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The Songs of Advent: The Angel’s Song

December 16, 2007

Luke 2:8-14

The Christmas story, as we find it in the Gospel of Luke, is always significant to this time of year. I do not know how many times I have used this passage during the Christmas season. I have used it here with our preschool and older children. I have used it at Summit Hills in a worship service there. I used it at two funerals this week, each time emphasizing different parts of the story. I memorized the Christmas story found in the King James Version, and I invite you to join me as we say it together by heart.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

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, good will toward men.

Do you believe in angels? This has been a difficult week in the life of our church. Three deaths occurred on Monday, and yesterday was the death of Betty Senn. Many people are in the hospital, some seriously ill. Some of you have had an interruption that came totally unexpectedly. It just slapped you in the side of the face. If there was ever a time to believe in angels, it is this week.

Clare and I have a favorite psalm that we call the Traveling Psalm. Before one of our children leaves on a trip, perhaps overseas, we read Psalm 91 together. I want to call your attention to Verses 11-12: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways: they will lift you up on their hands so that you will not strike your foot against the stone.” This psalm tells us that God provides angels to protect us. What form those angels take, I will leave to you. Certainly the biblical writers have an idea about the physical appearance of those angels. When we read the Christmas story, there is absolutely no doubt that angels play a significant role. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary and then comes to Joseph in a dream. Here on the hillside of Bethlehem, the shepherds see a magnificent angelic appearance. I love the way Frederick Buechner describes what happens to the shepherds that night. He says that they were just minding their business when “all heaven broke loose.” That is exactly what happened. The shepherds were totally surprised by their appearance. These angels brought to them and to the whole world an important message, the message of God’s great gift of His Son, Jesus.

The angels also brought an incredible promise of “Peace on earth, good will to all humankind.” Sometimes I wonder about this promise of peace on earth. You must wonder about it, too. Every year, we celebrate peace. We talk about it. We think about it. It is one of the Fruits of the Spirit that Christians are supposed to exemplify (Galatians 5:22). We proclaim that Jesus is the Prince of Peace.

Our family’s advent wreath has been through several transitions. We bought it in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, when our children were small. It was a big addition to the Christmas decorations in our home one year. The wreath was beautiful with a lot of greenery. All the figures of the manger scene depicted on the advent wreath – Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus, as well as the wise men, shepherds, and angels. The tall dowel rod wrapped in red ribbon was in the middle of the wreath. A Moravian star, so typical of Winston-Salem, hung from the top of that rod.

Each Sunday of Advent, our family lit the candles in our home the same way we do here in church. Three candles had burned down a good bit over the Advent season. On the last Sunday of Advent, we lit those again, along with the last candle, sang a Christmas carol, read Scripture, and bowed for prayer. The whole family stood together around the Advent wreath in the foyer of our home with eyes closed and heads bowed. Suddenly, a great light interrupted my eloquent prayer. The shortest candle had set one of the corn shuck figures on fire. Clare shouted, “Kirk!” I opened my eyes and saw our flaming Advent wreath. I grabbed it and started for the front door, but Clare yelled, “No! Go to the bathroom! Throw it in the tub!” Turning into the bathroom, which was right across the hall, I threw our treasured Advent wreath into the tub and turned on the water, dousing the whole thing. “Holy smoke!”

The plastic greenery of that Advent wreath was pretty much ruined. It just melted into the Styrofoam in which it was planted. We were able to save some of those corn shuck figures, but not all of them. They are all a little worse for the wear, being singed around the edges. Joseph, in particular, looks as if he had a really hard time. Some kind people who heard this story decided to add new corn shuck figures to it. We are so grateful. We still display that Advent wreath and some of those old figures that were singed by the fire. They serve as a reminder that during the season of Advent, not everything goes just exactly the way we plan it.

Not everything unfolds so that the Christmas season is a time to be jolly, a time in which “All is calm, all is bright.” This season unfolds, and sometimes events take us by surprise, doing injury to people we love and injury to our hearts. Yet Christmas comes. The shepherds on a hillside experienced “good tidings of great joy.” No matter what your experience is during this season of Christmas, this message still rings true. There are “good tidings of great joy.”

We owe a debt of gratitude to St Francis of Assisi. He is responsible for teaching us about caroling, singing Christmas carols. He is also responsible for creating the crèche, or the living nativity. Think of St. Francis when you see living manger scenes. Many of you are familiar with The Return to Bethlehem, which Bethel United Methodist Church hosts each year. When you see live nativity scenes such as that one, remember that the custom goes all the way back St. Francis. He gathered people and asked them to play the parts depicted in Scripture.

Of course, the possibility exists that something will go differently than everyone had planned during a living nativity. My aunt and uncle, Herbert and Jackie Neely, were missionaries to the country of Southern Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe. When Aunt Jackie was working with the WMU ladies in an African village, she asked them if they would create a living nativity. Plenty of animals, like sheep and donkeys, were available. The women were quite willing to participate, but no men would agree to play any of the roles. Just imagine this living nativity with these African women playing all of the parts.

One of the women in the group had a newborn infant, so that baby took the role of Jesus. I know the Christmas carol “Away in a Manger” says, “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes,” but the baby playing the part of Jesus started crying. The mother of the child, who was playing a part in the play, picked up baby Jesus and started nursing. It probably would have been a sweet scene if she had been playing the part of Mary. She, however, was playing the part of Joseph. Seeing Joseph nursing the “baby Jesus” surprised everyone. Whenever you put on a nativity play, anything can happen.

When our son Kris was in Brazil one Christmas, he went to a Roman Catholic Church that had a living nativity. Every part in the play was played by a senior adult, by someone over seventy. Kris said it was one of the most amazing nativity scenes he had ever seen because it was so unusual.

