Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Gloria: The Angel's Song of Celebration (Luke 2:8-14)

“Hark! The herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King!’” We just sang those words earlier in the service and now we have read the portion of God’s Word which gives rise to that song, and many others. In much of the popular artwork we are accustomed to seeing, we see angels carrying harps or other instruments, with their lips positioned in such a way to suggest a song is coming through them. But, there are some who suggest that angels do not sing. In fact, throughout the Bible, mostly we find reference to angels speaking, and where some English translations use a word like singing, the original Greek word can typically be translated as “saying,” or “speaking.” But, it is not for no reason that some translators opt to use “singing words” when translating those Greek terms, so we must reason that there is at least some evidence to suggest that singing is the preferable idea. Based on this text we have just read in Luke 2, I would say that angels at least can sing, and have sung. But here, the text plainly says that they were “praising God and saying,” not, “praising God and singing.” True, however, the words which they “said” are recorded as being poetic in nature. It would be fitting to call it a song, and to envision the angels as singing these beautiful words.

Graham Scroggie notes that one of the unique features of Luke’s Gospel is “its songfulness. It begins and ends with songs, and there is rejoicing all the way along.” Scroggie calls Luke “the first great Christian hymnologist, … a preserver of sacred songs.”[1] Luke is the only Gospel writer who records the four songs of the Nativity that are found in the first two Chapters of his Gospel. Before our text, there is Zacharias’s song of praise, known as the Benedictus, and Mary’s song of worship, known as the Magnificat. After this will come Simeon’s song of salvation, the Nunc Dimittis. This one in our text is the angel’s song: the Gloria in Excelsis Deo, or Gloria for short. Another unique feature of Luke’s Gospel is his frequent references to angels. We find them mentioned 23 times in this Gospel, causing Scroggie to observe, “There are more glimpses of the unseen world in this than in any other Gospel. It resounds with angel songs, and with the music of their wings.”[2] So, here in our text, these two unique features of Luke’s Gospel, it’s “songfulness” and its fondness of angels, come together in a special way to bring us this song of celebration that accompanies the Christmas Gospel.

This song, unlike the other three nativity songs, comes down to earth from heaven, rather than the other way around. And it comes as a glorious doxology sung in response to the angel’s message of the good news, or Gospel, of Christmas. After narrating the birth of the Lord Jesus, Luke tells us that there were some shepherds out in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night. It was just an ordinary night in the fields for them for a little while, until an angel of the Lord stood before them. He had just come from the very presence of God, and was radiant with the glory of the Lord, filling those dark hills with brilliant light. It is interesting that in almost every encounter between humans and angels in Scripture, the initial response of the human is fear. Therefore, in many cases, as here, the first words of the angel is, “Do not be afraid.” The reason the shepherds can take courage is that the angel says, “I bring you good news of great joy!” The words “I bring you good news” translate the single Greek word euaggelizomai, from which we get our word evangelism. To evangelize is to proclaim good news. The noun form of this word is what we translate in English as “gospel.” The angel is saying to the shepherds, “I have come to you with the gospel!” The Gospel of Jesus Christ is indeed “good news of great joy”! Now, once that message is announced to the shepherds, an angelic choir breaks forth in song, singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace among men with whom He is pleased.” The Christmas Gospel, that God has come in the person of Jesus, to dwell as a man among men, to rescue us from sin, evokes a song of joyous worship and praise from the choir of heaven when it is proclaimed! Theodor Christlieb wrote, “Did ever any assembly receive a message like this, with such a hymn to follow it, or listen to a sermon with so glad a close?”[3]

There are two stanzas to this heavenly Gospel song. The first stanza is a proclamation of heaven’s response to the Good News of Christmas. The second is an announcement of the earthly results of this Good News. Thomas Dehaney Bernard writes, “It is but a fragment of the songs above. Yet is it a guide to songs below … embracing things in heaven and things on earth, and as turning first to God, the source of blessing, then to man the subject of it.”[4] Christlieb called this song the “source and key-note of all other Christian songs.”[5] This song shows us how we ourselves should respond to the going forth of the Gospel, and what that Gospel will accomplish as it is proclaimed and received in the world.

So, let us consider the first stanza.

I. The heavenly response to the Christmas Gospel is glorious worship (v14a).

When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, the model prayer included the statement, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In heaven, from the time God created the angels, they had never ceased to proclaim and praise the glory of God. Here on this night, in these fields, before these shepherds, God’s will was being done on earth as it is in heaven. When the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest,” that phrase “in the highest” does not mean, “to the highest degree,” although that would never be inappropriate. Rather, “in the highest,” means “in the highest realm.” As the Savior comes into the world, and the Good News of salvation dawning is proclaimed, all of heaven is breaking out into song, proclaiming the glory of God and ascribing glory unto His name.

