And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” Luke 2:13-14
Near the end of the 1965 animated classic, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie Brown cries out in desperation, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” Linus answers, “Sure Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.” The houselights dim and a single spotlight illuminates Linus on stage. Linus opens his mouth and begins to recite from the King James version of Luke’s Gospel. I was ten years old when I first saw A Charlie Brown Christmas. Forty-three years later, Linus’ simple words are still one of the most moving moments that I have experienced in any medium.
And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them! And they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (Luke 2:8-14 KJV)
That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
As the Peanuts gang sang in that film, “Christmas time is here.” So what should we do? If Christmas is “all about” the savior born in the city of David, how should we respond? Maybe the first thing we should do is the same thing that the heavenly army of angels did when the news was announced. Maybe the first thing we should do is give glory to God in the highest.
I want to tell you two things as we contemplate the angels’ message: 1) it is our duty to glorify God 2) and it is our privilege to glorify God.
It is our duty to praise God. At least that’s what Christians down through the ages have thought.
The earliest detailed description of Christian worship comes in the Apostolic tradition of Hippolytus which preserves traditions from the late second century. When those early Christians gathered to worship and it came time to share the common meal of communion, the pastor and the people began the prayer of thanksgiving with a dialog. As part of that dialog, the pastor said, “Let us give thanks to the Lord” and the people responded, “It is proper and just.” It is proper and just to give God thanks. That’s what Christians thought in the post-apostolic Church.
That same form of Eucharistic thanksgiving continued through the ages. When the Church of England published its first Book of Common Prayer in the English language in 1549, included the same exchange, after which the pastor said, “It is very meet, right and our bounden duty, that we should at all times and in all places give thanks unto thee, O Lord, holy Father, almighty, everlasting God.” It is our bounden duty to give thanks to God. That’s what Protestant Christians thought in the 16th century.
In The Future of Justification, John Piper argues that God’s glory is central to Paul’s argument in Romans and the Biblical text in general. Our central problem, according to Paul in Romans, is that we do not properly honor God with our lives. Following the great passage on gospel as God’s power for salvation for all who believe (“the just by faith shall live,” Romans 1:16-17), Paul says this:
For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness (impiety – irreverence) and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. From the creation of the world His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what He has made. As a result, people are without excuse. For though they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or show gratitude. Instead, their thinking became nonsense, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man, birds, four-footed animals, and reptiles. (Romans 1:18-23 HCSB)
The Gentiles don’t give God the honor due his name and character, but Paul’s fellow Jews reflect poorly on God’s name and honor as well:
Now if you call yourself a Jew, and rest in the law, and boast in God, and know His will, and approve the things that are superior, being instructed from the law, and are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light to those in darkness, an instructor of the ignorant, a teacher of the immature, having in the law the full expression of knowledge and truth– you then, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach, “You must not steal”–do you steal? You who say, “You must not commit adultery”–do you commit adultery? You who detest idols, do you rob their temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written: The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you. (Romans 2:17-24 HCSB)
Indeed, Jew and Gentile alike share in the universality of sin in failing to properly honor God’s glory:
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23 HCSB)
Giving God the honor due him is the most basic moral expectation in the Bible, but it goes against modern sentiments.
In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, God begins to speak to King Arthur and Arthur immediately prostrates himself on the ground. The Lord replies, “Oh, don’t grovel! If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s people groveling.” That reflects the modern spirit precisely. Bowing down before the Lord seems so ancient and so contrary to modern sensibilities. But how would you – and how should you – respond to the presence of the divine. I think that maybe the ancients knew something that we don’t.
Nevertheless, in the biblical view of things it is as fundamentally wrong to dishonor God as it is to steal, or lie, or murder. kill. Those, of course, are the 8th, 9th and 6th commandments, respectively. The 1st and 2d commandments are these:
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (Exodus 20:2-4 ESV)
The 3d and 4th are these:
You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. (Exodus 20:7-8 ESV)
No other Gods. No idols. No dishonoring his name. Keep the Sabbath holy. It is the duty of all men and women to properly honor God’s holiness and glory with their lives.
