(a sermon for December 23, 2018, the 4th Sunday of Advent; third in a series, based on Luke 2:8-15)
“Gloria in Excelsis Deo!” from the Latin, which means “Glory to God in the Highest… and on earth, peace!”
A wonderful, beautiful and utterly joyous proclamation of the heavenly host: but there’s a question that springs to mind every year as I hear those words and revisit this wonderful story of Christ’s nativity: what does “a multitude of the heavenly host” even sound like?
I mean, the songs and carols of this season do offer up plenty of descriptions: “Hark! the herald angels sing,” “Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation,” or, as we’ll sing in just a little bit, “Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plains,” all of which suggests joyous singing in perfect four-part (or maybe even eight-part!) harmony! But would these heavenly songs have sounded like something akin to Handel’s Messiah, or else a Gregorian chant or more likely, given the time and its people, the reprise of an ancient song of God’s people Israel? And was there an instrumental accompaniment courtesy of “angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold,” or were there an infinite line of trumpets, “the timbrel and pipe… [and] the clash of cymbals,” (Psalm 150:4-5) piercing the silence of that holy night so to boldly proclaim the holy birth? Or maybe it’s like movie music, starting small and then growing in a crescendo to a triumphant finish! But then again, as some biblical scholars have suggested, this particular song might have been less sung than spoken, however giving glory to God in a tone that was most assuredly “joyful and triumphant;” though I must confess this description doesn’t do much for my imagination!
Or maybe this angels’ song was something more than mere earthly music; something ethereal and unlike anything ever heard before since before the time of creation.
I remember once many, many years ago as a young man spending a cold and silent morning late in November deep in the northern Maine woods, miles away from anywhere, sitting along on a log and furtively waiting and watching for a white-tailed deer to happen by (which of course, rarely if ever did happen, but which ended up providing me an extended time for prayer and reflection, the perfect training for a beginning pastor!). As often is the case in that part of the world, there was already a fair amount of snow on the ground and as I recall, more was beginning to fall; moreover, a breeze had started to blow – gently, at first, but then more intently – and already there was ice and snow coming loose from tree branches above and all around me; and that was just the beginning!
Even now what I remember is how quickly and fully everything all around me changed: one moment it’s dead quiet in the woods, the next I’m surrounded by a literal symphony of nature’s sound. Suddenly I’m hearing the wind roar from off the ridge to the south; from every direction twigs are snapping as piles of snow come crashing to the ground; off in the distance I hear squirrels, field mice and the occasional crow making noise like crazy and even within myself, there’s the sound of a beating heart that’s been totally startled out of complacency! What a moment; my senses were wholly awakened to everything that was happening around me, and though thinking back on it, it probably only lasted for a moment or two before that gust of wind had died down, to me it felt like this time of utter revelation would go on forever. I can tell you without fear of exaggeration that it was for me a spiritual experience; and in fact, even now the best way I can describe it to you is in the words of another hymn: “This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears, all natures sings and round me rings the music of the spheres.”
The music of the spheres! If you ask me, friends, however else we might imagine it, that’s what the song of the Angels must have sounded like to those shepherds “keeping watch over their flock” on that first Christmas night.
One thing we need to remember about this “first song of Christmas” is that it began neither softly nor gently but in fact burst forth into that silent night as brightly as the star that shone overhead. This song that the shepherds heard that night was no mere background music, friends, no “soundtrack” of Christmas; this was a song as bold and as disruptive as God’s love crashing into the reality of our world with all of its hopes and fears. It is a song of unending HOPE, made real in the birth of a child of PEACE who is the very embodiment of divine LOVE so that all creation might sing with JOY; and so it’s no wonder that it took a heavenly host to do it justice! Actually, you know, the Greek that’s used here for “host” is stratia, a word that can actually be translated as “an army or company of soldiers,” so what we have here is a literal army of angels breaking forth into song and making an unprecedented announcement about the fulfillment of prophecy and of God’s presence with us in the guise of a child “wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger;” a child who by his very birth brings forth peace on earth and goodwill amongst all those whom God favors! And let me tell you, friends; however that song was sung, whatever the melody and harmony, no matter the rhythm, rhyme or instrumentation, it was… magnificent!
And the best part of all? The best part is that ones who got to hear it, the ones who had the experience of this “symphony of the spheres,” were the ones who needed to hear it the most.
For remember now, the angels’ song – at least as initially sung – was not sung for the church; that is, for those who were the “righteous uprights” in the temple waiting for a Messiah to come with military might. Nor was it shared with the rich and the privileged, neither with emperors or governments or those otherwise ensconced in places of power, political and otherwise. When the heavenly host burst forth with their chorus of “Glory to God in the highest,” their audience was simply that small and rather motley assortment of shepherds living in the fields, a group who, in the words of John Philip Newell, could be best described as “unlettered, unwashed herders of livestock existing at the margins, far from the power-centers of respectability and prestige.”
