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December 14, 2008


We Hear the Christmas Angels – Angelic Praise

Luke 2:8-20; Job 38:4-7; Philippians 2:10-11


I invite you to turn with me to Luke 2, a familiar passage, as we continue our series We Hear the Christmas Angels.  You remember that we have had two sermons in this series, “Angelic Proclamation” and “Angelic Protection.”  Today, we come to the third, “Angelic Praise.”  I want to begin reading at Verse 8.  Hear now the Word of God.


And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.  An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shown round them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.  This will be a sign to you:  You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to men on whom His favor rests.” 

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” 

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying the manger.  When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.  But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.  The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.


            On this special day, I want to share a story.  I give this especially for those in the choir, for Gail and Paula, and for Holly.  A church choir had been preparing for the annual Christmas cantata.  The choir director had had a very frustrating season.  The problem was that everybody was so busy.  As the time for the presentation drew near, the minister of music became more and more agitated.  She never knew who would come for a rehearsal.  Each time she had announced a rehearsal, some key people in the choir were not present. 

Finally at the very last rehearsal, she said to the group, “I really want to thank our pianist.  She is the only person who has been here for every rehearsal.  I appreciate that.” 

The pianist spoke up and replied, “Well, it is the least I could do since I am going to miss the cantata.”

            It is an old story but so appropriate for today.  Please pray for Holly and her blood pressure as she leads the second service.  It is going to be a magnificent presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

            We have been thinking about angels at a time when angels seem to be quite the topic of interest.  We see depictions of angels on the wall in the Sanctuary.  What do we think about these heavenly creatures?  The Bible says they are messengers of God.  In both the Greek and the Hebrew languages, the word angel means “messenger.”  Hebrews 1:14 says that they are “ministering spirits.”

I have suggested that angels minister to us in at least three ways.  We considered the angel’s role in the proclamation to Mary at the time of the annunciation.  Second, angels serve as protectors.  We referred to Psalm 91 to get a sense of their guardianship, their function of protecting us.  We saw that Joseph himself acted as a kind of protector.  Today, we look on a hillside outside Bethlehem and find that one of the most remarkable functions of angels is that they lead us in worship and praise.

             When I was at Harvard Divinity School, three large mosaics written in the Hebrew language hung on the wall of the faculty lounge.  I realized after translating them that the mosaics contained the words of Job 38:4:  “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”  This question essentially asks, “Why do you think you know so much?  You were not here from the very beginning.  You have no idea what went on when the foundations of the earth were laid.”  It is an appropriate passage for the wall of the faculty lounge at Harvard Divinity School. 

The book of Job might seem an unlikely place for us to turn this morning, but Job 38, Verses 4-7, catch a sense of what the Bible tells us about angels.  You remember that Job had been contentious with God, raising all kinds of questions of God.  Listen now, as God addresses Job: 


“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? 

Tell me, if you understand. 

Who marked off its dimensions?   Surely you know. 

Who stretched a measuring line across it? 

On what was its footings set,

     or who laid its cornerstone –

while the morning stars sang together

and all the angels shouted for joy?” 


We learn two bits of information there.  First, the angels were present at the time of creation, from the very beginning.  They had a particular function.  We might think of them as somewhat of a cheerleader squad, heavenly cheerleaders, cheering on the remarkable work of God, the Great Creator.  They did not participate in the creation process, but they were there, giving praise and adulation to God for the remarkable work He was doing.

            One of the most exciting aspects about angelic ministry is their leadership in worship.  Pay attention to what the angels do in the book of Revelations.  You will see that their primary function in the heavenly realm is the constant task of giving glory, honor, and praise to God.  Angels are messengers and protectors; but we see, especially here in Luke’s gospel, that they have the function of leading praise.  We sing about it in a song that we sometimes use in worship, “Surely the Presence of the Lord is in this place.  I can feel His mighty power and His grace.  I can hear the brush of angel wings…”  It is as if angels are silent companions with us in worship.  Their worship is especially helpful to us because they show us how to worship.  They do not worship other angels; they worship God and God alone.  They worship God in three persons:  Father, Son as the lamb and king, and Holy Spirit.  They bow down and shout with joy, speaking of the worth and glory and honor of God.  They are filled with a sense of awe and exuberant reverence, making it clear that God is to be praised.

            During our 11:00 service, orchestra members will fill these chairs on the floor.  Singers will fill these seats in the choir loft.  Tonight, little children will be up here, acting out a skit.  Last Sunday, senior adults sang here.  Throughout this week, students from a local high school were singing praise to God.  These musicians are in many ways representative of the function of angels in our lives: they lead us in worship.  You have heard me say that Sunday after Sunday, the people who provide beautiful music for our time together here lead me in worship.

            I was visiting with Dr. Carlisle Marney, one of my mentors, at his home in Waynesville, North Carolina.  He had just returned from a mountain where he had been cutting firewood.  I asked him why he cut his own firewood because I knew that he could have bought a load of firewood at that point in his life. 

He explained, “Kirk, work is very important.  When the darkness of despair creeps into your life, whenever you start to feel immobilized by the weight of the world, the single most important thing you can do is work until you are fatigued.  The remedy for this immobilized despair, this immobilized weight of the world, is work.  The remedy for fatigue is worship.” 

            I have pondered long and hard his remarkable statement.  I believe he is exactly right.  What do we do when we experience fatigue?  Our first inclination is to take a nap, rest.  That this is exactly the reason God gave us a Sabbath.  From our fatigue, we can come into His presence and worship.  Worship is really the only remedy for fatigue.

