THE POWER OF SWEET SINGING

December 5, 2021
Isaiah 11:1-9 & Luke 2:13-14
Tommy Langejans

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For Advent this year, we are doing a series of sermons called “Songs of the Season,” where we look at songs throughout the book of Luke that point us towards the assurance of Jesus’ birth. Last week we talked about faith in Zechariah’s song, and this week, our theme of peace is captured in the song that the angels sing to the shepherds shortly after Jesus’s birth. And this song stands out from the others because we actually still sing part of it regularly during the season of Advent, through the song “Angels We Have Heard on High.” It’s a traditional French carol that was later paraphrased into English in 1862 by a Catholic bishop, and after this translation, it didn’t take long for the iconic song to begin popping up in hymnals and songbooks. One of my favorite versions of the song is the exciting Pentatonix version (although I could honestly say the same about a lot of Christmas songs). However, there’s something to be said for the flowing, almost lullaby-like nature of the original song that welcomes the listener to focus on peace. The refrain, “gloria in excelsis deo, glory to God in the highest,” is not proclaimed loudly and boisterously as it is in other worship songs, but with a melody that floats slowly downward, becoming softer and calmer as it goes on. It floats down so softly and calmly that the ending of each refrain feels almost like a sigh of relief for Jesus’s birth.

I don’t know about you, but “Angels We Have Heard on High” and most other Christmas songs-even the more energetic ones-bring me a sense of peace whenever I hear them. I’ll turn on Spotify and find a favorite Christmas album to listen to whenever I’m driving somewhere or studying, and get an immediate feeling of comfort and warmth. I hear these songs, and feel like I’m curling up by a fire, and there’s this assurance that somehow, everything is going to be okay. And then, the drive ends. I have to turn off the music, and I am thrust back into the biting cold of responsibilities and busyness. Especially in busy seasons of life, those moments of peace can feel so brief even when we know in our heads that Christ is the Prince of Peace, that his birth, his life of ministry, and his eventual death and resurrection are a source of peace for us as followers of Christ. But that feeling of deep peace doesn’t always seem to stick around for very long, does it? Sure, Jesus came and brought the good news, and he is coming again in glory to establish final, perfect peace, but how do we live into this peace right now while we are surrounded by chaos and disquiet in the world and in ourselves? How can we plant our feet on the peace we receive from Christ’s birth when everything feels like it’s pushing and pulling us away from remembering it?

Our scripture passage for this morning is not afraid to sit in the contradiction between peace and chaos. Isaiah proclaims that Jesus will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and he will slay the wicked with the breath of his lips. There is a similar duality in “Angels We Have Heard on High.” The angels are singing, not in a grandiose or magnificent way, but sweetly over the plains, yet grand mountains proudly echo their refrain. Scholars argue that Isaiah was thought to have been conjuring up images of a king like David, who was a powerful, mighty warrior, one who could destroy nations simply by using the rod of his mouth and the breath of his lips to utter the command to do so. Furthermore, the belt of righteousness and sash of faithfulness that the king is said to be wearing might conjure up images of war garments. This king will bring peace to the world, but only through conflict, battles, and bloodshed, it seems.

And yet, when Jesus comes to earth, he does not do anything to suggest that he will bring peace through war. Jesus doesn’t become a mighty warrior king, but a humble servant to everyone around him. He does not fight with those who persecute him, but heals the ear of a man trying to capture him. He doesn’t take the lives of others, but raises three people from the dead. His “army” consists of 12 men, one of which betrays him and all of whom repeatedly show that they don’t understand his teachings while he is alive. So what happened? Did Isaiah get it wrong? Actually, I think it captures Jesus’s approach perfectly. It conveys that Jesus will not literally strike down the unrighteous with a rod, or physical violence, but with his words and his breath. In other words, the transformation comes about through peaceful means. When Jesus returns in glory, it will be the defeat of sin that occurs rather than the defeat of people, because it is only when our separation from right relationship with God, or sin, is defeated that we can come to be in true peace with God.

There is immense power in peace. The sweet singing over the plains is beautiful and strong and transformative enough that the mountains can echo them magnificently in reply, and we see the results of this power in the next part of the reading. We receive Isaiah’s vision of what the world will look like after Jesus’s second coming through dramatic vignettes of lions being led by children, and of infants playing near the dens of cobras. Now, parents, does the thought of your child hanging out with lions and petting snakes immediately put you at peace? It’s an extreme image for sure because this image goes against everything we would expect given what we know about the world. Lions hunt down and eat their prey. Cobras bite. Wolves attack. To know that Jesus will not only protect infants from these creatures, but that he will have children sitting next to them in peace and leading them shows that God’s coming kingdom is something that does not wipe out or destroy creation, but sees all members of creation living in harmony with one another. Influential bishop and theologian Eusebius of Caesarea extends the message of the metaphor, arguing that the children in the vision are Christians, who in their childlike wonder and love of God lead the vicious, wolf-like people. Those who use their power and knowledge to oppress others and use them for their own benefit, who fail to steward creation and perpetuate unjust systems will come to listen and learn from childlike followers of Christ. 

I love both the literal and metaphorical readings of this passage because both of them help us begin to understand how we can hold onto the peace of Christ each day. I would guess that the fact that these examples are so different from our present situation is precisely why we have trouble remembering them. We receive these promises from scripture, feel comforted by them, and then we re-enter a world where this peace is not fully present. However, if we can remember that Christ lived a life of peace and that Christ will eventually come to bring this beautiful perfect peace to the world, we can also have faith that he can work through us to bring peace to the world right now. After all, Christ may no longer be with us physically on Earth, but Christ is still with us in every moment speaking in a still, small voice “do not be afraid, I am with you.” If we remember Jesus’s birth as the good news of peace, and the start of a life of peacemaking in every sense of the word, then maybe we can believe in Christ’s ability to bring peace to our lives and the lives of those around us.

So as we prepare to leave worship and plunge back into the busyness of work, school, meetings, and everything else, I invite you to ask yourself these questions: what parts of my life feel disconnected from the peace of Christ? What would it look like to welcome Christ into these moments? What does it mean that whatever is going on around me, Christ is with me right now, loving me unconditionally in this very moment? As you reflect on these questions, may you hear the angels sweetly singing the good news of peace to the shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” Amen.