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Norman Rockwell was an illustrator in the previous century who, for over fifty years, created covers for The Saturday Evening Post magazine. While he painted Presidential portraits and engaged with hot-topic social and cultural issues such as the Second World War and the civil rights movement in the 60s, he is best known for capturing images of a simpler, if overly sentimentalized time when all seemed right with the world.
Of course, all wasn’t right with the world. Not even close. My black friends certainly do not look back upon the 50s with wistful nostalgia. But we deeply desire Rockwell’s world of peace on earth. Even if the perfect world didn’t really exist then, we long for it now. I haven’t met anyone who enjoys the economic stress, environmental catastrophes, social unrest, racial tensions, and pandemic angst we have lived and breathed over the past year.
Where do we look for the world we want? Not to Rockwell. Not the 40s or the 30s. We have to go all the way back to the early chapters of Genesis. In Eden, humanity experienced perfect peace. No racism. No violence. No theft. No financial crises, no health problems, no marital conflicts. And no insurance premiums. No stress. No anxiety. No worries.
Then, in one fell swoop with the great rebellion we call “the fall,” paradise was lost. In the garden, the first humans committed high treason against the King by believing and acting upon the lies of the enemy.
Living Under the Curse
Since that time, if perfect peace has been the longing of every human heart, it has been equally elusive. Like trying to catch the fog in your hands. The curse upon humanity now covers the globe, infecting every family unit, every political structure, every business, school, civic organization, non-profit, and church family. Even creation itself has suffered the effects of the curse.
But there is hope, because at the very same time paradise was lost, a promise was made. The promise focused on a descendant of Eve who would undo the curse.
That promise continued through Adam’s family line, from Seth down to Noah, Adam’s great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great-grandson. From Noah, the promise was carried through the family line of his son, Shem down to his great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great-grandson, Abraham. From Abraham, it passed through Isaac and Jacob and then to Judah. Eventually, “the Messianic line” would pass through a shepherd-king named David. Many more generations later, the promise of God to undo the curse would come to fulfillment in the city of David, where, the long-awaited descendant of Eve would be born.
His name would be Jesus.
Placing his birth in history, along with people, places, and dates, Luke 2 records the arrival of the newborn King, not upon a throne but in a manger, which was a simple, wooden feeding trough from which barn animals would eat hay.
At the realization of the Messianic promise being fulfilled in this child, an angel announced to a group of shepherds outside of Jerusalem that the Christ had been born. It was a message that was heralded as good news for a cursed world — news that would ripple through history, bringing great joy for those longing for liberation from the curse.
The Angels Sing
On the heels of the words “great joy” being spoken into the night sky, a host of angelic beings, likely thousands upon thousands, appeared to sing in a magisterial chorus, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to those on whom his favor rests.”
In this song, the angels sing of three things.
First, They Sing of Glory.
Glory is one of those words that we know is important but have a hard time defining what it means. In Hebrew, the word for glory is kabod, and means “weighty, substantive, and abundant.” Synonyms for glory in English include grandeur, greatness, and splendor. We speak of a glorious sunset that creates a sense of awe and wonder. We describe a championship victory as glorious as the crowd cheers and confetti falls.
The angels ascribe glory, praise, honor, and acclaim to God in the highest heaven because of the incarnation of God as a human being. The long-awaited promise that has traversed thousands of years was being fulfilled!
Up to this point, no event in human history carried more weight, more significance than what was taking place in Bethlehem, just six miles south of Jerusalem.
It had been so long. Over four-hundred years since God’s people had received any prophetic word from the LORD. Had he forgotten? Was it really true, anyway? Or was the promise an empty religious pipe dream?
No, he had not forgotten. It was true. The dream was alive — literally alive — with flesh and blood, wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. The glory of this moment and what it represented would echo the praises of God to the highest heaven as the angels sang at the top of their voices, “Glory to God in the highest!”
Second, They Sing of Peace.
But not just peace in heaven. They sing of peace on earth! Peace in our world, on this side of the garden. Now.
Whether we are able to articulate it or not, the peace we crave the most is not just a lower degree of financial stress or worry about whether or not we’ll get the job. We want peace with God. We most deeply desire forgiveness. Not cheap forgiveness that wears of by Wednesday, but real, lasting, substantive—glorious—forgiveness. The kind that lasts. The forgiveness that never wears off and will not ever, ever reveal the former stains of our sin.
This is the kind of forgiveness for which Jesus was born to secure.
In Matthew 1:21, the same angel who appeared to the shepherds in Luke 2 told Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, “[Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
The apostle Paul wrote to his pastoral disciple, Timothy, “ Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the worst.” (1 Timothy 1:15)
The same apostle would encourage the Roman believers, saying, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.” (Romans 5:1–2)
It is experiencing that kind of peace — peace with God — that influences every other kind of peace. When we know that we have a God who has loved us unto death, we are able to rest through the storms just like Jesus slept on the wave-tossed boat on the Sea of Galilee.
“Peace isn’t the absence of storms. It is the ability to rest in the storms.”
Finally, They Sing of Favor.
You may have noticed that the final line of the angels’ song has been translated in different ways.
KJV, “peace on earth, goodwill toward men.”
ESV, “peace on earth among those with whom he is pleased!”
NIV, “peace on earth to those on whom his favor rests.”
Each of these English translations is trying to adequately communicate the meaning of the Greek word, eudokia.
Eudokia is formed with two Greek words, one meaning “good” and the other meaning “to think or feel a certain way about something or someone.” When we put these two words together, we get the idea of “looking upon someone favorably.”
But why would God look favorably upon a sinner? Religion says that God looks favorably on those who are good. But the gospel tells us that God looks favorably upon sinners not because of the good they have done but because of the grace they have received.
The only way for God to think well of a sinner is because the baby who was laid a manger would be nailed upon a cross to break the curse of guilt by serving our sentence of death. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, “Christ redeemed [set us free] us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” (Galatians 3:13)
In Jesus, our chains of guilt are broken. Our sentence of death is revoked. And the curse is undone. On a cross, the Prince of Peace became the object of wrath so that the favor of the Father could rest upon us.
An Ancient Promise
The prophet who called the coming Messiah the Prince of Peace was Isaiah, who is the same prophet who calls us to believe and embrace an ancient promise, which says of the LORD, “You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you!” (Isaiah 23:6, NLT)
That is the simple two-fold application for each of us in view of the angels’ song.
First, trust that you are forgiven and that you are his. Believe that when he sees you, he is well-pleased. His favor rests on you. Not because of your own righteousness but because of the gift-righteousness of Jesus in which you now are clothed.
Second, fix your thoughts on him. As a beloved child of the Father, you may be confident that is working all things for your ultimate good as his redemptive story of grace unfolds — as hard as that story may be at times. We remember that story was excruciatingly painful for Jesus. Be encouraged that the Christ who suffered for us, died and rose is the sovereign Lord who reigns right now.
And so, like the Jews of old, we wait patiently and confidently—but not for the inauguration of the Kingdom in the first coming of the King. We wait for the return of the King and the consummation of his Kingdom when he makes all new things, where “He will wipe every tear and there will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain...” (Revelation 21:4)
Until then, we sing with the angels.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King!
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled.”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’ angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem.”