The Glory in the Manger
Text: Luke 2:1-20
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, 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, good will toward men.
It is truly an honor, a privilege, and a blessing to gather together for worship on Christmas. This is such a special occasion, and it only happens every 5 or 6 years. In keeping with the occasion, we are looking at Luke 2, the description of Christ’s birth on that first Christmas morning. This is a passage that is well-known to us. We have probably all read it to our families or heard it read to us by Linus on A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Yet, as we have said before about other passages, familiarity can cause us to miss things if they haven’t been traditionally emphasized. We probably associate this passage with sweetness, family memories, and a sense of calm and peace. But I wonder if we’ve ever noticed that the events, as Luke describes them, are not at all calm or peaceful. Indeed, Luke describes a big loud event that involves fear and wonder. Most of all, it involves glory, the glory of the Lord.
The word “glory” appears three times in this passage. The shepherds see “the glory of the Lord” when the angel appears. Then, a huge crowd of angels shows up, and they say, or sing, “glory to God in the highest.” Finally, after seeing the infant Jesus, the shepherds go out publicly “glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen.” So this morning, we will ourselves see the glory of the Lord as it appears in Christ. As a little babe on that Christmas morn, we see the glory of God in the manger.
The Glory of the Lord Shone Around Them
Luke’s gospel is the only gospel that really gives us a depiction of the nativity, the birth of Christ. It tells us about Joseph and Mary’s trek to Bethlehem. It tells us that there wasn’t enough room for them and so Jesus had to be laid in a manger. And then, after that still, calm, peaceful night, Luke takes us to the shepherds.
The shepherds are not still. They are not calm. And they are most certainly not at peace. They may have been those things at first, drowsily watching the sheep graze, but then something spectacular happens:
Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. (Luke 2:8-9)
Notice their reaction. The angel is not a chubby little baby or a tender blonde in a church choir robe. No, the angel is a messenger of the sovereign Lord, and he shows up along with “the glory of the Lord.” You have to be familiar with the Old Testament to appreciate this, but “the glory of the Lord” is a great and terrible sight. The glory of the Lord is what filled the pillar of smoke in the wilderness. The glory of the Lord sat atop Mt. Sinai while Moses received the law. The glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle, and eventually the temple.
When King Solomon completes the temple in Jerusalem, the glory of the Lord falls down from heaven and fills the building. The scene is dramatic:
When Solomon had finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. And the priests could not enter the house of the Lord, because the glory of the Lord had filled the Lord’s house. When all the children of Israel saw how the fire came down, and the glory of the Lord on the temple, they bowed their faces to the ground on the pavement, and worshiped and praised the Lord, saying:
“For He is good,
For His mercy endures forever.” (2 Chron. 7:1-3)
The glory of the Lord is inaccessible light (1 Tim. 6:16). The glory of the Lord is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29). The glory of the Lord is awesome and terrible, and the shepherds were right to be “greatly afraid.” This was the glory of Christmas night.
Glory to God in the Highest
The next thing we see is that the glory of the Lord gets bigger, and it gets loud. At first there was just one angel. He comforted the shepherds and said, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).
While this is comforting, it is also a huge message. The term used for “savior” is sótér, which does literally mean savior or deliver but was commonly used in Greek to refer to a deity. Many of the Greek gods had claimed the title sótér, and the Caesars had also begun using that name. The angel gives this divine savior a further description though, “Christ the Lord.” This is a translation of an important Old Testament concept. It literally means, “Yahweh the Messiah.” Thus, the angel is not simply telling the shepherds “good news, you can all have peace and feelings of good will” (more on that part in just a bit, btw). The angel is saying, “Yahweh, the God of Israel, has been born this day, as the promised messiah, in order to be your delivering king.”
And as soon as the angel gave this message, there was an explosion of light and noise:
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, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:13-14)
The expression “a multitude of the heavenly host” means, “a vast army from heaven.” These are kinds of angels, but they are the kinds of angels that surround God’s throne in heaven and which He sent several times in the Old Testament to carry out His judgment and spiritual warfare.
This army of heaven shows up in a blast of theophanic glory, and they sing a chorus of worship: “Glory to God in the highest.” The Latin translation has become quite famous. In excelsis deo. We sing it in our carols. It comes from this part of the Bible. And it does mean, the highest, most exalted form of glory possible. Take the biggest, highest, greatest form of glorification possible—whether that is gold, honor, feelings of victory and accomplishment, whatever comes to mind—and give to God. Give that highest glory to God because of what He has done in the birth of Jesus.
And that glory is also seen in what the birth of Jesus gives to others: peace on earth and God’s goodwill towards men. The heavenly host sings, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” All three are things being given. The angels are giving glory to God. Then they list two things that God is giving. God is giving peace to the earth and goodwill towards men. Notice, this goodwill is not human good will towards one another. That’s a common misunderstanding but it is quite wrong. Instead, the goodwill is God’s good will.
This peace and goodwill we enjoy is precisely because of Christ’s work, though it is only just beginning in the cradle. It will not be complete until the cross. The end of Romans chapter 4 and beginning of chapter 5 puts it this way:
Jesus our Lord… was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification. Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Rom. 4:24-5:2)
And this is why we must give God glory, which is exactly what we see the shepherds go on to do.
Glorifying and Praising God
So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them. (Luke 2:15-20)
The shepherd go and see what the angels had announced. They see that precious sight, “Mary, Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.” This—this small and rather unimpressive thing—was the great and glorious event the angels had announced. This was the sótér, Yahweh the messiah, Christ the Lord. Apparently lacking all of that grandeur and majesty that such a birth should have had, this small family in a humble abode was the birth of the king of Israel.
We don’t know exactly what the shepherds understood by all of this. Perhaps they didn’t understand. Perhaps they were still awestruck. But we do know what they did. “Now, when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child” (Luke 2:17). They told everyone they could find what the angel had said. They must have seemed crazy. But they wanted to get the word out.
And then, finally, the text says that “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20). They had seen the glory of the Lord with the angels. They had heard of the glory of God in what this birth would accomplish. And having seen this glory in the manger, they proceeded to give more glory to God. They evangelized. They praised. They worshiped.
In the retelling of the Christmas story, we have our calling this day. We must see the glory of the Lord. In the birth of Christ, we have the incarnation of our God, the savior of Israel and the whole world, and the Messiah the King
And in seeing the glory of the Lord, we see what benefits are given to us, we have peace with God and His good favor. This child is come to make forgiveness for our sins, and so we can be reconciled to the true and living God. We can have salvation because we have this reconciliation, all because of Jesus.
And then finally, we see what our duty is in response. We must glorify God. We must give Him the highest glory. This starts with praise and worship. It must then lead to evangelism, as we tell others what has been said about this Christmas birth. And then it must cause us to serve this messiah, Jesus, all the days of our lives.
Let us pray.