Throughout the days of Advent, the Gloria has been silenced in the Divine Service, but tonight it returns. Utterly fitting. For it was the events celebrated this night which first brought the Gloria down from heaven to earth.
It was a pretty pitiful congregation that night. Just a few sleepy shepherds, struggling to keep their eyes open as they watched over the flocks. In the darkness around them, dangers lurked. They lighted a fire, perhaps, to chase away the chill of the night and the marauding wolfe. But in an instant how paltry seemed that firelight.
Above their heads a light shown such as they’d never experienced. No burning heat of midday mideast sun could compare with that light for brilliance. And suddenly they are terrified. That, you see, is always the experience of fallen man when confronted with holiness. The angel who appeared to them shared the holiness of God and so the shepherds shrunk in fear away from the light, but there was no escape. Nor was there reason to escape. Listen.
“Fear not! For behold, I bring you tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people. For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you. You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
Don’t fear, the angel cried out. He hadn’t come to frighten them, no matter how frightening holiness is to poor sinners. He had come to bring them joy. Not to destroy them. Not to give them their due. Rather, to announce that God was giving something infinitely precious into their humanity.
From a Virgin’s womb, the Eternal and Everlasting Son of the Father, whom the Angels worshipped in the unity of the adorable Trinity, is now made a baby. A little human being. Weak and helpless. Unable to speak. A child.
“Fear not!” And who could ever be afraid of a little baby? God come down to earth to visit the lost children of men, to reveal to them the deepest truth of all: that He had never been against them, that He had always loved them, that He had desired for them nothing but salvation and eternal life. And so He dares to come, in helplessness and poverty, even into the enemy territory, to lead his enemies from fear to friendship, from terror to peace.
As the poor shepherds are trying to take it all in, God ratchets it up a notch. Suddenly it is not one holy one, one angel shining in the sky above them. Suddenly there are myriads, hundred of thousands, and all of them singing, singing with joy to the poor and lost children of men: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
They see the glory of God in the vast extent not of His power, but of His love. The glory of God is that He would dare to become a man to raise us that we might become children of God. The glory of God is not terror, but love. The glory of God that Adam lost in the Garden and so mankind began the senseless running away from our only Hope, our only Life, that glory is shown in Bethlehem: unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given. So must the Shepherds have thought as they listened to the angel’s song. Glory to God indeed.
But more, peace on earth. This is the angel’s prayer for the world. That there be peace on earth. Oh, it embraces that we lay down our weapons – including the horrific weapons we civilians know how to use on each other – the cutting word, the biting look, the bitter anger. All of it, laid aside. But also the weapons we actually use to blow each other up – to inspire fear and terror. The angels pray the night of the Savior’s birth that PEACE would really be upon the earth. That we would come to love each other with the same sort of love that rules in heaven above, where the Father, Son, and Spirit love each other and the whole of creation with a love undying and full of mercy. A peace the holy angels live in and which the evil angels have rejected to their own destruction. All of that, yes, but even more.
For this Child is peace. He is peace between God and men, for in Him God and Man are one, united forever, for all eternity. Paul Gerhardt, the great Lutheran hymn-writer said it like this: “Shall we still dread God’s displeasure, who to save freely gave His most precious treasure: to redeem us He has given His own Son from the throne of His might in heaven.”
The Child does not change how God feels toward you, my friends. The Child manifests how God feels toward you – lets you know that He has loved you with an everlasting love. Oh, it is true – if you insist on meeting God apart from the gift of the Child of Bethlehem and the Man of the Cross, you will face certain and utter destruction. But that destruction is not willed by God for a single soul – for the Child is given for all, and from the heart of the Father. “Good news of great joy for ALL people” the angel said, and he meant it!
“Good will toward men.” That’s what we sing in the Gloria. That in the Child of Bethlehem is manifested God’s unfathomable good will toward men. To us bunch of rebels, to us worms, to us who continue to go on in our rebellions and sins and disobediences just as though there will never be a day of judgment, a day of accounting, a day when we must given answer for every word, deed, and even thought – to us comes a Gift from the Father’s love – Jesus the Savior. Sent to forgive us our sins, sent to free us from our hell-bent rebellions, sent to bring us home to the Father.
And that is the great cause of the Angels’ joy that Christmas night. They are filled with giddiness because in Christ Jesus, they get to have us as sisters and brothers of their Master, they get to serve us and protect us and shepherd us through this life until we share with them eternally in glorifying God and live eternally in their peace, enjoying for endless days the gracious good will of God.
“Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth, good will toward men” indeed! Glory to You, Child of Bethlehem! Glory to You forever! Welcome back, Gloria! Ever, ever be our song! Amen.