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From Angels to Animals: Luke 2.1-20

A Sermon for the Sunday before Christmas 1998

Mark Horne

Copyright © 1998, All rights reserved.

Angels we have heard on high.

Hark, the herald Angels sing.

Angels from the realms of glory.

We sing a lot about angels at this time of year. There’s nothing wrong with this. Angels did announce our Savior’s birth and celebrate it with song. But there’s something about the angels whom Luke writes about, which is quite startling, and which I think we often miss in all our carols. It seems self-evident that the announcement of the birth of Jesus by angels signifies how special Jesus is. But that’s only half the story.

We all know, I think, that we should not merely be “New Testament Christians,” but rather be “Whole Bible Christians.” When we read a story, such as the one I just read, we are robbing ourselves if we simply assume that it stands on its own. The Bible is a book which begins in Genesis and steadily builds up to a climax. By the time of the Gospel writers, there is a great body of literature given by God for them to work with as they interpret and describe what they saw and heard in the life of Jesus.

To give you one quick example: When we read in Acts of how Paul was struck down to the ground by a heavenly light and thunderous voice on the road to Damascus, we are greatly helped by thinking of the Old Testament background. Isaiah saw a vision of God’s presence and immediately condemned himself. An angel had to touch his lips with coals from the altar fire just to deal with Isaiah’s sinful condition in God’s presence.

When Ezekiel saw a vast glorious manifestation of God’s presence, involving thunder, fire, and the form of a man in the middle of four angels, he fell to the ground as dead until God raised him up again.

Now here is Paul confronted by a literally blinding light and struck down to the ground. God has to send someone to him to heal him and forgive his sins.

Furthermore, the covenant name of God is Yahweh, which in the Greek New Testament is constantly translated as “kurios,” meaning Lord. So when Paul asks this glorious light and thunderous voice, “Who are you Lord?” we have every reason to expect that Paul is, in his own mind, addressing the God of Israel, the God who appeared to Isaiah and Ezekiel and to many other prophets.

My point here is that, if all we had to go on was the Old Testament, and this one story from Acts, without even any of Paul’s letters, we would still have every reason to think that Paul believed in the deity of Jesus. Everything in Luke’s account leads us in that direction, if we consider the Old Testament background.

So consider our text this morning: Luke 2 is not the first time a host of angels have appeared to men. There was another time that a host of angels announced the presence of God. Back in the wilderness when Moses brought Israel out of Egypt, God descended upon Mount Sinai in a dark but fiery cloud full of angels.

Yes it was full of angels. We’re told so unambiguously in Psalm 68:15-17. Listen to how God’s presence is described:

A mountain of God is the mountain of Bashan; a mountain of many peaks is the mountain of Bashan. Why do you look with envy, O mountains with many peaks, at the mountain which God has desired for His abode? Surely the LORD will dwell there forever. The chariots of God are myriads, thousands upon thousands; the LORD is among them as at Sinai, in holiness.

Now David in this Psalm is referring to Jerusalem where he has located the Ark of the Covenant and where Solomon will later build a Temple. He is comparing that mountain to Mount Sinai, saying that God is just as much present in Jerusalem as he was on Sinai. And to fill out that description, he affirms that, just as there were thousands of angels surrounding God’s presence in glory, so there are thousands of unseen angels now in Jerusalem surrounding God’s presence.

It will help us to understand all this, if we remember how the cloud appeared in Mount Sinai and then where it went and where else it appeared in Scripture. I tried to explain this to my High School Sunday School class once, and they had no idea what I was talking about because they had never seen “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” But if any of you have seen that movie, you remember that the touchpoint between the UFOs and the earth was Devil’s Tower, the steep mountain with the plateau on top of it. And this vast luminous, nebulously shaped mother ship came down right above it between heaven and earth and communicated with the people waiting there.

That image of this huge ship full of lights touching down just at the top of Devil’s Tower is quite close to what we find happening in Exodus 19. This dark cloud full of flashing fire, comes down on Mount Sinai as a midpoint between heaven and earth. Moses goes up the mountain in the cloud to talk to God and then comes back down from the cloud to tell the people God’s commands.

One of the major things God commanded from the cloud was for a Tabernacle to be built so that God could live among His people. After the Tabernacle was built, with the golden representations of angels which overshadowed the mercy seat, hear what happens in Exodus 40, verses 34 and 35:

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.

That cloud which had led them out of Egypt as a pillar by day and a fire by night, settled down on the Tabernacle, filling it with God’s glory. The same thing happens when Solomon finished building the Temple, which, in addition to angels on the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant, had giant golden angels overshadowing the sanctuary, and engravings of angels carved into its walls and doors. When the priest put the Ark into the Holy of Holies something happened. Let me read 1 Kings 8.10 and 11:

It happened that when the priests came from the holy place, the cloud filled the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD.

I’ve already mentioned that the Bible builds up to a climax, that the Biblical authors use the already written Word of God as background when they write about God’s new revelations in their own day.

