From the Lips of Angels (Luke 2:1-20)
Passage: Luke 2:1–2:20
Behind the Music
I. Recipients of a Royal Invitation
I have no doubt that you have received in the mail, or maybe even by e-mail, a birth announcement from family members or friends who wanted to share with you the great news that they have a new baby. And it’s probably true that you were just one of many families and individuals who received this announcement.
But can you imagine who might be on such a list if the birth being announced was a royal birth? Can you imagine the kinds of people who would be notified of this good news? In the past, when kings held real power, a parallel to this celebration of a birth might be an infant baptism or a christening. Often the guest lists for such christenings would read like a “whose who” of the world’s most powerful and prestigious.
I guess it makes sense that the wealthy and powerful would want to want to share this important news with the people they considered most important.
But this morning, we are going to see a very different birth announcement sent to a very different guest list.
This morning we are continuing our journey “behind the music” of some of the most popular, the most beloved Christmas carols. Our goal is to understand how these carols point us back to God’s word and God’s Son. While these songs may have excellent melodies and sentimental connections for all of us, it is what they point us to that gives them their real power.
So this morning we continue with the song we just sang, “Angels We Have Heard on High”.
II. Behind the Music: "Angels We Have Heard on High"
So what do we know about this song. Well, like last week, the identity of the writer of this song has been lost in the sands of history. Like the angels it described, this song just seemed to appear out of thin air!
The first people to sing this song were those in 19th century France, so many think it was written there. And because the song is a “macaronic carol”, which means it includes a mixture of languages (specifically English and Latin), some scholars think a French monk or priest wrote, someone who would have used Latin.
The song was first published in a French hymnbook in 1855, but other records indicate that the song had already been in use for fifty years before that. We sing it today with the same melody it first had over a 150 years ago.
But the chorus of the song, and maybe the song itself, is far older in terms of musical usage. The Latin phrase “Gloria in excelsis Deo”, which means “Glory to God in the highest”, is the opening of the hymn known as the Greater Doxology or the “Gloria”, and can be dated back to the 4th century AD.
It also seems that this chorus has its root in church chants. One writer explained it this way: While most modern carols move up and down and cover at least an octave and a half, thus testing the upper and lower limits of the average singer, the phrase “Gloria in excelsis Deo” barely moves at all. In addition, the melody used by the song never strays more than one octave and the verse move through only six notes. This simplicity seems to tie the melody to early chants used by monks and taught to their congregations.”
So the song may be a product of 18th or 19th century France, but the chorus may be over a thousand years older than that.
III. The Passage: "Good News of a Great Joy " (2:1-20)
But what about the words of this carol? Well the beautiful words of this song direct us right back to Luke 2. Turn with me there. Let’s look at verses 1-20 and see what inspired the songwriter to compose this carol.
A. “And She Gave Birth” (2:1-7)
Look with me at the first seven verses of Luke 2:
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Now we know, right from the start here, that the birth described here by Luke is unlike any birth that has ever taken place since, and unlike anything that had come before.
I want to point that out because the passage I just read seems pretty straightforward and very normal. If you just read this, and this was all you knew, you wouldn’t think anything was too unusual about this birth.
But we can’t forget that there is a chapter one in this book. And in that chapter we find the words that were given to Mary about the child she carried in her womb. The angel told Mary…
And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Mary goes on to ask the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 And the angel answered her, “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. (Luke 1:31-33, 34, 35)
And so, it happened one night that a simple, Jewish girl gave birth to the Son of God. In a feeding trough for animals, Mary and Joseph laid a baby whose birth would eventually determine how we reckon time, whose birth would divide human history and forever alter its course.
As we learned last week, this child would be the fulfillment of those ancient promises given to the Jewish people, promises that God would raise up again from the line of king David, a new ruler whose throne would be eternally established.
But instead of finding a kingly reception, the couple finds a crowded town, or maybe simply a crowded family home (the Greek word is vague here). The birth of the Messiah takes place, not in a palace, but in the stalls adjacent to this home or lodging place.
Instead of a crib surrounded with gold and jewels, the king of heaven is laid in a feeding trough surrounded by animals.
B. “A Multitude of the Heavenly Host” (2:8-14)
But this strange royal birth is complemented by an equally strange birth announcement. Look at Luke 2:8-14:
8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
Did you see…did you see who was the first to receive the most important birth announcement ever given?
The recipients were not those who occupied the positions of power in the first century; they were not the kings and governors mentioned earlier, or the Jewish religious leaders, who were considered to be the most pious by the people.
News of the most important event ever to take place in creation was not sent to the people the world considered to be the most important. Not even close! The news of the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God was first given to shepherds.
Now we may think about shepherds in an idealized way, as down-to-earth kind of people who care for animals in picturesque fields, enjoying the outdoors and living according to the rhythms of nature. We may think of shepherding as kind of quaint and enviable vocation.
But that’s not how Luke’s first readers would have seen shepherds.
In Jewish culture, shepherds were pretty low on the social ladder, so low that the rabbinic teachings of the Talmud tell us that shepherds were not acceptable witnesses in courts of law, since their testimony was considered unreliable.
And since they lived nomadic lives, they were typically unable to fulfill all of the ritual requirements of the Temple.
Shepherds had a reputation, probably based in truth, of being thieves, who moved more than just their flocks as they moved across the countryside.
Now, I don’t think the shepherds here in Luke were like this, but we need to see that they were not highly thought of in their culture. They might have been some of the last people anyone would have thought of when it came to God’s news of the Messiah.
But in a counter-intuitive twist, these shepherds become the first recipients of this incredible message. Again, the importance of this message is stressed by the identity of the messenger.
This is not a birth announcement sent by the post office. This is a revelation of God’s glory given by an angel of the Lord, and then confirmed by probably thousands of angels who filled with every corner of that dark night with light.
