Can You Hear the Angels Singing? Christmas and the “Other World”
December 14, 2003
“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths 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, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’” (Luke 2:8-14 ESV).
The question before the house is simple: Can you hear the angels singing? The answer is equally simple. Either you can or you can’t. You do or you don’t.
The shepherds heard the angels—and it scared them to death. That’s one thing that angels do—they frighten people. The angel told Joseph, “Fear not.” Gabriel said to Mary, “Fear not.” And the angel told the shepherds, “Fear not.” By definition angels are truly “out of this world.” They come from another place, from another realm of reality, from another dimension. One moment the shepherds are minding their own business in the fields outside Bethlehem, the next moment an angel is talking to them. Then out of nowhere the sky is filled with a multitude of angels. The word “multitude” means just what it implies—an uncountable number, a vast array of bright, shining beings, filling the night sky, praising God (loudly, I’m sure), and saying “Glory to God in the highest!”
Perhaps the most telling word of our text comes in verse 13: Suddenly! It means without warning, without prior announcement, it means that the angels weren’t there, and then they were everywhere. Let me amend that last statement a bit. The word “suddenly” means that the angels were nowhere to be seen, and all at once they filled the sky. Some questions come to mind at this point. If we had been there, would we have seen the angels? Could the people in Bethlehem see the angels? Could they be seen in Jerusalem—eight miles away? Could the sound of their voices be heard in other places, or did the angels reveal themselves only to the shepherds? We cannot fully answer these questions, but this much is certain: The angels were really there, and the shepherds really did hear them.
Can you hear the angels singing? Either you do or you don’t. The shepherds heard them. Mary heard them. Joseph heard them. I don’t think Herod heard a thing. That’s a hugely important point because the great divide in the world comes right here—some people see the angels, others don’t. Some people hear them, others don’t. Some people believe in the supernatural, others don’t. I bring forth two witnesses. In the fourth century there was a bishop named Hillary (sometimes he is called “St. Hillary”) who said, “Everything that seems empty is full of the angels of God.” Second Kings 6 tells the story of Elisha and his servant when the Aramean army surrounded them in the city of Dothan. Seeing the enemy on every side, the servant cried out, “What shall we do?” Elisha responded by declaring, “‘Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.’ Then Elisha prayed and said, ‘O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.’ So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (II Kings 6:16-17). The angels were always there; the servant simply did not see them. When his eyes were opened, he saw what had been there all along.
But some people do not see because they cannot see. Richard Dawkins is perhaps the most famous evolutionist in the world. He is a noted scientist, a gifted writer, an avowed atheist, and a fierce opponent of religion. He says that those who do not believe in evolution are “ignorant or brainwashed.” He believes the world would be better off without religion because it is based on superstition. In a recent Beliefnet interview he declared, “You won’t find any intelligent person who feels the need for the supernatural.” He goes on to say that a world without religion would be paradise on earth.
How should we respond to someone who talks like that? The late Peter Marshall, chaplain of the United States Senate, was fond of saying that “spiritual reality is a matter of perception, not proof.” There are some things that can never be proved. He would make an argument like this:
How can you prove that something is beautiful? Can you demonstrate to me by logic or by reason or by intellect that the Fifth Symphony or the Moonlight Sonata was sheer beauty? Can you prove by any method of intellect why a sunset is beautiful? Explain to me scientifically the haunting, wistful fragrance of a bunch of violets. …
There are mysteries all around us, beautiful, stirring, unexplainable. Take, for example, the strange phenomenon of falling in love. Have you ever asked the question, “How will I know when I fall in love?” I have. I’ve asked it of blondes and brunettes, of redheads and of bald heads, of people everywhere. The strange thing is, I always received the same answer; namely, “Don’t worry, brother. You’ll know.”
Love, like beauty, like the haunting, wistful fragrance of a bunch of violets, is a matter of perception and experience, not of proof. The great things by which we really live are not proven by logic, but by life. As it is true of love and beauty, so it is true of finding God and learning how close He stands to us. (From the movie A Man Called Peter, cited at the “Wild Evangelists” website.)
Some people visit the Grand Canyon and all they see is a big ditch. And so they hurry on their way, having missed one of the great wonders of God’s creation.