Here we have a perfect example. The writer of 1 Kings simply introduces us to “the cloud,” without explaining what it means or where it comes from. He doesn’t need to. No Biblically literate Hebrew reader could possibly miss it.

This is the same cloud that filled the Tabernacle;

the same cloud that came down on Mount Sinai;

the same cloud that came between the children of Israel and Pharaoh and his army at the Red Sea;

the same cloud which led them out of Egypt.

And this cloud, which is identified with the glory of the Lord, is filled with angels. David in his Psalm describes them as a military host, myriads of chariots. Moses and Solomon put statues and engravings of angels in the Tabernacle and Temple, where God’s glory cloud rested. The heavenly host surrounds God in his glorious cloud.

And when God appears to the prophets, we get confirmation of this angelic picture. We’ve already mentioned Isaiah and Ezekiel, but lets consider them again.

In Isaiah chapter 6, when the prophet saw the vision of God enthroned in His Temple, it is almost as if these engravings on the walls have come to life. He sees real angels flying about and calling out around the Lord’s throne. A cloud is not explicitly mentioned, but the Temple is filling with smoke, so it is awfully similar. God’s glorious presence is revealed in the company of angels.

Ezekiel chapter 1 gives us a similar image. Ezekiel sees a giant storm cloud flashing with fire. And in that cloud he sees four angels below a throne, on which is seated a fiery glowing figure who looks like a man. This is God’s presence leaving the corrupt Temple which is about to be destroyed and coming to the exiles in Babylon were Ezekiel lives. We know that not only because of the similarities with the cloud which moved from Mount Sinai into the Tabernacle, and into Solomon’s Temple, but also because the book of Ezekiel ends with a vision of a new temple where that same cloud returns.

God’s glorious presence is consistently revealed to His people as a glorious cloud filled with angels. By that cloud’s coming and dwelling in a building made with hands, God is demonstrating that He is present with His people. He dwelt in the wilderness camping in a tent, just like his people camped in tents. He dwelt in a Palace right next to the Kings of Judah in their palace. The cloud showed He had taken up residence there. The angels in the architecture showed that they believed He with his heavenly host was among them.

The fact is there is a lot more in Scripture which I could show you, but this should be enough to make the basic point. The God of Israel dwelt in a glorious cloud. Indeed sometimes that fiery cloud filled with angels seems to be simply called His glory. And that glory cloud is a manifestation of God’s presence.

Surely the LORD will dwell there forever. The chariots of God are myriads, thousands upon thousands; the LORD is among them as at Sinai, in holiness.

So when we come to the account of the angels appearing to the shepherds we’re on very familiar ground.

An angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them and the glory of the Lord shone around them… And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.

Here we have the glorious revelation of God’s presence. Here we have the cloud of angels just like Isaiah saw in the smoky Temple, and Ezekiel saw in the storm. Here we have God coming down to men just like he did to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Except that God’s not there.

These shepherds are surrounded by the glory of God, but they don’t see anyone seated on a throne high and lifted up like Isaiah did. They don’t see a figure who looks like glowing metal the way Ezekiel did. For all it’s glory, the cloud of angels is just an empty shell.

If you ever see a standing suit of armor, it will look real impressive. It will look like you’re facing an actual warrior from of old. These angels in glory were quite impressive. But the occupant wasn’t there. For all their splendor, they were just an abandoned garment. A museum piece from a different age. The world had now changed forever.

God wasn’t enthroned high and exalted among the myriads of angels, because He was laid down in an animal feeding trough. After the angels went back to heaven, the shepherds left to find him. Can you imagine someone at Mount Sinai looking at the fire on the mountain and saying, “That’s neat but let go see something better?” To put it lightly, that sort of reaction would have been highly inappropriate. You didn’t look for something better or more real when you saw God’s glory. No, you at least slaughtered animals and worshiped, assuming you weren’t so overwhelmed that you fell over like a dead man.

But not this time. “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.”

God in an animal trough. God in swaddling clothes that need to be changed. God crying to be fed because he can’t feed himself. God with a human face that doesn’t have any teeth yet. God utterly dependent on sinful human parents. Can anything be imagined more contrary to the Biblical image of the glory of the Lord, wherein he is enthroned in a thick cloud among his angelic servants?

Daniel saw a vision of one like a Son of man in a cloud. In chapter 7 of Daniel he saw God give that Son of Man dominion over four great beasts. And here we have the fulfillment of the prophecy, in a manger–a feeding trough for beasts. Instead of being over the angels, he is now under the animals.

What are we to make of this? How are we to think of this? What is the meaning of Christmas?

One option is to say that Jesus is “God in disguise.” The baby in the manger was really God, but in a way that no one could tell. I’ve heard a knowledgeable pastor actually preach this on the transfiguration of Jesus. Before the transfiguration, he said, Jesus was God in disguise. I would have never noticed the problem with this if George Grant hadn’t happened to be sitting next to me and jotted on a note that we had just heard a heresy.

Jesus was not God in disguise, but a revelation of God. He told Philip, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” Philip wasn’t there at the transfiguration, but he had seen God in Jesus. He had seen the Father. Those shepherds looking at the newborn baby in the manger, were seeing the Father.

