Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased. —Luke 2:14
On December 26, 1944, Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda of the Japanese army was sent to the Philippine island of Lubang. His mission was to resist the American advance, and he was ordered to fight on indefinitely. The Americans landed in February 1945, and Onoda kept fighting. He never got word when the war ended six months later. For thirty more years he went on fighting World War II. He lived in hiding, came out at night to steal food from the villages, shot at people now and then. About ten years into it he found a newspaper article about himself, but he thought it was a trick to get him to surrender. The Philippinos dropped leaflets into the jungle, with letters and photographs from his family, asking him to come out. They brought loudspeakers into the jungle and shouted, “Onoda, the war is over.” One day his own brother stood at the microphone and begged him to give up, but he didn’t believe it. He fought on until 1974, when the Japanese government sent in his old commanding officer, Major Taniguchi, who ordered Onoda to surrender. He finally gave up.
That man thought he was living in a world at war. His mind was trapped in 1945, he shut out the good news of peace and lost 30 years of his life hiding in the jungles. There are many Christians like him today. Their minds are trapped in a war that was over a long time ago. The night Jesus was born, the angels stepped up to the microphone and shouted, “Peace on earth” (Luke 2:14). For 2000 years God has been dropping leaflets of the good news into the jungles of our minds. That good news is that through his cross Christ won the victory over everything against us. Our sins are forgiven. Our futures are redefined by grace. Hell is robbed. Heaven stands open. The war is over, and it’s time to come out our dark thoughts and live again in a new world of grace, ruled by Christ.
Here are three facts about the new world of grace that became obvious the night he was born:
One, Christ came as a Savior, as the Lord of grace. Verse 11: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” In the ancient world that title “savior” was given to Zeus for protecting sailors at sea. It was given to Asclepius as the god of healing. It was given to Roman emperors, and we know what they were like. But all the hopes we cherish, everything we pin our happiness on – the angels are saying, all our longings come to a focal point in Jesus. That’s what it means that he is our Savior.
Here is what Bible Belt people must know. Jesus did not come to browbeat us into better behavior. That whole approach doesn’t help us. It is the work of the devil. The devil wants us to go into a tailspin by adding to our failure and defeatedness a further layer of shaming. That isn’t Jesus. He came to save us from that very despair. It’s what we sing about:
When Satan tempts me to despair and tells me of the guilt within
Upward I look and see him there who made an end to all my sin
Because the sinless Savior died, my sinful soul is counted free
For God the just is satisfied to look on him and pardon me
Last week Dr. Hudson Armerding died. He was president of Wheaton College when Jani and I were students there. In his book on leadership he illustrates how we actually experience Jesus as our Savior in a moment-by-moment, real-time way. Dr. Armerding was at a ranch in Texas. He was doing the dishes one day after lunch:
All during the forenoon a disturbing memory had kept coming to my attention – an act of disobedience years before that I had confessed and by grace had put away. Yet repeatedly that morning the recollection kept coming back, constant accusations that would not cease. But as I bent over the dishes, suddenly this word came just as clearly as if someone were in the room: “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). I knew that a more accurate translation would read, “. . . continues to cleanse us from all sin.” Immediately tears mingled with the dishwater . . . . God overcame the persecution of Satan that was calculated to imprison me in guilt and to challenge the deliverance wrought by the Lord.
Christ came as our guilt-lifter, not our accuser, and that’s how he saves us today. And it’s even more than our own internal relief. The whole world is going to change. When Jesus was born, evil was doomed. That leads us to the second fact about the new world of grace in Christ.
Two, God has announced a better future for the whole world. Verse 13: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host.” Let’s stop there. See the word “host”? That word is stratia, like “strategic.” That word means “army.” A “host” is an army. The multitude of the heavenly army poured down out of heaven onto earth, establishing a beachhead in this angry world we’ve made. And guess what? The heavenly army didn’t declare war; they declared peace: “On earth peace.” The Bible says we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ because we’ve been justified by mere faith (Romans 5:1). Here is the kiss God wants to put on your cheek right now: “On earth peace.”
I was having breakfast yesterday morning with Tom at a restaurant and Christmas music was filling the room – “Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn King.” We all need something to celebrate. I heard about a parade some guy organized around the theme “Louie, Louie,” the old rock and roll song – and one of the most misunderstood songs of all time. He said there was no reason for the parade, so he just chose that song, and it worked. But whether we find a silly reason or a good reason, we will celebrate. It was the curse on Narnia that it was always winter but never Christmas. But when Christ came, the heavenly war cry announced the meaning of it all: “On earth peace.” That’s why we’re putting lights up and buying gifts and playing the music. God has declared peace as the new future of the whole world.
But there’s more. In fact, peace on earth wasn’t the first thing the angelic army shouted. The first thing was “Glory to God in the highest.” That’s odd. Have you noticed, when people put Christmas displays out on their front yard or design a Christmas card, it’s more likely you’ll see the words “Peace on earth” and less likely you’ll see the words “Glory to God”? But the angels thought God came first. Why does “Glory to God in the highest” matter so much that it deserves to come even before peace on earth?
