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Christmas in the Carols: Hark, The Herald Angels Sing

Luke 2:8-15

Christmas may be the best loved and least understood celebration in the world.

Even Iraq’s Ambassador to the United Nations, a Muslim with no understanding of or sympathy for the true meaning of Christmas, chose to announce the possible release of hostages with these words: “We would like to see everyone with his family at Christmas because that is a very joyous and happy occasion and it’s a time for family reunions.” Everyone in the world acknowledges Christmas, maybe even enjoys Christmas, but not everyone understands Christmas.

Charles Wesley, the great Methodist hymn writer, wanted people to understand the true meaning of Christmas, so he wrote what has become one of our best loved carols. It was Wesley’s hope that all who sang the words of his carol would understand more fully the redeeming and reconciling mission of Jesus Christ to the world. We know the carol as “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing.” That is not how Wesley knew it. You see, Wesley knew what we tend to forget, namely, that the Bible does not say that the angels sang on that first Christmas. In Luke, when they appeared to the shepherds, they were speaking, not singing. Therefore, the first line of the carol as Wesley wrote it was: “Hark, how all the welkin rings.” That means: “Behold, how all the heavens resound.” Fourteen years later, in 1753, George Whitefield, the evangelist, changed that first line to read: “Hark, the herald angels sing,” and thus we have sung it ever since. But whether the angels were singing or speaking, Wesley captured the message they were delivering in his carol. That will become clear, in a moment, after we pray…

I believe in angels.

Of course, there are those who don’t believe in angels. That’s all right. There is nothing that says that a person has to believe in angels in order to be a Christian. However, 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 focus on the angels who were there that first Christmas. I want us to focus on their majesty, their message, and their ministry.

First, let’s look at the majesty of the Christmas angels.

The Bible nowhere describes angels the way most of us picture them. They are not cute, chubby, little cherubs strumming on 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 planets clustered within it. Those things were not brought into being until later in the creative process. No, “the heavens” refers to the spiritual realm, that place where God is in all of His glory, that place which is populated only by spiritual beings, the angels. We say the same thing in The Lord’s Prayer. We pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We don’t mean “as it is among the stars or out along the Milky Way.” We mean, “May God’s will be done here as it is in the kingdom of heaven which is outside of time and space, altogether perfect and eternal in every way.”

A few moments ago we recited together the words of “The Nicene Creed”: “I believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” “Visible” refers to the earth, to material things, to us. But the “invisible” refers to that realm where the spiritual creatures are, and amongst those creatures are angels. They do not have a physical existence, only a spiritual existence.

And that is why in the Christmas story they were able to sing, “Glory to God in the highest heavens.” They could glorify God because they were with God in that realm of the spirit, the highest heaven. And that also 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. And they knew the promise that one day He would come to this earth. Then at long last, the moment came—the moment when the infinite became definite. Wesley’s carol puts it this way:

Christ by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
To the earth from heaven’s home.

And those angels, having seen Him from the very beginning, well, can you imagine the joy and wonder and amazement which must have been theirs when they saw the Holy Spirit swoop down upon the little town in Israel, that little place called Bethlehem, and then in a stable with a stall and on straw, the glorious Son of God became human flesh?

That changes the way we think about this great, majestic, creator God of ours. Martin Luther tells how when his translation of the Bible was being printed in Germany, pieces of the printer’s work fell on the floor of the printing 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. That was a startling moment for her. Up to that point, she thought of God as someone to be feared. She carried the piece of paper to her mother. Her mother read it and then asked: “What was it He gave?” The little girls replied: “I don’t know, but if He loves us enough to give us anything, then we need not be afraid of Him.”

That’s why the herald 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 Christ left heaven and came to this earth. He came to show us how much God loves us.

Secondly, let’s look at the message of the Christmas angels.

Put simply, the message is that in Christ we can make peace with God and with each other. We read in Luke: “And there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly hosts praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased.'” In the carol we sing it like this:

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. That’s fine, but frankly I am not too impressed with that. I mean, anybody who sees the flaming beauty of an ocean sunset or the mountainsides painted with the brilliant colors of autumn or the purity and the 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 take an immense amount of gullibility rather than good sense not to see God in those things. So I am not too impressed when someone says that they see God in nature.

But when someone says that they have experienced and seen God in the sanctity of their own heart, when they talk about God not just as He is evidenced in the stars, but as He is evidenced in their own souls—that’s the kind of person I know has been to Bethlehem. They have heard the message of the angels about peace on earth.

Of course, the real power of that message has escaped us for a long time. I have been told that there are places in Europe where you can plunge a spade into the earth and in just a couple of turns of the spade, you can unearth prehistoric artifacts and also bits of metal from more modern times—that in one spadeful of earth you might come up with a flint fist hatchet used in prehistoric times to crush the skull of an enemy, and in that same clump of earth you will find shrapnel from some shell fired during the Second World War. Crushing a person’s skull in one instance, blowing a person to bits in the other it’s a kind of parable of the history of humankind, isn’t it? War after war after war in the midst of a world made to experience God’s peace.

There is a moving moment in the play “Les Miserables” when Fantine, a prostitute trying to make peace with God and with others 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 and that God will be forgiving. That’s the message the angels came to bring. For you see when a person has been to Bethlehem, 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 becomes an agent of peace in the world, making peace with God and with others.

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 escape capture, had crept into an open grave and there had given birth to a son. Then she had died. The keeper found this child and 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 died just before noon. 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 stable and then be born into eternal life in a garden grave. We sing in the carol:

Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Risen with healing in His wings.

You see, the message of the angels is not only the message of Christmas—it’s also the message of Easter. The risen Christ brings peace to our hearts and peace to our world.

Finally, let’s look at the ministry of the Christmas angels.

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. John notes that the world knew Christ not, that He came to His own home and to His own people but they received Him not. Matthew speaks about a star, but notes that only a few people followed it. Luke tells us about the heavenly host praising God but there is no evidence that a great number of people responded to it.

We know about that, don’t we? We know that most everyone is different at Christmas, 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 will 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 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. You see, Jesus “laid His heavenly glory by, born that we no more may die, born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth.”

A minister-friend of mine told me about a surgeon in his congregation, who, last year during Christmas, responded to the invitation delivered in worship and came forward. The surgeon said: “I want to commit my life to Jesus Christ.” The minister was thunderstruck. This doctor had been a member of the church for years. The minister said: “What do you mean that you want to commit your life to Jesus Christ?” The surgeon replied: “I want to take this step now because all of my life I have known the words, but now at last I have the music.”

My friends, if you take Jesus Christ into your heart and into your life this Christmas, then you will discover that this Christmas will last forever and you will hear the herald angels begin to sing…

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