What on Earth?
Rev. Kurt Lantz The Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Dawn Luke 2:1-20
December 25, 2022 Resurrection Lutheran Church St. Catharines, ON
Dear people of the world,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
What on earth was happening? --A brilliant light illuminating the landscape; an army of angels singing. The shepherds keeping watch over their flocks were nonetheless caught off guard. It was not a pack of wolves or a hungry lion or bear. They were not rustlers or poachers. It was not a shooting star or a lunar eclipse. Any of these things might have surprised them, but they would have been able to handle those situations. Things like that had happened before. They were prepared to handle those kind of surprises. But this was something that knocked them off their feet.
“What on earth?” they must have been asking. That is not a bad way to phrase their astonishment, for it gets to the heart of the angelic proclamation. “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, goodwill to men.” Glory to God in the highest is expected but what on earth? Three things on earth, according to the angelic hymn of praise.
Peace on earth. Everyone says that is what they wish for. From the old fashioned beauty pageants to elementary school idealism, “peace on earth” is the answer that no one is allowed to discredit. We might even say, “Well of course we all want peace on earth, but what else.” It is the standard that everyone is expected to hold, but that no one expects to come to pass.
How could there ever be worldwide peace? There is always a war going on somewhere. The most we dare to expect is that there be peace in our country. And even that is only expected on a national level. We have a hard enough time keeping peace in the family or at work or school. But at Christmastime, our secular society dares to hope for peace among men. And Christmas is seen as the time when we strive extra hard to be at peace with others, waiting for the New Year to resume our road rage and battles in the shopping aisles. If the angels are praising the glory of God in the highest, it cannot be founded on peace among men. That just is not happening on any universal level at all.
Perhaps “peace on earth” reflects the peace of men, and the angels are praising God because individuals have a peaceful heart. They are at peace among themselves, if not with each other. We treasure such peaceful times, and often have our own places of peaceful retreat, whether it be at a winter cabin, on a tropical vacation, or even within the pages of a book. This is the peace that we are grateful to find if even for a few moments in the day or in the week.
Yet peace within ourselves is more a delusion than a reality. We have to check out of our everyday lives in order to achieve it. It is in the realm of time off or even fantasy. For when we are actually living our lives rather than trying to escape them, we don’t have peace even within ourselves. We are anxious and worried about many things. We struggle with fears and faults, with guilt and shame. There is an inner angst and turmoil as we both struggle to resist temptations and also fall headlong into sin. If the angels are praising the glory of God in the highest, it cannot be founded on peace within men.
“Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace.” It is not a peace among men for which the secular world vainly hopes, nor can it be peace within men for which even Christians continue to search. It must be a peace that does not originate on the earth, but is extended toward it, a peace which comes from somewhere else. It is, as you know but perhaps need the reminder, a peace that the world cannot give, a peace that comes from God who is being glorified in the highest. What on earth, is a peace that is given to men. That is why it inspires praise to God in the highest.
What on earth? Peace, and goodwill. Now, the angels did not make their announcement in English, perhaps not in Greek (the language in which Luke wrote His Gospel). They may have been speaking in Hebrew or Aramaic, we do not know for sure. But I am sure you have noticed the different ways in which the goodwill is described. When we sing the Gloria in Excelsis in the Divine Service you hear “Glory be to God on High, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” But you have probably also heard other phraseology like “peace on earth among men with whom He is pleased” or “peace on earth to men on whom His favour rests.”
Coming from an angelic hymn, a liturgical poem like the psalms, we recognize that the angels’ statement about goodwill parallels their statement about peace on earth. Those who understand the peace as being among men, also understand the goodwill as that extended from one person to another. Likewise, those who understand the peace as an internal condition of the person, also understand that the goodwill describes the condition of the individual’s heart.
We could simply rehearse the arguments made above about how to come to the understanding that peace does not originate in the individual’s heart or as a condition between people on the earth. It is not that the angels praise us for such an idealized fiction. Rather, the glory is given to God in the highest because they acknowledge that peace on earth comes from Him. In the same way, the parallel ‘goodwill’ is not man’s goodwill, but God’s goodwill toward man. That is why the angels praise Him and why we join their praise, and are so glad to resume the angelic song that we have been holding back in anticipation throughout Advent.
God’s goodwill toward men is His extension of peace to us. It means that we have peace with God, and not by our initiative, but by God’s goodwill toward us. It was He who reached out to us in peace. What on earth? Yes, God has extended His peace to us, His love, His forgiveness, His reconciliation. That is not what a secular society expects from a holy God. It expects disapproval and scowling from a curmudgeonly grump. It is not what we repentant sinners expect from an almighty God. We expect wrath and condemnation, punishment and destruction. This is why we fail in our attempts of peace and goodwill within ourselves and among our fellow man.
Christmas is truly a “what on earth?” moment. As well as we know the biblical story, it continues to be a surprise when we realize that God bestows the peace and goodwill to those on earth. For the “what on earth?” is in reality, Jesus. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is Christ the LORD” (Luke 2:14).
What on earth?--a Saviour. What on earth?--Christ the Lord. While the angels praise the glory of God in the highest, on earth there He is also. The LORD has come among men to bring peace among men, in the sense that Jesus is our peace with God. He is Immanuel, God with us in peace, with us to save us from our sins, to extend to us His goodwill and not His divine wrath and condemnation.
What on earth? God on earth. What among men? God came among men. What unto us? A Saviour is born to us. None of this originates from ourselves in order to create peace within or to extend goodwill toward others. It comes from above and is entirely God’s gift to us, to me and to you.
He came down to earth Himself in order to take our nature upon Himself so that He could take our sins to the cross and pay for them entirely through His death and resurrection. It comes entirely from Him and that is why the angels proclaim Glory to God in the highest.
That glory originates from Himself as well. It isn’t given to Him by the angels or by us. He is glory. The angels proclaim it. They don’t give it. They share in it but it doesn’t originate with them. It wasn’t the light of the angels that lit up the landscape. It was the glory of God in the highest. It was the glory of God in the manger. And He has shone that glory upon us in Jesus Christ.
It is only a peace that originates with God that can bring peace to your burdened soul. Out of His desire to be at peace with you He has sent a Saviour in whom there is forgiveness for all of your sins. They called His name Jesus because He was the one to save His people from their sins.
It is only a goodwill that originates with God that can direct your heart toward your fellow man. Out of His unmerited grace and mercy He extends His goodwill toward you. He wills good things for you. He “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). So He sent angels to announce to the shepherds. And the shepherds made known the good news. And pastors have preached it for generations. And you have it to ponder in your hearts and to extend to others as an act of goodwill that originates from heaven itself. And when it springs forth in your life, those around you (your family, your friends, your coworkers) will all say, “What on earth?”
“Glory to God in the highest, and [what?] on earth, peace, goodwill toward men.”
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.