These days we tend to romanticize the shepherds and their part in the Christmas story, but the truth is that in Jesus’ time, shepherding was a profession at the very bottom of any kind of social ladder. Basically, if you were a shepherd it was generally assumed you couldn’t find any other kind of decent work, you were almost always branded as some kind of liar, thief or worse, and as far as religion goes you were considered to be ritually unclean so you were pretty much always thought of as a sinner by virtue of your profession. So understand that there were no shepherds of that time who would have considered themselves to be in way significant, much less worthy of a heavenly proclamation; and yet, it’s the shepherds who in the midst of their deep darkness who hear the angels’ mighty song of glory.
But then, God’s “message of hope [always] emerges among the least significant,” even shepherds… oh, and by the way, also even you and me!
Craig Satterlee, of Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, has written that there is more to God sending angels to shepherds than reaching out to outsiders. “Spend enough time in the field,” he writes, “shunned by decent and religious folk, disappointed by God, or overwhelmed by grief, and we stop caring that we are outsiders. We give up trying to get inside religion, or even on God, to get on with life. But,” Satterlee goes on to say, “God does not give up on us. God sends angels to people who have given up on God.” And while we might react the way those shepherds did at first – that is, with abject fear, and likely startled with an inch of our very lives (!) – it soon becomes very clear that “God comes in a way that is far from frightening. Jesus comes [to us] vulnerably, helplessly,” as a baby born in a manger; bringing peace that passes understanding as he dwells among the lowly, the poor, and those who have felt on the outside so long that they’ve given up on God… even you and me.
Right now there are those who are living out in the fields of their own lives, lost and wholly abandoned by the world that surrounds them: people who feeling overwhelmed by grief and sadness; people caught up in spirals of life’s struggle and hardship; people weighed down by illness or poverty or brokenness or the sting of someone else’s hatred; people who can’t begin to celebrate this season because they can’t begin to feel any sense of God’s presence and love; people who in the midst of deep darkness and utter silence have given up on God. But the good news is that God has not given up on them, nor on any one of us: for even now God is sending angels out into the fields with good news of great joy to all the people, singing a glorious song of that peace that passes our human understanding and transcends the powers and principalities of the world as we know it! Jesus Christ, the Messiah, is being born, and that changes everything! And just as it was for those shepherds who first heard that heavenly song, it’s cause for our great rejoicing as well; ample reason to “run with haste” and see this incredible thing that the Lord has done, to know once and for all that God will not rest until each and all of us have been embraced and caught up in his tremendous and infinite love! God will not give up; God is with us, now and forever, in Jesus our Emmanuel!
This past week I took a quick overnight trip up north to deliver gifts and visit with my mother; and of course, as always happens this time of year, we spent a fair amount of time reminiscing about Christmases past. She actually reminded me of how on one snowy Christmas Eve, together with some of our family members on the Lowry side who were celebrating with us that night, we’d walked from our house down the street and around the corner to attend a Christmas Eve service at our church, where my father was already inside playing the organ prelude, including carols from the bell chimes that could be heard coming from the steeple. It was a picture perfect, Norman Rockwell styled scene, but the best part was that the closer we drew to the church, the more clearly we could hear the plaintive notes of “Silent Night” and so many other sacred songs of the holiest of nights. It was an incredible blessing, and all it took to receive it was simply to listen.
Well, it’s the day before “the night before” Christmas, and our advent time of waiting and watching is nearly complete. Tomorrow night we’ll gather in this beautiful sanctuary to sing songs of joy and praise, to light the Christ Candle and to share that light with one another. But maybe you’re not feeling it quite yet; perhaps the remaining “busy-ness” of the season has you distracted, or maybe it’s seemed like there has been just too much darkness in and around your life that it’s overwhelmed the light. Maybe you’ve come here today, hoping to feel a bit of peace and love as Christmas draws near… or perhaps to hear something like a song… an angels’ song.
If that’s the case for you this morning, beloved, then my hope and prayer for you today, tomorrow and truly, in all the days that are yet to come at Christmas and beyond, that you might stop in the midst of all the chaos, the confusion and even the pain… and listen. Listen for the angels’ song; listen to the music of the spheres that even at this very moment is by God’s grace resonating all around you and deep within your heart! Listen for God’s enduring gift of love and life in the person of the Jesus, our Emmanuel; and listen for the greatest music that has ever burst forth through creation, proclaimed by that army choir of angels singing:
“Gloria in excelsis Deo!”
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace!”
And thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry