This sermon is part of the sermon series "Songs for the Not-So-Holly-Jolly". See series.
We've been looking at Christmas songs preserved for us in Scripture. Some, like Zechariah's song last week, are completely foreign to most of us. Today we will look at one that's a little more familiar: the angels' announcement of Jesus' birth.
This passage involves shepherds—men who herded livestock for a living, who were at the very bottom of the social structure. You've heard people say, "She cusses like a sailor." In those days there was a saying, "He lies like a shepherd." Fairly or unfairly, the character of a shepherd was not highly regarded. Shepherds tended to be socially inept, hygienically-challenged, and culturally reviled. The work was dirty and dangerous; shepherds were exposed to all the elements in all seasons. Men who shepherded usually had no other work options.
It's worth noting that these angels did not bring the wonderful message of Christ's birth to those who had influence. They did not appear to the wealthy or to political or religious leaders. Instead they came to the least significant, least respected, least likely people in the community. So when God's messenger said he came to bring good news to all people, he demonstrated it by starting at the bottom.
First there was one angel (presumably Gabriel who appeared to Zechariah in last week's talk), then he was joined in verse 13 with "a great company of angels." That phrase means "more than could be counted." If you think one angel is scary, how'd you like to see angels from here to infinity?
The first angel brought the news in verse 11: "Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord." He gave specific instructions about when and where this Messiah was to be born. The great company of angels brought the commentary on the news in verse 14. They brought it in the form of a song. This particular song has inspired composers for two thousand years. Often called the "Gloria" after its first word in the Latin translation, it is the basis of modern choral works, traditional Christmas carols, and ancient liturgical chants. It is composed of two parts. The first phrase is about what this good news means for God. The second phrase is about what it means for all of us.
"Glory to God in the highest"
This line of the angel's song focuses on the One who set these events in motion; the One who controls all events on earth; the One who dwells in the highest place. Because of what is about to happen—because of who this baby is—people who respond to this message will respond with praise. They will say things like, "My life was a mess, and you gave me purpose. I used to glorify myself, but now, the glory is yours, God;" "I was wandering, lost and alone. I'd been rejected by everyone I once loved and trusted. And you found me. You are glorious, Lord!" "I was living my life in fear—fearful of those around me, fearful of the future. And then, because of the Son you sent, I found release from my fear. God, you are magnificent!"
It's because of Christmas that we gather here Sunday after Sunday to sing songs of worship. Like I've said a hundred times before, the issue is not whether you love a particular song. The issue is do you love the One the song is about?
Every year, I tell you how much I love everything about Christmas. I love the music, the decorations, and of course, the food. I love Santa and elves and cheesy movies. I love presents and concerts and parties. But first and foremost, I love being able to focus for an entire month on the events recorded in the Bible about the coming of God to earth—the incarnation. As Isaiah called him, "Immanuel," God with us! Every year I continue to believe that if we could somehow—just one time—grasp the love of God that exists right behind these familiar stories, every one of us would shout out loud, "Glory to God in the highest!"
"Peace on earth to men on whom his favor rests."
This is the part we need to spend some time on. Peace means a lot of things to a lot of people.
What does peace mean to a soldier? The mother of a colicky infant? A child whose parents won't stop fighting? It usually means the end of something—the end of a war; the end of non-stop crying; the end of a heart-wrenching dispute.
So what kind of peace are the angels referring to? Is there a promise here of any of the above? No, not really. All those are at best temporary forms of peace. Wars will break out again. Babies will cry again. Relationships will get strained again. The peace that only the Messiah can bring is a personal, permanent kind of peace—peace between self-absorbed, willful, sinful people like you and me, and the holy God. Those whom God favors are those who understand and embrace this truth. God is offering a chance for us to have peace in our relationships.
I'd like to promise you that this Christmas, you can have peace in all your relationships. But I can't promise that. The Bible doesn't promise it either. It says, "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone" (Romans 12:18).
This verse has both personal and national implications. We all know people that seem to thrive on conflict. If they don't have any, they can create some on the spot. Then there are people and groups of people who are so filled with selfish interests and hate that they think nothing of taking for themselves what belongs to another. It is wishful thinking to believe that because of Jesus we will never experience interpersonal conflict or be free from conflict between nations and people.
But in Christ, we have the capability to not be that kind of person or that kind of group. If we are at peace with God and at peace with ourselves; it is remarkable how much that will improve our ability to be at peace with others. In other words, our level of internal peace affects our ability to experience relational peace. Don't you find that true? If you are fighting with God over some issue of obedience in your life, it's a pretty good bet that the people around you are also affected.
