THE ANGELS SING
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The superpower of the world is under new leadership. This leader is known for having saved his country from disaster. Saved it from internal strife, civil war even. He was known as the one who made everything better. One inscription about him reads like this – “for when everything was falling (into disorder) and tending toward dissolution, he restored it once more and gave the whole world a new aura…” He was the one who had made Rome great again. Caesar, the common good fortune of all. The one who founded the Roman Empire. The one who knew just what the Empire needed. The founder of what became known as the Pax Roman – the Roman Peace. The bringer of peace in our time.
Except that this peace was brought about under the Roman boot. Life wasn’t so peaceful for everyone, you see. Especially those in Roman client states – places that were set up as buffer zones between Romans and those barbarians on the other side of the border. Constant wars of imperial expansion were fought along the edges of the Roman Empire. When it came to conquest the Romans were not so much about hearts and minds. It was more “Shut up and listen and give us stuff and if you get too uppity we will come in and crush you.” Peace meant maintaining Roman interests you see.
Luke is an historian and he sets up the story of the birth of Christ in the context of what was going on in 1st century Judea. In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. All went to their own towns to be registered. When you lived in a client state you did what the Empire said. Luke goes from this high level 30,000 foot view and zooms in to a couple who travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the city of David, because that’s from whom Joseph was descended.
Friends we look at the geo-political situation in our world today. We look at so much that is unknown. While we look, know that God is working out his purposes. God is working out his purposes in the lives of individuals. God is working out his purposes in the lives of Christ’s followers. We’ve heard about the promises that were made to Mary. How she would bear a son who would establish the throne of David forever. We have heard the song of Zechariah which praised God for raising up a savior – a deliverer. One who would show the mercy that had been promised by God. We’ve heard about angelic visitations. Women being filled with the Holy Spirit and a child leaping in the womb. We’ve seen new life come from a place from which no life was expected. We’ve seen God’s purposes being worked out in miraculous ways.
There’s nothing particularly miraculous in Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth. We look at our Nativity scene with, as one writer describes its “soft glow”. Angels hovering. Wise men kneeling. Shepherds praising. The wise men and the shepherds didn’t come until later (and we’ll get to the shepherds of course). We have a couple who are in a bit of a desperate situation. There was no room for them in the inn. It’s not about making a reservation. It’s thought this word for inn might signify a communal lodging place or even a family dwelling. Joseph and Mary were not people of means, you see. While they were there, the time came to deliver her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son… Nineteen words, but for anyone who has had a child or witnessed a birth, you know what that involves. The excitement, the trepidation, the pain, the joy. They wrapped him in swaddling cloth to keep his little limbs straight. The laid him in a feeding trough, because that was what was nearby.
We find Christ in the most unlikely places. Have you known this? The thing about Christ is, we don’t need to go to places that might be inaccessible to us. Christ was not born in a Roman palace, or even a Judean palace. We do not need to go to the Toronto’s 50 Most Influential People party to encounter Christ. This is a good thing because I could not get into that party (though if you went I’m sure it was a good time!). Have you known encountering Christ in the everyday? In the so-called mundane? The Son of God appearing in a feeding trough in Bethlehem means that we can live with eyes of faith in a world in which nothing will ever be just mundane again. We encounter God in the everyday.
We should share these stories of encountering Christ in the everyday. A young woman who has spent time in a shelter encounters Christ sitting across from Pastor Abby in a coffee place. The young woman has questions of God and feels that Pastor Abby is a good person to talk to about her questions and she’s right. While they sit in an everyday coffee place these two are encountering Christ. God uses whomever is at hand – amazing! A young man who has been going to the Christ the King morning service at Crimson Tea in Chinatown wants to be baptized. First Baptist downtown agrees that they will use their baptismal tank to do this and a young man follows Christ through the waters of baptism while Rev. Keith Ganzer wears the Blythwood clergy baptismal robe. Christ is encountered and God uses what is at hand. On a Saturday night a group of people who are keenly aware of their need for redemption come forward for communion and eat Matzah crackers that were purchased earlier that day from a local supermarket. Everyday things and God is in all of them. We’ll do that God willing this Saturday night too. There is nothing miraculous about a feeding trough, a coffee shop, a baptismal tank, or matzah crackers, and there is something miraculous in all of these things when God is there and when God gives us eyes of faith to see him there.
May God give us eyes of faith.
