“Glory to God!”
A Sermon on Luke 2:1-20 for the Birth of Our Lord: Christmas Eve; preached December 24, 2015, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
I wonder if the angels were as surprised as the shepherds. The story tells us—this story most of us have heard time and time again—it tells us that when the angel of the Lord stood before the shepherds, they were “terrified”—“sore afraid,” the good ol’ King James Version put it. You can’t blame them, really. Angel visitations aren’t exactly an every day occurrence. Whatever the “glory of the Lord” shining around something looks like, I suspect somehow that it wasn’t something those shepherds had ever seen before.
But I wonder if the angels themselves were a bit surprised at what was going on. I could imagine those angels thinking they had fallen onto the set of one of those over-the-top farce comedy movies—the kind, you know, where things just keep going wrong, one after another, but everyone is trying so hard to hold it together and carry on like everything is o.k….?
I can picture these angels knowing they’ve been given one job to do: announce the coming of the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord, and do so with their song of “Glory to God in the highest.” One job they’ve been given, and they’re going to do it right. So they are sent off toward the arrival, to the place where God has come down, and then they see it… the stable, the poor unwed mother, a baby. Wait, this can’t be right. Are you sure you’ve sent us to the correct address, Mr. Angel Dispatcher? You didn’t use Apple Maps again, did you? We told you before that you downloading the Google Maps app is free! Resigning themselves to the fact that this was, in fact, the place where they’d been sent, and they were just going to have to work with it, then those angels went out looking for the people nearby to whom they were to herald. And of course, as we know, they find no noble or important people. Shepherds?! You’ve got to be kidding me! Let’s think… what are we supposed to do now?
One courageous angel—the sort who’s always saying they should try to make lemonade out of lemons—offered to go and greet them. They are who’s here, after all, and we’re supposed to go and announce and sing. So let’s do it. I’ll go first and then the rest of you come. So a lone angel goes and greets the shepherds, which—as in any good farce comedy—also seems to go wrong. Terrified. Sore afraid. Perhaps screaming and fainting. Not exactly the sort of reception those angels had hoped for. On cue, the rest of the gang shows up, and they launch into their song—after all, they had one job: sing that song! “Glory to God in the highest” “Glory to God in the highest” “Glory to God in the highest!”
Now, if this had, in fact, been one of those sorts of comedy movies, who knows what might have happened next… perhaps the angels falling out of the sky because their wings malfunctioned, or maybe some competing angel faction showing up with a different message (or even, embarrassingly, the same message!).
None of those are what happen, of course. Instead, as we know, “the shepherds said to one another, ‘let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place.’” They may have initially been afraid, but nevertheless, they heard and listened and ultimately followed. Because, you see—as strange, as unexpected, as surprising, as unfathomable all of this was, it was not a farce, it was not a comedy.
It was no mistake that God came in the cries and wiggles and dirty diapers of a human baby. It was no error that such a birth happened among the poor and outcast. It was no accident that the ‘first nowell’—the first announcement of the great good news—that those angels would say was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay.
Today, many of us have been commenting on how odd it seems to celebrate Christmas when the weather outside is not nearly so frightful. But let’s be honest: unusually warm temperatures are not the only thing that can make it seem odd to be singing of “joy to the world.” In the midst of all we’ve seen around us this year—illness and violence, death and destruction, political insanity and popular outrage—Christmas can seem so saccharin and sentimental, so trite and so trivial, even.
So, like we can imagine those angels being a bit surprised at where they were called to go and to whom they were called to herald, it can seem a bit strange and surprising in the midst of a world like ours to gather on this night and celebrate as we do. But, you know, like those angels, we have but one job to do this night, to sing our “glorias” right here in the world we’ve been given.
Because, you see, that’s what God did for us. That’s the news we celebrate today.
God chose to show up among us—humans, women and men and children just like you and you and you and me.
Among extraneous people in a good-for-nothing part of what was then the known world, God showed up. God showed up like a new fiancée to their first family gathering, knocking on the door of our ordinary existence, ready to step in and get to know all the members of the family. Little did we know that the new member of the family could bring comfort to all by dragging each of us a little out of our comfort zones. Little did we know they’d be the one with the power to bring real peace—peace in our world if we would only listen… and peace within our hearts even when we don’t. Little did we, the world, know back then…
But that is why we are here, my friends. Because we do now know. We do know the story, the one with the angels and the shepherds and Mary and Joseph… the story of when and where God showed up, as one among us. And we know this story not to be a farce.
And I for one am here because I am hungry—especially in a year like this past one has been for our world—I am hungry for the comfort and peace and hope that God brings forth in the out-of-the-way places and among the good-for-nothing people. I too want to know that I have been welcomed in and called into service and welcomed into life. And I am here because, to the God who loves me enough to show up, to come with comfort and peace, to come teaching and healing, to live and to die and to rise again, to come at all—to this God I am obliged to give my worship, my thanks, my praise. I am here because in the face of such a mystery, such a gift, such a light, such a truth—a truth so good it has to be true—I am here because I cannot help but join the song of the angels, singing “glory be to God on high, and on earth, peace to all!”
Won’t you join me, too?