Archives For December 2004

Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 2:8-20
Olivet Covenant Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, PA
© Andy Campbell, 12/12/2004

This third Sunday in Advent, we continue our series on the songs of the season. So far we’ve looked at Mary’s song, a song in response to the angel Gabriel’s annunciation that she would bear the Christ child. We then looked at Zechariah’s song, his prophetic proclamation of coming salvation through Christ. We pick up the story in the hills outside Bethlehem.

Cloaked in darkness, a few shepherds fought sleep to tend to their flocks. Shepherds didn’t hold a very high place in Jewish society. They were looked down upon by strict orthodox Jews as being ceremonially unclean. They earned little money, and what they did earn went to care for their flock. In many ways, the shepherd embodied the “average Joe” much like a factory worker might typify the blue collar, red blooded, average American today.

The night appears ordinary and then something extraordinary happens. From nowhere an angel of the Lord appears, with the Lord’s glory streaming out all around him. Have you ever had someone sneak up on you? I walk very quietly. It’s not something I do on purpose, I just don’t make hardly any sound when I walk. This gets me into trouble all the time with my wife April. I’ll walk up behind her in a room and when I start to speak, she jumps! She wheels around, clutching her chest, and then promptly smacks me on the shoulder. “You scared me!” she says, “Don’t sneak up on me like that!” I assure her that I don’t do it on purpose, to which she replies “Walk louder.” Now, imagine that you’re outside in the dark, it is quiet except for the sound of the sheep’s hooves and the occasional bleating, when all of the sudden, BAM, this human-looking creature appears in front of you shining like the sun itself. How would you react? I’ll tell you how I would react: I’d scream like a little girl! The shepherds reacted similarly. Notice what Luke writes. Not that the shepherds were startled, or surprised, or stunned, or shocked, or staggered. No, Luke writes that they were terrified, he literally writes that they were mega-frightened! The King James renders it as the more familiar “sore afraid”. As a kid, I always imagined that this meant that the shepherds were so scared that it hurt!

The angel opens his mouth and says, “Don’t be afraid”. Easier said than done, I’d say! “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people”. He then proceeds to tell them that the Savior, Christ the Lord has been born in Bethlehem and that if they go down into the town, they’ll find him wrapped and lying in a manger. Now, it’s not every day that you find a baby in a feed trough, so there would be no doubt which baby the angel was referring to. This is Jesus’ birth announcement. He’s been born and the whole world needs to know. So, who does God choose to spread the good news? Not the chief priests, not the temple elders, not the teachers of the law, he chooses ordinary, average shepherds. The very type of people Jesus would later minister to bore the news of his arrival. Should we be surprised that God chose shepherds? It seems that there was something about shepherds that God liked. Jacob was a shepherd, as was Joseph. Moses was a shepherd. David was a shepherd. The prophet Amos was a shepherd. Ordinary people, the lot of them.

As if the appearance of one angel weren’t enough, something even more extraordinary happens. Around them appears a multitude of angels, all praising God saying,

Glory to God in the highest,

And on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.

They literally glimpse heaven. The apostle John, when he recorded his vision of heaven in Revelation, observed the angels praising God like this night and day without ceasing.[1] Isaiah saw God seated on His throne, angels around him. The event was so extraordinary that he thought he was going to drop dead! These ordinary shepherds are privy to an extraordinary event. Heaven has opened, God has come to earth in the form of a man. That angels appeared to rejoice in the birth of Christ shows that Christ is not Himself an angel, but is exalted above the angels.[2]

The angels announce the incarnation with praise. When the word “glory” in the Bible is used in connection with God, it denotes the revelation of God’s character, intention, or power to humans. Jesus is God’s glory. He is revealing Himself to humans in the form of a human. The angels recognize this and they shout out that this baby, Jesus, is the Most High revealed! They affirm that this baby is not just a prophet or a holy man, but that this baby is, in fact, God incarnate.

But they don’t stop there. Linked to this announcement of the incarnation, of God come to earth, is a declaration of peace to those who delight God. “And on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” I grew up hearing this story in both the King James and the NIV. But it was always the poetic and beautifully archaic rendering of this story in the King James that stuck with me. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” Sound familiar? But wait a second, that last part about goodwill toward men isn’t in my NIV. Instead it says, “on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests.” That confused me a little so I went to some other translations to see how they translate this same verse. I looked at 25 different translations and of those, 22 agreed with the NIV. So, it’s not a blanket statement of peace to humankind? It seems to be saying that the peace will be given to those, as one version put it, “with whom He is pleased (NASB)”.

