Sermon: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Liturgy: Luke 1:5-38 & Luke 2:1-21

Date: December 19, 2021

Preacher: Lon Kuehn

            “Look, Daddy. Teacher says, every time a bell rings, and angels gets his wings.”

Who can tell me what film that’s from? Correct, in the 1946 classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, we hear little Zuzu Bailey utter those words.

            Christmas is a time where angels seem everywhere. Not only Angel Second Class Clarence Oddbody in the Jimmy Stewart classic, but Cary Grant is the angel Dudley, in “The Bishop’s Wife.” Almost any made-for-TV Christmas movie will have an angel somewhere in the story line. Many Christmas hymns and songs include angels. Nativity sets we place in our homes almost always include an angel, there’s the Wise Men present at those mangers too, but we won’t get into the biblical inaccuracy of their presence today, you can ask me about that later, or read Matthew 2:1-2, for yourselves. If there isn’t a star on top of your Christmas tree, there’s most likely an angel perched up there. Angels are everywhere, but does popular culture  depict them correctly?

            Earlier this year, I preached a sermon entitled, “I Am the Alpha and the Omega” and discussed many of the cross-references that occur throughout the Bible. There are many cross-references we could explore today, but rather than going down the rabbit hole, chasing each one, we’re going to focus on how angels have appeared in the readings we’ve heard today. If we were to look up every reference to an angel in the Bible, we would find 685 results spanning 336 verses. Today’s passages specifically discuss the Angel of the Lord. A quick electronic search of that phrase throughout the NRSV, the Bible we use here at church, yields a whopping 235 results in 103 verses throughout both the Old and New Testaments.

            235 results are still way too many appearances in the scriptures to attempt to cover in the short time we have together today, so we’ll narrow it down to three specific locations where an angel has appeared in our readings. The first will be in Jerusalem, the next in Nazareth, and the final location will be Bethlehem.

            An interesting connection that I hadn’t made before, surfaced in my research for today’s message. We’ve all heard Jesus describe himself as the bread of life in John 6:35, and during our communion services, the readings from 1 Corinthians describes Jesus breaking the bread, saying “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” I’ve heard the connection of Jesus and bread many times, but there is a connection with Jesus, the bread, and his birthplace of Bethlehem, as well. Has anyone ever heard this? The very name of Bethlehem, in Hebrew is spelled בֵּֽית־לֶ֣חֶם , and is read from the right to the left.

            Like last year, during my Greek classes, when I put my tuition dollars to use with sharing Greek texts in my sermons, this year it’ll be Hebrew. So, with that in mind, Bethlehem in Hebrew is actually made of two nouns in a Construct Chain, a fancy way of saying two nouns that link together to express an “of” relationship between the nouns. Reading right to left, the first three letters are Bet, Yod, Taw which form the Hebrew noun Beth, meaning “Place”, or “House”. Many synagogues begin with the word Beth, like Beth Shalom, meaning House of Peace. The next noun begins with the preposition “of” represented by the Lamed, that snake looking squiggle means “of” pronounced La, followed by the letters Het and Mem, which make up the Hebrew noun Hem meaning “Bread.”

Taking them all together in Hebrew we have בֵּֽית־לֶ֣חֶם. So, Jesus, the Bread of Life, was born in Bethlehem, the House of Bread. A slight tangent down a rabbit hole, but an interesting connection that the Holy Spirit placed before me the other day during my research. Besides, after spending over $1400 of tuition on my Biblical Hebrew 1 class, I’m going to sneak a little Hebrew into my preaching.

            Now, back to our sermon. It’s only natural that angels spring to mind during Advent, the two liturgical readings we’ve heard today both contained angels. The Angel of the Lord, Gabriel, visited the Temple in Jerusalem and appeared to Zechariah, during his priestly duties, to tell him that his prayer had been heard and that his wife Elizabeth, who was barren, would give birth to a child and they were to call his name John.

Six months later the angel Gabriel would appear again in Nazareth, this time to Mary at her home, announcing the good news that she would bear a son, and that she was to call him Jesus.

Nine months after that appearance, an angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds in the fields announcing the birth in the City of David, Bethlehem, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

Each time an angel of the Lord appeared those they were visiting were terrified at their sudden appearance. The angel tells them to “Fear not,” for they are bringing a message from the Lord.

This salutation to “Fear not,” takes on a great deal of significance if we were to think of the angels of the old testament, such as the ones mentioned in Ezekiel.

