Third Sunday in Advent: What the Angels Said

Advent Sermon by Douglas Wilson, Christ Church (Moscow) for the third Sunday of Advent.

What the Angels Said

Grace is one of the most difficult things in the world for sinners to grasp. And as soon as we gather that it is difficult, we turn the “grasping of it” into a contest and a work, with the right answer earning the “best in show” award. But of course, grace means that some with the wrong answers will be saved and some with the right answers won’t be. The salvation that came to the world was all of grace.

The Text:

“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” (Luke 2: 13-14).


As we have all heard many times, there were shepherds in that area, watching their flocks by night (v. 8). But do not think of a quaint pastoral–this group was much more likely to be a group of tattooed roughnecks than anything else. Shepherds were not part of the upper strata of Israelite society. One angel appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone all around them, and they were terrified (v. 9). The chances are good that the angel interrupted them in the middle of a ribald joke. The angel told them to not be afraid–he brought them good news, tidings of great joy, and the message was for all people (v. 10). The basis for the joy was the fact that Christ the Lord had been born in Bethlehem that day (v. 11). A sign was given–the baby would be wrapped up, and lying in a manger (v. 12). After the angel of the Lord had finished saying this, this great message of peace was reinforced by a heavenly army (v. 13). The multitude (many thousands) said this (v. 13) in their praise of God: 1. Glory to God in the highest, 2. peace on earth, and 3. goodwill toward men. The difference between the AV and some other translations is a manuscript issue, not a translation debate, and for reasons that will become obvious soon, we will be continuing to follow the AV.

Believing God’s Declared Intention:

We have trouble with something as straightforward as “goodwill toward men.” We are afraid of grace getting carried away, and so we want to slap some conditions on it. This shows up in some of the other readings. “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (Luke 2:14, NASB). This is consistent with that peace being limited to about twenty-eight people–surely God cannot be pleased with any more than that. The goodwill and the peace are dispensed with a teaspoon within a select club, and we no longer have to worry about His apparent spendthrift ways.

But there are too many passages which make God’s saving and gracious intention for the entire world clear, and plain. So we ignore them, or move them to some trans-historical place. But we have to do something about the verses that frequently show up on Christmas cards. Surely, this doesn’t “really mean” that God’s goodwill is extended to all men generally? Yes, it does. First, quite apart from the manuscript issue, notice what the angel of the Lord had said before the whole heavenly army appeared and sang the chorus. He had said that this was “good tidings of great joy,” and it was for “all people” (v. 10).

Grace Spreads In A Particular Way:

The fact that God has every intention of saving the entire world is a gracious message. And those who are worried about us getting carried away with talk of indiscriminate grace don’t need to worry. Herod was not a messenger of this grace (although he was an unwitting instrument of it). False teachers are not messengers of this grace (although they too are encompassed by God’s purposes). Grace has a backbone, and knows how to define itself. In part, that is what we need to be doing here. Grace is not the word that we are to use as the “open, sesame” of the Church. Grace is not something we do. Grace is not something we can control. Grace is not something that we can manage. And this means that we in the Church, particularly in the sola gratia wing of the Reformed church, need to recognize that curators of grace are frequently the most dangerous enemies of grace. Grace is God’s declared intention for the whole world, whether we like it or not.

Goodwill Toward Men:

The word used here for goodwill is a cognate word to the expressions of pleasure that God pronounced over His Son. “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). We are clearly not in this position of favor through any great moral achievement of ours–in the city of David was born a Savior. The Savior brought deliverance and forgiveness, which we in our sin desperately needed. We declare this, we preach it, we announce it, which is God’s way of propagating it. And if God said to all mankind on that first Christmas night, “I don’t care how rotten you have been . . . here, in the city of David, a Savior is born,” how much more willing would He be willing to say this to you? “I don’t care how rotten you’ve been. Got that? I don’t care.”

Grace in the Bible; Grace in our Hearts:

We know our Bibles well enough to know that grace, properly understood, does not lead to a life of moral outrage. “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” (Rom. 6:1). Of course not. We know the Scriptures in this, but I am afraid that we do not know our own hearts. God’s grace is a tsunami that will carry us all away, and deposit us in places we would not have anticipated–and all of it good. We analyze all this carefully, and say that we want our grace to be true and pure water, just like the tsunami, but we want it to be a placid pond on a summer day that we can inch across gingerly, always keeping one pointed toe on what we think is the sure bottom of our own do-gooding morality. As the old blues song has it, everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. Everyone wants to cross the Jordan, but nobody wants to swim.

Back to the Shepherds:

God has declared, through His angelic emissaries, His goodwill toward our world. He has declared His intentions for peace. He did not do this so that we would then drastically restrict the message to a tiny “club for peace and goodwill.” The gospel is for the world. The reason we have trouble with this is that we think it means having the world fit into our tiny club. But they wouldn’t fit, and they don’t want to come. That won’t fix anything. So God took unilateral action, and through His angels He made a unilateral declaration to some shepherds.


~ by Michael on December 14, 2006.

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