Sermon for Christmas Eve: The Singing Army

The Singing Army

Christmas Eve; December 24, 2017

Luke 2:1-20

What's the picture in your head when you hear, "And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host"? What do you think a heavenly host looks like? Several rows of choristers wearing robes and with their music folders open? One of the tenors is barefoot. Oh, right, they're angels; maybe all of them are barefoot. I'm so tired of the typical Christmas portrayal of angels that look like little girls in wedding gowns, or possibly chubby babies with wings. I don't think that is likely to make a bunch of rough shepherds "terrified" (NRSV) or, as it says in the King James Version (the one Linus quotes in A Charlie Brown Christmas), "sore afraid."

The word "host" means "army." Yeah, for those who are wondering, that's the Greek word that Luke wrote: "army" (stratias, stratias). We're talking angels who look as though they belong on a recruiting poster. Rather than gowns they're probably wearing chain mail. And they have their swords strapped at their thighs. The M4 rifle had not been invented yet. They look ready to invade and defeat the forces of King Herod and Caesar Augustus and anyone else who got in their way.

But that's not what they do. They sing. And you know what they sing; it isn't a bawdy marching song or a national anthem or anything about how they are going to stomp Satan's army to pieces – we have bigger nukes than you have – but they sing:

   Glory to God in the highest heaven,

     And on earth peace among those whom God favors!

Or an alternate version reads, "peace, goodwill among people." Either way, they don't sing of blood and guts and conquest, but of glory and peace and good intentions.

At Christmastime we sing of peace and talk about peace and pray for peace. And sometimes we get moments of peace: the Christmas Truce during World War I; the calm of our Longest Night Service the other evening; the relatives who talk about shared memories during Christmas dinner rather than quarreling about politics. The heavenly army gathers not to invade and conquer, but to sing about peace.

The invading and conquering they leave to a child who is sleeping in a manger at Bethlehem. He invades hearts and conquers minds not only over the course of his thirty-three years of life but over the two millennia since. Some of us here have been conquered by Jesus and we struggle for the way of life of the invading army of God, an army that advances not by force and by violence but by singing glory to God in the highest.

We're not angels here, but we are the army God is recruiting and equipping. Our commander Jesus gives us very strange orders, though. He doesn't tell us to kill the enemy. He says, "Love your enemies." The weapon we carry is not a sword or a rifle, but the Bible. The training we do is prayer and worship and singing and service and sacraments. And our method of invasion is to feed the hungry, care for the sick, and look after one another and our neighbors.

You can be part of it. I know that many of you are here because of the cultural tradition of going to church at Christmas, and you are very welcome. I hope that God nourishes your soul by Word and Sacrament and I hope you get a glimpse of the peace that the angelic army sings about. Yet some of you may want to be part of that army, learning to sing God's songs, to follow God's priorities, and to live in the sight of God. It won't make you rich and it won't make your life easier; I've been part of it for more than sixty years and I know that very well. But here's what being part of the singing army does: it opens your spirit to eternal things, to a world that is wider and deeper than you can imagine; at the same time, it helps you appreciate this world so much more; it gives you meaning, a realization that you are part of something very important; and it makes you part of a people who will care about you. I don't know what the heavenly singing army has to put up with, but the earthly singing army has its share of misfits, quirks, and judgmental know-it-alls. We don't always like one another; but we do care about one another.

Well. Let's get on with the business of singing our praises and praying for peace, while our spirits are fed by the Word of God and the holy elements of communion. Remember what the shepherds saw and heard: heavenly warriors, fit, armed and ready, and singing:

   Glory to God in the highest heaven,

     And on earth peace among those whom God favors!

Robert A. Keefer

Presbyterian Church of the Master

Omaha, Nebraska 

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