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O little town of Bethlehem

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Luke 2:8–20 (ESV)
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 great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of 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!” 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.
Hark the Herald Angels sing is written by Charles Wesley, one of the many hundreds of carols that he wrote, is one of the best hymns ever written. It's reckoned by many hymnologists to be among the three or four best hymns ever written. It was certainly one of the most popular hymns in a >Protestant hymnals. In the middle part of the twentieth century. A survey was done of some 60 or 65 different Protestant denominational hymnals, and this particular hymn occurred in almost every single one of them. It was known in a variety of traditions, and it is rich in terms of its content. When Charles Wesley originally wrote this hymn it came in ten stanzas.
The first four phrases are descriptions to us of the messengers and the message;
The second four phrases in that first stanza are Wesley's exhortations to us as to how we ought to respond to the messengers and the message.
The Messengers and the Message
Hark, as the herald angels sing
Listen to these divine messengers, these angels that God has sent as heralds. Listen to what they are saying.
He is, of course, drawing this from Luke, chapter two, verse thirteen, which tells us that after that angel had told the shepherds what was going on in Bethlehem, that that angel was joined by a multitude of the heavenly host who were praising God; and so, he is drawing this line from Luke 2:13. But he's asking you to listen carefully to the messengers and to the message that they are bringing.
And then in the second phrase, he tells you what The message is:
“Glory to the newborn King.”
Listen: those divine messengers, those herald angels, are announcing the birth of a king, who is the King. And of course he's basing this on Luke 2:14. This is the message that that host of angels sang before the shepherds.
Luke 2:14 (ESV)
14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
The world religious and not will struggle with a new born king who is already a king. Herod will know that this is someone who should be dead. He will be hated and despised and even though he would escape Herod’s attempt to kill him he will glorify the father who sent him by willingly laying down his life.
“Peace on earth, and mercy mild.”
He's elaborating on this message that was brought by the angels to the shepherds, and he's telling us that This King's heralds, this King's messengers, are not bringing a message of war, but a message of peace. They’re not announcing a message of condemnation and judgment, but a message of mercy. This whole world is cradled in the arms of a merciful God.
“God and sinners reconciled.”
The kind of peace and mercy he has in mind is “God and sinners reconciled.” That is, that this peace and mercy about which the previous phrase speaks, this peace and mercy consists in The reconciliation of God and sinners accomplished through the birth of this King. This song will last through all of eternity.
The first four phrases have described for you the messengers and their message;
The next four phrases in stanza one will exhort us to respond to that message. Notice what Wesley says to us next:
“Joyful, all ye nations, rise….”
Our response to this kind of a message is to stand up in joyous awe and praise of God. In the Scriptures, when someone comes into the presence of God, they rise–and very often they take off their shoes, in humble adoration, in awe of the presence of the Almighty God. Well, Wesley calls on all the nations to stand up!
This verse doesn’t refer only to Christ’s first coming. It alludes to His Second Coming, as well. It calls Christ “King” and tells “all ye nations” to praise Him. Christ’s Kingdom on earth was begun with His birth, but it will be fulfilled with His Second Coming. And not every nation praised Jesus as King when he was born in a manger. That will happen when He comes again.
And, join in the joyous awe of the God who has sent this message.
“Join the triumph of the skies”
We are to join…all the nations are to join in this triumph of Christ that is being announced in the Palestinian night sky. Respond to this in faith, in trust, in belief, and join the triumph that is being announced by these angels in the skies. Christmas is the season to rejoice - he has triumphed over sin and death and every little thing in this world serves the purposes of this king born a baby
“With the angelic host proclaim…”
With your heart and with your voice you are to join the angelic company, and you are to declare what they are declaring.
And what are they declaring?