And from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had a human likeness, but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot. And they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides, they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another. Each one of them went straight forward, without turning as they went. As for the likeness of their faces, each had a human face. The four had the face of a lion on the right side, the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and the four had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces. And their wings were spread out above. Each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies. And each went straight forward. Wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went. As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches moving to and fro among the living creatures. And the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. And the living creatures darted to and fro, like the appearance of a flash of lightning.

Now as I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them. As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction: their appearance was like the gleaming of beryl. And the four had the same likeness, their appearance and construction being as it were a wheel within a wheel. When they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went. And their rims were tall and awesome, and the rims of all four were full of eyes all around. And when the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose. Wherever the spirit wanted to go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those rose from the earth, the wheels rose along with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.

Imagine that version of an angel appearing to you, and saying, “Fear not…”

Luckily, that’s not the type of angel that appears in our readings today, rather we have a Messenger Angel, which looks more human in appearance. Think of the angel walking around in the fiery furnace written in Daniel. We’re thinking the more traditional angel depicted in religious art.

We get the word “Angel” from the Greek word ἄγγελος, which means “Messenger.” Systematic Theology tells us that angels are intelligent, moral, and spiritual beings created by God who worship him and carry out his will. God commissions angels to protect his people, deliver them from danger, transmit divine messages, and encourage believers. Another Greek term that is derived from the word for messenger, we get εὐαγγέλιον, which means “Good News,” also known as “Gospel.” εὐαγγέλιον is also where we get the English word “Evangelism.” By evangelizing, we are spreading the good news, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As Christians, we are also messengers commissioned by God to spread his message, his good news, his Gospel.

That gives us a brief background of angels, so let’s visit our readings today.

Before we begin to look at Luke’s gospel, or the other three canon gospels, we must first look back at the last prophetic book of the Old Testament, Malachi. Written about 430 BC, this is a book of Prophetic Oracle, which simply means a person or agency which provides insight, or prophetic predictions, of future events. The last book of our Old Testament, was written after the message of Haggai and Zechariah had grown cold and the people had grown complacent again. Malachi calls God’s people to repentance and preaches that the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises of salvation is yet to come.

Malachi 3:1 tells us “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.”

This passage literally prophesies the birth of John the Baptist, God’s messenger to prepare the way for the Lord. Another interesting note is the name Malachi, which in Hebrew means “my messenger.” The Greek translation of the Old Testament translates the name Malachi as angelou autou, meaning his angel/his messenger.

After Malachi draws to a close, the canon is silent for a period of over 400 years. For the majority of Israel, the prophets had fallen asleep, and the Holy Spirit had ceased in Israel. As a result, most people tended to look back to the period of the law and the prophets when God was active among his people or forward to the time of the messianic age when God would once again be active and fulfill his covenantal promises. The angel of the Lord’s visit to Zechariah marks for Luke the breaking in of the messianic age.

Zechariah was part of the priestly division of Abijah. The service of the temple was divided into twenty-four divisions, and each provided for the needs of the temple service for a week at a time, twice a year. The week of Gabriel’s visit was one of the weeks that Zechariah was serving at the temple. About 18,000 priests served the temple, so it was chosen by lot, who would be allowed to enter the holy place to clean the altar of incense and to offer fresh incense. This was such a rare opportunity to serve, that it usually only occurred once in the lifetime of a priest. Zechariah was chosen that week, not as a result of chance or fate, but chosen by God to be alone with him ceremonially in the temple, while all the others were outside this area in prayer.

The angel of the Lord appears to Zechariah, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. This favored side indicates that the visit was not ominous, but one of favor and blessing. Zechariah was startled and gripped with fear, thankfully not because of those “unique” looking angels described by Ezekiel, but a messenger angel quite human like in appearance. But, put yourself in Zechariah’s place, you’ve been selected for a once-in-a-lifetime honor to perform a sacred duty, in a place where no one is permitted to enter, unless selected by sacred lot, and suddenly another individual suddenly appears.

The angel tells Zechariah, “Do not be afraid.” The standard word of reassurance. Gabriel goes on to tell Zechariah that his prayers have been heard. We can’t know for sure if Gabriel was referring to his prayers for a child to be born to he and his wife, because they had also prayed for the coming redemption of Israel. In either case, little did they know that both prayers would be answered with the birth of their son, who would prepare the way for the Messiah.

