As December 25th draws ever closer, I would like to begin a brief series of meditations that will, hopefully, conclude on or near Christmas Day. While I would normally advocate very strongly that Scripture alone should be the basis of our meditations, I would like to deviate from that principle and make use of a hymn as the springboard for this series. The hymn I will use, Hark! the Herald Angels Sing is excellently suited to this task. It is packed full of very meaningful theology, and brings to the fore subjects that should be close to our hearts and minds this time of year (and, arguably, all year). (If you are interested in the history of the hymn, a brief Wikipedia entry exists to jumpstart your studies.)

Verse One

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King;
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise.
Join the triumph of the skies.
With th’ angelic hosts proclaim
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! the herald angels sing,
Glory to the new-born King!

   We begin with a consideration of the message of the angels proclaimed to the shepherds in Luke 2:10-15, along with the message of the angel to Joseph in Matthew 1:20-23. Historically, the nation of Israel had gone through a period of revelatory darkness. For a period of about 500 years, the voices of the prophets had fallen silent. Within that time, the Jews had been scattered, exposed to (and in some cases been consumed by) foreign culture, and were now an occupied nation under Roman rule. While some happily accepted the limited privileges and protection offered by their Gentile overlords, many took exception to the presence of foreigners in the Promised Land. They would look to a coming Messiah, prophesied about in the Scriptures, that would come and overthrow their oppressors, and lead the scattered nation in a victorious uprising against the Romans to claim back their land and their culture.
   It is with this in mind that we approach the text of Scripture (Luke 2:10-15 and Matthew 1:20-23). It should be plain from the text that the message of the angels was not precisely what many had in mind. It was indeed a message of great joy to all the people, and the announcement that a “Saviour” had been born, one who is “Christ [i.e., Messiah], the Lord” would have stirred their hearts enormously. Could this be the one who has come to conquer the barbarians and re-establish David’s throne in Jerusalem? Perhaps, in the midst of the excitement, they missed the heart of the message–the very message that Charles Wesley highlights in the first verse of our hymn:

Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!

   “Peace on Earth” is a popular theme at Christmas, and is normally associated with the idea of the cessation of conflict, brotherly love, Germans and English soldiers playing soccer on Christmas Day during World War I. However, the idea of peace between people was not at all what the angels meant when they proclaimed that a time of peace had come to the earth. What did the angel say to Joseph? That his child’s name was to be Jesus (“God Saves”), because “He will save His people from their sins.” As Wesley phrased it, “God and sinners reconciled.” It is important to note that this is not a mere statement that, because Jesus has come into the world, there is no longer enmity between God and man. Rather, the statement is proclaiming the role of the Saviour: He is the One who will bring peace between sinful men, and God. Note also, the scope of the Saviour’s saving activity: “He will save his people from their sins” or, as the NASB translates the Greek of Luke 2:14, “And on earth peace among men with whom He [God] is pleased.” This is not a proclamation of amnesty with those who have managed to earn God’s favor. No, rather, it is a just and holy God providing a means by which He will save those He has called to eternal life (Acts 13:48).
   For the sinner whose heart has been convicted of sin, who is anxious over his standing before God, and who is moved to repentance, this is truly good news. Here is a reason for joining with the angelic triumph and proclaiming “Christ is born in Bethlehem!” Indeed, the Messiah has come; the Saviour–not from oppression, or from poverty, or war, or debt, or sickness, or whatever evils may come upon us in this world–but from sin and its devastating effects. The One has come who alone can pay the only acceptable price to satisfy God’s holy justice against sin, and thus make peace between God and man.
   And if your heart is broken over your sin, and you have been moved to repentance, then this glorious proclamation is for you!

Stay tuned for Part Two… 🙂

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