Christmas Series: Luke's Christmas Liturgy: Gloria

Sermon by Derek Thomas on December 17, 2006

Luke 2:14

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Now turn with me in your Bibles to the second chapter of Luke's Gospel, and we're going to look at The Gloria. We've just heard Pergolesi's rendition of the angels’ song at Bethlehem.

Now let's set a scene. It's the nighttime. An angel has appeared to shepherds on the hillsides of Bethlehem. The hillsides of Bethlehem are strewn with sheep, lambs…. The temple sacrifices in Jerusalem, of course, required the sacrifice of many, many lambs. And those who would come from a distance, especially the Diaspora Jews coming back to Jerusalem on occasion, would not bring the lambs with them necessarily, but actually purchase them while they were in Jerusalem. And where would you grow and stock these lambs? Well, on the hillsides outside the city.

Bethlehem is three, four, five miles southwest of Jerusalem. You drive down the road and it's hilly country. It's not today what it looked like in Jesus’ time. You’ll be met with armed soldiers and Humvees and everything else these days! But in Jesus’ time you would have seen many, many sheep and lambs and shepherds.

And Jesus has been born of the Virgin Mary and He's lying in a manger. And an angel has appeared to the shepherds, bringing them good news of great joy, for

“Unto you this day is born in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly hosts…”

…and singing something like the Pergolesi piece we've just heard, no doubt!

Well, let's read together verse 14 of Luke, chapter two. Before we read the verse, let's remind ourselves this is God's word. Let's pray for illumination.

Our Father in heaven, this is Your word and we ask for Your blessing. Come, Holy Spirit, help us to read and mark, and learn and inwardly digest, and all for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

This is God's holy word:

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased.”

Amen. And may God bless to us that word of Scripture.

Of course, perhaps still for some of you it's the King James Version of the text that's in your head, like myself. I didn't grow up reading the Scriptures. I wasn't a Christian until I was 18 years of age, and then I began to read the Bible and it was the King James Version. So I remember it as “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” And that King James Version seems to imply that the text has three quite distinct parts, but it's all to do with a technical issue of the text transmission and whether the word that's used here is in the nominative or in the genitive…far too complicated for a Sunday morning with limited time to spare. Just to say that the scholars–and I don't mean liberal scholars, I mean Bible-loving scholars who have looked into all of this–assure us, and the evidence is strong, that the better rendition is the one in the New American Standard, the one that you’re reading, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” The one in the ESV which actually is the one I have before me here, suggests that it's:

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased.”


Now, this is The Gloria. It's the song of the angels — Gloria in excelsis Deo. As you’re leaving this morning…I think the choir will be singing that just as you’re leaving this morning, so pay attention! Glory to God. Look out for the pairs – not the Harry & David pears, but p-a-i-r-s]…the pairs in this text: heaven (or highest) and earth; God and man; glory and peace. These pairs are resonating with each other in the text.

There are two things. First, our greatest duty and privilege is to glorify God; and, second, the greatest reason for glorifying God is the gospel. Two very simple things.

I. First, our greatest duty and privilege is to glorify God.
“Glory to God in the highest,” they sang. “Gloria….” I was telling the congregation at 8:30, I can't hear that word glory without hearing my good friend Doug Kelly in that South Carolinian accent — the “glo-ry”! He’ll be here for the Missions Conference in just a few weeks time…but I can't hear that word without hearing him say “glo-ry”. It's one of, oh, 60 or 70 Bible words that are used over and over and over with tremendous theological meaning and significance.

The word begins way back in the first books of the Bible, and you’ll still find the word being used at the very close of the Bible. It conveys who God is and what God is. Sometimes in the Bible the word glory is a synonym for God. God is glory. Oh, the theologians, particularly in the seventeenth century, used to make a distinction between two Latin words, quid and qualis — how's your Latin this morning? — and they used to talk about a funny little thing called the quiddity of God. Basically they were asking two different questions: What is God, and what is God like? What is God in Himself, in His essence? And what is God like? What are the attributes or characteristics of God?

