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Advent Sermons 2011 – the Song of the Angels


The third in my series of three sermons, preached at Ballymacashon Congregational Church in December. Forgive the ‘patchy’ style – it was written in note format for speech, rather than for publication as an essay.

The Song of the Angels

Text. Luke 2:14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men

Some years ago we attempted to publish a Christmas Card in Ulster Scots! The greeting on the front page was ‘Hae a Blythe Christmas’ and the text inside the card read, ‘Glory tae God in the hicht o’ the heivins, an’ pace in tha yard ta a’ yins.’ I don’t know if it’s a reflection on the popularity o’ the leid, or our bad sales techniques, or the possibility that Ulster Scots only exists in the minds of politicians, but the card never sold!

The verse inside that card was taken from the angels song at the birth of Christ, and the simple question that I want to ask this morning is, ‘Why did the angels sing’. (I know – strictly speaking, they didn’t sing at all, the Bible tells that the words were spoken by the angels, not sung, but let’s accept that in their spoken prose they were praising God, for that’s what Luke tells us). So, what was the purpose of their praise?

1. They sang, because no-one else was singing.
When Jesus was born, his birth was humble and lowly. It was in a cattle shed, in an inn, in a backward town in a backward country. It was the birth of a king, but there were no royal fanfares.

When a baby boy was born to a Jewish family it was always a time of great rejoicing. The event would be marked by a group of musicians and singers who would come and play at the home of the new baby. There were no singers at Jesus’s birth, for it went almost unmarked, for Mary and her husband Joseph were away from home, forced to endure primitive conditions in Bethlehem thanks to a census which had been ordered by Rome.

So no-one in this world sang for the birth of a baby boy that day in Bethlehem. But heaven sang. heaven rang out with the praises of all the heavenly host as the Christ Child entered this world. Even today this is so. He who is seated in heaven’s splendour and enthroned in glory is seldom praised in this world. He is, as Isaiah prophesied, despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. But if earth rejects Him, heaven will still praise him! Yet Christ still demands our praise. And he warns us that if we don’t praise him, the very creation itself will! Luke 19: 37 As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, 38 “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” 40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

2. They sang because shepherds were listening.
Let’s remember the story behind the text. At the time of Jesus birth there was a group of shepherds, out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks. They would have been cold, lonely and wary. They would have been alert, for the flocks were on open ground, and they would have been subject to twin dangers, the danger of wandering off and the danger of being attacked by wild animals. Alone of the old Biblical shepherds of the Old Testament, Amos, reminds us of the duties of the shepherd when he speaks of the fear that was induced in the flock and it’s attendants when a lion was heard roaring in the night. (Amos uses the automatic human response to fear the lion in the night as an illustration of the impulse to serve God. He says, The lion has roared; who will not fear?The Lord has spoken, who will not prophesy? 3:8)
Back to our story. In their heightened state of alertness, these shepherds would not have been easily fooled. So when suddenly a bright light appeared, they would have been immediately awake and ready to respond to any new situation. But the situation didn’t develop as they thought it might. This was no wild animal, for before them stood something they had never seen before. It was an angel, and they were afraid! Men who tackled lions cowered in fear before the presence of God.

This past week was the sad death of the neo-athiest Christopher Hitchens. For years Hitchens had promoted a godless agenda, and had argued loudly for his viewpoint. He was acclaimed as an intellectual, a writer, a debtor, above all things a contrarian. In a debate with Tony Blair, former PM and converted Roman Catholic, Hitchens declared that the God of the Bible was no better than a wicked dictator who ruled over a celestial version of North Korea. His brother Peter Hitchens, who takes a different view than Christopher, wrote in an obituary, that Christopher Hitchens was essentially a brave, courageous man. Perhaps so, for he was never afraid to speak out, and never afraid of his critics. But how brave can an athiest be in the presence of the God he has rejected?

