God is for us. And Christmas is forever."

So it only remains for me to ask if Christmas is forever for you. You know, my heart and yours are very much like deep, deep oceans, much too deep for us to comprehend. But when we open ourselves to God, he comes, and he goes to the very depths of those oceans, and he brings with him those spiritual beings, the angels, and he brings with him light, and he brings with him life, and he brings with him the kingdom, and he brings with him the treasures of grace, and he brings with him peace. To everyone who extends the invitation, he so comes, and he brings all of these things, and when these things are in one, then for that one, Christmas is forever.

My hope and prayer for you this Christmas Sunday is that you will let Christmas be forever for you. And that you will invite this little One who comes into the world trailing all the clouds of glory from eternity itself; that you will let him so come to dominance and power within your life that you will be able to sing with the angels of so long ago, "Glory be to God in the highest heavens, and on earth peace for those with whom he is pleased."

So may it be for you this Christmas.

The late Bruce Thielemann served as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He held degrees from Westminster College, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and a certificate from St. Andrews University in Scotland.

Bruce Thielemann

Preaching Today Tape # 63


A resource of Christianity Today International

Bruce Thielemann is the former pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA.

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Sermon Outline:


I. The first Christmas carol was sung by angels

II. The angels sang of peace on earth and God with us

III. The angels sang of peace among "those with whom he is well-pleased"