Christmas Day Sermon 2004
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!” Luke 2:13-14
I know that Christians like to fuss and fret about how secularists are trying to take Christ out of Christmas, but I don’t believe that the biggest threat to Christmas comes from those who replace “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays.” Secularists are easy to spot. It’s the religious crowd that poses the greatest danger. After all, there’s nothing wrong with making money by selling things people want to buy. If capitalists want to capitalize on a holiday season, why should we begrudge anyone an honest profit for services rendered? The freedom to engage in commercial activity helps to create jobs, provide a tax base for government services, and move resources from producers to consumers in an efficient way. Go ahead and make money on Christmas. There’s nothing wrong with that.
The real threat to Christmas doesn’t come from secularist grinches or greedy capitalists. It comes from religious people. Ever since Satan promised Adam and Eve that they would be like God, religious folks have been pretending that they know God’s mind better than He does. Nowhere is this more obvious than with the many religious explanations of Christmas. People are not only incurably religious, they are incurably humanistic. That is, they impose their own manmade notions on God and attempt to remake God in their own image. Secularists and capitalists are easy to spot. I wouldn’t worry about them stealing Christmas away from us. Watch instead and beware of the religious observers of Christmas who set out to exchange the Christmas message of the angels into another message that brings neither peace nor goodwill.
No greater sermon was ever preached than the one sentence sermon preached by that multitude of angels to the shepherds on the night that Jesus Christ was born. Short and sweet, it encapsulated the very essence of the gospel: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill to men.” Two things are joined together. Glory to God is joined to peace, goodwill to men. God is glorified precisely in this: in bringing His peace and His goodwill to men.
Now if we were gods we wouldn’t choose to be glorified in this way. We’d want our creatures to honor us for our sovereign power. We’d expect to be glorified for every divine quality that sets us apart from mere mortals. But then we would make very poor gods. The devil lied when he said that we would be like God. There is no one like God but God. It is God who decides how God is to be glorified. And He has decided. He is glorified in that time and place where He brings us peace and embraces us with His goodwill.
Our text for this morning forms the basis of one of the portions of the Ordinary of the Divine Service known as the Gloria in Excelsis. The Church has been singing the Gloria in Excelsis for many hundreds of years. It always follows immediately after the singing of the Kyrie Eleison, which means, “Lord have mercy.” We sing, “Lord have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us, Lord have mercy upon us.” Or we sing, “O God, the Father in heaven, have mercy upon us. O God, the Son, Redeemer of the world, have mercy upon us. O God, the Holy Ghost, true Comforter, have mercy upon us.” In response to our cry for mercy we hear the pastor sing, “Glory be to God in the highest” and we respond immediately with that to which God’s glory is inseparably joined: “And on earth peace, goodwill to men.”
There is no way to understand the angels’ sermon except from the posture of humility. We must cry out for mercy, for in that cry and only in that cry can the Christmas gospel be heard correctly. If we don’t call on God for mercy we will misunderstand the peace and the goodwill of Christmas. Those who don’t seek mercy from God will not be looking in the right place for the goodwill of Christmas. Those who run to God for mercy know that they are spiritually poor and needy. They need to receive from God a love they don’t deserve. They wouldn’t be bowing before God, humbly begging Him for divine grace, if they did not know their own spiritual poverty and sin. And since they know their own spiritual poverty they’re not going to be looking within themselves for that goodwill of which the angels sang. They know that they haven’t made peace with God. They know they’ve made war. They have put themselves first. They have responded to evil with evil. They have neither turned the other cheek nor blessed those who cursed them. They have not lived the life of a peacemaker. They have behaved as they have thought. Making themselves the center of their own universe, they have estranged themselves from God and from men. And they know it. And they know it is wrong. And they know they cannot undo the harm they’ve done. This is why they cry out to God for mercy.
