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The Angels' Song: Glory to God in the Highest!
By Dr. Todd B. Jones
12/24/11

FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, NASHVILLE
DR. TODD B. JONES
CHRISTMAS EVE, DECEMBER 24, 2011

The Angels' Song: Glory to God in the Highest
Isaiah 9:2-7
Luke 2:1-20


It was a ten-day journey on foot from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and it was on foot doubtless that Joseph and Mary made that journey. The pictures we often see of Christmas show a donkey present, something never mentioned in Luke's Gospel, but something that comes to us from the apocryphal Gospel of James, believed to be written in 150 A.D. The Gospel of James tells us that in addition to these two people traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Mary very heavy with child, there was as well a donkey to ease Mary's condition that season. The point, though, is this: It was not a journey they chose to make, and it was not a journey they wanted to undertake. It was in every sense a forced and unwelcomed journey. Luke is clear to us on that count. It is a journey they made because there was a census related to imperial powers' desire for taxation and control. In effect, it was the last journey in the world that Mary and Joseph wished or would have chosen to make, and yet that journey turned out to be a journey that offered salvation and peace and joy to the world.

It is interesting when you look at the Biblical story, just how many journeys are forced on people seeking to follow God that are not of their own choosing. I think of Abraham leaving a place that he knew as home, the only place he knew as home, for a place that he knew not at all. Or I think of the infant Moses being pushed out in that basket made of bulrushes by his mother, into the waters of the Nile, literally letting go of her baby, not knowing what the future might hold. And yet that journey, not her chosen journey at all, turned out to be God's very plan for the child and for Israel. I think of Joseph – it was not his choice to be thrown into the pit and taken into Egypt into slavery – and yet it was through that journey not chosen, not wanted, that God saved the family of Abraham.

I want us to fix on this notion tonight because all of us have found ourselves traveling roads, on journeys, that were not the journeys we preferred, perhaps not the journeys that we chose and yet the journeys on which God never, ever deserted us, and the journeys through which God acted to redeem us. Mary and Joseph's journey, that ten-day journey, that long arduous, uncomfortable journey was not at all what Mary dreamt of when she thought of how her first child would enter the world. That journey reminds us that God never abandons us on any journey that we undertake but rather that God blesses us in ways that we could never anticipate, that we could never imagine, much less describe. So as you journey from this Christmas Eve into your tomorrows know that God is with you and that the God who promises to be with you promises as well to bless you and to redeem you both on the journeys that you choose with excitement and on those as well that are forced upon you by life's circumstances.

They key, it seems to me, is to receive whatever life brings like the shepherds managed to. The shepherds, for me, are remarkable figures of how to celebrate Christmas. They teach us how to celebrate life. The angel of the Lord appears to them, we are told, and the angel says to the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, "Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be to all the people." This is the birth of Jesus. A gift, not just for some people, but rather a gift for all people, in the setting that the song and the announcement was first heard, not just for the Jews, but for the Gentiles, the outsiders as well as the insiders. It is not just for simple folks like the shepherds but for kings and princes as well. This is not just for me and for my own, but for you and for your own as well. It is for all the people that this is good news, this is the great fulcrum in all of human history, when the angels announced that God comes down from heaven and is born in that Babe of Bethlehem. This is why the angels, that heavenly host, sang that night, "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those with whom God is pleased."

Make note before we are done tonight on how the shepherds responded to the message of that night when they received it from the "messengers," which is precisely in Greek what the word "angels" is translated into English. The shepherds respond first with wonder. We are told, when Stuart read it tonight, that they were "filled with fear." But in this year 2011, when the King James Version of the Bible is five hundred years old, we do better to hear it in the King James: "They were sore afraid." They were filled with a sense of wonder that God was up to something singular, something new, something out of this world, right in the midst of world. And they wondered that night at what this message, this word, might be.

Secondly, they followed that message and that star and found themselves there before the Baby, with Mary and Joseph, born into a manger in a simple stall. They knelt down, filled with wonder, and that wonder led them to worship before God Incarnate, God come down from heaven, Emmanuel, "God with us." But they did not stop there. Rather, they went out from that place and shared what they had seen and what they had heard. They moved from wonder to worship, then finally to witness. They had received a message from the angels, and the shepherds returned to become messengers themselves to the world of what they had witnessed, what they had heard and what they had seen.

So tonight of all nights, go forth from this place and in the words of the wonderful Christmas song, "Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere. Go, tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born!" Go, tell that your journey might be what God intends it to be wherever you find yourself right now, knowing that it is this night, and on all nights a sacred journey.

AMEN.
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