But the angels on that day in Luke were not angels of death or judgement, they were angels sent to bring to earth a divine proclamation, that God was to be glorified, for Christ had come!
Now note:-
* Shepherds were despised. Ordinary, decent people looked down on shepherds. (Strange, when you consider that Moses and David, Israel’s greatest leaders were shepherds – but then, how far had the Jews of Jesus’ day departed from their faith?) Shepherds were dirty, in more than one sense of the word. They spent weeks outside the city, outside the sanitation and the comforts of the settled people. They sought out the best of the pastures and the grass, feeding flocks, wherever that meant they would be. They were unclean. But for the righteous Jew, their uncleanness was more than just a bad smell. They were CEREMONIALLY unclean. Jews who lived in settled communities and who attended worship at the synagogue or temple would be involved in ritual ceremonies and washings, which would be essential before they could worship God. The shepherds could never partake in such cleanings. They were outcasts from society, unwashed, unwanted and separated from God and religion.
It was to such men that brought the good news! Not to the priests or the worshippers in the synagogue – to the outcasts, to the sinners. It was to set the tone for the ministry of Christ, for he forwent the comforts of life, he was often shunned by the religious men of his day, he reached out to the lepers, to the women, to prostitutes, to thieves, to beggars, to lame and blind and deaf people, to SINNERS. And that means to all of us, for all have sinned and come short of God’s glory.

* Sheep were needed. Now, just because shepherds were a despised sector of society, that didn’t mean that sheep weren’t important. Of course people needed meat, so the shepherds were tolerated. But they were also needed for religious purposes, so the priests who despised the shepherds needed the lambs, for the ritual sacrifices in the temple demanded that a pure lamb, without spot or blemish be provided every day, morning and evening. History tells us that such a herd was maintained on the hills around Bethlehem, and Luke records in his meticulous way that these particular shepherds were abiding in the fields, in the same country. Wouldn’t it be the supreme irony, if these outcasts shepherds were keeping the flocks, for the temple sacrifices, which in and of themselves could never take away sin, and they were chosen to hear the news of the arrival of the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world?

So it was for sinners that the angels sang! The angel delivered his message, and SUDDENLY, there appeared into them a great multitude of ‘The Heavenly Host’. We can only imagine what that experience was like! As the news came of the birth of Christ, the whole universe was lit up with heaven’s glory and God’s praise was proclaimed!

3. They sang because the Saviour was born.
Look at some of the words that Luke uses in his account of the angels’ message:
* An end to fear! For the shepherds, as we have noticed, fear was their constant companion. For us too! Without Christ we live in fear. Fear of death, fear of eternity, fear of illness. The coming of the Saviour means no more fear. John the apostle wrote, There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. John 4:18-19
* Good News for men! The best news of all, for there is hope.
* Great Joy! For those who meet this Saviour will have his joy, and his peace, dwelling in their hearts.
* A Saviour is Born! And that’s the key. Jesus has come and he is not just any child, he is the Saviour. His name indicates his nature, ‘You shall call his name Jesus for he shall save his people from their sins’

Matthew Henry writes, Let God have the honour of this work: Glory to God in the highest. God’s good-will to men, manifested in sending the Messiah, redounds very much to his praise; and angels in the highest heavens, though not immediately interested in it themselves, will celebrate it to his honour, Rev. v. 11, 12.
Glory to God, whose kindness and love designed this favour, and whose wisdom contrived it in such a way as that one divine attribute should not be glorified at the expense of another, but the honour of all effectually secured and advanced. Other works of God are for his glory, but the redemption of the world is for his glory in the highest.

The angels sang, and the heavens rang, God’s praise was manifest to simple sinners, and the Saviour’s coming was proclaimed. Let us all sing his praises!

The rest of the story is well known. The shepherds conferred among themselves, and decided to find this child, and they made their way to Bethlehem, where they found the baby, lying in a manger. That meeting changed their lives, for as Luke records, 2:20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

From → Sermon Notes

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