The same thing happens in the spiritual realm. People see what they want to see and they don’t see what they choose to ignore. In the early days of space travel, a Russian cosmonaut came back to earth and declared that he had looked for God in space and didn’t see him anywhere. Dr. W. A. Criswell gave the correct reply when he said, “Let him step out of his spacesuit for one second, and he’ll see God soon enough.”
It is impossible to miss the supernatural element in the birth of Jesus. Angels pop up all over the Christmas story. An angel tells Mary she will give birth to Jesus. An angel tells Joseph to call his name Jesus. An angel warns Mary and Joseph to flee to Egypt. An angel tells them when it’s safe to return to Israel. And in our text, an angel announces the birth of Christ to the shepherds, and then the angelic choir serenades them.
But that’s not all. You have the mysterious star that led the Magi from some distant land all the way to Bethlehem to the very house where they found the baby Jesus. And the Magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod but to go home another way. So there you have it—angels and stars and dreams. Supernatural stuff everywhere—the stuff Richard Dawkins says intelligent people don’t believe in. My point is not to refute him, but to use him to illustrate one aspect of a truly Christian worldview. We believe in something absolutely amazing. I think we have heard these things so often that we have forgotten how astounding they are. We believe that this world that we inhabit is not the “real” world. This is just the “temporary” world. This ball of earth we call home will not last forever. We believe this world is temporary; only God is eternal. We believe there is “another world” that is the “real” world. It’s the world of God and of the angels, of Christ and the Holy Spirit, of heaven and the saints who dwell in glory. These two worlds exist side by side. We live in one world but we believe in another world. Or to use a New Testament word picture, we live in this world but our citizenship is in another world. That’s why the Bible calls us “aliens” and “strangers” on the earth. We are pilgrims on a journey from this world that is passing away to a world that will last forever. We are looking for a city with eternal foundations, whose builder and maker is God.
Say Goodbye to Parky’s
The world you see around you will not last forever. The world of cars and planes and trains, the world of buying and selling and investing, the world of factories and offices, the world of schools and universities, the world of television, radio and the Internet, the world of football, basketball and baseball, the world of nations and presidents and tyrants who cower in spider holes—that world will one day disappear. “The world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (I John 2:17 ESV). Nothing golden lasts. We are here today, gone tomorrow. Heaven and earth will pass away but the Word of the Lord will stand forever. The Bible is actually very specific about how this world will end. Revelation 16:17-20 speaks of a vast earthquake in the last days that destroys all the cities of the earth. Imagine what that would mean. Paris leveled, Tokyo in ruins, London turned into a disaster area, New York burning, Miami in flames, Phoenix in ashes, San Francisco fallen to the ground. And in Chicago, the Sears Tower is no more, Comisky Park turned to rubble, the Brookfield Zoo a zoo no more, Upper Wacker has become Lower Wacker, Lower Wacker has become underground Wacker, every building in the Loop falls to the ground, all the freeways destroyed, Moody Church collapsed, and in Oak Park, every single Frank Lloyd Wright home destroyed, the Unity Temple gone, the Pancake House gone, Parky’s Hot Dogs gone, and at 931 Lake Street, where a great church used to meet, the ground is covered with tiny shards of colored glass, all that remains of the lovely stained-glass windows. The renovated gym and the new portico have fallen to the ground.
Everything that man builds collapses before his eyes. So it is with everything that is of this world. Here are some lines from a poem called “Gray’s Elegy” written in a country churchyard in England:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave
Awaits alike the inevitable hour
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
It is right at this point that Christmas becomes so important to us. We are a dying race living on a dying planet. All that we see around us will someday vanish without a trace. Despite our best efforts, there is nothing we can do to save ourselves. If we are to be saved, salvation must come from somewhere else. It must come from outside of us. That’s the true meaning of Christmas. Perhaps you have heard the reading by J. B. Phillips called “The Visited Planet.” It’s about a junior angel who is being given a tour of the universe by a senior angel. After touring all the galaxies of the universe, they come at last to our solar system. The junior angel is tired and bored and not very impressed by what he sees. The senior angel points to the earth and says, “Keep an eye on that planet.” The younger angel thinks the earth looks small and dirty and insignificant. “That is the Visited Planet,” say the senior angel. “You don’t mean …” “Yes, that planet has been visited by our young Prince of Glory.” “Do you mean to tell me that He stooped so low as to become one of those creeping, crawling creatures of that floating ball?” “I do, and I don’t think He would like you to call them ‘creeping, crawling creatures’ in that tone of voice. For, strange as it may seem to us, He loves them. He went down to visit them to lift them up to become like Him.” The junior angel has no reply. The very thought is beyond his comprehension. (From the book New Testament Christianity. This reading found on the www.ccel.org website.)