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
This is the first time he uses the word “Christ,” which is simply the English version of the Greek name for the Old Testament Messiah. When you see “Christ,” that is the English version for the Greek name for the Old Testament Messiah, and so what he is saying is this: that this host is proclaiming that the Messiah has been born for our salvation in the City of David (Bethlehem), just where God had prophesied it more than 600 years beforehand through the prophet Micah.
A moment to reflect:
What are the angels doing?
These angels are busying themselves with the praise of God. The very thought of the incarnation of the Son of God has set these angels singing. They cannot help but praise God.
Well, let me ask you a question: What are you busying yourself with this season? Now, there are a lot of us here who are concerned that we are too busy, that we're too busy getting ready for this, or getting ready to give something, or getting ready to get something, or getting ready to entertain someone; or we're too preoccupied with somebody that we're not going to entertain, or that we are going to entertain; or with some problem in our family; and we're crushed down by the rapidness and the squeeze of the season, and we're wondering whether our priorities are right. And maybe this is the third or fourth, or tenth, or fifteenth Christmas that we've wondered that. Well, what were the angels busying themselves with? They were busying themselves with the praise of God. So, what should you be busying yourself with this season? The praise of God.
There's nothing more important than the praise of God, and if that isn't your priority this season, I suggest you adopt an angelic priority: the praise of God.
So there's the first stanza, chock full of truth.
The Refrain
when set to Mendelssohn's beautiful tune. And the refrain is the same phrase as the first two phrases of the first stanza, but now they function a little bit differently. When We sang them the first time, we are singing Wesley's description to us of the message and the messengers.
The second time we sing them (and, indeed, each time we sing them from now on in the refrain), we are singing them back to God in response to what Wesley has revealed about Christ, about the message, and about the messengers. And so now The refrain serves to express our own praise to God for the glorious gift of the Messiah. When we sing “Glory to the newborn King!” We are confessing that the focus of our hearts and lives ought to be on giving God glory. Well, there's the first stanza.
The message of redemption is all about God's glory.
Now, what were they doing? Well, they were giving us a message, and that message was
“Glory to God in the highest”; and that reminds us of a second thing:
This message of redemption is all about God's glory.
Think of it: God's redemption of His people is all about God's glory. You know, we can look at this gospel story of Christ's coming in the world, and we can still be man-centered about it. We can think that it's all about us, but The angels are telling us that God's redemption of us is all about His glory; and the reason is because everything is about His glory!Those of us who've grown up on The Shorter Catechism were taught to believe that the chief reason that we are here is to glorify and enjoy God forever. And these angels are reminding us that Even as Jesus comes into the world on a rescue project to save men and women and boys and girls, it's all about God's glory.
· God is glorified in every drop of water. You look at it under a microscope and you can see the intricacies of God’s creation.
· God is glorified in every bird that sings, in every flower.
· He’s glorified when you look up and you can see the stars in all of their beauty, and there are billions of them up there. He is glorified in all of those things. The universe can exhaust itself in singing, and the angels can exhaust themselves in singing about God’s creation and the wonders, but there is no song that can compare to the song of the incarnation, the fact that God has become one of us. God became flesh and dwelt among us.
That’s the song that they are singing, and so they sing glory to God in the highest, because when you stop to realize it, The glory of God represents in the incarnation the wisdom of God. The Glory of God represents the power of God. It represents the mercy of God, in God extending Himself to sinners like we are, and reconciling us and redeeming even our past failures and our sins. and making the best of the situations that we give Him. So glory to God in the highest and indeed peace on earth!
How are you living life outside of this room? Are we living it for God's glory? Students, are you living life for God's glory? Adults who are facing a Christmas season without someone you know and love, filled with hurt and doubt, are you living for God's glory? People who have so much and enjoy the satisfactions that this world can afford, but have squeezed God out to the side to the periphery, are you living for God's glory? These angels are announcing that it's all about God's glory. In this season of all seasons, does our life really say that it's all about God's glory?
The Second Stanza
“Christ, by highest heaven adored….”
