December 25, 2016
“The Angels’ Sermon is the Christian’s Song”
St. Luke 2:13-14
“And suddenly 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, good will toward men!’”
Is it a hymn or a sermon? It is both. Sermons are God’s word to us. Hymns are our words to God. God has a conversation with us and we have a conversation with God. When the Word becomes incarnate many words are spoken. God speaks. We speak. And the speaking is all about Jesus.
They say we should put Christ back into Christmas. I don’t know how we can do such a thing. Nobody can take him out of Christmas. Nobody can put him in Christmas. God didn’t consult the world to obtain its approval before sending his Son to be born of a virgin and to become the Savior of sinners. He did what his love required of him. We cannot put Christ in Christmas nor can we take Christ out of Christmas. We can listen to God’s words about Christmas and we can respond with our own.
This is what we do every Sunday. The pastor sings: “Glory be to God on high” and the congregation replies: “And on earth peace good will toward men.” We sing to God the same words the angels preached to the shepherds. God preaches and we confess. The words are the same. What he says is so because he says it. We say what he says. This is how we know we are saying the truth.
The Gloria in Excelsis is the sermon God preached to the shepherds through his angels. The Gloria in Excelsis has been an essential part of the Church’s liturgy from the earliest days. The Gloria in Excelsis has inspired countless songs and hymns over the years because these words capture so beautifully the true meaning of Christmas. So we consider these words once again this Christmas.
“Glory be to God on high.” He is on high, in the highest, exalted above this world, the ruler over all that exists, living in that unapproachable light that no mortal man can see and live to tell about it. He is untouched by sin, sickness, and death. He alone has immortality. He alone is holy. We cannot stand in judgment of him. He is the Creator and Judge of all. He created us. He gave us life. He generously provided us with all that we have that is good. Glory be to God in the highest! It is his due. It is our obligation.
“On earth peace, good will toward men.” The inspired text does not say on earth peace to men of good will as if we need to produce the good will in order to have divine peace. The inspired text does not say on earth peace to those who have God’s good will as if the peace and the good will are intended for some and not for others. No, the inspired text says what it says in the Gloria in Excelsis that we have learned from childhood and sing here in God’s house every Sunday morning except during Advent and Lent. It says: “On earth peace, good will toward men.” The peace of Christmas is not limited to certain people. It is for everyone. The good will of God is for everyone. When the eternal Son of the eternal Father took on our flesh and blood in the womb of the Virgin Mary and was made man, God himself joined the human race forever. He did not join himself only to those who loved him or worshipped him or confessed him faithfully. He joined himself to all of humanity. He assumed a human nature. He took upon himself the human nature that is common to every man, woman, and child who has ever lived or will ever live. Since the eternal Word became flesh – the flesh common to all humanity – the divine peace and good will was declared to all of humanity.
God became flesh. We call this the incarnation. Consider today the implications of the incarnation. God has joined the human race. So you tell me, to whom has He joined Himself? This holy, transcendent, exalted, unapproachable, immortal God: to whom did he join himself when he was born in Bethlehem? He joined himself to idolaters and blasphemers, lawless murderers, adulterers, and thieves, liars and perjurers, and every other sort of sinner there is in the world. The self-righteous are scandalized by such reckless love. Don’t talk like that! But the angels’ voice won’t be silenced. “Peace on earth, good will toward men.” That’s the sermon, and it cannot be denied without robbing God of his greatest glory in heaven.
The glory of Christmas is an offense to human pride. This is why the truth about Christmas is covered up. The message of divine condescension is turned into a message of human potential. God’s grace is denied in favor of exalting human sentiments of love. The spirit of Christmas is stolen away from God. The glory of God is denied. Christmas becomes a metaphor for whatever human goals are unmet. The Christ Child is rendered into a sentimental prop to make us feel good about being religious.
But Christ will not let himself be torn out of Christmas in this way. God is the One who is glorified in the birth of his Son. God’s glory is that he would be gracious to undeserving sinners. This is the whole purpose of the incarnation. God became a man in order to do as a man what mankind failed to do. God became our brother in order to meet the righteous demands he placed upon us. He has every right to require holiness of us. He is holy and he created us to be holy. He has every right to require us to love him and one another. God is love and he created us in love and he created us to love. And God has every right to condemn sinners.
The angels know this. They live in God’s holy presence. They reflect his glory. This is why the shepherds were so afraid. They saw the glory of God shining as a reflection in the angels who appeared to them. They were terrified because they knew that holiness cannot tolerate sin.
And yet the holy God comes to sinners he cannot tolerate. Does he change His mind? Does he decide that sin isn’t such a bad thing after all? So what if the people he created in his image worship themselves and their things and their pleasures instead of him? So what if they ignore what he teaches, twisting and turning his truth into lies and then arrogantly dismissing his pure teaching by insisting that there’s no such thing? So what if they defiantly attempt to silence his law? So what if they fight against each other and make war and every kind of violence in service to their own greed and pride? So what if they break their promises and cheat and steal and lie about it? So what? This is what. The soul that sins it shall die. This is what. Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the book of the law. This is what God’s threatens and God will not be mocked.
So then, why does the Holy God come to sinners that he cannot tolerate? Listen to the angels and they will tell you. He comes to make peace. He comes to the very sinners he cannot tolerate. He comes to join the human race so that he might offer up to divine justice what his holiness and love require. He comes to establish peace. This peace doesn’t exist in human institutions. Even within the hearts of Christians who are being sanctified by the Holy Spirit this peace is only partial. The true and pure and holy peace that Christ came to establish he established in himself. From the manger to the cross he loved with a purity and devotion the world has never known. From an innocent birth to a dutiful childhood to an obedient manhood to the innocent suffering and death of the cross he lived as God required us all to live. The peace of which the angels sang was a promise that this innocent little baby would bear in his sacred body the sin of the whole world. The righteousness of this holy One would then be reckoned to all those for whom he came.
He came for thieves, liars, fornicators, and murderers. He came for drunkards and druggies. He came for those who outwardly present a very pious façade while inwardly they crave every evil thing. He came in order to live and die for these people. He came for you. And the peace of which the angels sang is God’s good will toward you. He doesn’t come to chide you or condemn you. He comes to love you all the way to the cross. He does what you were obliged to do. He does it as your substitute. He reckons to you his own righteousness, even as he willingly bears all your sin. All the bad that you did he suffers so that all the good that he did you would receive. A blessed exchange takes place as he assumes our nature in order to exalt us to heaven.
He comes as our God. He comes as our dear brother. And he comes to bring a kingdom of peace that will never end.
God debases the proud and exalts the humble. He announced his birth to shepherds. They had no status but that which they received by God’s grace. And so it must be for us. What do we claim this Christmas? What do we offer up to God? What can we give the One who has everything?
We offer him the sin he washed away. We confess our sins. We confess that we need Christ. We cannot live without him, his righteousness, and the forgiveness that comes from him alone. We offer him our praise. We glorify him with the words he has preached to us from the angels. We have God’s peace and goodwill. This we will assert and confess and on this promise we will stand. We do not claim our own good will. We claim God’s good will for Christ’s sake. We claim Christ. For Christ’s sake we are forgiven. For Christ’s sake we can forgive. We see in the manger a love that captures our hearts.
Rolf D. Preus