Now it's much easier to answer the second question than to answer the first question. You know, one way of answering that first question is to say “God is glory,” just as John says “God is light” and “God is love” and Jesus tells the woman of Samaria, “God is Spirit.” God is glory. Glory is a word — and you’re got to think like Hebrews, now — the word in Hebrew comes from the same word for something that's heavy — heavy in both senses, as in the literal sense that it's heavy, but heavy as we moderns might say, “Heavy!” meaning it's significant, meaning there are depths of understanding here. There's a weightiness to God; there's a gravitas to God. He dwells, after all, in the highest; we dwell on earth. You remember Moses? He asked that he might see God's glory. You need to be careful if you’re going to ask that question. Think twice before you ask to see God's glory. And in chapters 33 and 34 of Exodus, Moses seems to be struggling to describe what it is that happened after that, because what he saw was the Shekinah cloud of glory that burned like lightning, like white-hot fire. “My glory I will not give to another,” God says.

This is what these angels were created for, to sing the glory of God. They were Shorter Catechism angels, you understand! “What is the chief end of man?” “To glorify God….”

We think a lot about angels this time of year, Christmas angels, especially. Angels…there are a lot of them. They have physical bodies, although most of the time we can't see them. They can be locally present in one spot in great numbers — think of Luke 8 and the man called Legion, although we're speaking there about fallen angels, to be sure. It gave rise in the medieval period to wonderful speculation about how many angels could we find on the head of a pin.

They seem to have a ministry especially to children, and especially to the Lord's people when they’re dying…and they’re in the choir! They love to sing. They just love to sing. I think when angels think or see or behold something of the Lord they just burst into song. Wasn't that a wonderfully happy piece, the Pergolesi piece? “Glory to God in the highest!” they sing. And they appear at strategic moments in redemptive history.

Can you go with me to Bethlehem this morning? The stars, the hillsides…Bethlehem aglow perhaps somewhere within sight…sheep, lambs baaing, angels…angels! Lots and lots and lots of angels! And they’re singing notes, ravishing notes, the like of which you've hardly ever heard. You know, I don't know about you, but I'm really, really looking forward to hearing what angels sound like in the choir — and I know Bill Wymond is looking forward to it, too (no disrespect meant to whoever)!

“Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,

Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

Ascribe to the Lord the glory due to His name.”

That's their charge. That's what they love to do.

Johann Sebastian Bach used to write at the end of all of his manuscripts “SDG” — the initials SDG…Soli Deo Gloriato the glory of God. “All music,” he once wrote, “should have no other end and aim than the glory of God and the soul's refreshment.” Well, let me say to you this morning, is that your chief end and chief aim as you gather for Christmas? As you gather for this worship service? As you prepare yourself to remember the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ in Bethlehem? The glory of God? To be altogether consumed by the glory of God–that's our chief end, that's our chief duty, that's our chief privilege–all our God's glory. What was the word Ligon used at the beginning? Passionate about the glory of God. It's OK for the world to think you’re a little bit crazy. It's OK. When you talk about God and when you talk about Jesus, or when you talk about Bethlehem, it's OK for the world to think you’re a little bit crazy. You know, what did they say about the Apostle Paul? “Much learning hath made you mad!” “And if I am beside myself,” Paul says, “it is for the Lord.” So sing! That tune will be going through my head for the rest of the day! Sing that tune in your head, to the glory of God. Determine that your lives will be lived for His glory.

II. The principle reason for glorifying God is the gospel.

The second thing that this little verse teaches us is that the principle reason for glorifying God is the gospel. Have you noticed, by the way, again this year…? You know, I know these texts so well, but I was telling Ligon this past week, I've never seen…I had, you know, but there was something that didn't click…I'd never seen just how covenant-focused these songs are, how gospel-focused the song of Zacharias, the song of Mary, that we've looked at in the last two weeks, how both of them refer to the covenant with Abraham, the promise of God.

Now these angels have been spending centuries peering down and looking at what God is doing in history, and how it is that the promise that the seed of the woman will crush the head of Satan. How in the world is that going to be brought about? And now they've seen it. They've seen a baby born of a virgin, lying in a manger; a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And they go and tell (these angels), ‘Glory to God in the highest, because we've seen something of the gospel!’…that this little Baby has come not just to be born because, frankly, His birth didn't save us. His birth is necessary, but it wouldn't save us. He has to die. And cast on a wall in the manger stall of Bethlehem is the shape of the cross, because He has come to be our Savior and Redeemer.

“Peace,” they sang, “among those with whom He is pleased.”