When I look around at the world we live in, I don’t see much peace. From the literal wars being waged in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Congo, to the war being fought in my mind, from the thousands of refugees in Sudan, to my refugee heart, I see no peace. So does this mean that I, a Christian, am not in God’s favor?

I struggled with that question as I wrote this sermon. Originally, I wasn’t going to even broach the subject. I had planned to just gloss over what the angels actually said and move on to what the shepherds did in response. But I kept getting stuck. As the question marinated in my heart, an answer began to come more and more into focus. No, the world is not at peace. It is fractured. So fractured that without outside help, all hope for humanity’s redemption would be lost. That outside help came that Christmas morning – God Himself. The Prince of Peace.

We cannot have peace on any sort of large scale until we have peace within ourselves. Peace is not just the absence of disharmony. Peace is completeness. Because sin made us broken, and a broken object cannot mend itself, God had to instigate our redemption. Jesus came as peace, to bring peace. God is delighted when any person realizes his or her brokenness and comes to Him asking to be mended, made whole. To that man or woman He gives completeness.

But having a soul that has been made whole does not exempt us from conflict. There will still be turmoil in our lives, but that swirling emptiness that once consumed us is filled with a calming stillness. In our depths, we have peace. In our innermost place, we are complete. So, the angels were singing joyfully of the peace that would now be made available to humankind! Now back to our story…

The shepherds went to Bethlehem and found the baby, just like the angel had said. They were so excited that they started telling everyone they saw. What the angels said was true! The response of those who heard was one of amazement. These shepherds were ordinary guys. The people in town knew them and the simple lives they led. Their first-hand testimony of what had transpired was amazing, but considering their character, believable. We are ordinary people. Yet God desires to use us in extraordinary ways.

We all know people who are living mundane, routine lives. People who are working hard so that one day they might not have to work anymore. They try to calm the swirling emptiness by accumulating things, possessions to make the waking hours between work and sleep more tolerable. They have a disdain for the the “religious”. They scoff at the likes of Benny Hinn and are quick to point out the hypocrisy of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert. They don’t trust the messenger. What would their reaction be if an ordinary person told them how Jesus changed his or her life and brought peace to fill the void? We are ordinary people with extraordinary news! God came to earth in the form of a baby to redeem humankind to Him.

We can join with the angels and proclaim, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests!” Then, like the shepherds, like Isaiah, we must go and tell. Excitement is contagious. I’ve only lived in Philly for four months, but already there is a tangible excitement in the air surrounding the Eagles. Almost everyone you meet will gladly converse with you about the Superbowl bound team. I have been told that the excitement was whipped into a frenzy last year when Freddie Mitchell, “the People’s Champ”, caught a pass on fourth down and twenty-six for a first down that led the Eagles to beat the Packers in what was a must win game. But what happened the next week after the Eagles were beaten by the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Championship Game? That fervor began to subside. The passion began to wane. People began looking towards next season. While this type of excitement may ebb and flow, there is an excitement that endures. The hope that we have in the One whose birthday we celebrate. The real People’s Champ. Jesus.

I invite you to go out into your neighborhood and spread the hope that you have. “But wait Andy, I’m not an evangelist! I can’t just go up to someone and start talking about Jesus!” Then invite people into His presence. There are at least three opportunities here coming up as we approach Christmas Day. First, worship next Sunday morning. Pastor Linda will return to the pulpit to wrap up this series on the songs of the season by taking us through Simeon’s song. What would you say if you had the opportunity to hold the week-old Christ? Come next week and find out what Simeon said. Second, you can invite people to the choir’s Christmas concert next Sunday evening at 6:30. Bring people to hear the story of Christ’s birth depicted in song. It is not a worship service per se, and that may make it easier for some people to attend. Third, invite people to the candlelight Christmas Eve worship service, held at eight o’clock that evening. Most people, if asked, would agree to attend a Christmas Eve or Easter service if only someone would invite them.

We are ordinary people with extraordinary news. Let’s go out and share it!

[1] Williams, J. Rodman, Renewal Theology, Grand Rapid: Zondervan, 1988, I:188. Williams goes on to write that the primary function, though not the only function, of angels is to praise God.

[2] Expository Thoughts, 10.