The next two stanzas are focused on the person and work of Jesus Christ. “Christ, by highest heaven adored….” What Wesley is asking you to do in the second stanza is consider who it is whose birth is being announced. And he begins by saying, ‘It's the Messiah's birth: Christ.’ But he doesn't stop there. He says, ‘This Messiah is adored by highest heaven.’ In other words, This Messiah is worshipped by the greatest created beings in the world. He's saying, ‘Think of it! This babe in a manger in Bethlehem has been adored by the greatest created beings that exist. They worship Him: Christ, the everlasting Lord.’ What's he saying? That This Messiah is no mere earthly king; rather, He is the incarnate eternal Lord of the universe. He is Everlasting Lord, the second member of the Trinity. God showed His love (He didn’t just talk about it) by coming to earth to live as we do, to experience rejection and shame beyond anything we have ever known, but He didn’t relinquish His divine nature, He remained fully God–among–men.
Then he goes on to say,
“Late in time behold Him come…”
He's not saying that Jesus was late showing up; he's not saying that He missed His schedule. He's saying that now, After many hundreds of years of His people's waiting, at the right time, the time of God's appointment, In these last days, He has come into this world: “…offspring of the Virgin's womb.” He's come into this world in the most remarkable way. He's been brought into this world through a young virgin.
“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see…”
When you look at Jesus, when you consider Jesus, in Him you behold the Godhead. Now, the Godhead, or Godhead, is an English word that translates a Greek word that has in it the idea of the fullness of deity. Godhead refers to the fullness of what it means to be God, and so when he says “…veiled in flesh the Godhead see…” he means that in Him, In Jesus Christ, you behold the Godhead: the fullness of deity in bodily form.
”Hail the incarnate Deity…”
In other words, he says ‘So when you greet Him, when you hail Him, when you honor Him, when you acclaim Him, when you acknowledge Him; when you do so, own Him as God in the flesh, as the incarnate Deity. Own Him as not only the Savior of sinners, but as the Son of God incarnate.
“Pleased as man with men to dwell….”
Christ in His mercy has been pleased–that is, He has chosen of His own will–to dwell with us, like us, in a fallen world, as a human being.
Well, you see, Jesus does something even greater than that. He comes and dwells with us as a human, as the God-man, fully inhabiting our experience, living among us as one of us.
“Jesus, our Emmanuel.”
And then finally…have you noticed it? It's the first time in this carol that the name “Jesus” is mentioned. You’re all the way into the eighth phrase of the second stanza before it's finally named: “Jesus, our Emmanuel.” Oh, you've been introduced to Him as the King and as the Messiah, and as the incarnate Deity; but now His name is given: Jesus. His name is Jesus, for He's His people's Savior, and He is literally, Emmanuel: God with us.
“Hail the heavenly Prince of Peace!”
Between 1912 and 1917, Europe was decimated by the worst war in human history. So horrific was it that people wistfully referred to it as “the war to end all wars.” Little did they know that, within a few decades, this period of carnage would have to be renamed “World War I” to distinguish it from an even bloodier conflict. Ever since sin entered the world, peace has been fleeting.
Then comes the third stanza, again all about Jesus Christ: “Hail the heavenly Prince of Peace!” In Isaiah 9:6 the Messiah is described as the Prince of Peace; when you hail Jesus– when you acclaim Jesus, when you honor Jesus, acclaim Jesus the Messiah as the Prince of Peace.
Hail Him as the Sun of Righteousness
Malachi 4:2 (ESV) But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings….
The imagery of Malachi 4:2 is that of the second coming, it is that of the sun rising (Jesus) and its rays of light (healing**). . Think about the energy of the suns rays hitting the earth each and every day. As we rotate in orbit around the sun, we are greeted with it’s rays each morning, breaking forth and destroying the darkness of night. Malachi uses this visual to relate the return of Christ in the second coming, Jesus will come and light fully every dark corner of this universe.
“Light and life to all He brings….”