The Westminster Larger Catechism stumbles a bit on this point as well. It lists glory as a divine attribute, and then says that, in the incarnation, the Son emptied himself of glory. Now to say that God the Son divested himself of glory seems fine. After all, He obviously in this very passage is seen to have divested himself of his glory cloud. But if we list glory as a divine attribute, then to say that the Son lost it at the incarnation would mean that he ceased to be God.

So what’s going on?

What’s going on, is that the cloud and the surrounding angels were a revelation of God’s glory, but the baby in the manger is also a revelation of God’s glory.

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.

That baby in the flesh was a better representation of the glory of the Lord, than that which surrounded the shepherds when the angels came, or that which was seen by Ezekiel, Isaiah, or even Moses.

How is that possible?

Because God’s glory is tied to His goodness. And while it is glorious to view God as high and exalted, surrounded by his heavenly host and radiant glory, it is even more glorious to see in God the one who gladly humbled himself for our sakes. The animals are a better revelation of God’s glory than the angels.

Bear in mind: Jesus was incarnate by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary for us and for our salvation. The Bible is quite clear that, when God acts to save his people, He reveals Himself more completely. In Exodus 6.7, God promises Moses that he will save Israel from Egypt, “and you shall know that I am the LORD.” The same language is used by Isaiah in chapter 49, verse 23:

Kings will be your guardians, and their princes your nurses. They will bow down to you with their faces to the earth, and lick the dust of your feet; And you will know that I am the LORD.

Ezekiel repeats this refrain in 12.20, 13.9, and in 36.38:

Like the flock for sacrifices, like the flock at Jerusalem during her appointed feasts, so will the waste cities be filled with flocks of men. Then they will know that I am the LORD.

God’s acts of redemption for His people are also acts of revelation to them. God’s identity is revealed in His deeds. Who God is in himself is manifest in what God does in history. God as the baby gives us a fuller picture of who God is, than the fire and thunder on Mount Sinai.

That’s the offense of Christianity after all. Muslims, Jews, Deists and Theists of all sorts are all real happy to affirm that God is high and exalted, a transcendent being beyond us. But that is not enough. God has every right to be high and exalted, but that’s not the kind of person he is. That’s not his character. On the contrary, God is what Jesus says of himself in Matthew 11.29: “gentle and humble in heart.” And if Jesus is gentle and humble in heart, then so is the Father.

The gentleness and humility begin here in the manger, under the miseries of this life resulting from sin. He was born of a “woman of low estate,” under “diverse circumstances of more than ordinary abasement”–to quote the Larger Catechism again. He submitted himself to the care and upbringing of sinful parents. He submitted himself to the indignity of birth among animals.

And that voluntary humiliation, that willing submission, is not some temporary camouflaging of God’s divine glory. No, it is a clear revelation of God’s divine glory. What God does reveals who God is. God is humble. God is self-sacrificing. God is a servant. The baby seen by the shepherds showed forth God’s character more brilliantly than all the angels in heaven. God in the animal trough. That’s who God is. That is why God is glorious and worthy of everlasting thanks and praise.

And if that is who God is, who should we be?

As God and man in one person, Jesus not only reveals what it means to be truly God, but also what it means to be truly human. If God is the God who was laid in the manger, what sort of people should we be, who are not only made in his image, but renewed in His image by the Holy Spirit uniting us to that same human who lay in the manger two millennia ago?

It’s an easy question. If we keep in mind who God is, the answer is obvious. We should be humble. We should be self-sacrificing. We should be willing to give up our own rights for the sake of others. God gave us salvation by giving us His Son, by giving us Himself. We should give ourselves to others. We should

be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave himself up for us (Ephesians 5.1-2).

We should

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others (Philippians 2.3-4).

We should

as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you (Colossians 3.12-13).

We should, if we are strong

bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves. Each of us is to please his neighbor for his good, to his edification. For even Christ did not please himself (Romans 15.1-3a).

We should

receive one another, just as Christ also received us into the glory of God. For I say that Christ has become a servant (Romans 15.7-8a).

The ethic of the Gospel follows from the God of the Gospel. We can’t pursue Godliness unless we have a correct understanding of who God is. We can’t pursue Godliness unless we understand that the baby among the animals is every bit as much a revelation of who God is, as the glowing figure surrounded by glorious angels. We can’t pursue Godliness unless we see in that baby, even more than all previous revelations, the glory of the Father.

And sadly, even we who know who God is, who know of the incarnation of our Lord, don’t pursue Godliness. Saint Augustine put it well: “God has humbled himself and still man is proud.” That’s the revelation of God’s character, and that’s how we continually fall short of it. That’s how we transgress the revelation of the baby in the manger.

Thank God that, because of His love for us in Jesus, He has forgiven our sins this morning. Let’s pray now that, through the Christmas message-through the glad tidings, the good news, the gospel-He will work in us a true meekness that makes us a truly Godly people-gentle and humble of heart like He is.

Copyright © 1998, All rights reserved.

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