I think that sometimes, we put too much emphasis on receiving the good news of Jesus just so we can spend eternity with God. That's a fantastic truth, but its only part of the truth. The whole truth is that in this song, we are being told of the opportunity for God to affect our past, our present, and our future. All of us have a basic orientation to life. Some people live very much in the here and now. I'm married to one of those people. I tend to live too far out in the future. And some folks, and you know who you are, live in the past.
Peace from our past
The angels' song also gives us the hope of peace from our past. If there is anything in your past that still causes you shame, embarrassment, or guilt, this song promises you can be at peace. If there is anything in your past that brings you sadness, grief, or loneliness, this song promises you can be at peace. If there is anything in your past that brings you regret over things done or said that hurt people you love, this song promises you can be at peace.
The Bible says, "… as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us" (Psalm 103:12). The slate is wiped clean with God. All things are new with him. You know how brown and dirty things can get around here in a dry winter? Then we get a big snowfall and everything is fresh and pure and clean. Isaiah 1:18 says, "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow …."
Peace in the present
When the baby in the Christmas story was at the end of his life, he said to his followers in John 14:27, "I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart! And the peace I give isn't fragile like the peace the world gives. So don't be troubled or afraid."
He tells us that the peace that comes through him is not the same as the peace the world gives. Our world does promise peace in a number of ways. We are bombarded with advertisements that promise we'll know peace if we just purchase the right products. Every drug, both legal and illegal, lies by suggesting that getting buzzed is the only way to find peace. Many of us believe that real peace would come if we just had financial security. Still others try to convince us that peace is found only in independence, never being committed to anyone or anything. We are so bombarded by the peace that the world offers, all of which is temporary at best and fatal at worst—that we fail to believe the peace proclaimed by the angels and promised by Jesus himself.
We often think of peace as a being without trials and troubles—the absence of pain and suffering and heartache. That kind of peace, while admittedly nice, cannot be sustained. Not in this world. So we need a peace that transcends circumstance; that allows us to rise above the urgency of the immediate; that allows us to have a clear head and a peaceful heart in the midst of the chaos that defines contemporary life. That's part of what the angels' song is about. So if today is what is eating on you, not yesterday or tomorrow, take note.
Peace for the future
Finally, the angels' song gives us the hope of peace for the future. Anxiety about the future will always rob the peace and tranquility of today. Listen and see if these thoughts sound familiar: What if my child dies? What if my company goes under? What if I lose my health? What if my spouse leaves me? What if the unspeakable tragedy that happened at YWAM and New Life happens to us? The truth is that any of those things could happen to any of us. So let's just keep it real up front. However, dwelling on our worst fears do nothing to prevent them. It robs us of our sleep, our health, our joy, and our peace of mind today.
Have you ever considered that in many ways, the world didn't dramatically change after Jesus was born? Not outwardly. Just look at the tragedy of his life. King Herod ordered the murder of dozens of baby boys because his own paranoia when he found out about the baby the wise men called the "King of the Jews." Later, Jesus was publicly humiliated, beaten, and executed for daring to share the audacious message that he was providing a way for you and me to live at peace with God.
History will show that from the time of Jesus until today, there has never been a single day on this planet that there was not a war raging some place. Human cruelty and lack of regard for the sanctity of life has always been with us. I do not believe it is any better or worse today than at any other time in history. Human nature does not change. There are still today, in the 21st century, places on this planet so overwhelmed with poverty and injustice that it defies description. There are still dictators and evil regimes that will stop at nothing to accumulate power and wealth. So it has been and so it will be.
Here in the United States, it is important when elections come up that we are informed on issues and candidates, but there has never been a government in the history of this planet that has been able to break the bondage of sin that constantly expresses itself in individual lives and society as a whole. I worry that in the past decade or two, Christians have put their faith in a political system that will never deliver what our heart really yearns for. That's why Jesus said, "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).
Tragedy has, does, and will come to us. But one thing will not change. The Savior that the angels sang about is still alive and involved in this world. This song, in a very real sense, is still being sung. The angels didn't sing a chorus and get on back to polishing their halos.
If we could get a glimpse of heaven today we would hear them singing, "Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests." Hundreds of years before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed peace with a song of his own: "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6).
Peace can be found no matter what the circumstances. The most real part about you is your soul, and when your soul is at peace with God, you have the capacity to endure any crisis, any tragedy, any misfortune.
Ed Rowell is pastor of Tri-Lakes Chapel in Monument, Colorado, and author of Preaching with Spiritual Passion (Baker).