Hark! The Herald Angel Sings
December 12, 2021 – Rev. Drew Stockstill
Then Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Hark! That’s not a word we really use much these days. It fell out of favor before the beginning of the last century. Hark means to listen. Listen up. I’ve got something to say. It’s the coach blowing the whistle to gather the team for a huddle. Hark!
Whenever I hear the word “Hark”, I think of an old Peanuts cartoon when Sally, tells her brother, Charlie Brown, that she has a part in the Christmas Play. She’s going to be an angel. She explains, all she has to do is, after the sheep are through dancing, come out and say, “Hark!” Then, she says, “Harold Angel starts to sing.” Charlie Brown is confused, “Harold Angel?” he asks. “It’s right here in the script,” says Sally, pointing at the page.
Sally lives in mortal dread of getting out on the stage and forgetting her single line, she practices over and over. Finally, the night of the Christmas play, Charlie Brown and Linus are in the audience. The sheep finish their dance and Sally steps out, adorned in her angel costume, the spotlight on her. She gathers herself and proclaims, “Hockey Stick!”
The next day there’s a knock at the door. Charlie Brown answers and a little boy says, “Hi, is Sally home, my name is Harold Angel.”
It was some really ironic casting that Harold Angel would play the part of a heralding angel, and we can only guess the song he’d sing would be, “Hark! The Herald Angel Sings.” The famous Christmas carol was written by the 18th century pastor, preacher, theologian, a prolific hymn writer,
Charles Wesley, a leader in the foundation of the Methodist church. In addition to his influential roles as a musician and church leader, Charles Wesley was known in his time as a passionate evangelist and outdoor preacher. Charles felt the news of the gospel was too good to be kept to himself, or to be confined to church buildings, so he took it outside. In just five years of outdoor preaching he reached nearly 150,000 people, often in crowds of tens of thousands. He recognized the hunger in the people for something meaningful and true, it was the good news of Jesus Christ and so he took the message out to them.
Wesley published the Christmas Day hymn, “Hark! The Herold Angel Sings,” in 1739, the same year he began his outdoor ministry. You can hear in the carol the spirit of urgently announcing the message of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. It makes sense a song like “Hark! The Herald Angel Sings,” came from the mind of a man who had the mission of announcing the gospel on his heart. “Hark!” is a call for all of us to pay attention, listen up for the special announcement. A herald is an official messenger bringing news. Think of all the newspapers with the Herald in the title, The Miami Herald, Bucks County Herald, a herald brings us the news. In this Christmas carol the heralds are angels. We are told to pay attention, for the angels have come with a message, and in the imagination of Charles, the angels were singing messengers.
We have a message; one which casts us all in the part of Lucy in the Christmas play, proclaiming, “Hark!” Listen up, we have something important to share, something good, something that we believe will not only change your life, but change our whole community, change even the world. But what’s exactly good about the message we share, what’s good about, well, Christmas? The bumper stickers proclaim, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” but he’s more than just the reason for the season. Jesus is more than the reason behind our beautiful Christmas tree; Jesus is more than the reason for greeting cards, decorations, cookies, and presents. That’s not what the angels tore a hole in the heavenly curtain and sounded all the alarm bells to tell us, that Jesus is the reason for whatever it is you are feeling about the holiday season this year. We will soon sing the word, HARK! When we have everyone’s attention, what follows must be worth sounding the alarm. It’s a message so potent that Charles Wesley had to go outside to share it and got kicked out of his church for continuing to insist that this news is too good to keep contained in church buildings for church people.
After the carol grabs our attention it tells us what the angels have to share, what’s just happened. The angels sing: “Glory to the newborn King!” which is a command for us to praise. When Wesley first wrote the hymn he wrote, “Glory to the king of kings,” his friend George Whitefield changed it to “glory to the newborn king.” Both phrases are true, because born to us is not only a baby king, but king of kings, Lord of all; king over all earthly kings, and presidents and governments, and industries, and religions. Where some of our other beloved Christmas carols go to lengths to describe the silent night, round yon virgin, the cattle lowing, the sweet little baby asleep on hay, Wesley marches us right out of the manger scene to point to the heavens, the host of angels and the rising sun of righteousness, reminding us of the transcendent power of this singular moment in time which impacts every nation in the world. We cannot simply peek in the manger and admire the sweet little child and then go about our Christmas shopping; we are to join the triumph of the skies and with the angelic hosts proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem.” We are no longer simply those who have heard, our hearing of this particular news must transform us from passive listeners and observers to fellow proclaimers with the heavenly host. We each have a part to play in this story.
Sandro Botticelli’s The Mystic Nativity, 1500
As we reach the end of 2021, the number of Americans who believe there is something holy about this Christmas season is smaller than it’s ever been in our lifetime. The time we have called Christendom, when the nation was dominated by the Christian faith and culture was intertwined with western Christianity, is over. But what is not over, what will never come to an end, is the truth of what was revealed in Bethlehem. Today we have the opportunity to not simply enjoy the vaguely Christian flavor of the holiday season and shake our fists, reminding folks on Facebook about the real reason for the season; we have the opportunity let this news transform us from those who simply look upon the manger and believe the child there to be somehow God into those who live completely out of the reality that this news changes everything and to act accordingly.
As the carol tells us, the birth of Jesus is not simply a special domestic scene, but Christ the savior, Christ adored by the highest heaven, Christ the everlasting Lord has come. We have heard the news: “veiled in flesh the Godhead see,” which is to say wearing the flesh and blood of a newborn baby is the Triune God: Father, son, and holy spirit. Veiled in flesh is our creator, the one who put the sun in the sky and set the birds in the air and filled the sea with tuna and great white whales, and who put his breath in you and gave you life. Here on earth is the incarnate deity, God in flesh. What is miraculous what is good is that God comes to us to experience the fullness of the life you have lived, and will live. Not because God had to, but, as we will sing God is “pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus our Immanuel.” There was a time when news like this brought wise kings from far lands, made insecure emperors mad with fear and rage, brought angels out of heaven and shepherds out of fields. There was a time when news that God has come to us to reconcile God and sinners made fishermen leave their nets and brought sick people from their beds in hopes of healing, and brought a dead little girl and Lazarus back to life. There was a time when the glory of this day set hearts on fire.
And beloved, that time well, that time is now, that promise is today, that hope is real for each of us, when we truly receive the power of this news. Friends, I am so glad you are here today for me to tell you what Zephaniah said long ago is true today: The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, you are free to move on from the hurts and failures and disappointments of your past. “The Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.” I’m glad you are here today to hear the news that God in Christ is our earthly savior, and he will deal with the oppressors, and save the troubled, and gathered the outcast (because there’s a place for them here), and he will change our shame into praise. “At that time,” says the Lord, “at this time, I will bring you home,” home to a people of God, home to a community of faith, home to an earth where God is alive and at work bringing about peace on earth and mercy mild.
The newborn king whom we adore became Christ crucified and raised from the dead. Before he ascended back into heaven he told us, it is now our call to proclaim the good news in our own day, the news that change is possible, that sins are forgiven, that peace on earth is still our great hope. Christ tells us, “You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
He is so much more than the reason for the season, he is the reason we have life, the reason we have eternal life, he is the reason for beauty and goodness in the world, he is the reason we know what love feels like, he is the reason the sun rises and rain falls and the seasons change, he is the reason for our hope our salvation our community. He is reason enough for us to sing Hail!
Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, risen 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.
To him be the glory. Amen.