It is our duty to give glorify God, but it is also our privilege.
Is glorifying God a crushing burden for the human spirit? No. Giving glory to God liberates the human spirit. It fulfills the human spirit.
We have the privilege of joining with angels and archangels and the hosts of heaven in the worship of God. The author of Hebrews says,
We have, then, my friends, complete freedom to go into the Most Holy Place by means of the death of Jesus. (Hebrews 10:19 GNB)
This “most holy place” of which the writer speaks is not the most holy place in the Jerusalem temple. No, the author says,
Christ did not go into a Holy Place made by human hands, which was a copy of the real one. He went into heaven itself, where he now appears on our behalf in the presence of God. (Hebrews 9:24 GNB)
When we come to glorify God, we are physically present with our brothers and sisters in some place of worship. In another very real sense, however, we are present with all believers in all times in the very presence of God. It is our privilege in our union with Christ to come into his glorious presence with our praise and thanksgiving.
In Isaiah 6:1-4, the prophet is in the temple when he has a vision of God’s glory:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, and His robe filled the temple. Seraphim were standing above Him; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another: Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of Hosts; His glory fills the whole earth. The foundations of the doorways shook at the sound of their voices, and the temple was filled with smoke.
Isaiah recognized that there was more going on there than just the human sacrifice of animals and the singing of Psalms by choirs. The temple worshippers were participants in a heavenly drama. Unseen by most of the temple’s worshippers were the choirs of heavenly seraphim crying out, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of Hosts; His glory fills the whole earth.”
Every time that we come to the communion table and sing the Sanctus, we join our voices with the heavenly hosts that surround the throne of God and offer their praise to the glory of his name.
And as we retell the Christmas story and sing our Christmas hymns, we join our voices with the angelic choir of Bethlehem that sang “Glory to God in the highest.”
Let me make a comparison to the Jewish Passover observance. At the ritual meal, the story of God’s mighty acts in the Exodus is told once again and the people glorify God for what he did. Commenting on the Passover ritual, the Talmud recalls that a certain rabbi named Gamaliel once said, “In every generation man is bound to look to himself as though he in person went out from Egypt.” That is, those who participate in the Passover ritual and hear the Passover story are to see themselves in the story. It’s not, the rabbi believed, just a story about something that happened thousands of years ago. It’s a story in which the Jewish people of every generation participate.
Likewise, every year when we tell the Christmas story we too participate in God’s mighty act of salvation. Sure, we have readings and Christmas pageants and choir cantatas to remind us of the story. At many points, I’m sure, we can see ourselves in the story. Telling the story repeatedly shapes our lives and changes us. It’s not necessary, however, for us to try to perform mental gymnastics and pretend that we are somehow present in the hills outside of Bethlehem in the year of Jesus’ birth.
We can participate in the Christmas story in a much more direct manner. We participate by joining our voices with the hosts of heaven and singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace.” The angelic choir is as real as the one that will perform tonight’s cantata. The angel’s song of praise echoes through the ages to every place and every time, inviting us to join in their song of praise and adoration. The songs of Christmas glorify God for his wonderful deeds. They tell us of Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus for the salvation of the world. As we sing “Glory to God,” we have privilege of coming into the very presence of God with our worship.
In fact, one of the earliest hymns that we know comes from the fourth century and begins with words of the Christmas angels.
Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth. Lord God, heavenly King, Almighty God and Father, we worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory. Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father, Lord God, Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world: have mercy on us; You are seated at the right hand of the Father: receive our prayer. For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father. Amen (Gloria in excelsis Deo)
Like the Eucharistic liturgy of Hippolytus, the Gloria in Excelsis is still used in used in churches throughout the world to this day. Every time that it is sung, the song of the Christmas angels is heard again.
It is our duty and our privilege to give glory to God.
We have heard the good news. Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
Let us join our voices with the angels and give glory to God for what he has done.