Angelic Message (TLH 85)
1. One of the earliest Christmas hymns Martin Luther wrote was the hymn we just sung, “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come”. It quickly became an annual Christmas Eve ritual in the Luther household to sing and act out the hymn. This hymn is a wonderful expansion and interpretation of the angel’s message to the shepherds in Luke chapter two. The hymn has basically two sections: verses 1-5 are the angel’s message to the shepherds and verses 7-14 are our human response to the message. Verses 6 and 15 allow both humans and angels to sing praise and glory to God. This morning, we look at the first section: the angelic message.
2. The first verse of the hymn introduces us the angelic message. “From heav’n above to earth I come.” This is the third appearance by an angel in Luke’s Gospel. Zechariah (1:5-25), Mary (1:26-38) and now the shepherds (2:9-15) received angelic visitors. Angelic visitors always have the same purpose: “To bear good news to ev’ry home.” The good news is meant for every home and every person. The good news is the Gospel being proclaimed to simple shepherds as they watched their flocks at night. The angel begins the Gospel proclamation in a similar way as St. Mark begins his Gospel: “The beginning of the Gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). The angel basically says, “Listen up! I have good news for you. In fact, I have ‘glad tidings of great joy’ for you.” We love to hear good news. It could be the return of a loved one from a dangerous situation. It could be the good review of a presentation or project at work or school. It could be news about the birth of a child.
3. That is the “good news” being delivered by the angel: “To you this day is born a child.” A child being born is hardly something that warrants a vision of angels singing and praising God. It’s so common it seems to have lost its value in our society. However, if you have waited years or even decades for a child (like Abraham and Sarah or Zechariah and Elizabeth), this would be cause for great fanfare and celebration. Those are truly rare occurrences. But this child and His birth are beyond rare. This isn’t even a “once in a lifetime” event. This is a once EVER event. What made this birth so important—so earth-shattering? He was born “Of Mary, chosen Virgin mild.” The angels proclaimed the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy seven centuries before: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call Him Immanuel” (7:14). Remember Gabriel’s appearance to Mary. Gabriel told her the “glad tidings of great joy” that she would be the mother of the Messiah. Her womb would house the Incarnate Son of God—God walking around in the flesh. Her question: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). Virgins don’t have children. It’s physically and humanly impossible. But this child would later say, “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (18:27). Gabriel answered Mary’s question, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (35). “This little child of lowly birth” in a stable was the Son of God in human flesh. It wasn’t that God had just promised a Savior. God was bringing the Savior into the world. God would become a child so He could “sympathize with our weakness” (Hebrews 4:15). God Himself would be the child that would be “the joy of all the earth.” God’s salvation is here. This child is the proof.
4. This child “is the Christ, our God and Lord.” Christ comes from the Greek word that means “anointed”. In the Old Testament, three types of people were anointed: prophets, priests and kings. The angel’s declaration in the third verse: “He will Himself your Savior be” shows that Jesus fulfilled all three offices. As prophet, He proclaimed the kingdom of God to a dying world. As priest, He offered Himself as a sacrifice for our sins. As king, He reigns over His renewed creation and watches over His Church. All this Jesus does as the Christ. This Christ Simeon held when He was forty days old and sang, “Lord, now You let Your servant go in peace. Your Word has been fulfilled. For mine eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared in the sight of every people. A light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of Your people Israel.” This Christ Thomas worshipped on the eighth day after the resurrection saying, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). This Christ “in all need shall aid afford.” As He told the disciples of John the Baptist, His works show Him to be the Christ: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them” (Luke 7:22). This child whose birth was heralded as “good news” has taken care of each and every need you have, especially your need of a Savior. He has freed you from the eternal consequences of every sin you have ever and will ever commit. He declares this to you through His means of grace—the washing away of your sins in Baptism, the strengthening of your faith in Holy Communion and the ever-present reminder of His forgiveness in Holy Absolution. Jesus came to earth to be your Savior.
5. The good news that Jesus was born as a child to be your Savior isn’t everything. Jesus has more planned for you. As the last line of the fourth verse tells us, “You may with us His glory share.” The angel says, “This message isn’t just for you to understand. Jesus doesn’t want your mental assent and understanding. Jesus wants you to experience this yourself. He wants you to share in His glory. He does this by bringing you into His kingdom through Baptism. In His kingdom, your Savior bestows gifts on His children. We’re just a few weeks away from Christmas. We understand that hustle and bustle of gift-giving at this time. We’re constantly bombarded with reminders that there always seems to be someone else we need to buy a gift for. But Jesus needs no reminder. He’s constantly giving us gifts so that we can function in His kingdom. As St. Peter said on the first Pentecost, “You will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” through Baptism (Acts 2:38). We get this gift just for being in the kingdom. That gift is different from person to person. St. Paul reminds us, “And He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12) and “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (2:10). We get all this now in this life, but we will receive a fuller measure of this gift when we stand before Him on the Last Day. At that point, we who have been brought into the kingdom through Baptism will be able to walk in the new Jerusalem that St. John the Evangelist saw coming down out of heaven. In that kingdom “bright and fair”, as the hymn puts it, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). What a truly bright and fair” place Heaven will be with none of the cares and concerns of this world—no death, no disease and no despair. All of this your Savior says He is sharing and will share with you.
6. Your Savior can share all these blessings with you because He created the heavens and the earth. St. Paul writes it this way to the Colossians: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through Him and for Him” (1:15-16). What does all this mean? How do the shepherds know how to find the “image of the invisible God”? The angel tells them, “These are the tokens ye shall mark: the swaddling-clothes and manger dark.” The creator of Heaven and earth can be found in a dark manger, wrapped in swaddling-clothes. That’s not exactly where we’d expect to find Him, but that’s where He placed Himself. Our God isn’t a God who created the world and then let it go on its merry way. He has always been very involved in shaping the history of the world. He called Abraham to leave his homeland to receive the blessing of the Lord in another land. He placed David on the throne of His people Israel to promise him that one of his descendants would be the Messiah. Finally, He became part of His creation.
7. There’s the good news of the angel’s message on that first Christmas morning. God had come down to dwell with man. He was born to die, but that death took away the permanence of our own death. His death and resurrection assured our resurrection so that He may share with us His glory in His kingdom forever. Amen.