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TEXT: Luke 2:7-20
SUBJECT: Advent, 2009 #4: Glory, Peace, and Good Will
Today is the fourth Sunday in Advent, and time for another mediation of the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Critics of Christmas have been quick to point out, the Bible does not tell us when Jesus was born or command us to remember His birthday. They're right, of course, it doesn't. But surely something as great as the Incarnation of God should be remembered by His people, and what better way to do that than to set aside four weeks a year to read the Nativity Story together, to meditate on its glory, and to give God thanks for it?
Today's story takes place in the hill country of Judea, near the small town of Bethlehem. The date us lost to us, but it was well known to Luke's first readers. It was the year of the Imperial Tax, levied by Augustus Caesar, and collected by his governor, Quirenius.
Who was there? A few shepherds keeping an eye on their flocks. In Christmas cards, the shepherd's life is a romantic one, but-in fact-it was the sorriest job in the world, combining dullness with danger, long hours and low pay. But that night, the tedium was broken and the scant wages were no longer important.
An angel appears to the men and around him, the glory of God shines. This glory had not been seen in Israel for a very long time, but every pious Jew knew what it was, and what it meant.
It meant God was present! His glory once shone on Mount Sinai, and the face of Moses became so bright it scared the people who saw it; the glory burned in a cloud and a pillar of fire, leading God's people through the wilderness; the same glory lit up the holy of holies, where God sat enthroned between the cherubim.
But when the Temple was destroyed in the days of Ezekiel, the Glory was lost. And for six hundred years, it was heard of every Sabbath in the synagogue, but it was never seen.
Until this night! The Glory that departed from Israel when it they went into exile, was back in full force. God has come home at last.
I'm sure the men were thrilled by His return, but Luke says nothing about their excitement, for it was secondary to their fear. The shepherds are terrified by what they saw-and for good reason!
God is awesome-and that doesn't mean 'cool'. It means too bloody much! Moses trembled with fear at His coming; John fell at His feet as a dead man; Peter, Isaiah, even Job, felt unclean in His Presence. Now, the shepherds are overcome by His holiness and majesty.
But their fears are soon relieved. The angel has a message for them-and it's a happy one-
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.
The men are staggered by the good news, and not only the men. For the news is so good, a party breaks in heaven and its gotten so big it spills down to earth.
The angels are singing Happy Birthday to the Lord-
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men.
Forgive me for saying this so often, but we mustn't think of angels as the cute cherubs we see on Christmas cards; there's nothing precious about them; they're not babies, they're soldiers, and this is no heavenly choir, it is an army!
Armies don't break into song very often, but when they do, it is because they have won the war. This is what the armies of heaven are doing-celebrating the victory of God over all His enemies. How long they did it in the sight of the shepherds, we don't know.
But when the party went back to heaven, the shepherds came to themselves and said, Let's go see Him. With no time to lose, they find the barn, meet the parents, and look into the manger where He is wrapped in swaddling clothes. Bending down, the men peer into the human face of God.
When they leave the barn, they don't run back to their fields. They wake up Bethlehem and all Judea with what they have seen. At long last, the prophecy has come true-
Unto us, a Child is born;
Unto us, a Son is given.
If the men had been making up the story, they would have been taken for lunatics, but God is at work, enabling the people to Marvel at the things the shepherds told them. As for Mary, she ponders them in her heart; and the shepherds? They go back to work glorying and praising God for the things they saw and heard that night.
This is the story.
THE MEANINGWhat does it mean? We needn't guess. The angel spells it out for us. It means-
Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth, peace,
Good will to men.
In Luke's telling, the birth of Christ has three great ends.
One is the glory of God. The glory of God is so bright, it cannot be hidden. It shines brightly in creation and providence. Paul says they demonstrate His eternal power and godhead. Everyone sees this glory, though many pretend not to.
