Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
When I was in First Grade preparing for the annual Christmas program, our Sunday School Director Marion Knutson decided that we should learn to sing a new French carol that included the refrain of the most ancient hymn, Gloria in Excelsis Deo and she insisted that we sing it in Latin. It was not uncommon for Lutheran children to sing in foreign languages when I was young. Children learned to sing in perfect Norwegian, Jeg er så glad, I am so Glad Each Christmas Eve, in perfect German, Stille Nacht, Silent Night, and in perfect Swedish, Tryggara Kan Ingen Vara, Children of the Heavenly Father, and never learn to say another word of the language. The Sunday School loved the flowing melody of Angels We Have Heard on High, but for a class of 6 years old just learning how to read, Run, Dog, Cat, Dick and Jane, the words of the Latin refrain were impossible, so Miss Knutson decided to teach us the words phonetically. And so we learned, “Gloria in egg shells is Dayo” to rhyme with Mayo. I was shocked years later to discover that the song had nothing to do with eggs what so ever. “Gloria in Exclesis Deo. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, among those whom he favors.”
In the ancient Middle East of Jesus time, it was a common practice when a baby boy was born, that friends of the new parents would hire local musicians to come to the house and greet the newborn with music and song. The song would often portray the virtues of the child or perhaps offer a portent of what they come to be. Fortunately, since Mary and Joseph were far from their home in Nazareth, God himself arranged for the heavenly chorus to sing and announce Jesus’ birth. And so a multitude of the heavenly host appeared on the darkened hillside of Bethlehem keeping an appointment for which they had been commissioned from the foundations of the earth, “Gloria in Excelsis Deo!” “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, among those whom he favors.”
As for audience of that Christmas carol’s first performance, that may surprise you. There in the most remote and isolated field, without sign or warning, an angel of the Lord stood before the lowly shepherds. At the darkest hour of the night, when the fear of marauding predators was greatest, and the shepherd’s flock was the most vulnerable, the brightness of the noontime sun dawned upon them, and the glory of the Lord shown all around them and they were terrified. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
Now you may be wondering, so why would God bring this message of good news for all people to this lowly band of shepherds first? Why send a chorus of the heavenly host to sing for a handful of shepherds and their flocks? It’s rather like scheduling the most beautiful music on Christmas morning at 10 below fearing that nobody will be in church, as compared to Christmas Eve when the music would be heard by hundreds? It truly is the mystery of the Christmas gospel and the wonder of Christ’s incarnation. But God’s ways are not our ways nor the ways of the world. The Christmas story tells us that no community is so small or insignificant that the importance of God’s message cannot stir and transform them.
For me, there is also great comfort in the thought that the good news of Jesus’ birth came first specifically and unapologetically to the tireless, lowly shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. The good news of Christ’s birth and song of angels came to those who needed encouragement and strengthening for the work entrusted to them in the midnight hours.
After all, the message of the angel was and still is intended for the shepherds of every day and age. It is a word for tired and weary souls who are responsible for their loved ones and keep watch by night. It is the message for every parent or grandparent, uncle or aunt, brother or sister who carries the burden and responsibility for others and find themselves awake, keeping vigil, in the midnight hours. My friends, if this is your challenge, then the message of Christmas angel is just for you. Like the lowly shepherds in Bethlehem, you have been given the assurance that you are not alone. God is with you. “So do not be afraid. For see I am bringing you good news of great joy. To you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
And there is another poignant and potent promise in this message of the song of the angelic host. The work weary, shepherds heard a promise of peace. The more they pressed forward the farther behind they got. Perhaps, you count yourself in that number. You are looking and searching for that “peace that passes all understanding.” So here is the “good news” the shepherds heard that night. This child, this Jesus is the Savior, the giver of peace among those whom he favors. And no matter how insignificant or lowly you feel this day, you are the one whom he favors.
But what if the words of the angel and song of the heavenly chorus were a mysterious song that the shepherds chose not to head. The poor shepherds might have said to themselves, “This surely can’t be happening to us. What have we done that the whole host of heaven should come to us to tell the good news?” Perhaps, in a more reflective, cautious moment, you too have said, who am I that God would come to me? That is of course the marvel of the night. The shepherds believed the word spoken by the angel, and they opened themselves to the possibility of that promise of a Savior, the Christ, the Lord could be true, and so they went searching for that sign. Let that be true for each one of us this Christmas as well. As the reformer Martin Luther once wrote, “Of what benefit would it be to me if Jesus would have been born a thousand times and it would have been sung daily in my ears that Jesus Christ was born, but that I was never to hear that Jesus Christ was born for me?”
We don’t know if the shepherds traveled together with their flocks, or whether they left the sheep in the care of a few shepherds out in the fields. We really don’t know what they thought they would see. But we do know from scripture that they were not disappointed. Their fool hearty and risky journey to Bethlehem was worth it. In the face of this infant Jesus, they saw the glory of God’s renewing hope and giver of peace. The shepherds themselves left Mary and Joseph and the babe in the manger “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” That is what you are invited to experience this Christmas as well. My friends, a sign has been given to you, a child has been born to you. Come and see, “Gloria in Excelsis Deo.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.