When God Came Down
Many miracles surround Christmas—the angels, the star, the dreams, the prophecies, and most of all, the virgin birth. But those miracles are just signs pointing to the greatest miracle of all: That we who live in this world have been visited by Someone from the “other world.” Someone from the world of light came to the world of darkness. Someone from the eternal came to the temporary. Someone from heaven came to live with us on earth!
The Bible explains this in many ways …
- “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16 KJV).
- “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” (Titus 2:11 ESV).
- “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4 ESV).
- “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6-7 ESV).
- “God was manifest in the flesh” (I Timothy 3:15 KJV).
- “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14 ESV).
Theologians use a particular word to talk about this. They call the birth of Christ the “Incarnation.” That word means that God came to earth and shared our humanity.
The infinite became finite.
The immortal became mortal.
The Creator became the created.
The omnipotent lived inside a young girl’s womb.
The Almighty became a helpless baby.
The Deity was wrapped in rags.
The King of the Universe was born in a stable.
As Martin Luther put it, “He whom the worlds could not enwrap yonder lies in Mary’s lap.” That’s the Incarnation—it’s the central miracle of the Christian faith. If you can believe that God visited our planet as a little baby 2,000 years ago, you’ll have no problem with the rest of what we believe. The Resurrection is no problem for those who believe in the Incarnation.
Missing the Main Point
The Christian worldview is utterly supernatural. Take the supernatural out of Christianity and all you have left is a religious book club. We believe this world is not the “real” world, that Christ came from the “real” world to live in our world for 33 years so he could save us from our sins. Richard Dawkins does not believe that because he doesn’t believe there is “another” world. He thinks this world is the only world there is. He’s wrong about that, but perhaps the eyes of his heart will yet be opened to the truth. And from a Christian point of view, he has missed the central fact of the universe—God! How smart is that? That’s like studying geology but leaving out the rocks. It’s like studying astronomy but leaving out the stars. It’s like studying math but leaving out the numbers. Sometimes smart people can be very, very dumb.
I close with the words of Bishop Hillary: “Everything that seems empty is full of the angels of God.” Sometimes the world around us may seem empty and we may feel entirely alone, but now and then—Suddenly!—when we least expect it—when we’ve almost given up hope—when we’re tired or bored or fearful or disgruntled—God breaks through and the angels start to sing. They sang for some startled shepherds one night in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. They still sing today for those who care to hear them.
Can you hear the angels singing? They bring good news from the other side, good news of great joy, the best news the world has ever heard: Joy to the World, the Lord is Come, Let Earth receive her King!
If you listen with all your heart, you can still hear them singing: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth among those with whom he is pleased!”
A Celtic Prayer
This week my friend Andy McQuitty, pastor of Irving Bible Church in Texas, sent the words to a Celtic prayer that reminds us of the glory and wonder of Christmas. I encourage you to read this prayer aloud and let its meaning soak into your heart.
Jesus, we kneel before you in silent amazement.
Thank you that, because of your birth, we know that our Father is with us.
May we welcome you, not in a cold manger of a heart,
But in a heart so pure, a heart warm with love for one another.
Jesus, you are—
The tender holy Babe;
The Shepherd of your flock;
The Healing Person;
The Christ of the people;
The world-pervading God;
Jesus, you are—
The Glory of eternity who now shines among us;
Son of the High King of the universe;
Splendor of the Father;
Source of life;
Prince of Peace;
Son of Mary;
Pattern of goodness;
Friend of all;
Brother of the poor;
Champion of justice;
Joy of angels.
Jesus, in you we see God’s face—
Jesus, you radiate what the world so needs today—
Gentleness, tenderness, light and hope.
In you, may we find—
Gentleness as the answer to violence;
Tenderness as the answer to ill-will;
Light as the answer to lies;
Hope as the answer to despair.
Your mercy brings forgiveness.
Have mercy on us, bring us to true sorrow for our sins,
Give us eternal life.
For your glory fills eternity;
Your glory fills the universe.