Now, this isn't the sentimental peace. This isn't the piece that Kofi Annan would talk about — you know, peace in this country or that country in Africa or Iraq. What a mockery that would be to the gospel, to say that the coming of Jesus brings peace in Iraq. It hasn't brought peace in Iraq. It hasn't brought peace in the Middle East. There are wars and rumors of wars, and if your eschatology is the same as mine, there will be wars and rumors of wars right up to the Second Coming of Jesus. The angels are not talking about that kind of peace. They’re talking about peace between us and God, the peace of reconciliation. “Born to give them second birth,” we’ll sing in a minute: that God in His holiness and righteousness is angry with sinners, yes, but He sent His Son to be the Savior of sinners; that His Son, Jesus Christ, would bear the covenant anathema that our sins deserve, so that we might hear those beautiful, beautiful words:

“The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up the light of His countenance upon you, and give you…peace.”


At what cost? At what cost? That on the cross He might, as it were, hear His Father in heaven saying, ‘The Lord curse You and hide His face from You, and give You no peace,’ so that we might have peace. You see, the Prince of Peace has come so that “…whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

“Peace among those with whom He is pleased.” You know, the language is very technical language that Paul will use in Ephesians 1:5 and again in verse 9. It's actually part of a group of words and phrases for election. God gives His peace to those whom He shows favor towards. It's not us, you see. It's not that we find peace at the end of our striving and our doing. He gives peace by giving His Son, that “…whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life,” and enjoy and experience that peace.

In 1555, Nicholas Ridley was burned at the stake because of his witness for Jesus Christ. On the eve of his execution, his brother offered to spend the night with him in his cell to bring him comfort and assistance. And Nicholas Ridley refused, saying to his brother that he intended to sleep that night as he always slept, because he knew the peace of God that passes all understanding. He knew peace of God that passes all understanding.

In between the two services, I was teaching my Sunday School class. And I'm teaching them about famous missionaries, and this morning we were doing Jim Elliot. And on hearing the news of the murder of Jim Elliot and his companions, his wife Elisabeth, then Elisabeth Elliot, said something very similar to that: that they weren't going to lapse into hysteria, she said, because they knew a peace that passes all understanding. He was in his late twenties. He’d barely served the Lord as a missionary for three or four years. Only recently married, with a young baby daughter. But they knew peace, because they knew Christ, and they knew their sins were forgiven, and they had assurance of everlasting life.

III. Application.

Two things. Two brief things in closing this morning by way of application as we think about this wonderful, wonderful Gloria — “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace towards those with whom God is well pleased.”

Firstly, it's all about God's glory. It's all about God's glory.

David Wells, who is a prophet in our time and will be here in Jackson in this coming year at the seminary…David Wells speaks about the weightlessness of God in our modern society and in our modern church. Now remember what I said about glory, that glory is the Hebrew word for weight. There's something of the absence of the awareness of the glory of God in worship today.

You know, please don't tell me at the end of this service, “I didn't get anything out of that.” Because the answer I will give you will be, “It's not about you, and it's not about your feelings, first of all. It's all about God. It's all about His glory.”

And the question I want to ask you this morning is have you felt His glory as you worshiped this morning? Did you lose your voice just a little bit? Did you gasp just a little bit at the thought that God would send His only Son for sinners like you and me? Were your minds open to the word of God this morning, and His glory?

You know, Shakespeare put it in Hamlet:

“My words fly up and thoughts remain below.

Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

Words without thoughts never to heaven go. It's all about glory…it's all about glory.

And, secondly and lastly, it's also about joy. It's also about joy.

You know, the Westminster divines got it so right:

“What is the chief end of man?”

“To glorify God and to enjoy Him….”

And true joy, lasting joy, only comes as we give ourselves to the glory of God. You won't find it anywhere else. Everywhere else will be empty and vain. It's only in the glory of God that you’ll truly find joy.

I love that hymn by Phillips Brooks, O Little Town of Bethlehem:

“O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray.

Cast out our sin and enter in;

Be born in us today.

We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;

O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”

And you know, if Jesus is in your heart and if Jesus is in your thoughts and the glory of God is uppermost, there’ll be a joy inexpressible and full of glory as you leave this morning. I guarantee it! No matter what else may be happening, when you focus on Christ, the gift of God for us sinners, there will be a joy unspeakable and full of glory.

Let's sing together, shall we, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

[Congregational hymn]

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

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This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

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