Sermon for Christmas Eve 2019
Before I being my sermon in earnest, first a little Sunday School lesson, or catechism:
Angels are a special order of God’s creation. They are spiritual beings that have no physical bodies, and that most of the time, are invisible to us.
They are not your deceased relatives. That is a popular misconception, but it’s not biblical or traditional.
Now your dead aunt Ethel may have been a wonderful person, she might have even been a saint, she may even have a front row seat before the throne of God, but that doesn’t make her an angel. We humans can become saints, and our souls may enter into heaven, but we don’t become angels. Angels were created differently than we humans were.
Angels are spiritual creatures that were created to serve God in heaven and on earth. They do this primarily in two ways: they either protect us or they deliver important messages to us.
I’m telling you this so that if and when you ever encounter an angel in your life, you will know what it is and what it’s up to. Because we do encounter them.
Thus endeth the lesson.
Tonight’s story, the entire Christmas story really, is filled with humans encountering angels.
In Luke’s gospel, before Jesus was born, the old priest Zechariah saw an angel in the temple of the Lord, that told him that his wife, who was barren, would give birth to a son that would be the prophet John the Baptist, the forerunner of the messiah.
And then a little later that same angel, Gabriel, was sent to a young girl in the city of Nazareth named Mary, and that angel told her that even though she had never been with a man, that she would bear a son by the Holy Spirit, and his name would be Jesus.
That girl’s intended husband, Joseph, understandably found her story hard to believe, he was going to quietly break off the wedding. Quietly, because he didn’t want Mary to be shamed or killed. But an angel came to Joseph in a dream and confirmed that Mary’s story was true.
And then, on the night that Mary’s child was born, an angel appeared to shepherd’s in the fields to announce this glorious birth and to point them to where it was happening: a simple stable. A cave right outside of town that was being used to shelter animals.
And then that angel was joined by other angels, the whole host of heaven, and they began singing this glorious song of praise: Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace, goodwill towards men. Gloria in excelsis deo.
You know those words. You have probably sung them countless times over these past few weeks. Those words are found in so many of our Christmas Hymns. Angels we have heard on high, while shepherds watched their flocks by night, O come all ye faithful, so many of our Christmas Hymns allude to that angel song: Gloria in excelsis deo. Glory be to God on High.
You know those words that the angels are singing. Outside of the penitential church seasons of Lent and Advent, just about every mass begins with that song: Gloria in excelsis deo. When we come together for mass, to celebrate the life of Christ and all that that means, we usually begin with the angels’ song that announced his birth: Glory be to God on high. The joy of Christmas meets us all over again whenever we gather at this altar. Week in and week out we are reminded of an encounter some poor humans had with angels, and of the glorious news that they were given. God, your God, the messiah, the son of David, the king you have been waiting for, has been born among you.
The God of all creation has done the most miraculous thing: he has been born among you. He is here to save you from slavery to sin and death.
The angels’ song was about rejoicing in what God has done. The angels were fulfilling their role as God’s messengers. They were leading us to find God in our midst and teaching us how to rejoice in the amazing thing that God has done. The good news of Christmas is a message of hope about what God has done and is doing. It is not about what humans can do.
The angels weren’t singing about the glories of mankind. The message of Christmas was not: hey y’all just be nice to one another. And the angels definitely weren’t saying “if you just be good, God will give you a present.” The angels weren’t telling us how to save ourselves, they were singing a song about how God has saved us from ourselves.
Can you hear them singing?
Can you hear their message about the glorious thing our God has done?
It isn’t always easy.
One of our hymns later in this service is “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” It is an old and familiar hymn, but the problem with familiar hymns sometimes is that you may sing them without paying much attention to the words you are singing. Pay attention to it tonight. Pay attention to the image that hymn paints of the angels singing their song. Pay attention to the middle verses…the ones you may not hear on the radio, the ones you may not know so well.
Still through the cloven skies they come with peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains they bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel-sounds the blessed angels sing.
Still through the cloven skies.
Still their heavenly music floats.
Ever O’er its Babel-sounds.
The blessed angels sing.
The angels that sang to those shepherds that night…they are still singing. They might have passed out of our sight, but their music still fills the air. The bible never says they stopped singing. They are still singing about the glorious thing God has done. They are still astonished at this miraculous birth.
Can you hear them singing?
Many people can’t.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
Beneath the heavenly strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
And man at war with man hears not the tidings which they bring;
O hush the noise ye men of strife and hear the angels sing.
The angels are still singing. We’ve just stopped listening. We care more about our petty grievances and concerns than we do with the glorious thing that God has done. This isn’t something new. We have been ignoring the angels for two thousand years.
No sooner had the baby Jesus been born, then an angel had to warn Joseph that King Herod wanted him killed. Hatred and sin are not news in this world. But the glorious thing that God has done in the birth of this child, well that is news. Good news. It is something worth singing about. God is still sending his angels to bring you that news.
If you want to hear the angels, you must first learn to be silent. You must learn to hush the noise both on the inside and on the outside so that you may hear and receive the message that these heavenly creatures are proclaiming. Hear the message first; receive it. And then, maybe you will learn to sing along with them. We don’t become angels, but we can learn to sing with them.
For lo! The days are hastening on, by prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years shall come the time foretold,
When peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,
And all the world give back the song which now the angels sing.
The angels are still singing.
Can you hear them singing?
Can you join your voices with theirs?