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Christmas, “Glory to God in the Highest”

Pastor Gary Wong, December 24-25, 2020

Luke 2:1-20

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to his own town to register. 4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. 8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests." 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Well, folks, we made it—it’s Christmas Eve. For the past few weeks, we’ve been busy preparing for this special night—a night where we have gathered to celebrate the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. While our hearts are filled with joy, there are probably a number of us who are just happy that we can sit down and not do anything or go anywhere for a few minutes. In the days before Christmas, our often long “To Do” lists got even longer. Does this list sound familiar to you? Clean the house. Shop. Cook. Bake Christmas cookies. Wrap gifts. Decorate the tree. Send Christmas cards. Give glory to God. Give glory to God? Absolutely! Even though we might not actually write it down, giving glory to God should be at the top of our “To Do” lists—not just at Christmas; but on each and every day of our lives. Tonight, as we meditate on St. Luke’s account of the first Christmas, let’s see how the individuals in Luke’s account gave glory to God. May the Good News of our Savior move us to always give glory to God in the highest!

Ironically, the first person whom Luke mentions was, without a doubt, the least likely one to give glory to God. It really would be pretty far-fetched to imagine that Caesar Augustus would have given glory to anyone other than himself. His arrogant attitude is understandable. After all, Caesar Augustus was the most powerful man in the whole world. In those days, the Roman emperor had such awesome power that many of them claimed to be gods! So even if Augustus had heard about the God of Israel, there’s no way that he would have given God the honor and glory that Augustus thought that he himself deserved. Yet, God used this unbelieving Roman emperor in such a way that Caesar Augustus ended up giving glory to the one true God, even though he was completely unaware that he was doing just that.

So, how did God accomplish this miracle? Well, you know that the Roman Empire was big—really big. You also know that it takes a lot of money to run a huge empire. So, the good administrator that he was, Caesar ordered that a census be taken of the entire Roman world. That way, Augustus would know exactly how many tax payers there were. Then he could make sure that his tax collectors would squeeze every possible denarius out of his subjects. Now, how did this census serve God? Caesar’s decree directed that every adult had to go to his hometown to register. Because both Joseph and Mary belonged to the house and line of David, that meant that they would have to go to Bethlehem. Long ago, God’s prophets had revealed that the Savior would be a descendant of David and that he would be born in Bethlehem. The problem was that while both Mary and Joseph were David’s direct descendants, they weren’t living anywhere near David’s hometown; rather, they were 85 miles away in Nazareth in Galilee. Now, God’s concern wasn’t helping out Caesar with the Roman Revenue Service; rather, God was using this census to get Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem so that Scripture would be fulfilled!

Had it not been for the census, Joseph would never have left Nazareth at that particular time. Joseph probably thought, “This is no time to be traveling, especially when Mary is ready to give birth to her first child any day now. Caesar’s decree couldn’t have come at a worse time. This isn’t going to be an easy trip. Even though the road is good (which I helped pay for with my taxes), it’s going to take us a good three days to get to Bethlehem. What if she has the baby when we’re out in the middle of nowhere? It’s not as though we could get any help right away. Maybe we should wait until the baby is born and then go; or maybe I should go alone and let Mary stay in Nazareth. What am I going to do?” Joseph might have had those thoughts. But he didn’t hesitate for a moment to do the right thing. Joseph gave glory to God by obeying the emperor’s decree. Mary also glorified God by going along with her husband. Mary couldn’t have been looking forward to riding on a donkey for three long days. (What pregnant woman would?) But Mary set aside any misgivings she might have had and followed her husband. By obeying Caesar’s decree and submitting to Joseph’s leadership, Mary glorified God. She trusted that the Lord would protect her and her baby on this arduous journey. Mary’s faith moved her to set out with her husband and travel to Bethlehem where she gave birth to her firstborn—a Son who was her Savior and the Savior of the world.

Luke then shifts our attention to the hills overlooking the city of David. There, Luke tells us, were shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks at night. These hard-working men of faith were already glorifying God just by what they were doing. Even though shepherds played an important role in the economy, few people chose this unglamorous occupation. A shepherd’s life was not an easy one. A shepherd had to be away from his family for long periods of time. During that time, he had to regularly move his flock to find good pasture land, treat any sheep that might be injured, gather the strays, find the lost and protect them from wild animals. That’s a lot of hard work! There was another thing that made shepherding unappealing. The nature of his job made a shepherd ceremonially unclean. That meant that a shepherd was often treated as an outcast by his fellow believers; neither could he worship in the temple. Yet, out of love for their Lord, shepherds willingly made these sacrifices. In faith, these shepherds served their Lord as they watched their flocks and patiently waited for the coming Savior.