The angels speak God’s response to our cry: Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill to men. Note what our text does not say. It does not say, “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to men of goodwill.” The peace that God brings is not for those who have succeeded in working within themselves sufficient goodwill to find it. No, the peace that God brings to us is His goodwill. It is expressed in the words of the hymn: “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” Where do you see the peace? He is the Prince of Peace, promised by God through Isaiah. He is Immanuel, God with us. The peace that sets us at one with our God does not arise from our goodwill toward Him or one another. Rather, the peace is lying in the manger. He is living a life of divine goodwill toward completely undeserving sinners. He is welcoming thieves, prostitutes, and lowlifes of every description. He is inviting Himself into the homes of those scorned by the religious elite. Those to whom nobody would ascribe a particle of religious goodwill are those that this Prince of Peace seeks out. For He came into this world to save sinners, and that’s exactly what He does.
And this is what brings glory to God! Bringing divine peace and goodwill to those who are spiritually ruined is what brings the greatest glory to God in heaven. The glory of God is not revealed in His great power over creation. It is not seen in His punishment of the wicked. It isn’t displayed in His overthrowing nations or in directing the course of history. No, the greatest glory of God in the highest heavens is in coming to you in peace and bringing to your heart His goodwill that takes away all your sin and shame and makes you His own dear child.
That’s God’s glory. It is in answering our cry for mercy. God’s glory is in the manger, for in that infant body dwells all the fullness of God. Hidden under the cloak of weakness, not to limit God – for God cannot be limited – but to be there for you who are afraid of God because you’ve done wrong and you know it and you know that God knows it. Well look, sinner, and see how God comes to you today! He’s a little baby. That’s your God. Look at Him and see what God intends for you! See Him live a life as humble as the manner of His birth. He doesn’t hobnob with the high and mighty. He glorifies His Father in heaven by bringing here on earth the peace of sins forgiven to helpless sinners who cry out to Him for mercy. He goes to where the sinners live and He isn’t afraid of being corrupted by their sin. Far from it! He is incorruptible even as He brings His divine goodwill to those who are trapped in sin. He sets them free. His humility sends Him from the manger to the cross. In His humility He sets His face toward Jerusalem to be rejected by those filled with their own religiosity, but to be embraced by those in need of divine mercy. And there, outside of Jerusalem, a mere thirty-three years after the angel’s preached of peace on earth and goodwill to men, the Lord Jesus made peace between God and sinners by shedding His blood on the cross and taking away the sin of the world. There the goodwill of God was fully and finally shown.
From the manger to the cross He went. The announcement of the angels guaranteed it. There could be no peace without the Prince of Peace paying the price. And so He paid it. The goodwill of God sent Him to be incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and to be made man. The same goodwill of God that caused His incarnation is the goodwill of God that comes from His humble living and dying.
I made a decision about Christmas this year when I drove over to Home of Economy in search of a reasonably priced tree. I couldn’t find one. The only decent trees cost nearly forty dollars each! I decided I would fight the commercialization of Christmas by refusing to spend more than thirty dollars on a tree. And I didn’t. I drove east on Gateway Drive until I found a place next to Simonson’s that sold me a very pretty blue spruce for twenty-nine dollars. Somebody made some money and we have a beautiful tree to enjoy. There’s nothing wrong with that! A little commercialization of a Christian holiday doesn’t hurt anyone.
The real hurt comes from the distortion of the Christmas gospel itself. God didn’t come into this world in search of people with goodwill. He didn’t come to teach nations how to make peace instead of war. He didn’t come to celebrate the potential of humanity. He came to bring to us the peace and goodwill of God. He came to bring it to us here on earth where we live. We don’t need to climb up to heaven to bring it down, for in Christ heaven has come down to earth and in Christ heaven and earth are reconciled.
This morning we cried out for God’s mercy and God answered with His gospel of peace on earth and goodwill toward us all. That gospel is the source of all genuine goodwill that will ever flow from us to one another. This is why we treasure the gospel so. Not only does it bring God’s peace and goodwill into our lives; it transforms our lives. It draws us to God and establishes in us true faith, hope, and love. It makes life worth living and holidays worth celebrating. It brings us the joy the angels promised and sets our hearts at peace. Merry Christmas!