To remind us of the miraculous-ness going on here, Luke changes the scene to some fields nearby. While there’s no glow in the manger scene, there’s certainly a glow here. Everyday people working in a field. People who weren’t even very well thought of. Shepherds of the day generally being viewed as shifty. Itinerant. You had to keep an eye on your stuff when they were around. An angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. The angel of the Lord brings the message of Christmas. The same message we’ve been hearing here these Sunday mornings since Nov 27 – To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This threefold description of Christ which is preached by the church in Acts and has been proclaimed now for over 2,000 years. Jesus the Saviour. Our deliverer. Jesus the Messiah – the Christ. The chosen one. The Lord. The one to whom our ultimate allegiance is owed because it is right and fitting and proper to pledge our allegiance to this King who is right now lying in a feeding trough in Bethlehem.
This is the good news friends.
And then we have this great scene where we read “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.’” My father used to say about this scene, the angels had never seen anything like this before. They had never seen God do anything like this before. They’d seen him create galaxies, planets, people. They had seen him do wonderful things. Look what He had done now though. He had gone down to be amongst those people he created out of love. To be among those people. To be among us. To show that his favour rests on his creation. Imagine the rejoicing that was going on. The veil between heaven and earth is torn, at least for some moments, and heavenly praise rings out over that hitherto dark field and those shepherds and their sheep. I wonder what the sheep thought…. J
This message that the angels are singing is the same one that we proclaim today. That inscription about Caesar Augustus I was talking about earlier goes on like this: and whereas Caesar, [when he was manifest], transcended the expectations of [all who had anticipated the good news], not only by surpassing the benefits conferred by his predecessors but by leaving no expectation of surpassing him to those who would come after him, with the result that the birthday of our God (τοῦ θεοῦ) signalled (ἦρξεν δὲ τῶι κὀσμωι τῶι δι᾽ αὐτὸν εὐαγγελίων ἡ γενέυλιος ἡμέρα τοῦ θεοῦ) the beginning of Good News for the world because of him;
These are words about Caesar.
The angels are announcing the Prince of Peace in direct opposition to this. We get this don’t we? There are those here who heard the promise of “Peace for our time.” You know how that turned out. There are those old enough to remember talk of the peace dividend. The New World Order that was going to bring about peace and we would have so much money to direct away from defense spending as the former Eastern Bloc countries and the USSR turned to democracy and free(er) markets. We know how that turned out. Many of us remember the Mission Accomplished sign and the questions that arose about just what exactly was accomplished. Our world tells us that the right electoral system, the right leader, military strength, whatever, will bring us peace.
The message that echoes down through the years is that peace is to be found in Christ. Peace starts from an individual’s turn toward this baby who is lying in that manger. The manger whose wood reminds us of the cross on which love and mercy and justice would come together.
And nothing would ever be the same again.
The scene ends rather abruptly. When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” They step out in faith, believing the message just as Mary had and just as Zechariah had. The light is gone. They come upon this rather ordinary scene. A young woman. Her husband. Their baby. I suppose the feeding trough bit would have been a bit unusual, but perhaps not overly so. They make known what had been told them about this child. They confirm for Mary what she had heard from Gabriel. She treasures all these words and ponders them in her heart. The shepherds return to their everyday, but everything has changed. They return glorifying and praising God – making God’s ways known, in other words, for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
They had reason to rejoice you see.
They had met Christ. They had met salvation. They had met the promise. They returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. We’re going to be returning too. Back to life. Guests gone home. Back from abroad for some. The tree by the curb. The decorations put away for another year. We have something to do though. Glorifying God. Making God’s name known in our words, in our deeds maybe more importantly. I often say that it’s through making God known in our deeds that we get the opportunity to speak of God.
We go back to life. All the promises have not come about for the shepherds, for Mary, for Zechariah. All the promises have not come about for us have they. We don’t go through life like Pollyannas, pretending that everything is ok. That there is no sorrow, no suffering. We wait for the day though, when God will wipe every tear from every eye. When we will hear that voice saying “Look, I am making all things new.” One writer puts it like this about salvation - “it connotes to be sure, the attainment of eternal life. But it begins when people discern instances of God’s faithfulness in their lives that become ‘signs’ of a completion to come.” Do you know salvation? Have you met Christ? How have you been able to discern in your life the promises that God has kept? Peace? Directing your way? Changing you? Giving you a new heart? A heart of flesh? May we ponder these things this Christmas friends as we consider what it means that in Christ, God with us, just as Mary pondered all these things in her heart. If you haven’t met Christ, you can meet him this Christmas. Meet him this morning. Pray that you want to be caught up in God’s Great Deliverance Project, because this is where our peace, where our joy, is to be found. May these things be true for all of this Christmas friends. A Happy and Blessed Christmas to each and every one.