A great hymn of the Church that I love is called “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The first few lines don’t offer the most promising words of Longfellow, words like, “And in despair I bowed my head. ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said, ‘For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, goodwill to men.’” But that’s the world into which Jesus came.
Romans chapter one paints a terrible picture of sin and degradation! The prophet said, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way.” (Isaiah 53:6) Sin was rampant, discouragement was thick, mankind was hopeless! The world needed Good News!
Luke’s Christmas story has been called a “theology of Hope!” About the Christmas narrative, a theologian even wrote: “Angels fly thick here – and for a purpose. Angels are by definition messengers, ‘evangels,’ and the good news they bear in this story is in every case a promise.” The Christmas story is full of these promise-givers, these angelic messengers, delivering good news to people who desperately need it …
Angelic appearance No. 1 was to Zacharias. (Luke 1:5-11) Zacharias was an older priest who served occasionally in the temple. He was naturally frightened by the sudden appearance of the angel. Whenever we are faced with any kind of godly encounter, the first words of a theology of Hope are, “Fear not!”
Have you ever really been afraid? I don’t mean about the kind of fear when someone jumps out of the bushes! I’m talking about cancer, biopsies, COVID-19.
Due to their ages, the wife of Zacharias, Elizabeth, had been childless, but the angel announced the good news of a baby: “But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.’” (Luke 1:13)
Angelic appearance No. 2 was to a young peasant Jewish girl named Mary. (Luke 1:26-31) Mary, too, was frightened, but the angel calms her: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.” Mary had been divinely chosen to be the mother of the Christ Child. There was a lot at stake here. Mary was only a teenager. She was engaged, but not married.
How would her fiancé, not to mention her parents, understand this Baby being conceived by the Holy Spirit? Yet her response is one of joy: “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)
Angelic appearance No. 3 was to shepherds. (Luke 2:10-11) Again, the angel calms the fears of these working men, the first to be told of the Birth of Jesus. As a matter of fact, they took time away from their flock to go and see for themselves, returning with an exuberant joy! “Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.” (Luke 2:20)
Angelic appearance No. 4 was to Simeon. (Luke 2:25-35) Simeon was a “just and devout” man in Jerusalem. No angelic encounter is described, but it is implied. Simeon would not die until he saw Jesus. (Luke 2:26) He had the unique privilege of blessing the Baby Jesus in the Temple.
We may not have angels appearing, but we can have a glimpse of our salvation!
Although Longfellow’s hymn had three verses of despair, the last two stanzas take a turn: “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, goodwill to men.’ Till, ringing, singing on its way, the world revolved from night to day – A voice, a chime, a chant sublime, of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
The Rev. Danny Goddard is senior pastor at New Castle First Church of the Nazarene. He is a regular contributor to Faith Perspective. The words to this hymn are in the public domain.