Let’s drill down a little further. What’s happening deep inside us when our minds either skip over “Glory to God in the highest” or notice it enough to feel that it’s a bit intrusive? What’s happening is that we’re too polite to ask the unspoken question: “Who does God think he is, to come first? Does he think he’s God?” Yes, he does. And God thinking he’s God and believing that his glory in the highest comes first – the Godness of God, and nothing else, can create the peace on earth. God giving himself to us in all his glory is our only hope for the shalom we long for. What if God said to us, “I apologize. I’ve been asking too much. Who do I think I am anyway? You guys go ahead and put something else first. I’ll find my place somewhere”? What if God resigned and let us take first place? What if the heavenly army surrendered to the shepherds that night? Would that have been good news of great joy? Two thousand years later, would we be celebrating anything? Would the demotion of “Glory to God in the highest” to “Glory to God wherever you can fit him in” – would that kind of world turn out to be a Bedford Falls or a Pottersville? We know the answer. Let’s stop treating God as a problem to cope with, let’s stop thinking of everything in our lives as bigger than God, and let’s be happy about God being all that he is. Here’s why.
The shepherds were guarding their sheep for the umpteenth night in a row as their fathers had done on the same hills for generations. Strictly routine. Then “the glory of the Lord shone around them” (verse 9). What is God’s glory? God’s glory is his beauty. God drew back the curtain, and the shepherds saw what’s out there. His glory exploded into view. I remember hearing Francis Schaeffer pray once. He began by saying, “God, I thank you that you exist.” I’d never thought of thanking God for that. But the glorious God is really there, and that means our hope is not limited to our little routines and our jobs and our familiar surroundings. God is there, and he has come down to give us himself.
The shepherds were terrified. We would have been too. And not just because we are so drab compared with his glory but because we are so guilty compared with his glory. It’s our sin that makes God terrifying. That’s why we want to skip over “Glory to God in the highest.” Santa Clause we can handle. We line up our kids to be photographed with him. But what if God were to make an appearance at the mall? God is beautiful in himself but terrifying to guilty sinners. We experience God not as he is in his glory but as we project onto him the darkness we ourselves create in our thoughts. What then does God do about people like us who want to fight on and on? He announces peace.
Verse 10 calls it good news. But not just good news. Good news of joy. But not just good news of joy. Good news of great joy. And when the angel made that announcement that would change the whole world, the heavenly army flooded the sky, praising God. I wonder what it sounded like. We know from Isaiah 6 that the temple doors shook at the voices of the angels. Is heavenly worship a kind of happily thunderous explosion? I wonder. But here’s the point. If God were unhappy and frustrated and depressed and cranky and tense and fault-finding and grim, how could we explain the joy of the angels? Actually, we never see God himself in this passage. All we’re shown is his impact on his angels. He lets us nibble at the edges. He allows us to overhear the sounds of heaven. And we hear enough to know that his presence really is fullness of joy, as the Bible says. God is good, and his goodness is of a spreading nature, spilling out of heaven down into this world, spreading out to all who are willing to live in a new world of grace. It’s his glory in the highest that guarantees peace on this earth.
Three, whoever you are, whatever your past, you can step inside the peace God is creating. Who gets inside the peace? It says in verse 14, “On earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.” Who pleases God? Muslims think they please God. Methodists think they please God. I think I please God. Every one of us will take either of two approaches to that question. One way to be among those whom God is pleased is our own obedience and our own virtue and our own sincerity. But that’s religion, not the gospel. It doesn’t create peace. It creates religious oppression as people compete and fight to outdo one another with their self-images as God’s favorites.
There is another way. God himself has revealed it. God has told us how we can get inside shalom. And it works. About thirty years after these events in Luke 2, when Jesus was an adult and was baptized, it all became clear. God spoke from heaven and told him: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). God said that out loud, not silently for Jesus alone to hear it in his heart. God wanted all of us for all time to hear it. That message from the skies was as filled with hope as the message of the angels. Here’s the message. There is one man who has pleased God fully. And he didn’t live that way for himself, as if he needed to offset his own deficiency, but he lived that way for us, to offset our deficiency. He lived for us the perfect life we’ve never lived. He died for us the guilty death we don’t want to die. We get inside shalom today not because we please God but because Jesus pleased God for us. When we today receive him with the empty hands of faith, God says to us for the sake of Christ, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.”
What’s the catch? God’s peace is awaiting us in Christ. What’s the catch? The catch is this. You can’t have both. You can’t have the righteousness of Christ and also hold onto your own self-righteousness. If you step inside the shalom Christ offers, inside his innocence and perfection and okay-ness, you have to step out of your own innocence. Think of a circle. Inside that circle is the peace and rest and wholeness only Christ can give. To step inside that circle, you have leave another world behind – the world of your own making, the world of your own entitlements and anger and compulsiveness and self-validation and defeatedness and frustration and victimhood, and so forth. You have to step out of the jungles of your mind and step into the clearing and surrender to Christ. You have to forsake your deep loyalty to the lost cause called you. Inside Christ there is nothing but forgiveness for sinners. Only sinners are there, being constantly forgiven. Righteous people stay in hiding and fight on. So you have to choose. But if you choose Christ, he promises you his peace.
I want you to see the glory of God and your peace coming together, so that you know you lose nothing in the surrender. Let me use the words of the old Puritan preacher Richard Sibbes:
God has joined these two together. One, that he be glorified. Two, that we be happy. Thus our happiness and God’s glory agree together. . . . What a sweetness is this in God, that in seeking our own good we would glorify him.
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, shalom, wholeness among those with whom he is pleased for the sake of Christ.” So this year celebrate the birth of the Savior by putting your own obedience aside as the fraud that it is. Receive with the empty hands of faith, moment by moment, the real obedience and full righteousness of Jesus Christ on your behalf. If you will, you’ll step into good news of great joy.
The war is over.