And when you hail Jesus, acknowledge that he is “Light and life to all He brings….”–in John 1:4, John reminds us that He was the light of the world and the life of men. –a phrase in John 1:4 that actually goes all the way back to Psalm 27:1, when the psalmist says that “the Lord is my light and my salvation, and He is my life.”
“…risen with healing in His wings.”
Then he says “…risen with healing in His wings.” He's back to Malachi 4:2b this time, the second half of verse 2 where the Sun of Righteousness is described as rising with healing in His wings.
There is contentment and joy to be found in the healing of His wings.
As David prayed, “Keep me as the apple of Your eye; Hide me under the shadow of Your wings.” (Psalm 17:8, NKJV).
“Mild He lays His glory by…”
Then in the next phrase, “Mild He lays His glory by…” Wesley interprets for us Philippians 2:7 as briefly and as accurately as you can do it. You remember That “…He emptied Himself and made Himself of no reputation” on our behalf…” (Phil 2:7)
Three reasons why Jesus was born. He was born that man no more may die. In other words,
1. “Born that man no more may die” Jesus was born to remove the curse brought by Adam's sin and ours. What was that curse? Paul says, “…the wages of sin is death”, so He was born to remove the curse brought by Adam's sin and ours. The wages of sin: death…so “that man no more may die.”
2. “Born to raise the sons of earth…” He was born to raise us to newness of life, as Romans 6 says. He was born to raise us so that we would be resurrected to eternal life, as I Corinthians 15 tells us.
3. “Born to give them second birth”
In Conclusion
Luke 2:14 (ESV)
14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
This is not a generic announcement. This is an announcement for people who believe the message. It is not that there is peace for everyone. No. Those who are indifferent to this announcement, those who are indifferent to this Christ, to this Savior, there is no peace and joy for them.
This peace is only for those on whom God's favor rests, for those who have rested and trusted in Jesus Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel. And so don't go through this Christmas season, with all its sentiment and all its memories, without embracing the only One who can give you peace on this earth and forevermore: Jesus, the Christ.
Because of these truths we can know peace in many other areas
• We have peace facing our own mortality. We no longer need to be afraid of the “nothingness” of death. We will live even though we die.
• We have peace about the events of life. This peace is anchored to God’s sufficiency for our every need.
• We have peace when we feel alone because God has promised that He will never leave us or forsake us. We can “fear not” because He is with us.
• We can have peace in relationships because we more readily forgive because we have been forgiven and because we know that we are now brothers and sisters in Christ.
• We can have peace if we are brought before authorities or opponents because of our faith. The Lord promises that He will give us the words to say.
• We no longer fear rejection because “nothing will ever separate us from His love” (Romans 8:38). Keller writes,
Once you’re free from accusation, you can’t get freer from accusation. Once you’re blemishless in his sight, you can’t get more blemishless. Once you’re holy, you can’t get more holy. Once you’re perfect in His sight, you can’t get more perfect. If you could get more perfect, then you weren’t perfect to start with.[2]
Having peace in these areas comes because we first have peace with God. Too many people get this confused. They desire peace in the circumstances of life or in the trials before they will believe in God. These things are a consequence of peace with God, not a means to that peace. This leads us to that last phrase.
The Beneficiaries of This Peace
The promise of the angels is for those “on whom His favor rests”. In other words, these things are true only for those who are true followers of Christ. It is only for believers, not the whole world.
Though lots of people celebrate Christmas, only those who embrace Christ can really understand the blessing of Christmas. Everyone else gets caught up in the presents, the material indulgence and the sentimental traditions. Only those who put their faith in this Jesus will know the peace on earth that Jesus brings. Only true believers really understand the Good News that was proclaimed to the Shepherds.
The “war to end all wars” has already been fought. It was launched on Christmas, won on Good Friday, and proclaimed on Easter morning. And though it awaits its full consummation, we see tiny previews of it every time we forgive one another, or baptize a new convert, or commune around the Lord’s Table. May these glimpses of his grace awaken our hearts in praise: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (v. 14).