They are to name their sone John, which means Yahweh has been gracious. We should note that the significance of the name John is not explained in Luke’s gospel, because his readers would already know of John the Baptist and his role in salvation history, so Luke just points out John’s miraculous birth and divine calling.

Zechariah demanded proof by some means of a sign, so the angel reveals himself as Gabriel, one of only four angels named in the entire Bible, and that he stands in the presence of God, proving that he is qualified to speak on behalf of God to Zechariah, to tell him the good news of Zechariah’s favored status with God, and the coming birth of his long-awaited son, John. Zechariah had his proof, but at a cost, he receives a rebuke for his lack of faith, Zechariah was struck mute until the day of John’s birth.

We really can’t fault Zechariah for his disbelief at the angel’s appearance as God had been silent to Israel for over 400 years. Continue reading Luke later today to learn the rest of Zechariah’s story in this gospel, so let’s turn to our attention to the next angelic appearance six months later in a small house in Nazareth, a town in Galilee, where Mary lived, a virgin as expressly emphasized by Luke, both before and after conception (Luke 1:34-35).

A little background on Mary’s current state prior to the annunciation. Hebrew marriage consisted of two distinct stages: engagement followed by the marriage itself. Engagement involved a formal agreement initiated by a father seeking a wife for his son. The next most important person involved was the father of the bride. A son’s opinion would be sought more often in the process than a daughter’s. Upon payment of a purchase price to the bride’s father (for he lost a daughter and helper, whereas the son’s family gained one) and with a written agreement and/or oath by the son, the couple was engaged. Although during this stage the couple in some instances cohabited, this was the exception. An engagement was legally binding, and any sexual contact by the daughter with another person was considered adultery. The engagement could not be broken save through divorce (Matt 1:19), and the parties during this period were considered husband and wife (Matt 1:19–20, 24). At this time, Mary was likely was no more than fifteen years old, probably closer to thirteen, which was the normal age for betrothal during this historic period.[1]

God sends Gabriel to Mary with a message, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Mary had been “graced” by God in that she had been chosen to bear God’s Son (1:31, 35). She had not been chosen for this task because she possessed a particular piety or holiness of life that merited this privilege. The text suggests no special worthiness on Mary’s part at all.

Mary feared, and was greatly troubled, not because it wasn’t customary for a man to greet a woman but because it wasn’t customary for an angel to greet a woman.

The angel tells her, “Do not be afraid,” which parallels Gabriel’s words to Zechariah. He continues to tell her that she will give birth to a son, and that she was to name him Jesus, and tells her a lengthy description about “who” Jesus is. He will be great, He will be called the Son of the Most High, He will be given the throne of his father David, He will reign over the house of Jacob (the traditional term to describe Israel), He will reign forever, and his kingdom will never end.

Mary asks the angel how will this occur since she is a virgin? Luke tells his readers, that this was to be a virgin birth, is also confirmed by the fact that, since Jesus is greater than John the Baptist, his birth must also be greater. If John’s birth was miraculous but Jesus’ birth was the result of a normal sexual relationship, then the whole parallel between the angel’s message to Zechariah (1:5–25) and the angel’s message to Mary (1:26–38) breaks down at this point. Jesus’ birth had to be greater than that of John the Baptist, and this requires us to understand his birth was a virgin birth. Luke told his readers this to prepare them for 1:35, regarding the Holy Spirit and the power of the Most High overshadowing her. John the Baptist was filled with the Spirit from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15), Jesus was conceived by the Spirit, and this witnesses to his being greater than John.

John himself confirms this hierarchy in Mark 1:8, And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.

 Now, Mary’s question should not be understood as reflecting the same kind of doubt Zechariah possessed (Luke 1:18), since there is present no rebuke as before in 1:19–23.

Luke and Matthew both clearly affirmed that Jesus’ conception was miraculous in that Mary was a virgin when she conceived, what is most important in the New Testament teaching of the virgin birth (or virginal conception) is not the manner in which God sent his Son, BUT the fact that he SENT him. It is not the “how” but the “what” of Christmas that is most important.

We’ve had an angel bringing God’s message of good news to Zechariah in the temple in Jerusalem. Six months later, an angel brought the message of good news to Mary in her home in Nazareth, we’ll conclude our angelic visits today with the shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem. Remember, all of these angelic appearances occur over 400 years since anything prophetic had been announced. God appeared silent in Israel’s eyes for four centuries.

