Handel’s Messiah Christmas 5

Title: Biblical Passages in Handel’s Messiah 5

Text: Luke 2:8, Luke 2:13, Luke 2:14, Zechariah 9:9, 10

Time: January 3rd, 2013

 

Continuing on in our message series on Handel’s Messiah, we’re now into the fifth sermon of six total. Next week will be our last, but we’ve come a long way already. We’ll only do the first section, the Nativity account, and leave the rest of Messiah for another time; maybe Easter or some other special holiday. But we can see now why Messiah is such a favorite around the Christmas holiday – because it spends so much time talking about the coming of Christ, or in the words of the historic church, the Advent of Christ, as well as the circumstances surrounding the birth. That’s what we’ll look at today, the circumstances of Christ’s birth, namely the angelic announcement. Last time we got as far as the shepherds out abiding in the fields and the one angel appearing to them. Today, we’ll hear what the angel says and then see him joined by a multitude of angels rejoicing. Now notice how Handel weaves the Old and New Testaments together into a seamless web.  That’s really how they are meant to be taken, although today the tendency among scholars is to separate them radically. But that wasn’t the attitude of the early Christians and the early church. Yes, there were heretics in the early years, such as the false teacher Marcion, who tried to lead people to reject the Old Testament and all the parts of the New Testament that borrowed from the Old; but his teachings were successfully refuted by most church leaders. Yet even today, there still persists the mistaken idea that the New Testament is the Christian Bible while the Old Testament is the Jewish Bible – but that’s false. The whole Bible is the Christian Bible, even though it’s broken into two parts, the old and the new. Handel got it right because he didn’t make a radical break between the two parts, but used verses from each to present the life of Jesus the Messiah. Handel’s famous masterpiece is correctly categorized as a sustained reflection on the life of Messiah Jesus; that’s true. And the only way to accurately think about Jesus is by including the Old Testament prophecies to serve as the foundation for later descriptions found in the New Testament. Well, today we are in the New Testament, in more familiar territory, examining more well known scenes. The shepherds encounter the angels who proclaim to them the good news of Jesus Christ. No, not the fullness of the gospel or good news, but the beginning of it starting with the birth of Christ. Let’s think again about these familiar themes, keeping in mind the foundation of the Old Testament verses we’ve already reviewed.

 

First, there’s “And the Angel said unto them” and “Suddenly there was with the Angel.” Luke 2:10, 11, 13, “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 Savior, which is Christ the Lord. . . . And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying . . .” Here we combine two separate verses and musical numbers because they are both short. Handel often covers a verse or two quickly and then dwells on another verse at length. We have no reason for knowing exactly why, although an easy answer to give is that he was simply inspired to do it that way! At first only one angel appears to the shepherds. Now that’s a point that is often overlooked. In the familiar Christian account we often take it for granted that many angels appeared to the shepherds out in the field tending their flocks by night; and it’s so. But we forget that the appearance didn’t begin with a multitude of angels, but only one. Why is that the case? Maybe because too many all at once would have given these poor shepherds a heart attack! As it was, they almost died from fear, which is why the first angel had to say to them, “Fear not.” I’m not sure how well that calmed their fears at first, but as they begin to hear the message the angel was bringing they probably realized that it was for good that the announcement to them was given. Given the sinful nature of mankind, and the selfishness of each individual person, and the combined collective rebellion of society against God, it’s just as likely that the angel would have been bringing a message of judgment, warning of God’s wrath on account of sin. But that wasn’t the case, because the mission of Christ wasn’t to judge but to save. That’s what Jesus himself said later in his life, “I have not come to condemn but to save,” John 3:17. So the angel really did bring good news, news that is still good these two thousand plus years later. We deserve only judgment and destruction because of our sins against God, but the good news is still valid – Jesus saves. Yes, there will be judgment to come. Yes, eternal punishment awaits those who stubbornly refuse to repent and believe. But the good news or gospel of Jesus Christ is that the Savior offers salvation; judgment and punishment aren’t inevitable in anyone’s life. We can be saved by faith in Christ. After the announcement of Christ, then the other angels appeared and began rejoicing loudly in the sky before the shepherds. By this time the shepherds were probably rejoicing also, along with the heavenly angels. And Handel’s next verse captures what the angels were saying.

 

