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  • Writer's pictureRev. Drew Stockstill

Angels We Have Heard on High

December 5, 2021 – Rev. Drew Stockstill

Our sermon series this Advent is focused on the carols of the season. We sing these songs once a year, they help us feel the spirit of this sacred time, but have you ever really thought about what you’re singing? Sometimes we just get to singing and listening to the music without really realizing the message. So, this Advent we are looking to the carols for hope, inspiration, and joy. Today we consider the Christmas Carol, “Angels we Have Heard on High.” But first, the gospel:

Luke 2:8-14

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

So, I’m wondering, where do you sing?

You sing at church, at least I hope you lend your voice to the congregational choir here.

Where else do you sing? Do you sing in the car? In the shower? While you stir soup or wash the dishes? Maybe you sing and play your guitar for your dog?

When the weather turns nice for the first time in the spring, and the people of Harrisburg are all drawn out of their homes as if by an alien’s tractor beam, and they walk and run and bike and lay in whatever bit of warmth they can find before the cold snaps back like a trap. On those first warm spring days, I love to watch our neighbors walking by the church. So many with headphones on. But, unlike those who put on their headphones to hide from the world, I admire the ones who strut down the block, head held high, belting out for all to hear, the music only they can hear. Some even dance while they sing and walk. It’s a beautiful, fearless, strange sharing of music. They aren’t singing for me, I know, they barely notice me, but they are singing still as loud as they possibly can, joyously, sometimes defiantly, sometimes bitterly, but always boldly. Do you ever sing like that? Sometimes, when we’re singing one of those beloved old hymns here in church, and we start really feeling it, I can hear a voice break through the organ and I hear you boldly singing, fearlessly lifting your voice, not for the sake of anyone else, but it’s just you and God and it’s glorious.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say for most of you this, here in church, is the only place you sing regularly with other people. Have you ever thought about that? If you were at work and someone said, let’s sing some songs together, would you think that odd? Or while grocery shopping, all the people pushing their carts, and reaching for cereal, and complaining to the manager, and bagging the milk, all start singing. That’s not normal. I wish it was, we’d all be way better for it. But it's probably only here where we are willing to sing out in the company of others. I bet those shepherds sang, I bet they sang to their sheep, sang to each other, sang their folk songs, came up with new ones. I wonder if they were singing something soft and sweet that night when the curtain to heaven parted revealing a choir of angels. At first, the shepherds were scared out of their minds. Wouldn’t you be? You’re humming to your sheep and suddenly there’s the glory of the Lord shining all around you. But once their eyes adjusted to the light, and they heard the song, and caught the lyrics, well, soon the shepherds were singing the same song: “Gloria.”

The Christmas carol, “Angels we have Heard on High,” is about this moment when the shepherds and the angels meet. The carol was written in France, we don’t know by whom. The original is called, “Les Anges dans nos campagnes,” “Angels in our Countryside.” It’s a story about a

conversation this most unusual evening. Apparently, all the noise, or caroling, has stirred the villagers. Perhaps they sleepily looked out their windows and saw the light out in the countryside, they heard the singing. They suspected angels. They go to investigate. Wouldn’t you? Or would you call the police? Or would you consult with the neighborhood Facebook group at 2:30 in the morning. Is it fireworks? An out of control party? Our dogs are going nuts. These townsfolk go to see for themselves. They find the shepherds and say, “We heard angels, sweetly singing, their song echoing back off the mountains. We’re up. What’s going on? They were singing, ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo.” Latin for, “Glory to God in the highest.”

Angel Bright, oil painting by Karen Tarlton

If there were angels singing in the countryside, but you only heard them, you didn’t see them, what would your questions be? I’d want to know what they looked like? But these folks have to first confront the fact that now the shepherds are themselves singing. The heavenly multitude vanished into heaven, but their song has gotten itself stuck in the heads and hearts of the shepherds. So, the people sing back, “Shepherds, why this jubilee? Why your joyous strains prolong?” Meaning, why are you so happy and why are you still singing? “What the gladsome tidings be which inspire your heavenly song?”

Glory to God in the highest. Glory comes from the Latin, Gloria. The Greek word that’s translated as glory, is doxa meaning praise. It’s where we get the word doxology which means words of praise. Doxology is what we do when we sing hymns together. We are not just entertaining ourselves, we are praising God. Saint Augustine, a fourth century African bishop defined a hymn as “the praise of God in song.” You can speak doxology, you can write glory, as our sister, Annamarie did to me in a text this week as I was working on this sermon. She texted me an update about her recovery from her surgery. Her doxology read, “Hello Pastor Drew. I went to my doctor today. 12 weeks of walking cane and no lifting. I’m good. No pain! Yahoo!🎉🎉🎉🎉Praise the Lord! Glory hallelujah! Sister Annamarie🎉🎉🎉🎉” That’s glory, that’s doxology. Put that to music, and you’ve got a hymn.

Luke doesn’t actually say the angels were singing or that the shepherds were singing, but that’s how we remember their doxological moment, their glory – that they weren’t just talking, that they were singing. This hymn of praise, “Angels we have Heard on High,” has a lot to do with how we imagine music to be a part of this moment of heavenly praise in the gospel. It’s the carol that tells us they were singing sweetly, and that inspired the shepherd’s heavenly song. Sure, you can speak praise, and text praise, but if you’ve been around Annamarie long enough you know she’s definitely at home singing that praise too.

The Bible actually commands us to sing. The word sing appears almost 200 times in the Bible. There is music up and down the Bible, in nearly every book. All kinds of instruments, dancing, shouting praise, it’s all there. Folks in the Bible, they don’t just sing about God in worship services with their hymnals, they sing about God whenever beauty strikes them, whenever they feel overwhelmed by gratitude, they sing. And we are told to do so as well. Isaiah 12, tells us, Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy.” Singing is the most significant form of praise. It doesn’t matter how it sounds but that it is coming from that pure, creative part of your heart.

It’s OK to not feel like singing. Sometimes it’s hard to sing if your heart is broken. Sometimes when there are tears in my eyes, my throat makes it hard to sing. And that’s OK. But we are invited, encouraged to sing when we can, praise and thanksgiving to God. We can sing even, as the shepherd do, the good news in which we have faith. When they are asked what the angels told them that got them so stirred up, what inspired their heavenly songs, well here’s what they sang in reply, “Come to Bethlehem and see, him whose birth the angels sing; Come, adore on bended knee, Christ the Lord, the newborn King.” Their song ends with an invitation to come and see, come to experience the gift of faith in Jesus Christ. Come and join their joyful community of praise. They cannot help but share the good news. And that is why they sing, like the folks walking down the streets in the spring time, they can’t help but sing. The shepherds belt it out for all to hear, they sing the good news of Jesus’ birth, the promise of his Kingdom, and the invitation to join him in both service and worship.

Friends, in these cold days that only grow darker, why are we lighting candles? We are bringing light into the dark. We know the promise of Jesus Christ, to love us unconditionally, to forgive us our sins, to welcome us to a true real community of belonging and peace. We know what the shepherds were told, that Christ has come into the world. And today we have the opportunity to be that beaming source of light, to be that sound of praise echoing down 13th Street and down Market and Derry, bouncing off the mountain and down the river. And our song is the ancient hymn of praise, new and real this morning. Let the light of Christ shining from us, and the praise of God streaming from us be that which stirs the community to come and see: “Church, why this jubilee? Why your joyous strains prolong? What the gladsome tidings be Which inspire your heavenly song?"

To which we reply, Gloria, some and see. , So, let us sing together our hymn of praise, and then let us take it from this place into the world. Gloria in excelsis Deo!

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