I have mentioned before that the subject I disliked at secondary school was English Literature. I only developed a conscious interest in creative writing when I was an adult. Even now, I rarely read novels. If I read one novel a year, that’s quite a high rate, even for an avid reader like me.
But I have found some of the ‘literature’ aspects of the Bible fascinating. In particular, one insight about biblical poetry has stayed with me, and in a moment I aim to show you how it is important in this account of Jesus’ birth.
In the Old Testament, the poetry of the Psalms and large parts of Proverbs, Job, some prophets and so on rhymes. But it doesn’t rhyme like English poetry does. We rhyme the sounds at the end of each line. You can see that in the carols we are singing tonight.
Hebrew poetry rhymes differently. The Hebrew poets didn’t rhyme sounds, they rhymed ideas. So the second line rhymes the first by repeating the same idea in a different way. Or it states the opposite of the first line. Or it takes the idea of the first line and moves it on.
If you want to impress people at dinner parties, this particular kind of rhyming is called ‘Hebrew parallelism’. So now you know.
I want to suggest that the song of the angels to the shepherds can be understood this way, and that when we do, we see the power of the poetry they sing. Hear again their familiar words:
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’ (Verse 14)
In the first line God, and the second line refers to human beings. Heaven in the first line, earth in the second. Glory in the first, peace in the second.
So firstly, why does God in heaven receive glory? What has he done that is worthy of praise? Well, clearly, he has at last sent the promised Messiah, for whom his people have longed for centuries, to deliver them:
Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. (Verse 11)
At last! The prayers of the centuries are being answered. The waiting is over. To people suffering long comes good news. The angels sing praise, and if the shepherds can think straight in the middle of this strange and terrifying experience, they will, too. Hope is about to be fulfilled!
But you and I know that this child came as a very different kind of Saviour and Messiah from that which was expected. Not the mere human military ruler. And there are hints here, in that he is called ‘the Lord’. He takes on a divine description. This isn’t simply some warrior. This is God, come to command our allegiance. If he is military at all, he is the Lord of hosts, the Old Testament God of angel armies. God himself has come to save his people. This is not a human being calling Israel to rally to him.
What that will mean can only be hinted at in the barest terms in the nativity story, and even then it is easier to spot if you know how it all pans out. A humble birth to poor parents, and now lying in a manger, for example. God comes in weakness, and he will live and minister in weakness, depending entirely upon the Holy Spirit. He will die in weakness, but that weak death on the Cross will transform all things. He will not raise himself from the dead, but God the Father will do that for him by the power of the Spirit.
But for all this, God is glorified, God is praised. He has come to save his people. He has come to bring a revolution. But not a revolution that will spill the blood of enemies. A revolution of love. A revolution where the Messiah himself will spill his own blood, not that of others.
This is why God is to receive praise in heaven. Do the angels even know what is coming? Do they know the plan of God? We have no idea. But there are tiny signs now of what is to come, where God in Jesus will accomplish his purposes in the most humbling and astonishing ways. As the American Methodist minister and scholar Allan Bevere says, the God of Christmas is an embarrassment. He stoops as low as it takes. He enters the muck and the mire. He will go on to party with sinners.
So we have a choice with God this Christmas. We can be embarrassed by him – and take offence. That was what Jesus’ religious opponents would do, thirty years later, when he spelled it out in his words and actions. Or, God’s embarrassing actions can make us smile, laugh and rejoice. And then we give glory to the embarrassing God.
And secondly, what about this peace on earth? Lots of people jump on this and use it to support their favourite notion of peace. Christians with a very personal, individualist understanding of faith use the mention of peace here to buttress their claim that Jesus came to bring peace on earth between individuals and God. It’s rather like the way Billy Graham used to preach about having ‘peace with God’. It’s the peace that comes from having your sins forgiven and declared righteous by God, all because of what Jesus would do for us in dying for our sins on the Cross.
Other Christians, those with a social conscience, emphasise ‘peace on earth’ in the sense that Jesus came to bring peace instead of war to this world. They see an effect upon society, more than an individual transformation. They see the hope of the prophets that the lion would lie down with the lamb being fulfilled.
Let me suggest to you that the text requires us to see that Jesus’ coming to bring peace is both personal and social. It has to be personal, because this is not a general ‘peace on earth’, which you might be forgiven for thinking from the way this verse is popularly quoted, and from the way those who stress it purely in terms of social justice speak. For it is ‘on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests’ (my italics). It is peace being granted to the people of God, to his followers. Now that can still be social, as we shall see, and those good Jews who were desperate to see the end of Roman occupation could have seen it that way, but it is definitely specific. This is a gift of peace for those whose allegiance is to the God of Israel.
I offer to you the approach, then, that the song of the angels promises peace between people and God, and then the people of God as a people of peace. We have a world that longs for peace, and as the people of God we are meant to be a sign of God’s coming kingdom. The church is not the kingdom of God, but we are meant to be the community of the King. Our common life as well as our individual life is to be a witness to the coming of God’s reign. Our life together is to show people what life under the rule of God looks like. That is why the bickering, the jealousy and the petty feuds we experience in the church at times have no place in our midst.
And where does it start? It begins with the personal commitment to follow Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. It means accepting his assessment of us as sinners, and his offer to make a new start, based on the Cross. He cures our alienation from God and gives us peace.
But it cannot stop there. The one who names Jesus as Lord and Saviour does so as an individual, but never in a private capacity. It is public and communal. God is building a people for his praise. He is doing it in his uniquely embarrassing way, as I said. The God who comes in all humility at Christmas offers us peace with him that we might build a community of peace in his name, a colony of heaven on earth.
If we as Christians are serious about celebrating Christmas, then we embrace a personal relationship with Christ and all that means – prayer, witness, discipleship and so on. And we also commit to one another in the church as we embrace our calling to show the world what the forgiven and forgiving life looks like. That would be a fitting way to sing the angels’ song:
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’