Tuesday, December 24, 2013
Christmas Eve Worship
I am thinking of characters in this story – the story of Jesus’ birth. These are major characters, extremely important in this. We don’t know how many there, just that there are many. They are all over the place, very active in the story.
I keep saying story, but that does not mean fiction. This is a story that is more fantastic than fantasy, and as real as you and I are real. This happened, but the power of it is that is continue to live and generate new life in you and me as we enter the story. These characters are not the main ones, but they are essential.
Popular myth tells a variety of unsupported, unbiblical ideas about them. Christians often buy into these myths and express numerous unfounded doctrines. Movies cash in. A TV show was based on their visit to unsuspecting humans and their divine touch. I am talking about angels.
What are angels? The Bible does not set down a systematic definition of angels. ‘Angelology’ is legitimate subset of theology, but like many subsets, much of the thought is educated guess because the Bible’s goal is to tell God’s story. Angels are only included in the way they help us understand God. In doing that, they are very important. But, in an of themselves, we can’t say much. We cannot say more than the Bible says. We won’t go into discussion of spiritual warfare. I offer no speculation on guardian angels. I want to look at that night and the days leading up to it.
The word angel comes from a Greek word that means ‘messenger.’ The word was used for humans who carried messages, but it had a special application for divine couriers who broughtthe thoughts of the gods to humans. The New Testament writers took the Greek concepts to communicate in writing the revealed truth about God. The divine messenger had to work overtime when God’s son came.
Especially busy was the angel Gabriel. He is named as the angel who carried God’s word to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist and of course to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Gabriel made individual appearances to both. An angel also spoke to Joseph, first to announce Mary’s pregnancy, and second to guide Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to Egypt to avoid Herod’s murderous plots. That angel was not named. Nor was the angel who first appeared to the shepherds to announce Jesus ‘birth. It may have been Gabriel or another. The story moves along on the basis of God’s communiques. Angels deliver those messages.
“Do not be afraid Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife will bear a son and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth.”[i]
“Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be call the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end.”[ii]
“Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the City of David a savior, who is Christ, the Lord. This will be a sign for you; you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”[iii]
Do you hear the echo in the angels’ words? The Heavenly witnesses bring to life the song from the Psalms. We just heard a sample of the eternal praise from Psalm 96.
“Sing a new song.”
“Everyone on earth, sing praises to the Lord” (96:1b-c).
“Tell every nation on earth. ‘the Lord is wonderful and does marvelous things’”(v.3).
“Tell everyone of every nation, ‘Praise the glorious power of the Lord’” (v.7).
“Everyone on earth, now tremble and worship the Lord” (v.9).
“Announce [the good news] to the nations, ‘The Lord is King’” (v.10).
And v. 11, “Tell the heavens and the earth to be glad and celebrate.”
Churches everywhere embody the Psalm as we add our voices to the Angelsong. Prompted by the Holy Spirit, we understand a little bit how big this is. The birth of Jesus is the beginning of the climax of the story of God’s salvation for the world.
Think about who the angels told: Zechariah, an aged priest who with his post-menopausal wife was childless. He was fading from the scene and of no importance. Even less significant than him was Mary, a Jewish peasant. Her gender and her station in life slotted pretty far down on the social ladder. But she was not as low those who worked with the sheep. As important as these animals were in the sacrificial system of worship the men who kept them were made unclean by the very necessary work they did. They were not allowed into the inner parts of the temple.
But God is restrained by temple or religious institution. God is not obligated to appear to kings or emperors. God sets the initiative. In Jesus, God came as a common human. In his perfect love and sinless holiness, Jesus cast a spotlight on the sinful condition of all of us – kings and beggars and everyone in between. In his light, all are commoners. That reality is seen throughout Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and in his church whose first leaders were men whose hands smelled of fish. These barely literate disciples established the body of Christ as they spread the Gospel that continues to spread today.
What is the most important offering a witness gives? His testimony! The story resolves not because of the importance of the witness, important as he may be, but because of the truth. Yes, the Heavenly witnesses gave their testimony to aging priests, anonymous maidens, and sleepy shepherds. The true testimony of these witnesses from Heaven is that God has come for all people – for you and me.
The angels don’t really care if they hang from Christmas trees or decorate red and green sweaters. They came to announce God’s actions. When we listen to them and then give our hearts to God by receiving Jesus, the angels rejoice. There is a heavenly party every time someone becomes of a follower of Jesus. The witnesses celebrate that their testimony has ignited true faith.
“Angels we have heard on high” – yes they want to be heard, and they want us to sing with them.
“Silent night, holy night, darkness flies; all is light. Shepherds hear the angels sing: Alleluia – hail the king!”
Alleluia. Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord and King.