Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Its Worth Singing About: The Angels' Song (Christmas Eve 2010)

Luke’s starts his gospel with a parallel account of the birth of Jesus and John the Baptist, and when you read it, it has the feel of being like an old Hollywood musical, a made for Broadway Andrew Lloyd-Webber stage production. It’s full of people bursting into song.
There are four songs in the first two chapters of Luke’s gospel: three solos Mary’s song, , Zechariah song , Simeon and Anna song. And the production number to end all production numbers.

The production number is what we are looking at tonight. The Angels song and an unrecorded reprise in the praise the shepherd’s give God when they see what they have been told is true.

Maybe because of hallmark cards and Christmas pantomimes where every little girl makes a beautiful angel, with white dresses tinsel halo’s and fairy wings, we think of these being as rather cuddly and tame,

But in the scripture every time an angelic being turns up the first thing they have to tell people is not to be afraid. They are creatures of light like the moon to the sun that reflect the radiance of the one they serve. In fact the Angel tells the shepherds not to be afraid but to be filled with great joy because of the good news that the angel has to give them. He announces the birth of a child who is the saviour and the messiah and the Lord and gives the shepherds a sign so that will know what they have been told is true. They will find a child in a stable, lying in a manger, a feed trough and wrapped in rags.

Then in a way we can relate to in New Zealand at the end of his speech this Angel is joined by the host of heaven for a waiata. It’s almost as if the sky is drawn back like a curtain at a cinema or theatre and there are thousands of angels. They sing glory to God in the hightest and peace on earth to all whom he finds favour’.

Lets turn to look at the words of this song.

Glory to God

Firstly what is happening this night this birth in Bethlehem is to be the focus of Glory to God in the highest? Here is something new and profound that God is doing. It is something that God’s people Israel had been looking for centuries a saviour a messiah who would free them and be the long awaited king like David. God was now going to establish his Kingdom. A kingdom that was totally different than those in the world around them. A kingdom that will result in peace to all who dwell on earth.

On earth Peace

Peace of course for the Hebrew people was the word shalom which did not simply mean a halting of hostilities, a cession of conflict, or a general sense of wellbeing but rather peace was seen as wholeness. The establishment of right relationships.

Peace to the world because through this child there would be A restoration of that prime relationship with God. This saviour had not come to liberate Israel from roman rule but rather to liberate all human beings from sin and death and allow us to become the sons and daughters of God. Peace because in Jesus Christ, his life, his death and resurrection there was to be a way for us to be forgiven for all we had done wrong and a way for us to be reconciled with the one who made us. Peace because here was the one who would call for justice and care for the poor and the down trodden, who would call his people, all people to love one another and love their enemies and forgive those who had wronged them. To say to the powers in this world that there is something greater that calls us to act out of God’s justice, mercy and love.

Let me illustrate the hope this brings in this famous photo and the story of the girl in the photo.

This is perhaps the most famous photo of the last century. It has come to encapsulate the horror of war and the civilian price of our conflicts. June 8 1972 and the United States and South Vietnamese forces drop napalm on the village of Trang Bang. Nick Ut took the photo of six-year-old Kim Phuc running from her burning village her back and arm badly burned.

Kim Phuc’s life is radically changed by this moment. She goes through years of pain and suffering. The communist government use her as a propaganda tool.

In 1996 Kim Phuc, then living in Canada, and a follower of Jesus, was invited to speak at the Vietnam War Memorial.

“ Dear friends” she says

… as you know, I am the little girl who was running to escape from the napalm fire. I do not want to talk about the war because I cannot change history. I only want you to remember the tragedy of war in order to do things to stop fighting and killing around the world. I have suffered a lot from both physical and emotional pain. Sometimes I thought I could not live, but God saved me and gave me faith and hope. Even if I could talk face to face with the pilot who dropped the bombs I would tell him we cannot change history but we should try to do good things for the present and for the future to promote peace…’

(Denise Chong: The Girl In The Picture, 1999. pp362)

In the Crowd was John Plummer who was involved in planning the raid on Trang Bang. They meet that day. He explained who he was and he cried, “I’m sorry…I’m so sorry…” Kim Phuc embraced him and said, “I forgive, I forgive”.

This is another photo of Kim Phuc and her son taken by Nick Ut. It has a real Christmas look to it doesn’t it. Kim now works for UNESCO as an ambassador for forgiveness, peace and reconciliation. Her life gives us hope of the change that the Christmas message can bring even in the face of our worst inhumanity.

So let’s move to look at those who heard this angelic announcement and saw this production number and what they say to us this Christmas. It’s strange because in our society such large production numbers are done to be seen by a great multitude of people. The more the merrier, we fill large stadiums, look for TV audiences in the billions, or box office figures and DVD sales that ensure a good return. But here we see that Angles perform for a small and unusual audience. In our world that may mean playing to a small audience would mean a very exclusive group, one where John Lennon’s words as the Beatles played at the Royal gala Performance might apply, ‘those in the cheap seats clap and you others just rattle your jewellery’ This audience are the most common of people in agrarian first century Judea.

When Caesar Augustus was born, the same language was used of him as of Jesus , it was said that he would be a saviour, and Lord and a ruler who would bring peace, the Pax Roma, social order that was maintained by the ever present threat of the roman army. But it was announced and declared in palaces and in provincial capitals to the wealthy and the powerful.

But here the birth of a different kind of King is announced to ordinary folk like you and I, in the midst of their everydayness. Here is a different king indeed not born in a palace or in plush circumstances but in the humblest of surroundings. It tells us in an age of glossy magazines, PR companies, and the cult of celebrity, that it is not the circumstances of a person’s origins and surrounding s that is important but their part in God’s plans.

The shepherd’s are told of the child’s birth and they are allowed to see the heavenly response to this event, however they are invited to go and see for themselves. To go and see if what they have heard is true. At Christmas time we focus on the manger, a simple feeding trough and the stable and those that came that night shepherd’s and as Matthew tells us wise men from the east. We even think of animals that may have shared that stable. But the manger and the stable for the shepherds were simply signposts pointing them to the child in the manger. They were signposts pointing to which particular child it was they were seeking. The shepherds go and see that what they have been told is true and for Mary and Joseph this birth which has been a private moment now becomes something more, they are given affirmation that what they believed about the child is true and Luke who uses Mary as the source of his Christmas narrative tells us Mary stored these things up in her heart and pondered them. It’s only after this that the shepherd’s return joining the angels in giving glory to God and telling everyone of the Good news of this child’s birth.

The angels song and the shepherds response invites us also this Christmas, to go and see. In the midst of our everydayness our going about our own business, in the midst of the festivities and traditions of our family and cultures celebration of Christ’s birth to go and see what all the fuss is about, what all the singing is about. To look beyond the manger and the stable to Jesus born in the manger. Jesus the man who taught his followers to love their enemies and called the poor blessed because theirs was the kingdom of God, who forgave sins, healed the sick, gave his life up for us, and whom God raised from the dead. Come again and see and ponder and give glory to God and seek to work with this Jesus for peace on earth.

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