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Choirs of Angels


Or, A Christmas Call to (Expressible) Joy
Luke 2:8-20
December 19, 2021
Lord’s Day Worship
Sean Higgins



Introduction

I prefer quiet. I grew up in a house where my dad more than preferred it, he punished the rest of us, not ironically and quite effectively with his own unvoiced anger, for not being quiet. Quiet is drilled into me.

Many stories we’ve heard about “spiritual” people also involve quiet. Among us Bible-reading types we even have our own modern-monkish moments we call “quiet times.” We’ve turned quiet into a virtue, and virtues typically get promoted and defended.

Four sure, quiet can be good, polite, appropriate, reverent. For sure, the night Jesus was born was not silent.

We come by it naturally; every time we sing “Silent Night” it strums the sentimental heart strings, as long as you don’t actually have a newborn you’re trying to juggle in one arm while holding the candle for the Christmas Eve service in the other. Silence is more a platonic idea than an incarnate one.

We sing “let all mortal flesh keep silence,” which is an inspired line in Zechariah 2:13. But that is a call to silence for those who won’t serve the Lord, in contrast to the call to those who put their trust in the Lord, “Sing and rejoice, …for behold, I come and will dwell in your midst” (Zechariah 2:10, see verses 11-12 as well). The silence is urged on those who about to face Yahweh’s holy judgment.

But when it comes to the birth of His holy Son, what does it sound like? “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host saying, ‘Shhhhhhhh!’” Yes, the angelic army of shushers as seen on TV nativity sets.

The thing is, the skies were not silent, neither were the shepherds, or Mary or Joseph. The only quiet character in these first two chapters of Luke’s gospel is Zechariah, and he was muted as discipline for not believing the word he was given.

I am not calling for as many decibels around your tree or table, but songs of loudest praise are appropriate. Raise a glass, and raise your voice. Be careful trying to keep your joy, and your kids’ joys, at a whisper.

We’re at the fourth of four advent messages. Already we’ve considered the Annunciation, the Magnificat, and the Birth of Christ. The next most immediate event concerns the shepherds and angels on the same night, and that will give us something to treasure and ponder in our hearts this week. As in the previous sermons, the three parts will be the story, a doctrine, and an application.

Joy to the World – Luke 2:8-20

As for the chronology, we know it is the same night because verse 14 says, “born this day.” As far as location, Luke says, “in the same region,” so outside of Bethlehem, near enough for the shepherds to cover the distance. “There were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (thank you again to the KJV translators; such language is four centuries old). There’s one flock, of an unknown number watched by another unknown number of shepherds. Since it’s plural there must have been more than two, and probably less than ten. They are on the graveyard shift.

“And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shown around them, and they were filled with fear” (2:9). If it was Gabriel he is not named, and the glory—the dazzling brightness—gets emphasized. Zechariah and Mary had both been startled, these shepherds no less. The next lines are Christmas gold. The angel said:

“Fear not, for behold I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people, for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (verse 10)

At the moment, it is one angelic herald and a few small town shepherds. This hardly seems like a crescendo. Bethlehem was not highly regarded (Micah 5:2), and it’s usually said that shepherds weren’t either. And probably, these shepherds were not the guys you invited to your parties unless you absolutely had to. At the least, the gospelization did not come to temple priests or public dignitaries. While the consequences of this event would be extensive (all the world, Israel are “the people” and Gentiles are mentioned in 2:32) and eternal (salvation) and political (Christ the Lord), the good news was shared at small scale.

It was no small celebration, though, but news of “great joy.” Joy to the world!

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 among those with whom He is please.” (verses 13-14)

Glory in altissimis Deo! There are some things a solo just can’t satisfy. This news, this great joy, took a choir of angels. It’s a “heavenly host,” they are an angelic army of praise-rs. These singing-soldiers have lit up the sky and filled the silence with their song.

You may notice that the ESV is not the standard holiday greeting card quote, which is “on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” That’s from the KJV, based on a different set of handwritten copies of the New Testament (the Textus Receptus) that don’t have a final sigma (ς) on eudokia (εὐδοκία), which would be in the nominative case (so, “goodwill to men”). The better reading has the sigma, making it a the genitive case, as reflected in most modern translations (so, “peace among men of [God’s] goodwill”). The emphasis is on peace, and peace to those God elected for receiving His favor.

The angel told them where they could see this Savior (verse 12) and they decided to go see for themselves “this thing that has happened, what the Lord made known to us” (verse 15).

They went “with haste,” and whether by asking around or by their knowledge of a limited number of manger spots in the city (maybe it was their own stable), they found the family. “Hi. You don’t know us, but we were just flash-mobbed by an angel choir about your baby.”

