Heaven on Earth
Text: Luke 2: 1-20
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It was a night like so many others. The skies were perhaps a little clearer, but other than that, not much was out of the ordinary for these shepherds in the Judean hills. They were on the night shift, guarding the helpless sheep against nocturnal predators. Most of the flock was sleeping, but a few were still grazing and baaing. The shepherds themselves were feeling a little drowsy, as it happens with the everyday mundane routine.
But suddenly the night sky ignited into brilliant pure light. It looked as if it had instantly turned to day, or that they had been transported to the heart of the sun. When their eyes adjusted to the light, they could see that an angel—one of those messengers of God that they had heard of so many times when they heard the Scriptures read in the synagogue and temple—was right before them. And they knew what that meant: they, shepherds—unwashed from the field, unclean from all the who-knows-what in the pasture and the tasks of their everyday—they were in the presence of perfect holiness, and that’s not a good thing for anyone with even a speck of uncleanness or unholiness.
But this messenger was not here to execute judgment, as angels had in the past, when they wiped out entire armies of those who would harm God’s people. This messenger had a different purpose: “Fear not,” the angel said, “for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And after these words of comfort and promise, the rest of heaven’s messengers arrived, the innumerable choir of heaven, singing “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to His people on earth.” The shepherds saw—and heard—that they were now in the company of heaven. This grazing pasture was now heaven on earth.
Heaven on earth. It sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? It’s been the dream of humanity ever since we had to leave the paradise of Eden. And yet, in spite of all our projects to bring about heaven on earth—whether it’s grandiose projects like the Tower of Babel, political platforms of this or that candidate, or the social engineering efforts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—we always fall short. We haven’t achieved heaven on earth. For every advance we make, we regress somewhere else. For every person who benefits, another pays a steep cost. And it’s not just the projects of society at large that have failed at this. It happens to us at an individual level too. We seek all those things that we’re told will make us happy, give us peace, make us prosperous, make us comfortable, take away pain. But they never quite deliver. One thing makes us happy, but it’s costs us another thing. We might be succeeding by the world’s measure, but we lose something of ourselves. Something might feel good—or at least feel better—but it’s not joy, not something that really catches our soul in wonder and holds it there in a lasting way. It’s heaven on earth we’re after, but we’re always chasing it; and we’re always falling behind.
Our God knows this. That’s why, even though we can never reach heaven on earth through our own striving, He delights to pull earth up to heaven. We see it in the shepherd’s field as the great heavenly host sings, “Glory to God in the highest,” that is, heaven, “and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” Heaven and earth, united, in the hills outside Bethlehem.
God does this for you too. For you have heard that great song of the angels tonight: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to His people on earth.” You’ve been surrounded by the glory of the Lord as His Word has been proclaimed here. And although you can’t see them, the heavenly host has sung with you, “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of power and might,” the song they sing in the heavenly temple, the song that the prophet Isaiah was given to hear, our song that comes into perfect harmony with the angels in this very sanctuary as you sing it before receiving the Lord’s Supper. You have been given heaven on earth.
Now at this point you may balk. Sure, pastor, whatever you say. And if you trust your eyes, there might be reason to doubt it. For even though I’m up here talking about heaven on earth, aren’t there still wars and rumors of war? Isn’t there still disease and sickness? Aren’t there those in the pews here who are grieving their first Christmas without loved ones? Won’t people go home from the service to cold homes because they can’t afford the heat, or lonely houses because they’re forgotten, or broken homes, or no home at all? Aren’t things still as messed up as ever out there, or even in here, among pews full of people who we still trespass against and who trespass against us?
Don’t think that the shepherds were clueless about this either. For even while the multitude of the heavenly host sang in their field about heaven and earth being united in peace and goodwill, corrupt and cruel Herod was still on his throne in Jerusalem. The Roman Empire still stood on Israel’s throat and waged war on every front. People were still cheated in the marketplaces. Worshipers still bowed down before idols of stone and wood and gold and pleasure. Heaven was on earth there, but that didn’t mean that everything suddenly would be perfect and easy in this fallen world.
That’s why, when the angels went away and the night resumed its deep clear darkness, when heaven and earth were parted there in the field, the shepherds decided to go and see what had happened in Bethlehem that the angels had told them about. And it was there, in the manger, that they found the more permanent, lasting heaven on earth, for God had taken on human flesh and blood in order to live with humanity forever. The Son of God now shares human nature so that we will always be brought into contact with the divine, with God Himself, with heaven. Because He is both God and man, wherever Jesus is, there is heaven on earth. Wherever we find Jesus, we find God and man meeting, bound together forever.
This is why the shepherds had such jubilee. It’s why their joyous strains were prolonged and they glorified and praised God for all they heard and seen, even as they returned to their workaday world watching over the flocks. And it’s why you, when you have met Jesus here in this place, wrapped in bread and wine, woven into water and Word, blessing you in forgiveness and wisdom—it’s why you have heaven on earth in in the face of what the world can throw at you. The Son of God has bound Himself to you. Born to you this night is a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. What could possibly stop Him from bringing you all the gifts of heaven? What could possibly cut off the joy knowing that wherever Jesus is, there’s heaven, with Him are your loved ones who have gone before you in the faith, with Him is your peace in the midst of the storm, your comfort in your distress, your forgiveness for yourself and others, your eternity in the face of the quickly passing urgent moment.
And that’s why we sing. It’s why we sing a lot tonight. Because if you take a look at Scripture, every time heaven shows up, everyone is singing. Go ahead and look it up sometime. Whether it’s the heavenly temple described by the prophets, or the heavenly choir in the shepherds’ field outside Bethlehem, or the vivid descriptions of heaven in Revelation, everyone is singing all the time in heaven. That’s why we sing here. Here is heaven on earth. Here is your Savior, come to you, as He promised. Here is the good news that your God is with you, always, everywhere, with blessing and peace. Here is Jesus, born to you this night and always. In the name of Jesus, who brings you heaven. Amen.