Preached at the Upper Room on Christmas Eve, 2013.
Glory to God in the highest.
And on earth peace among those on whom his favor rests.
We likely are well familiar with these words the angels speak to the Shepherds. When we read them, we may associate them with the voice of a pastor reading them in a church we attended, or with a choir singing them in a performance of Handel’s Messiah, or with the voice of Linus reciting them in the Peanuts Christmas special.
They sound like words of worship – “Glory to God in the highest.”
And they sound like a nice greeting for angels to give to shepherds – “On earth, peace among those on whom his favor rests.” Peace (Shalom in Hebrew) was a common greeting in Israel. It still is. And so these words the angels speak sound typical. Like words of a nice greeting or well wishes. Not much different from saying “good morning” or “have a nice day” to a friend.
On earth, peace among those on whom his favor rests.
However, even this early in Luke’s story of Jesus (we’re only in chapter 2), we’ve learned that words spoken by angels have an uncanny propensity for becoming completely true.
Already an angel has promised Zechariah that he and his wife Elizabeth would give birth to John the Baptist. The angel Gabriel told Mary that she would give birth to Jesus. And now an angel has told shepherds that the Christ is born – news confirmed to be true by the time we finished reading our Scripture passage tonight.
If angels say that there is peace on earth among those favored by God, we should probably expect it to be completely true. Not just a nice wish. Not just figuratively true. Not just ‘inner peace.’ But complete, 100% real peace on earth.
And that peace lives and abides among the favored people of God.
This afternoon, as I was finishing work on this sermon, I was sitting in the 61B cafe, where Chris works. Chris had actually just left and a new barista started her shift. Chris had been playing WYEP (91.3) on the radio, and the new barista turned it off. (I was disappointed because the DJ had just said they were going to play the Chipmunks Christmas song.) But then I was delighted by what I heard. Words and melody that were very familiar to me – the sound of a child singing, Once in Royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed…”
I immediately knew that the barista was playing a recording of the annual Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings college.
I love that every year Kings College begins their Nine Lessons and Carols with a child singing Once in Royal David’s City. It bears witness to the fact that the coming of the Son of God, and the coming of peace on earth starts small. And it was striking that in a relatively busy cafe, where a number of people were sitting at tables doing their work, and others were ordering coffee, the message of good news of great joy once heralded by angels was piercing through the air.
I began to think to myself, “How many times is it possible for a hymn of praise to be played in a public, “secular” coffee shop?” The reality is Christmas is one of the few times it’s possible.
I then began to think about all that the Jesus’ birth makes possible.
The story of Jesus’s birth shows us that seeing angels, and experiencing the glory of the Lord shining around you, is just as likely to happen at your job (even a menial job that most people don’t want, like shepherding) as it is to happen in a church.
The story of Jesus’ birth shows us that the work of angels is also our work. Just as the angels proclaimed good news of great joy to the shepherds and then praised God saying “glory to God.” So too the shepherds made known the saying that had been told them, and returned to their homes glorifying and praising God.
The story of Jesus’ birth shows us that the savior of the world is approachable, relatable, and for us. The sign that the angels give to the shepherds, that they will find the baby Jesus “wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” is considerably unremarkable. Wrapping a baby in swaddling clothes was the common practice in rural villages. And despite how out of the ordinary it sounds to us, in ancient Israel mangers were kept in the family room of a home, and always doubled as cribs. The point is this: The shepherds are told that the savior of the world is born, and will be found in a context that for them was entirely familiar and approachable. Imagine how difficult or intimidating it would be for the shepherds to visit Jesus if he were born in some exceptional way. If Jesus were born in a royal palace, he would have been inaccessible to shepherds and others on the lower rungs of society. But being wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger means that Jesus is accessible to all.
The story of Jesus’ birth tells us that peace on earth is possible and begins with the favored people of God; with us. We live in a world that is longing for peace. And a life of genuinely following Jesus, begets peace, and that is good news of great joy.
This year, on Facebook, the number one most posted-about topic around the world was Pope Francis. People found joy in the fact that the Pope was leading the church’s leadership to greater simplicity. People found joy when he invited a boy with down syndrom to ride with him in the Pope mobile. People found joy when he embraced and kissed a man with a genetic disorder. People found joy when he had a Maundy Thursday footwashing service in a youth prison where he washed the feet of teenage prisoners. People found joy when he invited homeless men to join his birthday dinner celebration. And recently the media discovered evidence that Pope Francis might be sneaking out of the Vatican at night and personally giving money to the homeless and poor.
All that Pope Francis is doing are the things any follower of Jesus is supposed to do. And the world is receiving it as good news. That’s not to say that if and when we follow Jesus, we’ll make the news or be a buzz topic on social media. We’re not high-profile, public figures whom the world is watching. But it does show that any who do see us following Jesus will be seeing good news of great joy when we live a life of following Jesus. The coming of Jesus really is good news of great joy for all the people. And good news of great joy begets peace.
Friends, Christ is born this day. Let us join the angels and shepherds in glorying and praising God. And let us with the shepherds and the whole Church, tell and do all that we have seen and heard of our savior. For peace on earth has come. And it abides in us , for we are the favored people of God.
Glory to God in the highest.
And on earth peace among those with whom he is well pleased.