Notice Luke moves the story from the least to the Greatest. The shepherds are not the focus here. It is the angel’s announcement that is key. Luke does not want his reader to miss the identity of this child.
This is good news of a great joy because it is announcement that God has sent us a Savior. This was the Messiah they had been waiting for, the ruler who would bring peace to their people.
And even though they were shepherds, they were not excluded from this promise, for the angel says, “unto you is born a Savior , who is Christ, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
In verse 12, we see that these shepherds are even given a sign, something that will help confirm the truthfulness of what they angels have announced. Now even for them this must have been a strange sign.
They would find this king from David’s line lying in a feeding trough, which would quite naturally be in a stable.
Now this is the kind of thing that might make the shepherds wonder if they were really playing with a full deck, if spending so much time out in the middle of nowhere with just sheep was beginning to take its toll on their sanity. Could they have just dreamed this?
How could this Messiah of God be lying in a smelly manger?
But look at how they respond in 2:15-20.
C. “The Shepherds Returned, Glorifying and Praising God” (2:15-20)
Luke tells us:
15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Instead of doubting their sanity, these men responded to this news in faith. They said let’s go see, not this thing that might have happened, but “this thing that has happened”!
So they went. And they didn’t stroll over to town; they went with haste. They ran and probably after looking through a few stables, they eventually found a newborn right there in an old manger, just like they had been told.
Of course, Mary and Joseph, and any other family members or fellow travelers who were there must have wondered why, in the middle of the night, this crowd of ragged shepherds was pressing in to see the infant.
We’re told that the shepherds explained what had happened to everyone, and as we would expect, everyone was amazed by the story; maybe partly amazed that God had spoken to these shepherds.
And just as they had come with faith, Luke tells us they returned to their fields with praises on their lips. They had been touched by the grace of God.
Now, if we go back to our carol this morning, you can see how the song is written around the shepherd’s experience. It is the shepherds who are testifying in the opening stanza of this song, “angels we have heard on high”.
And then, it is the shepherds who are questioned in the next stanza.
In the second stanza, it appears the shepherds have picked up the heavenly song and are singing it themselves. The people who hear them ask, “Shepherd why this jubilee, why your joyous strains prolong?”
But I really love the third stanza. There, I believe it is the shepherds who are are responding to those questioning them. The shepherds say, “Come…come to Bethlehem and see, Him whose birth the angels sing. Come adore on bended knee, Christ the Lord, the newborn King.”
IV. Would You Listen to An Angel?
So we’ve seen this morning how this passage from Luke 2 inspired our songwriter, but how will it inspire us?
I think, first of all, we have been given here an incredible picture of grace.
God chose shepherds as the first human beings to celebrate with Him over the birth of His Messiah. He didn’t honor those who were honored by the world. He didn’t honor the “order of importance” that Jewish society had set up.
There is nothing that you could have done, there is no label with which the world can labeled you, that can qualify you to receive this good news of great joy.
No. God does not announce this good news to us because we are something. He reveals it to us because we are nothing, and in desperate need of a Savior.
I think a second implication for us can be drawn from where these shepherds finally end up. They went back to their fields, back to their sheep.
Like those shepherds, if we have seen Christ with the eyes of faith, we must go back to where we came from. You see, the grace of God does not come into our lives and turn us into holy hermits who end up in a cave or a monastery or on some strange mystical journey.
No, we go back to same fields in which we first saw the light of God. We go back to those same circles, but not as the same people. We go back as people of praise.
If you have been brought in from the fringes by the hope of God’s grace through Christ, then go back into your workplace, your family, and your neighborhood with praises on your lips.
Finally, this song and this passage remind us of a very important question that we need to be asking ourselves: “Who has my ear?”
Who has you ear this morning? Who have you been listening to this past week? Have you been filling your ears with electronic media, even if it’s good media? News, entertainment, music, gossip, advertisements, etc. Has it had your ear this past week?
Maybe people have had your ear? Questions, comments, suggestions, criticisms, confessions, rants, lectures, friendly advice, enticements, invitations, foolish talk; has your ear been filled with things like from the people around you?
Maybe inward voices have had your ear in the past few days. Something someone said ten days ago, or maybe ten years ago, is still rattling around inside you. Maybe voices of regret are filling your ear. Maybe voices of doubt, of shame; or maybe of pride.
We need what these shepherds received. We need a message from heaven. Our daily duties, carried out in the fields of our lives, need to be radically interrupted by a message from heaven.
If you were one of those shepherds, would you listen to the message of an angel? If you would, then how can we not, each day, listen to the heavenly message contained in God’s word? This whole book is “good news of great joy”, isn’t it?
It doesn’t matter how much good music you’re listening to, or how many good Christian books you’re reading, if you are not hearing and respond to the heavenly message of God’s word each day, you will end missing the Christ of Christmas, and the joy that only He can give you.
Let’s make this an Advent, a Christmas season in which we are humbled by God’s grace, in which we are looking for opportunities to declare His praises, and in which we are making time to sit quietly in our field and allow the heavenly message to take us by surprise.
This morning you and I have received a birth announcement.
Are you rejoicing because of this good news? Are you ready to respond?
I want people to ask me in the coming weeks, “Bryce, why this jubilee, why your joyous strains prolong? Say what may the tidings be, Bryce, which inspire your heavenly song?”
I pray that question is posed to all of us in the coming weeks. Let’s pray.
More in Behind the Music: Advent '09
December 20, 2009An Invitation to Adoration (Matthew 2:1-11)(O Come All Ye Faithful)
December 13, 2009More than Meets the Eye (John 1:1-4)(Silent Night)
November 29, 2009Another Desperate Plea (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:22, 23)