Second, there’s “Glory to God.” Luke 2:14, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” But what was the meaning of the song that the angels sung aloud? Isn’t it that God is bringing peace to people through the babe of Bethlehem? The Savior is born that will end the enmity between man and God. Left to ourselves, we’ll always be at odds with God, even in our best moments. Why? Because we inherit original sin and then we choose to sin of our own free will. We live our entire lives in some degree of rebellion against God, sometimes less, sometimes more. But nobody is free of sin. Nobody is in harmony with God on their own. Only through Christ’s atoning work on the cross, only through forgiveness that Christ earned for us by his death are we made right with God the Father in heaven. All the other religions of the world, if they even tackle the problem of alienation from God, approach it from the standpoint of man working his way towards God. But this is wrong. We can’t work our way towards God or become acceptable to God by our own strength. Why not? Because we are sinners and we’ll always act as sinners unless we are changed by God himself. The best we can do about our sin sickness is put band-aids on, but that really doesn’t solve the sin problem. Jesus, on the other hand, solved the sin problem by dying in our place for our sins, taking upon himself our sins and guilt; then, by giving us his righteousness as a free gift by faith. So we give Christ our sins, and he gives us his righteousness. This transaction enables us to be presentable to God the Father for fellowship, starting now on earth and continuing on forever in heaven. But it’s achieved by the Messiah Jesus, not by anything we can do religiously. Now we can have “peace with God” through Jesus Christ, as Romans 5:1 says. The birth of Jesus signals the beginning of the visible salvation process on earth. Of course the prophets all talked about this, as we’ve seen from previous verses in Handel’s Messiah, but Christ’s birth started things happening tangibly on earth. That’s why the angels were so excited! That’s why they were rejoicing, because they were sent to be the first one’s to announce the Savior’s birth. We don’t have to be afraid, we can rejoice. There are plenty of things to be sad about in our world today. There is a lot to be afraid about also. But there’s something that can overpower all these negative emotions, and that’s the good news of the birth of Jesus the Savior. Let’s remember that. There’s always this to rejoice in, no matter how bad things get on earth.

 

Third, there’s “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion.” Zechariah 9:9, 10, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold, thy king cometh unto thee. He is the righteous Savior. And he shall speak peace unto the heathen.” Here Handel returns to the Old Testament with the prophet Zechariah. Again, we see a seamless web between the Old and New Testaments. There is no sharp division between the Jewish scriptures and the Christian scriptures as secular scholars like to make today. It’s all one revelation from God. It’s all one Bible. It’s God’s Word, whether from the Old Testament or from the New Testament. The verse here speaks first to the Jews, in the form of the daughters of Zion – that is a symbol Israel. But it then quickly moves ahead to include all people by mentioning the so-called “heathen.” Now we don’t use that word much today because it seems rather impolite to refer to anyone as “heathen.” But the Jews saw any non-Jew as heathen. But in this verse it’s not a negative but a positive, because it means that the salvation of the righteous king, the Messiah, the Lord, applies not only to the Jews but also to the Gentiles. We’d better be thankful for that truth, because chances are you are a non-Jew or Gentile person, and if the Savior were for the Jews only, we’d all be out in the dark as far as salvation is concerned. But the parallel between this Old Testament verse and the angels’ announcement is pretty clear. Both are proclaiming the good news to all people, not just one group or nationality, but all people. Christmas is a holiday for the whole world, not just one group. We see this truth even more so today than perhaps at any time in the past. I’m told that Japan particularly likes to celebrate Christmas. Now that’s strange because the Japanese are mostly non-Christian unbelievers who follow an eastern philosophy or religion that really doesn’t believe in one God. 99% of Japanese don’t even think they need saved, nor do they turn to Jesus for anything close to salvation. But ironically, they love to celebrate Christmas. Are they really celebrating Christmas? Probably not, but they can’t help but hear and learn of the real Christ of Christmas somewhere along the line. There is much good in the fact that most of the world celebrates Christmas because the seeds of the gospel have an opportunity to get planted in the hearts and minds of “heathen” people. So we rejoice along with the angels and the prophets of old that God’s good news is for all people all over the world.

 

How effective is Christmas in evangelizing the world for Christ? That’s hard to say because so much of what we Americans export under the classification of “Christmas” is really secular and very human rather than divine. For example, a lot of the Christmas tunes that are played around the holiday season are secular, more and more each year. But still, a few spiritual and Christian songs are passed along too. In this we rejoice. Also, a lot of the themes and symbols of Christmas now are very secular. For example, Frosty the Snowman and Santa Clause. Hollywood produces a lot of Christmas movies, but more and more they are secular movies that are barely related to the true meaning of Christmas. Yet, again, along with these secular products something of the real theme makes it through too. The same with the many secular traditions that are springing up around the Christmas season. More and more these crowd out the real reason for the season. But fortunately, the real reason for the season survives even in the midst of so much secular clutter today. So we still have a lot to rejoice over around Christmastime. Are you depressed and saddened by the commercialism that Christmas has become in our culture? Are you discouraged as you see the celebration of the birth of Jesus turned into a commercial for spending and buying and selling in the stores? Does it bother you that so much of the real reason for Christmas is buried under a pile of junk? All Christians are upset and bothered by these things. But still, we have reason for rejoicing because with all the “stuff” that is added to dilute the real meaning of Christmas, the Savior, Jesus, still shines through. He can’t be suppressed. Like the angels told the shepherds, we are reminded to rejoice also, because we know the real meaning of Christmas. We understand that it’s all about the Savior Jesus. We know that God reached down from heaven and came to earth in the form of the baby Jesus to begin the process of our salvation. We are blessed by this so that we can pass it along to others, so that they in turn might rejoice with us during this special holiday each year. I love Christmas, even though it’s being devalued by our culture, even though it’s being mixed with materialistic idols more and more. I love Christmas for the reason that Handel’s Messiah points out – it’s all about Jesus. We can keep this focus even if the world doesn’t. We should keep this focus and lead others to it, rather than be led astray from it. Let’s remember to be blessed this Christmas season, what’s left of it. Let’s pass that blessing on to others too.

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