Hark! The Herald Angels SingDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | December 24, 2006
Selected highlights from this sermon
Jesus had arrived on Earth, humbly. Lowly shepherds were the first to know. But the news about His coming was for everyone. The reaction of shepherds should be like ours. They raced to see Jesus, and then they risked ridicule by sharing the news about Jesus with everyone.
Hark, the Herald Angels Sing surely is one of our favorite Christmas carols. It was written by a man by the name of Charles Wesley. Charles was the brother of the famous John Wesley – the Wesley brothers – great revivalists in England. But they were not admitted into the Anglican Church. The Anglican Church wasn’t happy with their ministry, and the reason was because of some theological issues, but also issues of method. For example, they preached outside. They preached to miners and to people who would gather in crowds in the open doors, and the church thought that that was a little bit unconventional.
When it came time for John Wesley to die he was not allowed to be buried in an Anglican cemetery. He is buried in a church in England that some of us visited a couple of years ago. And he was buried in what is called unconsecrated ground. Well, you know that he actually consecrated the ground in which he was buried.
And did you know it’s not going to matter where you are buried? God is going to find you. There’s no use thinking that you can hide from Him because you are in a cemetery you’re not supposed to be in. I say that because Hark, the Herald Angels Sing was not widely received. The way in which it made it into the Anglican Book of Common Prayer supposedly is because a printer needed one extra song to even out the hymnal. Well, of course, it gained some popularity in that way, and then the other way is Felix Mendelssohn put it into a cantata and popularized it. But we love it, don’t we? Hark, the Herald Angels Sing!
Now, some person who is technical may say, “Do angels actually sing?” We don’t know that for sure. The text does not tell us that they sang. I prefer that they sang. I think that we can say that they sang the song. Maybe they chanted it, but at any rate, as we look at Luke 2 this morning I’d like us to think of it as the first Christmas concert. And whenever you have a Christmas concert you have an audience. You have the singers and then, of course, you have the content of what they are singing. And that’s the outline that we’re going to follow today.
Luke 2! We know the story so well, don’t we? The second chapter of Luke – the story of Christmas as Luke gives it to us, and I’m picking it up in verse 8 of chapter 2: “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.” Just that far!
First of all, we begin with the audience – the shepherds. Why the shepherds? Why did God bypass the rabbinical schools and the universities of the day? Why did He bypass the big city of Jerusalem and choose Bethlehem, a much smaller town five or six miles south of Jerusalem? Why the shepherds? Well I think we may have some hints in Scripture itself.
First of all, He chose them because of their position. They were lowly in society and God wanted to make sure that right from the beginning it would be understood that the message of Christmas was for everyone. Shepherds sometimes stayed away for weeks and months without having a bath. It is sometimes said that you know that you are in the presence of a shepherd if the wind is blowing correctly within a hundred yards.
I love to tell that story about a man who said to a Bedouin, as he noticed a goat go into his tent (and the Bedouins live with goats in their tents), “How in the world do you ever do it?” And he said, “It’s no problem. The goats get used to it.” (laughter)
So the shepherds were not popular. They were not well educated. They were not the kind of people that would be making the big decisions of the day, whom God bypassed. Remember 1 Corinthians 1:26. The text says that not many mighty and noble are chosen, but God chooses the foolish things of this world to confound the wise.
God is saying to you today, “You may feel as if you are on the margins of society, the margins of life.” God says, “This message today is for you.” The shepherds were chosen because of their position, and possibly also for their profession. They were, after all, shepherds, and God knew that Jesus, who was being born in Bethlehem, was going to be a shepherd. As a matter of fact, He was going to be the shepherd who would lay down His life for the sheep. What a shepherd He was! He was both a shepherd, and He would be a sheep. “He is led as a lamb to the slaughter and as a sheep before His shearers is dumb, so He opens not His mouth and He simply endures the pain and the death.”
So God says, “I want to choose shepherds to be the first ones to hear the story.” And maybe they were taking care of temple sheep, sheep that were going to be slaughtered, sheep whose blood was going to be spilled out, and the blood would be caught in a basin. Maybe those are the sheep that they were taking care of, and God was saying, “These are sheep that are going to be sacrificed, but I want you to know that born in Bethlehem is a shepherd who like a sheep is going to be sacrificed for sin and put an end to all the need that there is for temple sheep.” All of those sacrifices that you read about in the Old Testament never took away anybody’s sin anyway, did they? Now they symbolically did, but it took Jesus to come and take sin away. And we rejoice in that.