Of course God is all glorious in Himself, and there is nothing that can be done by humans or angels or any other created thing to make Him more glorious. But when we ascribe glory to His name, we are recognizing His glory, we are confessing our comprehension of His glory (limited though it may be), and we are reflecting His glory back upon Him as the moon reflects the light of the sun. That is what the angels were doing. Notice in verse 9 that when the messenger angel appeared, the glory of the Lord shone around the shepherds. This angel was illuminated by the very glory of God Himself, and in the song of the choir of the heavenly multitude, that glory was proclaimed and praised.

All of heaven was rejoicing in this moment for here God’s glory was on display in the world in a brand new way. The writer of Hebrews says that the Son of God, Jesus Christ, is the radiance of His Father’s glory (1:3). Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:6 that “God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” In the face of this baby boy who had been born to Mary, wrapped in clothes and laid in a manger – a feeding trough for animals – the glory of God Himself was shining into the world in a way that it never had before. Isaiah had prophesied that the people who walk in darkness will see a great light, and upon those who live in a dark land, the light will shine. That light had come into the world in Jesus Christ. He had come as a demonstration of the glory of God’s grace, to rescue sinners from the dark bondage of sin, and all of the angels were rejoicing in the display of that glory.

Peter said that the Gospel, this good news of Jesus Christ and His salvation for sinners, was something “into which angels long to look” (1 Pet 1:12). Remember that when God gave instructions for the building of the Tabernacle and its furnishings, He said that there was to be an Ark of the Covenant constructed, and its lid would be the mercy seat where the blood of the sacrifices was to be sprinkled for the atonement of sin. On either side of that mercy seat, there was to be fitted cherubim – angels – with their wings spread upward, covering the mercy seat with their wings. The faces of these cherubim were to be turned toward the mercy seat (Ex 25:20). That is, their gaze was fixed upon the mystery of God’s grace toward sinners, toward the blood that takes away sin. The Bible tells us that the tabernacle and its furnishings are copies and shadows of the things in heaven. Here in these physical objects was a representation of the metaphysical realities of heaven, where the angels had, since the moment of their creation pondered at the inexplicable mercies of God in His dealings with sinful men. For the duration of their existence, they had pondered how God would reconcile this rebellious race of beings to Himself. And here on this night, their unquenchable curiosity was satisfied in the Good News that a Savior had been born. Heaven broke forth into worshipful song because God was finally bringing about the fullness of His eternal plan to redeem humanity from the curse of sin and demonstrating the fullness of His infinite glory in the birth of His Son.

The angels of heaven show us what the appropriate response to the Gospel of Jesus Christ truly is. It is to break forth in the worship of this glorious God who so loved the world that He took upon Himself human flesh to live for us and to die for us, that He might reconcile the world to us in His Son (2 Cor 5:19). You may have woken up this morning feeling that you have nothing in your life for which to praise God. You may have come to church this morning out of a sense of duty rather than joy, but your heart today feels heavy, cold and distant from God. Perhaps your circumstances are grim right now. I know how that feels. I prepared this sermon in an uncomfortable chair in an ICU room to the accompanying sounds of beeps and blips of monitors by the bedside of a loved one in the throes of death. But it was in that very setting that my heart was sustained by the promise of this glorious Gospel that God in His grace has stepped into our world in this baby whose birth we celebrate – Jesus the Christ – to be our Savior. We are loved, we are not forsaken, and by faith in Him, we can be reconciled to Him, forgiven of our every sin, and united with Him in the unbreakable covenant of His saving grace for all eternity. We have good reason to praise and worship God and give glory to His name!

If we come to trust this Christ as our Lord and Savior, then we have the assurance that one day, we will join our voices together with the voices of a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest!” But, we need not wait until that day to do so. All of eternity will be devoted to His ceaseless praise, but here and now we can begin to tune our voices and rehearse our parts. The song of the angels shows us that the God of infinite glory is worthy of our worship, and when we muster a song of praise to Him, His will is being done on earth as it is in heaven.

But the glory of the Gospel is not merely a pie in the sky promise. It is not something that we have to wait until the afterlife to enjoy and participate in. There are immediate Gospel benefits here and now for those who receive and believe in the promise of God, and for that, we move to the second stanza of the angelic song.   

