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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Christmas Eve 12/24/2015

Do you believe in angels? Some of you may remember that I started a sermon with that question a few years ago and I think more people commented on that sermon than on any other one I’ve ever done. Part of what I learned at that time was that a lot of people do believe in angels and even those who aren’t so sure would like to believe. On Christmas Eve though, I think everyone believes in angels. As familiar as it is, when we hear the story yet again, the wonder of it all captivates us and at least for awhile, any cynicism we harbor is set aside and we hear the angels, we join with the angels praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace among those whom he favors.”

The angels are a big part of the story and to be sure there is a heartwarming, somewhat magical innocence about it all, and that heartwarming innocence actually helps to make this dramatic story of God’s entrance into this world more accessible. The way Luke tells the story of Jesus’ birth, he takes an event that is really beyond our comprehension and in the way that he tells it, he makes it comprehensible.

That’s all good; it’s all OK, unless Christmas then just becomes greeting card sentimentality that reduces the angels to being those cute, chubby little babies like you see in medieval art or maybe equally cute little Sunday School children with a halo over their head and wings strapped to their back. If that’s where your image of angels begins and ends that’s not so good because it may be that the angels are a key to really understanding what Christmas is all about.

What you have to remember is that for the ancient world in which these stories were written there was a very different understanding of the heavenly realm. In particular, especially in the Old Testament there was the notion of the “divine council” who would meet and make various decisions. For example, they would decide who would be the king of the gods and preside over the council. It’s foreign to us but there are many psalms that reflect this thinking, like Psalm 96 appointed for tonight which in verse 10 says, “Tell it out among the nations: The Lord is king!” It’s an announcement that the God of Israel has been chosen to be king of the gods for another year so there’s cause for celebration.

The divine council would also make the decision regarding who would be the human king for the next year, the one who would be in charge of earthly affairs. Having made these decisions though, the divine council of gods would then appoint messengers to announce to the human world what they had decided and that’s the background from which tonight’s angels come.

The word angel means messenger and these messenger angels were not baby faced cherubs with wings. It would be more accurate to portray them as determined and uncompromising. They had a job to do; they had important news to convey, news that would affect the world, news that could shake the world. The angels were engaged in serious business; there’s really nothing sweet or childlike about them.

Viewing the angels this way doesn’t change the story that we tell, but it does change the tone of it; it adds a level of seriousness to it even if they were delivering “good news of great joy for all people.” Good news or not, an angelic visitation out of the darkness and quiet would be pretty frightening and that’s what happened to certain poor shepherds out in the fields on a cold winter’s night.

They were just out there, doing what they do, which at night was mostly trying to be aware of any predators that might threaten the sheep. For the shepherds though, it was business as usual, one day pretty much the same as the next with only the normal ups and downs of life to add variety. Certainly though, as they settled in that night, they had no expectation that the world would be any different tomorrow than it was today.

The shepherds were a key part of the story too and as is the case with the angels, we can tend to have kind of a romantic view of them, but they were rough on the edges types, not highly regarded by most people, certainly not the type one would expect angels to visit with news regarding the birth of a savior. In that regard though, the shepherds represent all of us, we who also often approach life as business as usual with little hope that tomorrow will be much different than today.

But then come those angels, those messengers with the announcement of a new decision from God, the announcement that tomorrow won’t be the same as today because there is a new king, and that new king is the Messiah, the Lord. The message is that in an unexpected way, God is keeping the promise of old, made to the people of Israel and, as the choir sang last Sunday, the world will never be the same. We don’t just celebrate the birth of a baby, we celebrate God becoming part of this world, “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.” We also celebrate that this God doesn’t come to judge us as unworthy, but in and through Christ, God enters this world to make us worthy. Jesus comes to make known to us the true nature of God, a nature which is centered on grace and love and forgiveness and that is the true meaning of Christmas.

You know that the true meaning discussion comes up at this time of year and usually it has to do with celebrating the birth of the Christ child and not just observing the secular and commercial aspects of Christmas so you get slogans like “Keep Christ in Christmas” or “Jesus is the reason for the season.” That’s all well and good, but the true meaning of Christmas is even more than that; it has to do with why this baby was born, why God entered fully into the humanity of this world and the answer to that why question is…to conclusively show God’s love and commitment to us and for us and for our salvation. That’s the message the angels announced that night.

The observance of Christmas does get complicated, combining as it does religious, cultural and commercial aspects. Further complicating things, for many people it’s a stressful time, for many it can be a sad time but I feel bad for anyone for whom it is just a time of stress and sadness because at its best it is a season of good will and good cheer unlike any other time of year. Despite its many excesses, it’s a time when in a lot of ways we’re at our collective best in terms of charitable giving and generosity as well as overall kindness and concern for others. Those are behaviors that honor the child whose birth we celebrate, behaviors that reveal who God would have us be.

For a lot of reasons it’s a wonderful time of the year, and it all comes back to the message of those angels and what that message means. “To you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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