Glory to God in the Highest
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for Christmas, December 24-25 , 2022
“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.”
WHAT ARE WE DOING HERE in a little church, in the brisk coolness of early winter, singing glad songs of joyful tidings, depicting the very human event of a birth in rough lodgings – as depicted up there in our creche – we join with that baffled couple, wondering what comes next? Mary and Joseph handled the birthing tasks as ably as they might, quieting their baby boy by wrapping Him tightly in strips of cloth, making Him quite secure, and placing Him safely, in the deep impression of a hay bin, sleeping after His ordeal. Cuddling together, they drifted off to an uneasy sleep.
They were alerted by noises outside, muffled deep voices of men who seemed to be debating… was it this barn or the stalls out away from the mid-town which were bigger and had a lot of feed bins? One urged they check this one first, and a dark form was silhouetted in the doorway. “Um, folks? I’m sorry, but are you here with a newborn baby? We don’t mean to disturb your sleep, but we have seen something…”
Joseph’s defenses rose up as he demanded the man’s business, or be gone! He reached for the staff he carried on the road and held it out to show he meant business. “No, Please! We’ve seen the angels. We’ve heard heaven’s news and their singing – Oh! The singing! Did you hear it? Didn’t the sky open up for you here in town? …No? Oh, well of course, you were busy with the baby. Is that Him?” and here, Joseph was highly alarmed and guarded, but the shepherd simply knelt down and began to cry. “We can be very quiet, sir. We only came to see the child. The angels sent us. They said He would be a newborn boy, wrapped in swaddling clothing, and laid in a manger, right there it is! Sir. He’s the one… has to be.”
Mary rose up from her bedclothes, “Tell us, please. What did the angel say to you?” Joseph felt awkward, torn between guarding his young family and curiosity about this stranger’s news. He too had seen an angel, months ago, with powerful instruction. Mary had also, beginning all of this. Angels had started it all. No – God had done so. Mary was a virgin. She had been with child by God’s own holy Spirit.
“May we see Him? We tend to sheep and we can be very quiet.” At this, the shepherd bade his fellows enter, and as their eyes adjusted to the dimness, they knelt in turn before the cradle that was made to feed donkeys, but now acted as the bed for the new king of the world.
“Tell us,” said Joseph.
“We had bedded down all the sheep in the fold, tied up the gates, made the animals secure, and they were sleeping. Jonah lit a fire and we all sat around it, telling stories, humming tunes, wondering out loud if God’s Messiah might come while we lived. God knows it is high time, what with the Roman occupations and our long waiting. All of a sudden, this bright light split open the sky. Out from the light stepped a holy angel, a mighty warrior by the look of him, who addressed us from the blazing light. We felt sure we’d die. God had sent him to kill us, or something. Anyway, instead of that, he said, “Fear not!” and as we quieted our hearts, he said, “Behold, I come to bring good news of great joy, which is meant for everyone everywhere. For you this day has been born in the old city of David, a Saviour, the Messiah, Adonai, God with us, Emmanuel – the one you were just speaking about, for whom you’ve waited all your lives.”
“We looked at each other with open eyes and mouths too. This must have been seen and heard everywhere, wasn’t it? No? Then he told us, “Here is your sign: you are going to find the baby boy wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger,” like I said. A manger, that thing there, the food bin. And there He is! The Angel was right.”
The shepherds then looked to their oldest member to finish the story. Jacob was his name and slowly he recounted what had happened, staring up as though he was seeing it all again. “Right then, the sky rolled back even more. And many angel faces came right through the sky to us, and a note was struck, and all the angels – it must have been ten thousand, maybe more – they sang a deep, beautiful song, with voices to break your heart and a joy that you … could feel, like sweet cream and honey, like newly baked bread. It felt wonderful. Their voices – Oh, you have to hear them sing! – and what they sang were praises of God, and in the very middle of it, this word: Glory to God in the highest! And on earth, let there be peace, good will to all men.”
The first shepherd rose at that, bowed low to the parents of the child, and led the others, and their dogs, back outside. All the rest of that night, these heavily bundled men ran around the town, telling their story to anyone that would open a door or an ear to them. By morning, the town was abuzz with the news of the shepherd’s vision and the strange couple nesting in the stable out behind the inn.
And here we are, rejoicing with the songs of angels and men, joining the clamor of giddy, smiling children, and harmonies of choirs making merry noises on this holy night. What does it mean?
Long ago, humans were fully in communion and living fellowship with God, walking on earth with Him, loving Him in powerful relationship. That ideal world didn’t last long, but God already knew what He was going to do about it. It would cost Him much, but He loved us that well.
God is a Trinity, you see, as Jesus taught us. Three Persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, all exist from eternity together in one godhead, and they live by and in each other, yet express themselves in three Persons. It was the decision of the Father to send His Son, the Logos, the Word to be made human flesh for us, and as one of us, to die in our places, to defeat sin and death, and then to rise to an undying life, forever at His Father’s right hand, Man and God in one divine Person.
This Person was born a man-child this night in Bethlehem. It was the birthplace of His great patriarch, King David, whose first official job was to be a shepherd. In those same fields, watching sheep all through the nights, and a thousand years later, for David’s rightful heir, heaven opened and the angels sang, Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth, peace, good will to all.
That’s why we’re in here, every Christmas Eve, each Sunday morning, and on holy days. It’s for Him. We join the happy shepherds in singing the songs of the angels. Glory be to God on high, and on earth, peace… sweet peace on earth, as heaven sings its joy over our round world with its funny people, who need and celebrate Him again, tonight.