This Advent song in Luke’s gospel is also the most familiar .
The first song, Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1:46-56, celebrated God’s mercy for choosing her, a peasant girl, to be the mother of the messiah and King of the Jews.
The second song in Luke was a blessing from Zechariah, an old priest. After insisting that his son would be called John, Zechariah’s muted voice erupted with the Benedictus or “blessing.”
Today, we consider the third song recorded in Luke. It’s not only the most familiar, but—consisting of only 17 English words packed into two lines—it’s the shortest.
Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!
Before we consider these familiar lyrics spoken by an angelic choir, let’s revisit the context surrounding the story. Perhaps we’ll discover a few things that may challenge some of our cherished memories.
First, I have always imagined Mary as being nine months pregnant when she and Joseph made the trek to Bethlehem. I have felt compassion for Mary, “great with child,” as the King James renders it, walking up through the Judean hills towards Bethlehem. Many Christmas depictions show her riding a donkey. That would have been a blessing, if not uncomfortable, but Scripture says nothing about a donkey. By the most direct route, they were looking at a journey of around 70 miles. Most Jews, however, avoided this road, because it required traveling through Samaria. Whatever their chosen course, it would take several days, perhaps a week. Certainly not a “cake-walk” for a pregnant woman.
Recently I was challenged to search the biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth. I discovered there is nothing in the text to confirm or deny the common opinion that Mary was in her ninth month of pregnancy. Luke only says she was “with child,” or pregnant. He simply reports that “while they were there” in Bethlehem, labor began. Was it right away upon arrival? Or could it have been days—maybe weeks—later? The Bible doesn’t say.
Matthew includes the account of Joseph’s dream, in which an angel of the Lord had instructed him to not reject Mary. Matthew adds this comment, “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife but knew her not (abstained from sexual relationship) until she had given birth…” (Mt. 1:25)
Nothing is said about the trip to Bethlehem but in the very next verse we discover Mary has given birth to Jesus in that village. I wonder if they left Nazareth very soon after Mary returned from visiting Elizabeth, when she would have been three months pregnant. If they left at that time, they would have lived several months in Bethlehem before Jesus was born. If this was the situation, then how do we explain the fact there was “no room” in the lodging place or guest room in the house? What if they had been renting a guest room in Bethlehem until the town was filled with people coming to register for the census? Did the demand for housing become so severe they lost their room? Or was delivering a baby in the guest room too inconvenient, so they ended up in a place reserved for livestock? This possibility began to make sense when I remembered staying at a bed and breakfast on a mission trip to Austria. Attached to the home where we were lavishly entertained was a livestock barn. The milk and eggs were very fresh at breakfast the next morning.
We really don’t know all the details about the Christmas story, but we each have our favorite traditional rendering.
One thing is certain in Luke’s account: Jesus was placed in a manger and swaddled tightly in cloth for warmth and security.
Now… back to the angel of the Lord appearing to shepherds working the night shift. The appearance of an angel must have been startling, but when “the glory of the Lord shown around them” the shepherds were “filled with great fear.” They were shaking in their sandals. And who wouldn’t be?
The angel shared “good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” In other words, happy news for common shepherds and people like you and me. Suddenly a multitude (large choir) of angels appeared and began praising God and saying (I like to think they were singing),
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!
Note how the song begins with a doxology, glorifying God who lives in the highest heaven. The focus of the second line speaks of peace on earth for people upon whom God has poured out grace and mercy. This would be the mission of the baby in the manger: He lived the life we couldn’t live and paid the debt we could never pay, dying for us to remove our sin and guilt.
Have we become so used to that massive truth that it no longer creates wonder in our hearts? Have we lost the sense of awe over sins utterly wiped away by our Lord’s sacrifice? As Paul noted in his letter to the church at Colosse, “You were dead because of your sins ad because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all your sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:13-14, NLT) )
Because Jesus came and voluntarily died in our place, God can now express his pleasure on those he has redeemed and pronounced righteous through faith in Jesus Christ. That can be you and me, and that is what makes the Christmas story special.
Christmas 2020 may seem darker, but the light of the gospel gives us reason to add our voices with the shepherds as we glorify and praise God for his boundless love and amazing grace. Like the shepherds, let’s share the good news with those still struggling in darkness.
With all the busyness of the season, let’s pause to ponder with Mary who “treasured up all these things.”