Christmas Eve sermon – preached at New Creation Church, Hagerstown, MD, December 24, 2017
By the Rev. Justin Clemente
The Christmas story is dangerously familiar to us. Dangerously over-sentimentalized. Dangerously glossed over. To combat this, to see its true glory, it sometimes helps to take one character or group of characters from narrative and meditate on it a bit. In other words, taking a look at those who surround the manger can help us worship the Jesus in the manger. That’s what I hope to help us do tonight.
The Nativity of Our Lord is surrounded by the very high and the very low. Think of it – shepherds are there – societal nobodies whose presence nonetheless speaks of God’s own shepherding heart. The wise men are there, noble in a sense, but humble enough to come and seek Jesus out (and they’re aren’t even good Jews!). Joseph and Mary are there – righteous and devout, but not impressive by worldly standards. But the very high, the very majestic, also surround his manger. God’s holy angels themselves herald the Gospel message that Christ is born. The host of the courts of heaven deign to the likes of men and women to announce Jesus.
And yet so often the angels sink into the background – they complete the scene, like a Hallmark tree topper. We don’t meditate on why they are there (side note: you do believe they were there, right? Because embracing the Resurrection while disbelieving the lesser miracles of the Gospels is sheer non-sense). Why such an explosion of angelic activity? Why now? Why in this way? Why, when the angel of the Lord says to shepherds in Luke 2, “fear not…you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger,” do a multitude of angels appear singing a song of praise to God? Their song was so great and memorable that the Church has henceforth retained it as part of its worship: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” Why?
To understand why, we have to understand two things about the angels: 1) They are messengers of God’s salvation. Hebrews 1:14 says, “Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?”
Take, for example, Gabriel. Why is it Gabriel who is sent to Zechariah and Mary? He doesn’t just pop out of nowhere. In the book of Daniel (ch. 9), it is Gabriel who relays to Daniel when the Messiah will come. He is the angel who gets the privilege of foretelling and announcing salvation. And so, as the song says, “The angel Gabriel from heaven came / His wings as drifted snow / His eyes as flame.” Listen to his words to Zechariah, right after Zechariah’s refusal to believe his wife could conceive John the Baptist:” I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news” (side note: It appears Zechariah intended to give clinic on how not to speak to an archangel).
1 Peter 1:14 tells us, “the things (the Gospel) that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, [are] things into which angels long to look.” They long hear about and proclaim God’s plan to redeem humanity.
And this brings us to the second thing about the angels. Yes, they messengers, but in an even deeper and more essential way, they are worshippers. Isaiah 6 gives us the classic Trinitarian vision of angelic worship around the throne:
1In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
So why do the angels flood the earth at Christmas? Because Christmas was the time when their King came to earth. How could they not announce his condescension? Christmas was the time when heaven longed to look in on earth because earth now harbored heaven. God’s Son, the eternal Word of the Father, would now be robed in flesh and all God’s angels would worship Him.
There is a theory that at their creation, the Lord shared with the angels the knowledge that he would redeem humanity by uniting himself with humanity. The theory runs that this is what led to Satan and the demons downfall. In their pride, they refused to worship what they thought was beneath them: God enfleshed. But not God’s angels. The Incarnation, then, would be their vindication.
Scott Hahn writes, “The angels saw [Christ’s exchange] take place. The holy angels were those who were willing to worship God as a humble baby soiling his diaper, lying in the feeding trough of a stable at the outskirts of a backwater village. The holy angels were those who were willing to follow God in his descent to earth and worship there – here! – at they did in heaven.”
When the angels came to Bethlehem, they understood what was happening with startling clarity and they came to worship, just as we should, we for whom Christ came.
This poem/song by Beautiful Eulogy seems to put it all together:
Lift up your eyes and see the riches of the all-sufficient King seated on His throne in glory
See His scepter that stretches the expanse of unmeasured space
Hear Him who holds all things together declare, “all things are mine without exception”
See the curiosity of the cosmos as Christ condescends to His most cherished creatures
See the astonishment of angels as the Almighty advances towards Earth
See the humility of the pre-existent King born of a virgin birth
The Infinite becomes infant, the Maker becomes man
The Divine becomes despised, and the Christ is crucified
The Author of all creation cursed upon the tree that He Himself spoke into being
And the Lord of life was laid in the tomb, but the grave could not contain Him and so the Son of Man was raised to life
To draw near, to pierce our greatest fear
To shed satisfying blood on our behalf
To give back the life we were meant to have
To enjoy, to hear, to adore, to taste
And to look with peace upon our Savior’s face
And to embrace Him with an undying faith
To interpose all His worthiness into us
And serve the most unworthy and undeserving
He is our God and we are mere men made by Him
We are not like Him, but He loves us and moves among us
The great Uncreated and the created, no longer separated
He is Immanuel, God with us
A Collect in Praise of Christ’s Incarnation
O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.