But the glory that shines in nature is dim next to the one that shines in Salvation. Where does the fullness of the Godhead dwell? Not in the sun, moon, or stars; not in the ocean depths. Not in the mountains or valleys. Not in the forests or deserts. Not in the beauty of nature or the harmony of providence. The God who-
Commanded the light to shine in darkness has shined in our hearts to give us the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Ambrose of Milan hailed Him as the-
Splendor of God's glory bright
Light eternal bringing light.
In Christ, every Divine attribute is seen. Study His life and you'll see what God's love is and His wrath; His holiness, His compassion, His power, wisdom, justice, goodness, truth, and beauty. Fragments can be seen in the Old Testament, but the full picture only in Jesus.
Heretics are smarter than we are. To hear us talk, you'd thing what matters most is baptism, church government, the millennium, or what we can do or not do on Sunday. Heretics rarely fool with these thing: they go to Christ. Some say He is divine, but not human; others say He's human but not divine; others mix these up in various ways. Why do they spend so much time on Christ? Because they know if they can get Him-the real Jesus-out of Christianity, there's nothing left.
In Christ, we see the glory of God. This is the first end of the Incarnation.
The second is peace. God did not make the world to be what it is. He made us to live in harmony with Him, each other, and the rest of creation. But we don't live this way. Our sins make us selfish and abusive, and until they're taken away-
The way of peace we will not know.
This is what Christ has done-taken away our sins, by bearing them in His own body on the cross. And, in doing this, He has satisfied the justice of God and caused us to love God and want His fellowship. Paul says-
We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Also through Him, we have peace with each other. Jesus came into a world brutally divided by race, class, and sex, and politics. But by bringing all kinds of people to Himself, He has also brought them to each other. Take the Apostles as an example. Four of them were fishermen, and what the others did for a living we don't know-except for Matthew and Simon.
Matthew was a tax collector, a Jew working for the Romans and getting paid handsomely to do it. We have a word for such men: traitors. If Matthew hadn't been protected by Rome, he would have been stoned to death, and the sweetest grandma in Israel would have been happy to cast the first stone!
Simon was a zealot, a patriotic Jew whose goal in life was to free his people from the Romans and to clean up Israel-starting with the tax collectors. He could have killed Matthew and not lost a minute's sleep.
The men had nothing in common but Jesus-and He was enough to make them friends for life. Had you told Simon he would one day eat with publicans, he'd have punched you in the nose. But that's what he did, because-if Jesus loved Matthew, Simon would love him too.
This unlikely peace would soon be expanded. Jews and Gentiles would eat and serve and worship together in the Early Church. Later, other persons and peoples would do the same. Including the people in this room. Speaking of Christ, Paul says-
He is our peace, having made both one and has broken down the middle wall of partition.
Though peace with God and each other are primary, the saving work of Christ has even brought peace to man and non-humans. Animals are not made in the likeness and image of God, but they are His creatures, and because they are made by Him, they will, in some way, share in the New Creation. This makes us care for them and for nature.
The coming of Jesus has brought peace to a world that-without Him-knows nothing but war. This is the second end.
THE GOOD WILL
The third is Good Will to men. The Lord is good to everyone, giving us rain, sunshine, food, gladness, and so on. But this is not what the angel has in mind. The coming of Christ brings the saving good will of God into the world, and to people of every kind.
The angel could have said, 'Good will to Israelites', but he doesn't say that. He says, 'to men', for the Lord is not a local God, He is-
The Savior of the world.
THE SHEPHERDS AND US
How much of this the shepherds understood that night, we cannot say. But they knew something wonderful had happened, and they weren't ashamed to say so!
Are we? Are you?
How it grieves us to admit we are. We know more about Jesus than they did, but we don't tell the world what we know because we're afraid they may laugh at us or stump us with an objection.
God has not called us to know all the answers or to be eloquent or to retain our dignity. What He has called us to do is to-
Make widely known the saying which was told them concerning this child.
Let's go do it. And the love of God be with us. Amen.
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