Summit Presbyterian Church
December 24, 2014
Luke 1: 46-56, 2: 1-20
Peace on Earth
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors.”
As suddenly as they appear, the angels are gone. The shepherds don’t linger in the field to marvel about the heavenly host – they’re too preoccupied with getting to Bethlehem. Luke doesn’t describe them. So in the years since, artists and musicians and writers have filled in the details. The heavenly host – the Greek word is army - becomes a choir. The angels hover on wings. Often, especially among painters of the Hallmark school, they’re blond girls. (That’s not in the text). The words of the angels have also been debated: Peace on earth, goodwill toward men? Peace on Earth, goodwill among people? or – as our translation has it – on earth peace among those whom God favors? That could mean, I think it does mean the whole earth, allowing that God favors all God’s creatures.
My favorite extra-biblical vision of these angels comes from the hymn we just sang. Its author, Edmund Hamilton Sears, was a Unitarian minister. He was considered a conservative Unitarian because he believed in the divinity of Christ; but he was considered a very liberal Protestant, and critics of this hymn have pointed out that he doesn’t mention Jesus. But the truth he tells – what he gets right -- is that the angels haven’t stopped singing. “Still through cloven skies they come, with peaceful wings unfurled, and still their heavenly music floats O’er all the weary world.” Just as the birth of Jesus is not in the past only, but happens again and again when Christ is born in our hearts and in the world; and just as the teachings of Jesus are not ancient lessons only, bound to their place and time, but living words for us; and just as the resurrection wasn’t a miracle for those first disciples only, but one we also know, as we encounter the Risen Christ through the Holy Spirit; so still, the angels sing.
We have trouble hearing them. It’s hard to believe they’re even there, as we look at this world where peace – a just peace - is so elusive. There’s a fourth verse to this carol that our hymnal leaves out. It’s not well known and the editors might have thought it too harsh for Christmas. But left-out verses are often the best, and usually the most subversive, so I’ll recite it now: “Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long; Beneath the angel-strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong; and man, at war with man, hears not the love-song which they bring; O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.”
These words were written in 1849. You could argue that the world has only become noisier with woes of sin and strife. There have been victories, there has been progress, but the wrong keeps rolling on. Hamilton Sears was an abolitionist, and he saw the end of slavery – but its legacy is still with us. Warfare has become even more brutal; since 1849 we’ve added trench warfare, carpet bombing, nuclear weapons, and drones to our repertoire; our weapons of mass destruction have put the whole earth in peril. And then there’s the climate –- changing because of our heedless ways. A catastrophe that promises more violence, if we don’t heed the warnings. Will we ever hush the noise to hear the angels sing?
What the hymn also gets right, the truth it tells, is that the angels will keep singing and their song will win out. That the days are hastening on when peace shall o’er all the earth its ancient splendors fling. Our psalm describes that day: the day when Lord will come to judge the earth with righteousness and the people with equity and truth. On that day the earth will rejoice; the seas will roar and the fields exult; the trees of the forest will sing for joy. On that day, as Isaiah has said, swords will be turned into plowshares and nations will learn war no more. On that day all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire; for a child has been born for us. A child who lived among us, and died from human sin and strife, but was not bound by death. Showing us that sin and strife, violence and death, will not have the last word.
In the meantime, we’re called to join the angels in their love-song of peace and joy. To join them with our voices, and also with our lives, working for that day of peace whose coming is sure. Joining the multitude of heavenly host, so much more multitudinous than Hallmark cards suggest. Joining the choir which includes the young and old, men and women, peoples of every tribe and race and nation. Joining the choir which includes the powerful who have been pulled from their thrones and the lowly who have been lifted up: the whole world, heaven and nature, giving back the song which now the angels sing.