Simply put, as long as you keep playing at faith; as long as you insist on relying on your own goodness; as long as you think you are “good enough” to go to Heaven, you will not, and cannot, know this peace that transforms human hearts. You can attend church, you can serve on committees, you can go on mission trips, and people can look on you as one who is a “true believer”, but until you surrender all your weapons, justifications, and excuses; until you give up all hope of saving yourself and turn fully to Jesus as your rescuer; your Savior, you will not know His favor.
The question this Christmas should be:
How do I experience the favor of God that brings me peace with God and then floods into the rest of my life?
The first step is to recognize that you do not have that peace now. Admit that you are at war with God. You must stop pretending that you trust Him. You must stop “playing the game”. Before the war can end we must surrender. We must admit that we have been refusing to trust or rely on Him. We must seek His forgiveness.
Second, you must truly embrace the true Jesus. It is not enough to “believe in Jesus”. You must believe in the TRUE Jesus, the Jesus who was born in Bethlehem; the Jesus who was fully God and fully man; The Jesus who lived a perfect life and surrendered that flawless life for our sin; the Jesus who lived, who died and was literally and historically raised from the dead. Once you have seen Him for who He is you must run to Him and put all your hope in Him. You must trust His promise and embrace Him as Lord and Savior of your life.
I believe this is what the Shepherds did. They hurried to Bethlehem (when there is such good news you shouldn’t drag your feet). They found the baby just as the angels said, “lying in the manger”. I suspect they bowed before Him.
Since Mary “kept all these things in her heart” it is apparent to me that the Shepherds shared their story. They told Mary and Joseph what the angels said. But they not only told Mary and Joseph, they told everyone what had happened. These men who were usually on the social perimeter were now engaging people to tell them the incredible news that the Messiah had come to save the world.
We are told that they “went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them”. I know I am reading into the story but it sure seems to me that these Shepherds put their faith in the work of this baby. I sense that even though they didn’t understand fully, they already were coming to experience that peace with God.
Once we have met Him it is our privilege, and joy to tell everyone that we meet that God has sent us His Son! Our sin has been paid for! We do not have to fight God any longer! We should do everything in our power to invite others to see Him and trust Him. We do this because we have been changed. We sing along with the Shepherds because we have discovered the good news – the news that is way too good to keep to ourselves.
[1] Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church.
[2] Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church.
The beautiful singing and the glory died down along the hills of Bethlehem. You can go to the shepherds’ fields today in Bethlehem, as I have had the privilege of doing many, many, many years ago, and there are no angels there. At least you don’t see them. And the glory has died down, but the notes of their song, and the message of Christmas goes throughout the whole land, and indeed the whole earth.
Isn’t it remarkable that Jesus was born in the first century, and yet He belongs to all the centuries? He was born in Bethlehem and yet He belongs to all the towns and the cities of the world. He was born a Jew, and yet He belongs to all the races. You’ll notice that the angel says, “I have a message that shall be for all the peoples.” And it is for all the peoples because there is no one like Him who can be a Savior and reconcile us to God. There’s nobody else out there with the credentials of Jesus.
There are two wonders that should strike us today!
The first wonder is the wonder of the incarnation itself, the fact that God came down from the stairs of heaven with a baby in His arms. God says, “I am taking the initiative to reconcile you to Myself.” And may I say candidly that you need reconciliation. If you are listening to this I can tell you that you need it because we’re all part of the same cloth, all in need as sinners.
So the wonder of the incarnation should impress us. And we don’t understand it.
And then, of course, what should really delight us today on this marvelous opportunity that we have to worship and to think about Christmas is
The second wonder is the wonder of what was accomplished. And I want to leave you today with the full assurance that what God did there was beyond our imagination. Jesus reconciled us.
Article printed from First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi:
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