We shouldn’t view the occupation of shepherds as some gentle pastoral scene of young virtuous lads, peacefully slumbering with their sheep in some artistic rendering from a renaissance master.

On the contrary. In general, shepherds were dishonest (Sanh. 25b) and unclean according to the standards of the law. They represent the outcasts and sinners for whom Jesus came. Such outcasts were the first recipients of the good news. Shepherds were out in the fields with their flocks usually during the months of March to November. Nothing in the two birth accounts ties Jesus’ birth to any specific date. “Keeping watch” is literally watching watches—a Semitic literary form.

Let’s take a deep dive into Luke’s account of the angel’s visit to the shepherds.

An angel of the Lord stood before them. Unlike the other two accounts, this angel is not identified.

And the glory of the Lord shone around them. This is the manifestation of God’s presence among his people. Check Exodus later for references to the glory of the Lord guiding them in the Wilderness.

And they were terrified. I don’t blame them, the outcasts and sinners being visited by an angel of the Lord, they probably believed they were about to be destroyed.

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid;” The familiar angelic command to “Fear not!”

for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: This translates the Greek verb euangelizō, which means to preach the good news. The noun (euangelion) is translated by the word “gospel.” This verb is found eleven times in the Gospels, and ten of these are found in Luke. Luke envisioned that the gospel was to be for all people, including the Gentiles, but in this reference, it refers only to the people of Israel.

to you is born this day signifying the beginning of the time of messianic salvation.

in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord. Jesus’ role as Savior is explicitly qualified by the titles “Christ” and “Lord.”

This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  Since the odds of finding another newborn baby boy lying in a manger would be extremely small, this description would function as a sign of identity for the shepherds.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, It is unclear if Luke meant that many more angels appeared, or possibly, as I think is more fitting for the announcement of the birth of the Messiah, that heaven itself opened, revealing all the host of heaven standing beside the Lord on his throne. “Praising God” is the proper response not only of the believer (Luke 2:20; 19:37; 24:53; Acts 2:47; 3:8–9) but all of God’s creation (cf. Ps 148:1–4). The term “praising” was a favorite of Luke and is found only eight times in the New Testament, six of which appear in Luke-Acts.

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” “Peace” refers here to the fullness of blessing which the Savior/Christ/Lord brings and is essentially a synonym for salvation (cf. Acts 10:36). The latter part of the angels’ hymn has been interpreted in several ways: goodwill to men (KJV); to men of good will (Douay); among men with whom he is pleased (RSV). The favor/goodwill referred to in the verse does not belong to men but to God. This is clear from Luke 10:21 (cf. also 1QH 4:32–33; 11:9), where the Father’s good pleasure or favor is referred to, so that it is best to translate this sentence as it is found in the NIV, RSV, NRSV, REB.[2]

The angels return to God, and the shepherds head to Bethlehem to see for themselves what the angel had just told them.

This Fourth Sunday of Advent is represented by lighting the candle of Peace. The prophet Isaiah foretold For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

The Hebrew word used as a salutation for greeting, or parting is Shalom, which translates to Peace.

The word Angel in Greek is translated as Messenger, these three appearances we’ve explored today all bring the message from God of the Good News, that after more than 400 years of silence, the Messianic age has begun, that God was fulfilling his covenant with Israel. With each appearance, the recipients were terrified. The angel told them in each instance to “Fear not.”

Your bulletin this morning shows Linus explaining to the rest of the Peanuts gang in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” the true meaning of Christmas, concluding, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

I’ve just recently learned of an Easter Egg, or a message that’s hidden in plain sight during Linus’ speech. Linus is known to always carry his blue blanket everywhere he goes, to help him deal with his insecurities and fears. He is never without it. But during his recitation of the birth of Jesus in the gospel of Luke, the moment that Linus utters the words from the angel of the Lord, “Fear not” Linus simultaneously drops his blanket to the floor, finishing his speech, having forgotten all about it. He picks it up again at the conclusion but uses it to wrap the base of Charlie Brown’s tree as a selfless act of love, once again the true meaning of Christmas allows him to Fear not.

The entire Peanuts gang surrounds the little tree and begins to sing my favorite Christmas hymn first published in 1739.

Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the new born King, peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!”  Joyful, all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies;
with th’ angelic host proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the new born King!”

[1] Robert H. Stein, Luke, vol. 24, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 82.

[2] Stein, Luke, vol. 24, 109.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.