II. The earthly result of the Christmas Gospel is gracious peace (v14b).

Because of the proclamation of this Good News, and the actualization of it in the birth of Jesus Christ, there is a heavenly response of glorious worship, and an earthly result of gracious peace. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace.” It seems a bit far fetched at times doesn’t it? If you follow the news, or just pay attention as you live in this world, sometimes we can be tempted to think that this portion of the angel’s song was more fairytale than anything else.

On Christmas Day in 1864, in the midst of the American Civil War, the great poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem to express the heartbreak of a world full of suffering contrasted with the Christmas message of “Peace on earth.” His homeland was at war with itself. Just a few months after the outbreak of the war, Longfellow’s wife was attempting to preserve some clippings from her daughter’s hair in wax, when the wax dripped on her dress and caught fire, swallowing her in the flames. She ran into Henry’s study, where he attempted to no avail to extinguish the flames. She died as a result, and he was left with permanent burns on his face, arms, and legs. Longfellow’s trademark beard was a result of the inability to shave his face after this accident, and a constant reminder to him of his loss. In 1863, Longfellow received word from the battlefield that his son, a soldier in the Union army, had been killed. On Christmas Day of the following year, he composed the poem which we sing from time to time called “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The first stanza says,  

I heard the bells on Christmas day; their old familiar carols play;
And wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth, good will to men.

From the depths of his own personal suffering and loss, and surrounded by the tumult of war, Longfellow goes on to write,

And in despair I bowed my head; “There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.” 

Maybe you have bowed your head in that same despair. There is a lot of talk about peace, but most of it amounts to a lament for the lack of it, or empty promises of politicians and pundits which they are powerless to deliver. The world into which Jesus was born was also a time when there was much talk about peace. With the ascension of Augustus Caesar to the throne of the Roman Empire in 27 BC, a new era of peace was inaugurated in the world that lasted throughout his reign. It was called the Pax Romana – the Peace of Rome. The second chapter of Luke opens with a historical reminder that this was the era of Jesus’ birth: “Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus.” Of course, one’s own experience of that peace depended in large part on whether or not one was a Roman. Ryken notes that this peace “came at a dreadful cost. Nations were subjugated and plundered, peoples enslaved, the poor oppressed. There was peace and prosperity for some, fear and poverty for others.”[6] But even for those who benefited in some way from the Pax Romana, there were limits to this peace. The stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote that “while the emperor may give peace from war on land and sea, he is unable to give peace from passion, grief, and envy. He cannot give peace of heart, for which man yearns more than even for outward peace.”[7]

It was this kind of peace, which no human being could ever secure for himself or for others, that the Lord Jesus Christ was born to accomplish. Bernard writes that peace “comes, not from the rebels who ask for peace, but from the King who of His own grace proclaims it. There is no peace on earth of man’s making or seeking.”[8] This peace was pronounced from heaven and brought to earth in the birth of the One who was promised to be the Prince of Peace (Isa 9:6). The peace that this Child would accomplish through His life, His death and His resurrection is first and foremost a peace with God. The Bible says that our sins have made a separation between ourselves and God (Isa 59:2). But as the angel proclaimed, “there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (v11). This Savior is the mediator between God and man, taking the penalty of our sins upon Himself in His death, and imparting to those who trust in Him the very righteousness of His life in exchange. Paul says in Romans 5:1, “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”; and in Colossians 1:20 that Christ has “made peace through the blood of His cross” (Col 1:20).

Of course, until we have peace with God, we cannot have any other kind of real peace in our lives. We cannot have peace with one another, with friends or enemies, or even with ourselves until we have peace with God. Knowing that we have been reconciled to Him in spite of our sinfulness helps us love others who are hard to love. Knowing that He has loved us enough to not even spare the blood of His only begotten Son to redeem us helps us to have peace within ourselves. Geldenhuys says, “It is the work of Christ to bring peace into all human relations: in man’s relation to God, to himself (his own feelings, desires, and the like), to his life’s circumstances (calamities and trials), and to his fellow-men.”[9] Ryken says, “When we come to God through faith in Jesus Christ, we have real peace. … We do not need to be anxious about the future. We do no need to be afraid of what people will think. We do not need to try to solve our problems on our own. We do not need to worry how God will provide for us. We do not need to despair of losing what we love. All we need to do is trust in God and he will give us peace.”[10]

What a wonderful blessing is this peace which Christ has accomplished! But to whom is this peace made available? The passage at hand has been translated into English in various ways over the centuries. Most often, we would quote the words of the angels song as “Peace on earth, good will to men.” That is after all, how the King James version renders it. The NIV has, “on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests.” The New Revised Standard put it, “on earth peace among those whom He favors.” The New American Standard renders the phrase this way: “on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” The ESV is similar. These newer translations capture the sense of the original language a little better than the older English versions because they make it clear that this peace is not available to all men, but only to some – those who receive His favor, or those who are the objects of His pleasure. But who are these?

We must remember what the Bible says of the entire human race. In the days of Noah, the sinfulness of the entire human race was described this way: “the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and … every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5). Isaiah said, “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way” (53:6). In Romans 3, Paul says, “There is none righteous, not even one. There is none who understands; there is none who seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one … for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:10-12, 23). With a universal indictment such as this covering the entire human race, we can conclude that there is no human being on the earth who can earn the favor of God in his or her own ability or merits, and none who deserve the pleasure of God on our own accord. We have inherited the curse of sin from our forefather Adam, thus it is written, “through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Rom 5:12).

But remember what is written of this baby who was born in Bethlehem on that first Christmas. Thirty years after His birth, He came to the Jordan River to be baptized by John, and the silence of heaven was broken with an audible voice which declared, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” As G. Campbell Morgan writes, “Mark well the connection.”

            “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”

            “… on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”

Morgan observes,

That Baby became the Man in Whom God was pleased. Peace will come to the earth when men are like Him. That is the way of peace, and there is no other way. … The heavenly host was chanting the anthems of welcome, not merely to that Baby, but to the new race. … the race that will spring from that Baby. That Baby is the second Man; that Baby is the last Adam. From that Child, that Son of God, Child of Mary, born and laid in a manger, will spring the race which shall satisfy the Divine demands, and please the heart of God. Peace there is, peace for them. … He has come into the world in order that the race that is displeasing to God because of its sin, revolt, and pollution, may be made pleasing to God.[11]

And thus, the Bible says,

But God demonstrated His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. … For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. … For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. … so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom 5:8, 15, 17-19, 21).

And so this peace is offered to mankind in the person of the Baby who was born as our Savior, Christ the Lord. Because He pleased the Father, and the good pleasure of the Lord God rested upon Him, all who trust in Him are found pleasing to God through Him, and receive the gracious favor of His peace: Peace with God, peace within ourselves, peace with one another, peace in a world that desperately lacks it and desperately needs it. Again quoting Geldenhuys, “According as Christ is honoured and is given admission to human lives, to that extent the peace on earth, which He came to bring, becomes a glorious actuality. In so far as people live outside Him, the earth remains in a state of disorder and strife without real peace.”[12]

The song of the angels, this Gloria in Excelsis, announces to us that in Jesus Christ, God has extended the ultimate olive branch of peace to mankind, and whosoever receives Him receives that gracious offer of peace. The Gospel is Good News because unto us has been born a Savior: He was born for us; He lived for us; He died for us; He rose again for us; that by faith in Him, we might come into His Kingdom of peace and righteousness.

This song instructs on how we ourselves should view the Christmas Gospel. Everywhere this Good News of Jesus is proclaimed and received by faith, there is a joyous celebration of worship among the angels of heaven. Jesus said, “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Lk 15:10). And if there is joyous celebration in heaven with the going forth of this Gospel, then there should be on earth as well, that God’s will might be done on earth as it is in heaven. Everywhere this Good News of Jesus is proclaimed and received, the peace of God advances in a world of sin and strife. We become agents and messengers of that peace as we proclaim it, and the company of heaven’s peacemakers on the earth grows whenever one sinner turns in faith to believe this Good News and receive this Lord Jesus as their Savior.

Glory to God in the highest! On earth, peace among men with whom He is pleased!  

[1] W. Graham Scroggie, A Guide to the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1995), 371.
[2] Ibid., 380.
[3] Theodor Christlieb, “The Angels’ Message on Christmas Day.” In Wilbur Smith, Great Sermons on the Birth of Christ (Natick, Mass.: W. A. Wilde, 1963). Online at http://www.ccel.us/greatsermons.ch8.html. Accessed December 11, 2015.
[4] Thomas Dehaney Bernard, The Songs of the Holy Nativity (London: Forgotten Books, 2015), 108-109.
[5] Christlieb.
[6] Philip G. Ryken, “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” in Daniel Doriani, Philip Ryken, Richard Phillips, The Incarnation in the Gospels (Reformed Expository Commentary; Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008), 111.
[7] Quoted in Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), 112.
[8] Bernard, 112.
[9] Geldenhuys, 113.
[10] Ryken, 113.
[11] G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1931), 37-38.
[12] Geldenhuys, 113.