Last Christmas, at Westminster Abbey in London, the worshipers gathered there prayed this prayer,
May the joy of the angels,
The eagerness of the shepherds,
The perseverance of the wise men,
The obedience of Mary and Joseph,
And the peace of the Christ Child
Be ours this Christmas. Amen.
Well, during the sermons of this Christmas season, I want us to focus on each of the phrases of that beautiful prayer. We begin today with ‘‘The Joy of the Angels.”
I believe in angels.
Now, I know that there are those who do not believe in angels, and that’s all right, I suppose. After all, there is nothing that says a person has to believe in angels in order to be a Christian. However, I do think we need to remember that the Bible mentions angels more than 300 times, and that’s good enough for me. So, I believe in angels, and I think the day will come when you believe in them, too. In fact, it may even be today. For today I want us to zero in on the angels who were there that first Christmas.
Ponder, please, the majesty of the Christmas angels.
The Bible nowhere describes angels the way most of us picture them. They’re not cute little chubby cherubs strumming their harps, and they are not resplendent creatures with vast wings and shiny halos. That is not what scripture tells us about angels. As a matter of fact, the Bible tells us that there are eight different kinds of angels and that these angels are spiritual beings, not physical beings as we are.
It is important for us to remember that. If you look at Genesis 1:1, the Bible declares that “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Now, the word “heavens” does not refer to the sky above us with the stars and the planets clustered within it. Those things were not even brought into existence until later in the creative process. No. The “heavens” refers to the spiritual realm where God is in all of His glory. And that spiritual realm is populated only by spiritual beings, the angels. Remember also that the Bible tells us that when we die believing in Christ, we put aside our physical bodies and we take on a spiritual body and then we dwell forever with God in all of his glory. In other words, we become angels. So, if you believe in Christ, but you don’t believe in angels, then let me put you on notice that one of these days you will actually become an angel. I bet you’ll believe in them then!
The Christmas story tells us that the angels declared, “Glory to God in the highest heavens.” They could glorify God precisely because they were with God in the realm of the spirit, the highest heavens. And that means that they knew God’s Son from the very beginning. In all those prodigious ages before this planet was created, they knew the only begotten Son of God. They saw Him in all of His glory. They knew the promise that one day He would lay aside all the glory of Heaven and humble Himself and come to this earth in the form of a servant to live and to die for the salvation of the world. When, at long last, that moment came, the moment when the infinite became definite, can you imagine the joy, the wonder, the amazement of those angels as they saw the Holy Spirit swoop down upon the little town of Bethlehem and there, in a stable, on the straw, in a stall the glorious Son of God became human flesh?
That does change the way we think about this great Creator God of ours, doesn’t it? Martin Luther tells how when his translation of the Bible was being printed in Germany, pieces of the printer’s work fell upon the floor of the printer’s shop. The young daughter of the printer picked up one of the scraps and she read for the first time in her own language, these words, “God so loved the world, that He gave…” That was all. The rest of the sentence had not been printed on that scrap, but that was a transforming moment for her. Up to that point she thought of God as someone to be feared. She carried the scrap of paper to her mother. Her mother read it and then asked what was it that He gave. The little girl replied, “I don’t know. But, if He loves us enough to give us anything, then we need not be afraid of Him.”
Well, of course, He loves us so much that He didn’t just give us anything; He gave us His only Son. That’s why the angels filled the skies with majestic sound on Christmas. They saw it all from the beginning—from the very beginning, and they knew what it meant when Jesus left Heaven and came to this earth. He came to show us how much God loves us.
Ponder also the message of the Christmas angels.
The message of the angels is best captured, I think, in the words of the much-loved Christmas carol:
Hark the herald angels sing,
Glory to the newborn King.
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled.
Occasionally, I have someone say to me that they see God in nature. Well, that’s fine, but I’m not too impressed with that. I mean anybody who sees the flaming beauty of an ocean sunset, or the mountainsides painted with the spectacular colors of autumn, or the pure silence of a valley sleeping beneath a blanket of snow—anybody who says that they see God in those things needs to remember that it would be gullibility rather than good sense not to see God in those things. So, I’m not too impressed when someone says that they see God in nature. However, when someone says that they have experienced and seen God in the sanctity of their own heart, when they talk about God as He is evidenced not just in the stars, but in their own souls, well, that’s the kind of person I know has been to Bethlehem. They have heard the message of the angels about “God and sinners reconciled.”
There is a moving moment in the play, Les Miserables, when Fantine, a prostitute trying to make peace with God in her life, sings a haunting melody:
“There was a time when men were kind,
Their voices soft, their words inviting.
There was a time when love was blind,
The world was a song, the song exciting.
I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high and life worth living.
I dreamed that love would never die.
I dreamed that God would be forgiving.”
That’s not just a dream—that kindness and love will never die, that God will be forgiving. That’s the joyous message the Christmas angels came to bring. For you see, when a person has been to Bethlehem in his or her heart; when a person has seen the sacrifice in the love of God; when a person has experienced the grace and the peace that come from God in Jesus Christ, then that person experiences a joy like no other joy ever known.
There was a time during the most horrible persecutions of the Jews by the Nazis in Poland, when an old Jewish cemetery keeper came into the cemetery one morning and found that during the night, a woman trying to avoid capture had crept into an open grave and there had given birth to a son, then she had died. The keeper found the child still alive and he began to cry, “This must be the Messiah for only the Messiah would choose to be born in a grave.” Well, it wasn’t the Messiah. The child actually died a few hours later, but the old cemetery keeper spoke a truth deeper than he knew. Only the Messiah of God could choose to be born into this life in a lowly stable and then be born into eternal life in a garden grave. You see, the message of the angels is not only the message of Christmas, it’s also the message of Easter. The joy of Christmas and the joy of Easter combine to remind us that in Jesus Christ, you and I can be reconciled to God. In Jesus Christ, you and I can be heaven-bound.
The Bible is right up front when it says that most people who heard the message of the angels didn’t pay much attention to it. The Gospel of John notes that the world knew Christ not; that He came to His own home and His own people, but they received Him not. The Gospel of Matthew speaks about a star, but notes that only a few people followed it. The Gospel of Luke tells us about the heavenly host praising God, but there is no evidence that a massive number of people responded to it. We know about that, don’t we? We know that most everyone gets caught up in the Christmas spirit, that even the most sour can be moved to smile, that even the hardest heart can get a little soft around the edges. And, it will reach its zenith on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. But, for so many people, it won’t last. It will disappear. It will go down the drain like the dirty dishwater after Christmas dinner. They’ll pack up that spirit of love and peace and hope and joy and put it away with the tree lights, in the attic. But, for those people who experience the reality of the Christmas angels in their hearts, for those people who welcome Jesus Christ into their hearts and into their lives at Christmas, for those people Christmas will last forever.
My beloved people, I plead with you to take Jesus Christ into your heart and into your life this Christmas, for then you will discover that this Christmas will indeed last forever and you will discover that you can say what I say:
“I believe in angels.”