The news got around. The shepherds were not silent about it; they are the only ones who saw the extraordinary glory, and they didn’t keep it to themselves. And people “wondered,” some perhaps politely and others more open in their unbelief. Mary was collecting her thoughts, overwhelmed with the events, and then the shepherds went back to work, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” What a night, loud and bright, and not quiet.

The Doctrine – Salvation

Again, unlike the virgin birth and a qualified kenosis in the incarnation which are the focus of a few verses, salvation is a front-to-back-of—the-canon doctrine. But as we hear the angels voices about this divine night, we understand that it’s about the “dear Savior’s birth.”

Interestingly, Luke is the only one of the Synoptic Gospels to use the word “Savior” (and the title is used only once in John 4:42).

The great joy of the Christmas story is about salvation, a Savior who saves and reigns as Savior-King, as Messiah. Gabriel told Joseph that the son of Mary should be named “Jesus,” Yahweh saves, “for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Mary magnified the Lord and rejoiced in “God my Savior” (Luke 1:47); did she know that the bitty-baby in her belly was her Savior? Zechariah, after he got his voice back, celebrated God who has “visited and redeemed his people, and he has raised up a horn of salvation” (Luke 1:68-69). John would go before Jesus “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:77).

So again, the angel of the Lord told the shepherds about the birth of “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). The angelic host praised God for “peace,” and this is news of forgiveness and fellowship between God and man, that is, salvation.

In the next section of Luke, Simeon recognized the Lord’s Christ, “for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples” (2:30).

And so, in this Christmas season we sometimes even need salvation from sinning in our “Christmas sins,” like snobby pride and selfish discontent and impatience and anxiety, in carol-vexation and silent-joy.

Use – A Christmas Call to (Expressible) Joy

Let me state again that quiet isn’t always bad, and silence is certainly not violence. Be thankful for the moments when not a creature is stirring in your house. But don’t let Thomas Kinkade paint your picture of Christmas. Remember, it was the Grinch, like Grendel before him, who was mad at all the joyful noise.

When you can’t hear yourself think because it’s so loud, transpose that into a meditation on what fussy shepherds might have said when the choir started all their hubbub. “You’re startling the sheep!” The way the shepherds showed their faith was not by finding the manger and then miming congratulations. They talked among themselves, they shared testimonies with Joseph and Mary, they seem to have told anyone who crossed their paths, and ended up making more joyful noise in the Lord’s name when they went back to the fields.

There is a joy that is “inexpressible.”

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8–9 ESV)

But this is not describing a kind of joy, like something kept safe behind bullet-proof glass, rather it refers to our limited capacity to get all the rejoicing out. The Incarnation of our Savior is not a truth protected in a museum but proclaimed in a concert hall.

Conclusion

In my message on the Magnificat I said about Mary’s praise, “This is faith, yes, but it is not sleeping or silent. It’s faith that goes all in, in obedience and also in reverence and joy.”

In his poem “The Turn of the Tide,” C. S. Lewis writes:

Revel, mirth and shout
Descended to her, sphere below sphere,
Till Saturn laughed and lost his latter age’s frost
And his beard, Niagara-like, unfroze

In pre-Copernican cosmology, Saturn was the final planet, the planet of the end, the planet of old and cold, the planet of death. At the Incarnation, even Saturn couldn’t stay hard.

I am not trying to be a Scrooge or make all the needles on your pine tree brown, or to red pill your Precious Moments Christmas edition, but to open you up to a harder, more tiring, more Bethlehem-consistent, joy.

“Silent Night, Holy Night” is two-thirds right, it was night and the baby was holy. Who knows, the only silence that night might have come between the baby gathering oxygen to wail. And in “O Little Town of Bethlehem” – “how silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given,” really?

The first verse in “Let all mortal flesh keep silence” is quite shushy, so is “ponder nothing earthly minded,” except that the next couple verses require just the opposite. Is it only angels that, “with ceaseless voice” “cry: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Lord Most High!”

How about instead: “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” verse 14: “My heart for very joy must leap; my lips no more can silence keep.”

I’m not sure what your favorite Christmas carol is, and it’s fine if it’s not “Joy to the World” and you’re just wrong. But Christmas is not pianissimo. The Savior reigns, “Let men their songs employ” and “repeat the sounding joy.”


Charge

All of us have it better than the shepherds. We do not need to go to Bethlehem and see, we have our own completed copies of the Bible to read. We have not heard the heavenly choir, but we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed (2 Peter 1:19). We’ve not seen a baby in a manger, but we’ve been privileged called to steward the whole story of the Savior. If the shepherds enjoyed the choir, how much more joy do we have to join in the choir? All you have to do is not keep silent about Him.

Benediction:

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. (2 Peter 3:18, ESV)