The Bible says that through one offering He took away sin forever. You know that sin that you committed last week, that sin that weighs on your conscience and, even as we are singing Christmas carols, your mind was distracted because of what your conscience was telling you? Did you know that that relationship with God that you have, that has been so mightily compromised, can be rectified if you see Jesus as the one who through one offering can take away the barrier between you and God – you and your sin? So God says, “When it comes to telling the people the Good News, I’m going to send angels to shepherds.” That’s the audience.
Now let’s look at the singers. I’m picking it up in verse 9: “And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’” Just that far!
An angel! We don’t know who it is. It’s probably Gabriel who gave Mary the news. Some of you who may be visiting here today and you don’t know much about The Moody Church, and you kind of wonder who in the world we are, you are asking yourself the question, “Do you actually believe this story about the angels, or is this mythology?” Well, this isn’t mythology. This is actually true, so to be clear, so that we don’t suffer from ambiguity, let it be said that the people of The Moody Church actually believe stories like this. We believe that there are angels.
These angels were created with independent existence. As I’ve explained previously they do not have cousins and aunts and uncles. And none of them are grandparents. None of them are grandchildren. And because of that they’ll never be brothers to Jesus. They will never rule with Jesus because only His brothers can. And we can because of the incarnation. We are His brothers. But these angels, to be present on this occasion, only make sense. Whenever God does something great, angels are always present. In fact, they are present even when He isn’t doing anything great. We just don’t see them.
But on this instance well might the angels sing because think for a moment that these are the angels who saw the creation. You know, I’ve told you He lined them up apparently – God did – and said, “Watch this.” And the angels sang together for joy. And I don’t know if they can clap their wings or not, but if they can, they did when they saw creation.
But more than that, they were there when Isaiah had his vision in the Temple. They saw the beauty of Jesus. They saw the glory of Jesus. They saw His wonder and His matchless beauty and power. And now that one who is God is confined and localized as a baby in a manger. Only they could appreciate in ways we as yet cannot the extent of the incarnation, and that someone who was that high would actually stoop that low. Only the angels understood that, and so they are there to rejoice in our salvation, though they derive no benefit whatever from it. They are so free of envy that when they see us exalted above them, as we shall be, they rejoice in our exaltation as if it were their own. So here you have angels that attended.
And there is “an” angel, as I mentioned, probably Gabriel. He flashes down to the shepherds. There he is – strong, brilliant and powerful, and the shepherds are terrified, as well they might be. And he says to them, “Fear not.”
A parenthesis. Some of you are going through a real trial, aren’t you? You wonder where God is. God says to you today, “Fear not.” It may well be that that which you fear is actually God trying to connect with you and to put His arms around you, so what you fear may be God in disguise. In this case it wasn’t God as such. It was an angel, but God says to you, “Do not fear.”
Now, let’s look at the choir. And that’s the leader. Who is the choir? Eat your heart out, Jerry Edmonds. The choir is angels. Wouldn’t that be something for the next Christmas Festival that we have here at The Moody Church? Well, we come close actually, I have to say, but this choir is unbelievable.
You’ll notice it says in verse 13: “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 among those with whom he is pleased!” You suddenly have a multitude because there is no place where earth’s joys and sorrows are so keenly felt as heaven. The angels rejoice when someone is converted. There could be a cosmic celebration in heaven today. There will be a cosmic celebration in heaven today. I know that because there are going to be people who are going to be converted. And something that may be secret on earth is front-page news in heaven. In fact, even a secret sin on earth is an open scandal in heaven. You sin secretly. The devil says, “Condemn him.” God, the Father, is the judge. God, the Son, is there and saying, “I have acquitted him.” And every issue is open there. Secret sin on earth is a scandal in heaven until it is resolved, and it is resolved through Jesus Christ, our representative, our priest and our attorney.
So here we have in heaven the angels participating in the kind of joy that accompanies those who are redeemed actually. And they become involved in it. They rejoice in our victories. There’s no doubt that the angels are saddened by our defeats, and they rejoice.
And what do they say? We’ve come now to the song. We’ve spoken briefly about the audience. That’s the shepherds. We’ve talked about the choir. Those are the angels. And now what do they sing? They sing, “Glory to God in the highest.” The glory of God is actually the centrifugal force that holds everything together. Passage after passage in the Bible talks about God doing things for His glory. And here in this instance, “Glory to God in the highest.” God is in the highest, and His glory is in the highest. And they’re singing about the coming of Jesus to Bethlehem.