Then it happened. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them. Now, of all the individuals or groups mentioned in Luke’s account, it should come as no surprise that the angels gave glory to God. That’s what angels do. The Bible tells us that God created these Mighty Ones to do his bidding. Sometimes that meant delivering a divine message. Without a doubt, the birth of the Savior had to have been the best message that any angel could ever deliver. The angel spoke these unforgettable words of comfort, encouragement, hope, peace and joy: “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you. You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12).

An entire army of angels then joined the chorus, praising the Lord saying, “Glory to God in the highest!” Before concluding his account of the first Christmas, Luke tells us how the shepherds and Mary gave glory to God in other ways. When the angels had left the shepherds, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about” (v.15). Notice that the shepherds didn’t question whether what the angel had told them was true or doubt that their message had come from God. In faith, the shepherds immediately went to Bethlehem so that they could see the promised Savior with their own eyes. The shepherds then gave glory to God by telling everyone about all the things they had seen and heard concerning the Christ-child. Mary, on the other hand, glorified God as she treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

So far, we’ve seen that Mary and Joseph, the angels and the shepherds and even Caesar Augustus all gave glory to God. But there’s one other person in the Christmas story whom we haven’t talked about who gave the most glory to God. Who is it? It’s our Savior, Jesus Christ, whose birth we are celebrating tonight. Think about it. Jesus is God Almighty. He is all powerful and all knowing. He is eternal. Jesus is merciful, compassionate, loving and gracious. Jesus, therefore, deserves all honor, glory and praise in heaven above and on earth below. Yet Jesus willingly set aside his glory when he left his home in heaven and came to live as one of us. The tiny baby lying in the manger was the Word who became flesh. Jesus humbled himself by becoming a human being, subjecting himself to the law and keeping the law perfectly in our place. Jesus, the sinless Son of God, was completely obedient to his earthly parents and his heavenly Father throughout his entire life.

There was however, one more act of obedience left for our Savior to carry out. This one would be the most difficult of all. In order to save mankind from the consequences of sin, Jesus would have to die. Now, Jesus knew that he would have to suffer death and hell even before he came to this earth. He knew it as his mother laid him in the manger on the night he was born. Jesus knew it as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night he was betrayed. Jesus said, “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you” (John 17:1). Jesus glorified his heavenly Father by giving up his life so that all who believe in him would have eternal life. Jesus set aside his glory with his humble birth in Bethlehem. He took up that glory at his resurrection. Because Jesus glorified his Father by completing the work his Father had sent him to do, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.

Dear friends, tonight is a wonderful, glorious night—a night in which we give all praise, honor, and glory to God for the gift of his Son. Mary, Joseph, the angels and the shepherds all gave glory to God that very first Christmas. We can do no better than to follow their example. We glorify God by obeying his will, by worshipping him, serving him and praising him with our lips and with our actions. We give him glory as we treasure these things in our hearts and as we tell others about Jesus’ love. Let’s keep giving glory to God by putting him at the top of our “To Do” lists. This Christmas Eve and every day of our lives, let’s join with the angels and praise God for the gift of his Son: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). Amen.

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (CW 61)

Text: Charles Wesley, 1707-88, abr., alt.

Hark! The herald angels sing,

“Glory to the newborn King,

Peace on earth and mercy mild,

God and sinners reconciled!”

Joyful all you nations rise,

Join the triumph of the skies;

With th’angelic host proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ, by highest heav’n adored,

Christ, the everlasting Lord,

Late in time behold him come,

Offspring of a virgin’s womb.

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,

Hail th’in-car-nate Deity!

Pleased as man with us to dwell,

Jesus, our Immanuel!

Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

Hail, the heav’nly Prince of Peace!

Hail! The Sun of Righteousness!

Light and life to all he brings,

Ris’n with healing in his wings.

Mild he lays his glory by,

Born that we no more may die,

Born to raise us from the earth,

Born to give us second birth.

Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

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