Usually you think of these parts being played by little children. We delight in such stories. Certainly, we are familiar with nativity scenes going awry, as in Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. You have heard my own story about the Christmas at Croft.

Sometimes the nativity scenes are really marvelous productions. Think about the production at Oberammergau. People flock from all over the world to see that production, which occurs once every ten years. Think about the nativity scene at the Crystal Cathedral in California. Real camels are used for their version.

It might be that some of the most authentic are the ones in which things happen that are so very human. Think about that first Christmas. Consider those shepherds, blue-collar workers, called in from the field to see this event, which had come to pass. When the angel appeared to them in the fields, they were scared to death. They came to Bethlehem and saw Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling cloths. I can only imagine that Mary learned how to swaddle a baby from her mother or from her grandmother. When swaddled, a baby feels very secure. The shepherds found the baby, just as the angel had told them. They came and worshipped. When they went away, they were determined to tell other people about what they had seen and heard.

Look at the other people in this manger scene. Like the shepherds, the wise men came to that manger scene to worship. We know from Scripture that they arrived sometime after the shepherds, but we put all of these individuals together in manger scenes. The wise men came from Persia, the area of the world now known as Iraq and Iran. They traveled many miles across the desert to offer gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. If you think those men showed up in their finest clothes without breaking a sweat as they crossed the desert, you are mistaken. They were travel weary. These three had gone by Jerusalem. They were wise men, indeed. They heard Herod’s hedging and became suspicious of his words, “I want to come and worship him.” The wise men, too, were afraid, but they went to Bethlehem with their instinctive notion that Herod was dangerous.

Every person in this manger scene comes with mixed feelings. Consider the others. Joseph was afraid. Like Prissy in Gone with the Wind, he did not “know nothing about birthing no babies.” He was just a carpenter, called upon to attend the woman he loved, his betrothed. He had traveled with Mary a long way and stands there so attentive. Joseph was a man of faith. Mary was a teenage girl who had so much to fear. She, too, was afraid when she saw Gabriel; but she put her trust in what God had told her through this angelic experience. All individuals started their journey to Bethlehem in fear, but they came in hope.

What would it have been like if Herod had come to worship? What if he had not been so jealous, so envious that somebody might be born into the world to take his place? What if he, too, could have recognized this baby as a gift from God? His image would have also been included as one of the characters in the nativity scene. Herod allowed his fear to win. All others let their hope win out over fear.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a wonderful poet who lived during the time of the Civil War. At the time the war started, in July of 1861, he and his wife, Frances, were living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with their six children. Soon after the attack on Fort Sumter, Frances decided to cut the hair of one of their younger children. It was a very hot summer, and the daughter’s long curly locks made the heat unbearable. Frances cut her daughter’s curls. Wanting to save them, she melted some sealing wax by the fire. A few drops of the wax dropped on her dress and caught her dress on fire. Frances did not want the children to be harmed, so she ran across the hall into the study of her husband. When Longfellow saw his wife, he tried to wrap a small throw rug around her, but it was not big enough. He did manage to extinguish the flames though he burned his hands, arms, and face during the attempt. Longfellow survived, but his wife died the next morning. Portraits of Longfellow show him with a full beard, which he grew to hide scars from his burns.

That Christmas, Longfellow was desperate. He tried to make sense out of Christmas but could not. He wrote in his journal, “The holidays are so unhappy.” The next year, his son Lt. Charles Longfellow, was serving in the army of the Potomac. When he was wounded in battle right before Christmas, Longfellow became quite despondent. Not knowing whether his son would live or die, he again wrote in his journal of his despair.

The following Christmas of 1863, the Civil War was raging. Longfellow, always the poet, sat at his desk on Christmas day and penned the words to a poem that came to him as he listened to church bells ringing.

I heard the bells on Christmas day

Their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet the words repeat

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along the unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

The third verse, the most gripping, is haunting. No doubt thinking of his wife who had died, his son who had been wounded in battle, and the Civil War that had continued to rage, Longfellow wrote,

And in despair I bowed my head:

“There is no peace on earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong, and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

I imagine after a pause and maybe after a prayer, Longfellow gathered himself and his thoughts. He listened to those church bells and wrote the final stanza:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,

With peace on earth, good will to men.”

The last line in each stanza of the poem is the message of the angels. If there was ever a time to believe in angels, it is now. If there was ever a time to believe the message that God intends for us to have peace, it is now. I am not talking just about peace in Iraq though I do pray for that. I am also thinking about peace in Darfur in the Sudan, where over 200,000 people have died from the atrocities of a civil war, many from starvation. I am thinking about peace on the streets of New York City and Los Angeles and Detroit and Chicago and Spartanburg. Most of all, I am talking about the peace in your heart and in mine.

How can peace be anywhere if peace is not in our hearts? When the angels speak the words of peace, they speak not only to the political situation in the world but also to the situation of the human heart, hearts that are broken, hearts that are filled with bitterness, hearts like that of Longfellow. You could say “And in despair, I bowed my head: ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said.” Upon reflection, Longfellow rediscovered that peace. We can, too.

The Apostle Paul, writing from death row, said we can have that peace of heart and peace of mind beyond human understanding. At Christmas, we want that inner peace of heart and peace of mind. It is the promise of the angels. God always keeps His promises. His promise can be fulfilled for every one of us, no matter our external circumstances, our sadness, our grief, our bitterness, our brokenness. God gives to us the gift of peace. It comes in the most unlikely way, a vulnerable child. Jesus’ other name is Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” That, my friends, is the source of our peace. God is with us because Jesus came into a world exactly like the one we live in today.

You can have this gift of peace for Christmas. Accept Christ as your Savior. Acknowledge him as the Prince of Peace, the Lord of your life. Invite Jesus to come into your heart.

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely

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