Christmas Sermon 2007
“The Angel’s Sermon”
Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: you will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” 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, goodwill toward men!”
St. Luke 2:8-14
The angel told the shepherds of the baby. It was a short sermon with two parts. First he said who the baby was. Then he said where to find the baby. Who was the baby? He was their Savior. He was the promised Christ. He was the Lord God. Where would they find the baby? They would find him wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.
First one angel preached a two part sermon. Then a multitude of angels sang a hymn with two verses. The first verse is, “Glory to God in the highest.” The second verse is, “And on earth peace, goodwill, toward men.”
It’s kind of like going to church, isn’t it? One man preaches a sermon. The whole congregation sings hymns. And, just like the shepherds, we look for the signs in order to find the Savior who is Christ the Lord. The shepherds looked for a baby wrapped in strips of cloth lying in a manger. We look for bread and wine that is consecrated by Christ’s almighty words to be his body and blood. We eat bread and we drink wine. With these simple signs we receive the body and the blood of the same Lord Jesus Christ who was laid in a manger so long ago. The shepherds look upon Jesus lying in a manger. They and we can say with Simeon that we have seen our salvation, which God has prepared before the face of all people.
We think of how different things were then from the way they are now. We’ve never heard an angel preach to say nothing of hearing a multitude of angels sing. We don’t tend sheep in Palestine, we don’t speak Aramaic or even Greek, and we cannot see Jesus in the flesh. Looking around for babies lying in mangers will not lead you to Jesus. That sign was for them and it was for then. We are not there. We are here.
But things aren’t so different for us than they were for the shepherds. In fact, things are really very much the same. They were afraid when they witnessed the glory of God. So are we. They were told in no uncertain terms that the Savior was born to them, for them, as their Savior. We are told the same thing. They were given signs by which to find their Savior. So are we. They heard a hymn that joined together God’s glory in heaven and his goodwill toward us here on earth. And so do we.
They were afraid when they witnessed the glory of God. There’s a reason for this fear. It isn’t because God is so very great and we are so very small. It isn’t because God knows so much and we know so little. It isn’t because God is so powerful and we are so weak. The real reason we are afraid of God’s glory is that God is holy and we are sinners.
There is a comfort in God being great when we know he is on our side. There is also an assurance in his omniscience and a sense of safety in his power. We would not run away from a great, all-knowing, and almighty God if this God were for us; if he approved of us and accepted us as we are.
But it is our sin within – our accusing conscience – that makes the glory of God so terrifying. Moses hid underneath the cleft of a rock on Mt. Sinai so as to avoid witnessing the glory of God in his uncovered holiness. Even then, the children of Israel could not look straight at Moses’ face when he came off of the mountain, for the glory of God’s holiness, reflected in Moses’ face, was too terrifying for them to look at.
This is why people run away from God, deny him, and make a god within themselves to follow. He may be as small, and ignorant, and weak as its maker, but at least he’s a sinner like we are and so can hardly judge. Consider the pagan gods and goddesses that were invented by the ancients. These gods and goddesses were all sinners. They weren’t to be feared the way you would fear a holy God.
The guilty runs away when no one is chasing him. And so we’re poised to run. We’ve misused God’s name by failing to pray to him with sincere hearts. We’ve abused the Sabbath by valuing any number of things more highly than the preaching of God’s word. We’ve dishonored those in authority over us, pointing out their sins, and excusing our disobedience on account of their weakness. We’ve ignored our neighbor’s bodily needs. We’ve dishonored marriage by lust, pride, and selfishness. We’ve been dissatisfied with what belongs to us and have sought more at the expense of others. We’ve hurt the neighbor’s reputation in order to advance our own. And all this has been witnessed by a great, all-knowing, and almighty God who appears here on earth with all his glory. So we cower in fear with the shepherds of long ago.
And we hear the same sermon from the angel of the Lord. In the Old Testament, the angel of the Lord was a reference to Christ before he was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary. It was the angel of the Lord who told Abraham not to kill Isaac on Mt. Moriah. It was the angel of the Lord who appeared to Moses at the burning bush. It was Christ. Before he took upon himself our human nature he was called the angel of the Lord.
And it is an angel of the Lord who says to the terrified shepherds:
Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
Here is no mere information. It’s not as if the angel is just passing on religious news to which they might want to give heed should they find the time. No, this is a personal message from God himself to you. You run away from the holy God because of your sin. But listen to the angel. He’s talking to you. He says that the good tidings of great joy are for all people. That means you. He says, “There is born to you,” and that means you. Don’t run away. Stop where you are and listen! The angel of the Lord is addressing you. The Lord Jesus is addressing you. Your Savior is talking. He has come to rescue you from the sins that accuse you. He joins himself to your own flesh and blood in order to become your holy substitute in living and in dying. He, the eternal Son of the eternal Father, has come to make you God’s child. And he is telling you where he may be found.
The shepherds were given signs. Those signs have long gone. We don’t really know where the manger went. The swaddling cloths have disappeared. That was for then. If they had looked for their Lord and Savior in a home fit for him they never would have found him. They were directed to humble signs – strips of cloth wrapped around a baby who is lying in a manger – and so it was to those signs that they went to find their Savior.
And it is to the signs that we go. I may feel God’s holiness accusing me, but there is a sign of water poured over my head with my name joined to the name of the Holy Trinity. That sign signifies to me that, while I may feel my guilt and unworthiness before God, in fact I am born again and am filled with the Holy Spirit.
I feel a fear within when God sees me as I am and then I am invited to receive the bread and the wine. The bread signifies the body that lay in the manger and was later nailed to the cross. The wine signifies the blood that was shed once and for all for the forgiveness of sins. But more than that, the signs of bread and wine have actually become – by the almighty power of Christ’s Word – the body and blood by which I am forgiven of all my sins.
The shepherds heard a heavenly choir sing the first and best Christmas carol every sung. And we join together Christmas after Christmas to sing wonderful hymns and songs that teach the Christmas truth. The truth is that the glory of God in heaven is joined to the peace and goodwill we have from God right here on earth. What joins heaven to earth is the Child lying in a manger. And this is what we sing. We sing together the faith we confess together. It is not just the sentiment of our hearts; it is the divinely guaranteed, immutable promise that God has come to us in love. He has come to right every wrong, to forgive every sin, to establish peace between himself and us, and to bring that peace to us.
Peace, goodwill toward men. Not, as some translations say, “Peace to men of goodwill.” No, Christmas is for sinners who have no goodwill of their own. It is for those who would run away from God because they are afraid of his holiness. It is for us. And it is God telling us that he has given us his own eternal Son to be our Savior from sin, death, and eternal damnation.
Don’t run away from God, dear Christian. His glory is not to hurt you, but to bring you peace and goodwill. Run to him. Don’t look for him in your own strivings, good deeds, or pious efforts to please. This will bring you no peace. Instead, look for him in your baptism where God adopted you as his holy child. Look for him in his holy Supper where his life giving body and blood are given to you for the forgiveness of your sins. Look to him in his holy Word that infallibly declares to you his peace and goodwill. Come to church to join the shepherds in finding Jesus where the divinely appointed signs have shown him to be. And then glorify our God become our brother with hymns inspired by the angels’ song.
Rolf D. Preus