            Yesterday, I was in a store at a book signing.  People were coming in and out, in and out, in and out.  Everyone was in a hurry.  Very few people had time to just stop and share a cup of coffee or have a kind word.  Some people were actually put off by my attempt to speak to them, to take a moment to shake their hand.  Christmas is very good news, and we have no reason in the world to act as if we are in an urgent state, that we must rush.  Christmas is not an emergency. 

            Angels help us with that reality.  Look for a moment at what happened that night in the fields outside of Bethlehem.  All was dark.  Suddenly, all was light, terrifying the shepherds.  This light coming into darkness is one of the major themes of Christmas, especially in the Gospel of John.  We are told that Jesus is the light of the world.  That light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it.  Darkness is transformed into light through Jesus.

            The King James Version records the shepherds’ reaction with the words “sore afraid.”  They were scared to death, terrified, but soon hope replaced their fear.  “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy…”  Another major theme of Christmas is that fear can be transformed into hope.  Angels help us worship by transforming that fear into hope.

            Friday night, I talked with a man who has a position of responsibility in the legal system.  He is a judge, a magistrate.  He said that he has been handling 100 foreclosure cases a week in Spartanburg County.  Where are those people going to live?  How will Christmas be for them?  What will Christmas be like for those who are unemployed, for those facing an illness, for those still dealing with fresh grief? 

Fear can creep into our Christmas celebration.  If we realize that Christmas is not an emergency, if we realize that it does not depend on our external circumstances, then hope can replace that fear.  That is exactly what happened to every person in this manger scene.  Gabriel told Mary, “Do not be afraid.”  Joseph was told, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”  Angels gave the shepherds, who were scared to death, a message of hope.  The wise men, frightened of Herod, went home another way.  Everybody in that manger scene started their journey to Bethlehem with fear, but they all allowed hope to win.  Phillips Brooks, in one of our favorite carols put it so clearly, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.”  Christmas is a time when hope and fear meet.  The angels help us overcome fear with hope, and they help us worship.

             Despair is often a part of the season for many people.  These angels, in helping us worship, move us beyond despair to a sense of peace, not peace that is the absence of conflict but peace that is internal.  Perhaps you have heard the story about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s despair at Christmastime in 1863.  Just two years before, his wife’s dress had caught on fire while she was trying to seal a letter with wax.  When she ran into Longfellow’s study and he tried to extinguish the fire, he was badly burned on his arms and hands.  He wore a full beard after that because his face was also badly scarred.  When Longfellow’s wife died just a few days later, Longfellow despaired.  He wrote in his journal in 1863, “Surely the holidays are the saddest time of all.”  

Two years later, in the middle of the Civil War, his son Charles, a lieutenant in the army of the Potomac, was severely wounded.  Afraid that his son would die, Longfellow sat down and wrote a poem you know well, a poem which has now been put to music.  In the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” Longfellow writes about how he hears bells ringing.  The third verse tells of his despair:  “And in despair I bowed my head.  ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said.”  By the end of that poem, however, Longfellow has experienced a change in attitude: “Now ring 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 toward men.’”  Angels turn despair into a sense of peace. 

            Angels also have a way of turning apathy, the humdrum of routine, into absolute joy.  These shepherds were just minding their business, just tending their flocks as they did twenty-four seven, when all heaven broke loose.  Suddenly everything changed.  Their life’s purpose became more than tending sheep.  They followed the directions they had been given by finding Mary, Joseph, and the babe.  Did you notice what the Scripture says about their return?  The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.  This monotonous routine, this humdrum life, was converted to joy.  The song “O Holy Night” puts it well in just one line:  “A thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices.”

            I was working in Winston-Salem at the time when the youth minister there wanted to take the youth on a retreat after Christmas, on a day when teachers were supposed to return to school a day or two ahead of students.  The minister decided to take the group to Boone, North Carolina, for a snow skiing trip at a mountain resort I had recommended.  When he and this group of thirty students arrived, nobody was on the slopes skiing.  The manager of the lodge announced to the group, “There is not going to be any skiing today.  We have plenty of snow, but the ski lifts are not working.” 

The youth director had driven the group about two and a half hours to get there, the deposit had been prepaid, and the group did not want to turn around and go home.  Some of the youth asked, “Can we just play in the snow?”  The manager saw nothing wrong with that idea; so after returning the deposit, he allowed the students to play in the snow while the minister and chaperones drank a cup of coffee by the fire. 

After a while, the manager told the adults, “I want you to come look at this.”  The youth minister and chaperones walked outside the ski lodge and saw the entire side of the mountain covered with snow angels.  Those students had run up and down the side of the mountain, making snow angels.  They took a situation that could have been sad, a situation that was disappointing, and converted it into an experience of absolute joy.  Angels help us in the exact same way. 

            Paul writes a great hymn in Philippians 2:10-11.  He says “that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”  I understand what Paul means in the line “in heaven and on earth.”  All of us and the angels – every knee – shall bow, “and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”  When we gather here for worship, angels are among us.  They lead us in worship.  Think of it as being like a dress rehearsal for heaven.  When we get to heaven, we will worship Christ the Lord, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords. 

Christmas is not an emergency.  Christmas is an invitation to worship.  You have sung it, “O come let us adore him.”  The choir has sung it for us.  At the invitation of God’s messengers, we come to the manger, look there in that feeding trough, and see this baby.  If we look closely enough, we will see that he is the spitting image of his Father.  When we look at Christ, we see God Himself.  God has loved us and has sent Christ Jesus into the world.


Kirk H. Neely

© December 2008

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