Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Click here to download the Word Doc...
Click here to download the PDF...
Sermon Text – 12.05.2021
Today we are launching a new Christmas season sermon series called “School of Rock: Christmas Album Edition.” We’ve done this sort of series before, where we take a look at some classic hymns or favorite worship songs and take a closer look at the lyrics, and most importantly the scriptures behind those lyrics. So, for the next couple of weeks we’re going to be diving into our favorite religious Christmas songs – starting today with Hark The Herald Angels Sing.
Now, I picked this song to start with, because it was written by Charles Wesley. As many of you know, John Wesley was one of the founders of the Methodist Movement which our church is a branch of. John Wesley was an Anglican priest, big time preacher, organizational neurotic and all around great leader. But what many people don’t know is that John Wesley had a rock star little brother named Charles. John was the preacher, but Charles was the musician. During his life Charles Wesley wrote over 6,500 hymns – including Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Except, here’s the problem – when he wrote it, back in the 1750’s, nobody liked it. Charles had some opinions about the type of music that you should use and he gave it a slow, somber, “boring” tune. Now the tune that we all know and love, came a hundred years later, and was written by a guy named Mendelssohn. That tune was originally found in a cantata he wrote to commemorate Johann Gutenberg and the invention of the printing press. That’s where the music for Hark! The Herald Angels Sing comes from. And according to this article I was reading last week, Mendelssohn specifically stated that his composition was to only be used in a purely secular manner. Don’t use my music in church. But in 1856, long after both guys were dead a man by the name of Dr. William Cummings ignored both of their wishes and put Wesley’s lyrics with Mendelssohn’s music and I’m so glad he did because that’s where we get our modern version of this classic holiday song. And so what we’re going to do today is take the lyrics of the song and tell the story of when the Angel first visited Mary.
Luke, chapter 1 verse 26 gets us started, [read v.26-29]. Alright, to make any sense of this we have to jump back into the Old Testament for a second. An angel shows up and says, “hey, you are highly favored and the Lord is with you!” And Mary’s response is to be “greatly troubled”? Now, why would she be upset – doesn’t that sound lovely? The Lord is with you! Shouldn’t she be excited? I used to think she was troubled because she knows she’s about to get volunteered for something big. Is this one of those queasy moments where Mary’s thinking, “I just wanted to bring a pie, but now I’m in charge of the whole bake sale”? Is that why Mary was troubled? But we have to remember how Mary would have understood God’s presence. In the Old Testament, probably the most common time God was with people was when they were going into battle – so that doesn’t sound super fun for Mary. And then think about the temple set up at this time. They didn’t understand God as everywhere. They figured God dwelled in the temple. In fact, they had a little back room called the Holy of Holies, and that’s where God dwelled. And it was covered with a curtain and nobody was allowed back there. Only the priest was able to go into God’s presence, and only at special times in special places. And if the priest entered God’s presence in the incorrect way, there were stories that they would be struck dead. And so I think about what must have been running through Mary’s mind, when an angel shows up and says, “The Lord is with you.” If I was Mary the first thing I would ask is “alright, are you going to send me into battle or am I about to be struck dead?” There’s a fear and an awe associated with being in God’s presence. God is scary and distant in this world. God is the all powerful creator of the universe, mighty and glorious and I’m not sure how I feel about having that at the dinner table, right?
The second verse of Hark the Herald Angels sing, I’m going to put the words on the screen. The first two lines capture that awe surrounding God. Highest heav’n adored, everlasting lord. But, even with all that glory – what’s about to happen is a shift. Offspring of a virgin’s womb. He will be born, a physical birth, miraculous but real. Veiled in flesh. God is going to put on human flesh. Become a person who bleeds and cries and bruises and gets sore muscles and hang-nails. “Pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.” Emmanuel, of course, means “God with us.” It pleased God to come and dwell with us in flesh. The angel is telling Mary, “yes, God is with you, but this is going to be a WHOLE different type of “God with you” than anything you have seen before.”
Verse 30 in the bible, the angel reassures her, [read v.30-33]. The angel says, “no, no, no – you misunderstand. This is a good thing. He’s going to be great, actually he’s going to be the son of God! He’s going to fulfill prophecies and set up the kingdom of God which will never end.” Which reminds me of the first verse of Hark the Herald Angels sing – I think we’ve got that on the screen too. I think this is probably the verse that we all know. I mean, isn’t that how it works with Christmas songs? All of us know the first verse, half of us know the second verse and none of us have heard of three through five. (laugh). Verse 1 – the angels are singing, glory to the newborn King. Peace on earth, mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled. The angel is telling Mary – you know that separation? That distant and all powerful God who created you but is separate from you because he’s perfect and you’re not? And you know how we all sin and we all mess up in life and that keeps us away from God? This “God with you” that’s about to happen, this baby that is coming – is going to take the almighty God and all the sinners and reconcile them. He’s going to heal that broken relationship that humans have with the divine, he’s going to reunite us with the long lost ache of our soul. And the end of the verse is just the angels freaking out. Joyful all ye nations rise – everybody on your feet, all the nations, come on get up this is amazing. Join the triumph of the skies. You remember the other story, with the angels and shepherds and they’re all in the sky praising God and proclaiming, “Christ is born in Bethlehem.” Basically, the angel talking to Mary and the first verse of Hark the Herald Angels Sing have the same message – we have to remember why the angels are freaking out. They are so excited because God and his people are going to be reconciled. God is going to be with us in a new way.
