If you just read the Bible as a religious reference book, looking for facts, finding commands, confirming what you already know to be true, you will probably miss the songs. Songs don’t do much for the rational mind, we consider them emotional trivialities, poetry that serves no other purpose than window dressing, like flowers around a city skyscraper – they seem unimportant and a bit irrelevant.
But the songs in the Bible teach us a great deal about the people who sing them and the nature of the one to whom they are sung. Far from being irrelevant to the subject, they actually are the subject.
A couple of weeks ago, we looked at Mary’s song in which she expressed the joy of her heart and her confidence in God as she put herself at his disposal to be the mother of the Son of God. And in her words she embodied that anticipation of God’s people through the centuries and generations to bring the promised Messiah who would bring righteousness and justice and salvation to his people.
That, folks, is the subject. If we could grasp and imitate her complete and unconditional surrender to God – her absolute trust that he is in control, everything else would fall into place. Our quarrels over doctrine and our differences of opinion over things like the color of the carpet would become irrelevant.
Perhaps the most glorious songs in the Bible are the ones that are sung by the angelic chorus. They are always songs of praise and adoration. Most of them are sung assembled around the heavenly throne of God, such as in Job 38, Hebrews 12 and Revelation 4-5.
But this night, the angelic chorus sang its proclamation of the arrival of the Savior – a heavenly birth announcement –not around the throne of heaven, not at the Temple, not at Herod’s palace, not to anyone who counted – but to a group of shepherds out in the middle of nowhere, tending their sheep:
An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:9-14)
Have you ever wondered why? Why shepherds? If all one knew about shepherds were young David, and Jesus’ self description as the good shepherd, you might think that shepherds were highly esteemed. But the truth is that shepherds didn’t count on anybody’s list of important people. Shepherds were basically nomads who wandered in the wilderness with their flocks – they were hired hands who survived by doing whatever it took, and if that meant trespassing and stealing, then that’s what they did. The very nature of their jobs made them religious outcasts – they were unclean and unwelcome. They were despised and detested by good people. They kept to themselves and avoided the cities and the good people who looked down on them.
Have you noticed that God never goes out looking for the best and the brightest. He doesn’t come looking for us when we’re freshly scrubbed and dressed in our Sunday best. He isn’t concerned with whether you dress right or talk right or look the part. In fact, Paul says in Romans 5 that he came looking for us when we were helpless and powerless, when we were still sinners and enemies with him. That’s when he sent his son.
I think God chose the shepherds to receive the angelic song for the same reason he chose Mary – they were nobodies. Remember, Paul said God chose “the foolish, the weak, the lowly, the despised things – and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one can boast.”
Jesus didn’t go to the rabbis and priests to get approval for his agenda. He went straight to the people who needed God the most – and knew they needed him – the weak and the helpless, the prostitutes and tax-collectors, the poor and the lame. And those were the ones who responded to the incredible news of God’s grace. And so, it’s no wonder that God sent his son into the world to Mary, and announced his birth to the shepherds.
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” And the angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”
What else could they do? The shepherds head to Bethlehem to see this incredible event – and when they did – they returned to the fields, “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had seen, which were just as they had been told.”
Coming face to face with Jesus will have that effect on you. Always has, always will. You cannot see Jesus and not glorify and praise God. That’s why the heavenly throne room is always filled with the singing of angels who are praising God.
Hebrews 12:22-24 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Revelation 4:2-11,5:12-14 At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne. Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. Also before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal. In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back…. Day and night they never stop saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.”
Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives forever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”
Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, forever and ever!” The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.
In the angels’ song, we hear the good news from a different perspective. Mary sings a song of trust, Zechariah sings a song of faith, Simeon will sing a song of hope, but the angels sing a song of peace. It is not a song of anticipation, but a song of arrival. He is here! The king has come! He is no longer the king who is coming, but the king who has arrived.
Song: “Joy to the world, the Lord has come. Let earth receive her king!”
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”
Don’t misunderstand. Jesus didn’t bring peace on earth. In some ways, he brought exactly the opposite. The very people who should have rejoiced at his arrival rejected him, the teachers who should have known better refused to listen to him, the people who should have embraced him crucified him. It shouldn’t have surprised anyone – Isaiah had written, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:3).
Peace, it would seem, was the last thing Jesus came to bring. But to those who received him, in the words of the angels - “on whom his favor rests” - did experience peace. Not necessarily the end of hostility or the removal of troubles, but a peace that comes to those who find themselves in the center of God’s will. Those are the ones who, when in the middle of the fiercest storm of their life, experience peace because they know God is in control.
And that is what this story is all about – that God is in control. It might seem like the Caesars and the Herods of this world are in charge, it might seem like Satan has the upper hand, chaos and confusion and despair might have a death grip on the land, but don’t think for a moment that anyone but God is in control. He is orchestrating every movement – not a single detail is beyond his attention. From the birth of Christ to his crucifixion, God had carefully planned out every detail.
This morning, we celebrate the king who has come. We celebrate his birth, we celebrate his death, we celebrate his life. And most of all we celebrate his reign as king over us.
He arrived as a helpless little baby, in the lowliest circumstances, as far away from the seat of power as we can possibly imagine, but don’t be deceived, he is more powerful than our imaginations could ever conceive.
Listen to description by the writer of Hebrews:
In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs. For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father’” ? Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son” ? And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.” In speaking of the angels he says, “He makes his angels winds, his servants flames of fire.” But about the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, will last forever and ever, and righteousness will be the scepter of your kingdom.” (Heb. 1:1-8)
That is our glorious king, who came in weakness, but reigns in power. He is king of kings and Lord of lords, and he is worthy of all our praise and adoration – and especially, he is worthy of our obedience.
If we learn nothing else from this, it is that he is not a pretend king, on a make believe throne. He is real, more real than anything on this earth, and our loyalty to our king is unconditional and non-negotiable. Where he sends we will go, what he says we will do. He is our king who has come and reigns on the throne of our hearts.