God is glorified in every drop of water. You look at it under a microscope and you can see the intricacies of God’s creation. God is glorified in every bird that sings, in every flower. He’s glorified when you look up and you can see the stars in all of their beauty, and there are billions of them up there. He is glorified in all of those things. But the universe can exhaust itself in singing, and the angels can exhaust themselves in singing about God’s creation and the wonders, but there is no song that can compare to the song of the incarnation, the fact that God has become one of us. God became flesh and dwelt among us. That’s the song that they are singing, and so they sing glory to God in the highest, because when you stop to realize it, the glory of God represents in the incarnation the wisdom of God. It represents the power of God. It represents the mercy of God, in God extending Himself to sinners like we are, and reconciling us and redeeming even our past failures and our sins, and making the best of the situations that we give Him. So glory to God in the highest and indeed peace on earth!
Now the King James says (I believe it’s the King James), “Peace on earth.” And we look at that translation and we struggle with it because there is no peace on earth. In fact, there is getting to be, it seems to me, less and less peace on earth, when you think of what is happening in the Middle East, when you think of Iran and when you think of North Korea and Iraq. And those are just the most prominent places that are in turmoil and represent a great threat, so you look at the world today and you say, “Where is the peace? Show it to us.” Well, of course, there is peace in our hearts for sure, but this translation, the ESV and the NIV (the New International Version) essentially say the same thing. “Glory to God in the highest. On earth peace among those with whom He is pleased.”
I need to speak candidly today and tell you that not everyone has been benefited by the coming of Jesus. Not everyone is better off because the Lord Jesus Christ came. Some people are far worse off. Jesus said to the folks in the New Testament who rejected Him, “If I had not come you wouldn’t have had sin.” That is to say that “the extent of your guilt would have been much less, but now that I have come, you have no excuse.”
Some of you who are listening to this message will be no better off having heard it, or having worshipped at Christmastime unless you respond to the Savior. You say, “Well, how do I know whether I am one in whom God is well-pleased?” Well, there is only one way to find out, and that is to receive the gift of eternal life that He came to give us, to humble ourselves, to receive Christ as Savior. And when we do that, we know then that we belong to the company of those with whom He is well pleased. So the message goes out throughout the world that God offers in Jesus something that can be found nowhere else, namely our redemption and our ability to belong to God forever as His sons and daughters.
What is the bottom line here? The shepherds, God bless them! The Bible says that they go and they see the baby and then they tell everybody. They tell everybody the news of what they had seen. Think about it! They risk ridicule. Do you think everybody believed them? I’m sure that there were many people who thought that these shepherds are so uneducated; they are so filled with superstition. Who in the world is going to believe them anyway? Do you think that that kept the shepherds silent? I don’t think so.
And there are people with whom you work in your office and your establishment, and there are people among your relatives who don’t believe this and they think that you are a little bit off (that the dip stick does not touch the oil) because you believe these things that they regard as superstitions. But it should not keep you from witnessing to the truth of Jesus because once you’ve seen Him, once you’ve experienced His forgiveness and His love, how can we remain silent in the presence of such great news?
And so as we look at the text we realize that the beautiful singing and the glory died down along the hills of Bethlehem. You can go to the shepherds’ fields today in Bethlehem, as I have had the privilege of doing many, many, many years ago, and there are no angels there. At least you don’t see them. And the glory has died down, but the notes of their song, and the message of Christmas goes throughout the whole land, and indeed the whole earth.
Isn’t it remarkable that Jesus was born in the first century, and yet He belongs to all the centuries? He was born in Bethlehem and yet He belongs to all the towns and the cities of the world. He was born a Jew, and yet He belongs to all the races. You’ll notice that the angel says, “I have a message that shall be for all the peoples.” And it is for all the peoples because there is no one like Him who can be a Savior and reconcile us to God. There’s nobody else out there with the credentials of Jesus.
There are two wonders that should strike us today as we look at this story. The first wonder is the wonder of the incarnation itself, the fact that God came down from the stairs of heaven with a baby in His arms. God says, “I am taking the initiative to reconcile you to Myself.” And may I say candidly that you need reconciliation. If you are listening to this I can tell you that you need it because we’re all part of the same cloth, all in need as sinners.
