READ : Luke 2:13-14
What does Christmas truly mean? The angels tell us in the song they sang to the shepherds: it means glory for God, and peace for us.
St. Augustine introduced one of his Christmas sermons with these words:
Listen to what you know. Reflect on what you’ve heard. Love what you believe. Preach what you love. Just as we celebrate the yearly coming of this day, so you may expect the sermon that is this day’s due.
And so may you today. Don’t expect to hear anything new or creative. After 2,000 years it’s a little difficult to say anything new about today’s good news. This is the 31st Christmas since I’ve been ordained. So for the 31st time I’m going to share the Christmas gospel. I don’t think we would want anything different today, would we? So, listen to what you already know and reflect on what you’ve heard many times before. Love what you believe and I’ll preach what we all love.
The Story of Christmas
Today we hear again the song of the angels. This is the last of Luke’s great Christmas songs, the Gloria in excelsis, “Glory to God in the Highest.” In this song we see most clearly revealed the meaning and purpose of the incarnation. The newspapers are full of Christmas stories this time of year. You can read about Christmas in the Business Section, with its daily update on how consumer spending is running. And if you look at the televison listings you’ll see all those great seasonal movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Carol.”
But the story of the first Christmas starts on the front page of the newspaper, with the headline, “Caesar Augustus Decides Upon Tax Hike.”After all, running an empire was an expensive business. There were navies to keep afloat, armies to be maintained. And that takes a lot of money. To get money you need taxes. To collect taxes in an efficient manner you need people to be registered properly.
So, Caesar decides, let’s make everybody go back to the town of their ancestors’ birth and then we’ll get an accurate count of just how many citizens we have in this diverse empire of ours. This is headline stuff. Think of the imperial staff churning out copies of the edict and couriers hurrying to the far flung provinces with orders for each imperial governor. Think of old governor Cyrenius out there in Syria, of which a sub-department was Palestine.
Finally the word gets passed on to Herod, who’s ruling in the name of Rome in Jerusalem. Then up to Galilee where one of Herod’s relatives is in control. The wheels of Caesar’s vast bureaucratic machine keep turning, and eventually force one young couple to travel when otherwise they would have stayed home. After all she was just a girl, and in an advanced stage of pregnancy. But her betrothed Joseph’s family was from elsewhere, so Mary and he have to go from Nazareth in Galilee the 80 miles down to Bethlehem.
Caesar believed he was in control of events, making things happen for the sake of the empire. But behind all the headlines the real story was how God was moving a couple of ordinary people from one place to another so that his word might be fulfilled and his plan set in motion.
Somebody is always calling for a census or staging a war or holding an election or declaring himself emperor. Those are the headline stories in all of history. But the real story isn’t found in any of those headlines. The real story of history is what God is doing through ordinary people to redeem his world. It’s what God is doing through the Josephs and the Marys, the carpenters and the young virgins, and the old priests and the prophetesses who are humbly looking for the salvation of God to come.
There’s a wonderful line in an ancient book called the Wisdom of Solomon: “While all things were in quiet silence and the night was in her swift course, Thine Almighty Word leaped down from heaven, out of Thy royal throne.” That’s what’s really going on in the world. It’s not about the marching armies or the bureaucrats fanning out to rake in the tax money. It’s the story of the Almighty Word of God, in the stillness of the night, leaping down from heaven’s throne to come into the world through the womb of a humble, obedient, faith-filled girl.
Angels from the Realms of Glory
It happens, as we all know, in Bethlehem. In the night. The child is born and wrapped in swaddling cloths. For a sign, he’s laid in a manger. God did not leave himself completely without a witness to this utterly extraordinary event. It’s true that nobody in the palace in Jerusalem—let alone Rome—paid much attention. It’s true the child was not wrapped in the imperial purple of Caesar.
But God did not leave himself without a witness. In his usual way, however, it’s an upside-down, topsy-turvy kind of witness. For the angelic host appear to a group of shepherds, people who were usually considered to be disreputable because, among other things, they often did not keep the Sabbath properly. You know how farming or herding is. It’s a 24/7 kind of a job, and you don’t always get to church like you should. Yet to these field hands the angel of the Lord appears, and the glory of the Lord shines round about them. The words of the Christmas gospel are first spoken to them: “To you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord.”
“And suddenly,” Luke writes, “there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those whom he favors.'” That is the angels’ Christmas song: Glory to God in heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom he is pleased, on whom his favor rests.
Angels aren’t like us. I suppose you do realize that. But the difference doesn’t just lie in the obvious things. It’s not that they are spirits and we are flesh, or that they are perfect and we’re not. The great difference, beyond these obvious things, lies in our respective world views. The angels, you see, have a theocentric world view. That is, they focus on God. And we, even those of us who should know better, tend to focus on ourselves. So our first impulse on hearing the Christmas news is to think, “What’s in it for me?” But the angels’ first impulse is to think, “What’s in it for God?” And the answer, in a word, is GLORY. “Glory to God in the highest.”
If you stop and think for a moment, I’m sure you’ll agree that the angels’ view is the right one. For what could be more glorifying to God than what happened at Christmas, this breathtaking act of taking on human nature in order to rescue lost human beings? Seriously, who else could have thought of such a plan to save? Who else could have pulled it off? Who else would have wanted to? Infinite wisdom, infinite power, and infinite love all combine to produce the Incarnation. And not only does it glorify God in and of itself, but it will make it possible for us to glorify him, too, for the Christmas message proclaims peace to men and women on whom God’s favor now rests. No wonder the angels sing.
To God Alone the Glory
The Westminster Catechism opens with a famous answer to the question, “What is the chief end of man?” “It is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” This is what we were made for, what we were meant to be and do. We were made for worship and joy. But the fact is, we can’t do that, not any more. Our natures have been spoiled.
There’s a table knife in our kitchen silverware drawer that bothers me every time I see it. It seems to wind up at my place setting more often than you’d think it would. What bothers me is that the knife’s end is twisted and bent. If truth be told, it is my fault. In the kitchen one day I noticed that the screws in a cabinet door were loose. Rather than walking over to the drawer where we keep the screwdriver, I took out a table knife and tightened them. But when I had finished I realized I had bent the knife tip. You see, the chief end of a table knife is to cut food and butter bread. It’s not to drive screws in. When you misuse something according to its natural purpose you spoil it for achieving that purpose any longer.
The sadness of our world is due to the fact that people who were made by God and for God, to glorify and enjoy God, misuse their freedom and look for their enjoyment elsewhere. And now, on our own, we can find neither God nor lasting joy. We are now bent; we’re twisted just a little bit. But the gospel good news is that the same God who brings glory to himself through the incarnation, and even greater glory through the cross and resurrection, makes it possible for us to be changed, to have a new nature, to be straightened and untwisted, to be brought back into fellowship with him, and to begin to glorify him. Someday that work will be finished perfectly and we will live in his presence in joy forever.
This favor of God that the angels proclaimed, I’m convinced, isn’t just for a chosen few. I think it’s for anyone and everyone who is willing to accept the Christmas news with a believing heart. Are you willing to do that? Believe this Christmas gospel and live in peace. And Soli Deo Gloria—to God alone be the glory. Amen.