Our little story with Mary and the Angels finishes up, [read v.34-38]. How on earth is a virgin birth going to happen? And the angel says, “the Holy Spirit” There’s not going to be any question about the whether this kid is REALLY the son of God. Beyond the incredible miracle of God stepping into our world, God coming close to us, we’re also going to do this in an impossible way. A virgin birth. And if you have any doubts, go check out your cousin Elizabeth. There’s a miracle in progress over there, so you can know that this was all planned out ahead of time. All these pieces come together so that “God with us” can happen in a new way.
Then we jump over to the third verse of Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and we are back to praising Jesus for how awesome he is. Heavenly Prince of peace, son of righteousness. He’s going to bring light and life to everyone, and he’s going to bring healing to the world. But the second half of the verse is what I want to focus on. There is a point and purpose to the birth of Jesus. God didn’t just wake up one morning and say, “hey, maybe I want to experience what it’s like to be a human” He did this on purpose and with purpose. He was born that man no more may die. He defeated death so that we could have eternal life through Jesus. The angel tells Mary, “Look, no word of God will ever fail. This isn’t just some random thing – this is the big moment, the climax of the movie, the big reveal where all the pieces come together for God to be with us in a new way and to offer humanity a new life.” This was the plan all along, this moment is the spark that lights the fuse that ends with humans being reconnected to God. This story ends with people who hear the phrase, “God with us” and they are not afraid, but rather they are excited.
The last two verses, the one’s nobody’s ever heard of, I’ll let you look those up in the hymnal – they both basically have the same message: Jesus coming into our lives has a transformation on who we are. We have been given a second chance at life inside God’s grace. Through Jesus you have an opportunity to walk with God in this life. A God that heals you, sustains you - holds you up when you can’t make it on your own, molds you and shapes you into a godly man or woman. This whole “God with you” business is really big deal.
You see, what I want you to walk away with today, the core message here is that angels don’t freak out over really nice teachers. Maybe you’ve seen this – there’s this push to look at Jesus as an incredible, profound, inspiring really nice teacher. Jesus was just this guy who had some really good ideas about love. But that is NOT the story Christians tell! Angels don’t freak out over really nice teachers. There were no angels singing in the sky when Confucius was born or Buddha or Muhammad or Ghandi or Martin Luther King. Those are all big teachers from history – historic names attached to big ideas – good ideas even. I’m not knocking the teachings of Confucius, but Jesus is not one of those guys. Don’t let them take that away from you. There were no angels heralding the birth of these big teachers, because angels don’t freak out over really nice teachers. The angels get excited when God comes to be with us in a new way. The story of Christmas is an incredible, divine, miraculous story that shifts the very nature of the way humanity interacts with God. When the world tries to sell you a cheaper version of the story – don’t buy it. God is coming to be with you in a new way. This season is not a cutesy celebration of a guy who had a couple of good teachings about loving your neighbor. This is about a God who loves you so much that he set aside his glory, and was born as a human to save humanity.
Here’s my point with all this – right now? Right now, at this moment in history, we don’t need profound teacher Jesus. Right now we don’t need “had a nice idea about love” Jesus. Right now – with all the garbage going on in this world. School shootings, Covid cases rising, supply chain issues for Christmas presents, staffing shortages in almost every corner of society, sickness and death in our church family, and honestly? Just a general weariness with the world. Right now – what I need, and what I think probably all of us need? I need the heavenly prince of peace, I need the everlasting Lord, by highest heaven adored. I need God. That’s it. That’s the message. I need God. There’s just no way to handle all of this without him. I need “God with us” – and that’s what Jesus is. That’s why the angels are heralding.
Normally I end my sermons with an application point. A challenge, an action point for you to take with you into your work. And usually the challenge involves something spiritual for you to work on, something for you to DO. But I think right now we are too tired to have something more to DO. So let me put it like this. All I want you to do this week is keep this truth in front of you. Remember it, cling to it, hold on to it in the storm of life. Keep this truth in front of you: The almighty, infinite and all powerful God who created the entire universe stepped out of heaven, set aside his glory, to come and dwell with you. And not just dwell with you. This is the spark that lights the fuse. He came so that death doesn’t have to be the end of the story. He came so that you could have eternal life with him in heaven. He came to save you from your sins. To give you a second birth. A new life. God wants to take your life and reconnect it to his glory because of how much he loves you. And it all starts with a baby in a manger, and that’s why the angels are freaking out. Amen.