So the wonder of the incarnation should impress us. And we don’t understand it. You know there are questions about whether or not when Jesus was born in Bethlehem did He as a baby know everything, or did He grow up exactly as a man? And we have these kinds of discussions, but ultimately it is a great mystery, but we know that it is true, and we also know that it was necessary if we were to be redeemed. That’s why angels can’t be redeemed. It’s because God did not become an angel. There was no sacrifice made for the angels that sinned. There was no sacrifice for them but a sacrifice for us. So the wonder of the incarnation!
And then, of course, what should really delight us today on this marvelous opportunity that we have to worship and to think about Christmas is the wonder of what was accomplished. And I want to leave you today with the full assurance that what God did there was beyond our imagination. He reconciled us.
Many years ago I read the book, Peace Child by Don Richardson. He and his wife went to New Guinea and there in New Guinea they were in a tribe that gloried in cannibalism, in head hunting. That word has a different connotation today here in the United States when you think of a headhunter. And then the other great value that this tribe had is treachery. In fact, he learned that, he said, when he read them the story of Jesus and Judas. As soon as he got to the Judas story these primitive people began to chatter among themselves, and began to clap and began to cheer. To them, in the story, Judas was the hero because treachery was the greatest value that they treasured. If you could fool somebody, if you could get somebody to trust you and then use that as an opportunity to cheat them, that was indeed what they regarded as being very important.
So Don Richardson and his wife said to themselves, “What do we do?” They were in a tribe, and because they were there, controversy developed between this tribe and that tribe and they wanted to leave. And one of the leaders of the tribe said, “No, don’t leave. We will make peace with the tribe that is warring toward us, and we will bring about peace.” But how do you bring peace to two tribes that don’t trust each other, and are skeptical?
Now remarkably this is what happened. You have the two groups meeting together. One man (one of the leaders) over here takes his son over to the camp of the enemy. When he is there in the camp of the enemy he is given a son from one of the leaders of the opposite tribe, and they exchange sons. And that’s the way they had peace. Now they had to trust one another or if they valued treachery then one of the sons would be killed. So as long as those sons lived, those tribes had peace with one another. And Don Richardson finally found a clue to help people to understand the coming of Jesus - that because of Jesus Christ God says, “I am giving you my Son.”
I’m talking to many people today who doubt God’s love and God’s care because life is harsh. Things are difficult. They don’t work out like you think they should, and then you pray and nothing changes and you begin to ask yourself the question, “Where is God when I really need Him?” Like a man who lost his son in childbirth said to me one time with burning anger, “God is not worth a plugged nickel to me.”
So how do we know God loves us? How do we know that it isn’t all just mythology? How do you know that it isn’t just platitudes? Well, “He that spared not His own Son but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not also with Him freely give us all things?” God says, “So that you know that I love you, I care about you and will reconcile you, I am sending My own Son as a man. You will kill Him to be sure, but that is proof that I love the world.” (applause)
And that’s why we say today that the verse in the Bible most often quoted, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but having everlasting life,” is what Bethlehem is all about. It’s about the crib. It’s about the cross, and it’s about the crown. And that’s why we rejoice today with the angels who say, “Hark, the herald angels sing.”
And if you are here today and you have never trusted Christ as Savior, you know that you are unconverted, to use another expression. If you were to, when I close in prayer in about two minutes or less, receive Christ and pray in your heart and say, “I am a sinner; I need reconciliation and I choose today to be reconciled,” in heaven today there would be angels who would know about it and would rejoice because another sinner is converted. Another sinner has entered into the privilege that we have to be reconciled to God. God loves you and proof is Christmas. Proof is the coming of Jesus.
And I need to say in conclusion that if you do not have Christmas in your heart, you will never find it under a tree. (applause) It is the forgiveness and the cleansing and the indwelling Christ that gives us the message of what Christmas is all about. So after we have prayed, and while I am praying, if you were to trust Christ as Savior (You can do that even where you are seated,), you would find out what Christmas is all about.
Let’s pray together.
Father, we want to thank You today for what we have talked about. Thank You for the shepherds who perhaps met Jesus later in life, and realized that this is the one that they saw as a baby. Whoever they are, thank You for their example. Thank You for the angels who are watching this service and who are prepared to rejoice today over those who trust Christ as Savior. And thank You for the message that extends its notes to us – peace, reconciliation and hope. Father, with the angels may we sing Your praises and rejoice in Your salvation. We ask this in Jesus’ name, Amen.