O Sing a Song of Bethlehem: Hark the Herald Angels Sing

by | Dec 18, 2022


Meg Peery McLaughlin
O Sing a Song of Bethlehem: Hark the Herald Angels Sing
December 18, 2022
Luke 2: 8-20


Luke 2: 8-20

Now in that same region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,[b] the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,© praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”8
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them, 19 and Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told them.

This week, a middle-aged pastor friend, parenting a Generation Z daughter like I am,
sent me a Washington Post article — I think she sent it just to make me feel old.

The article was mostly fun, but at the heart, it was about the importance of our language, and how we so often get language wrong. The title was: Gen Z came to ‘slay.’ Their bosses don’t know what that means. I laughed, having just received a text from my kid with that. exact. word.

Children of God born between the years 1997 and 2012,
use the word slay to mean “good job” or “you’re killing it”—

Not that I’m cool at all,
but I’ll also note that the word often it’s paired with queen,
and I don’t mean the English one,
– so you could say, Slay Queen and that would be an extreme compliment.

A least that’s what I understand.
I eagerly await everyone under the age of 20 correcting me after worship.

Aren’t they fascinating?

On this last Sunday of Advent,
as Luke’s Gospel speaks of shepherds and angels
we pull into our worship spotlight the hymn that sings this story –
Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.

Do we have any folks here with Methodist roots?
Well, friends, one of your great saints penned this one,
along with more than 6,000 others.
Charles Wesley wrote Hark! The Herald Angels Sing 1739,
requesting it be sung to a slow and solemn tune,
but thankfully about a hundred years later, Felix Mendelssohn got a hold of it,
and it’s now solidified into a Christmas favorite.

Wesley loved words.
Lyrics of hymns were how he taught the faith.
Each word was important,
which is why it’s intriguing to me that Wesley’s words were changed .

If you want to get nerdy for a bit, you can pull your hymnal out—Hark is number 119.

Instead of the first couplet that you read there,
Wesley wrote:

Hark, how all the welkin rings! / Glory to the King of Kings.

Now, the meaning of the word welkin is even less familiar than slay.
The welkin is the sky, the heavens.
Shakespeare used the word, but I doubt a single Gen Z-er has ever heard of it.

When Luke tells us that shepherds were living in the fields,
keeping watch over their flock by night,
there was no ambient light, no city lights glowing from a distance.
The sky would have been dark. Dark, dark.
The night is interrupted by an angel of the Lord,
Luke says the “glory of the lord shone around them.”
I bet it did feel like the whole sky was alight,
all of heaven clamoring for the shepherds attention.

And what the heavens declare is Glory! Glory to the King of Kings!

Your hymnal says Glory to the new-born king.
And that’s true: this king was indeed born,
swaddled, diapered, nursed, burped,
like every other king who has walked this earth has been.
But Wesley used the words King of Kings,
indicating something more permanent is happening in this king,
this king whose reign will have no end.
Wesley was trying to communicate something bigger, something cosmic.
Indeed, later in the song he writes
“Universal nature say
“Christ the Lord is born today”

Maybe theologians back then were as fussy about universal salvation
as some still are today, but that line got changed too.

Carry such weight.
Bear such meaning.
No offense to Wesley’s work,
but I’ll confess there are other words that I wish he’d worked into the hymn:
the first words out of the angel’s mouth. Did you notice?
In the dark of night, the welkin is bright as day and the shepherds hear:
Do not be afraid.
Maybe there aren’t more important words than those.

It’s the same thing the angel says to Mary at the annunciation.
Angel shows up to tell her she’s pregnant. Do not be afraid.

It’s the same thing the angel says to Joseph when he’s contemplating how to handle this scandal. Do not be afraid.

It’s really what angels always say, you see.
Do not be afraid.

Angels know their words matter.
But they are super careful, it seems to me,
to make sure that what happened to Wesley not happen to them.
They choose their words very intentionally.

It is very clear that the angels say
Do not be afraid.
They did not say, and still do not say,
There’s nothing to be afraid of.

Did you hear the difference?
Oh, the words, the words matter.

Because there is plenty to be afraid of.
The shepherds knew that too.

They were shepherds after all. They lived life on the margin. Almost off the page.
A few verses before our reading this morning, Luke reports that “In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”
And the carpenter Joseph and poor Mary his awkwardly pregnant fiancé have to travel to Bethlehem. Well, notice the shepherds aren’t heeding the Emperor’s power play, they are so low on the social strata that they aren’t part of the census.

Their marginalized life meant that they were doing all they could to scrape by. Scholars tell us that in the first century, shepherds were “scorned as shiftless, dishonest people who grazed their flocks on others’ lands.”

Imagine it again, in the dark of night, scratching out a living on borrowed land.
How could they not be afraid? Even before the welkin changed hues?

When that big spotlight shines on them, and they would immediately expect to be found guilty. But instead they are found wrapped in glory, in grace,
surrounded by the words: Do not be afraid.

Most of us here in this blissfully warm sanctuary
have different things to be afraid of than the shepherds.
But all of us here know what it is to be afraid. Yes, we all know that.

Which is perhaps why we come together, here….
which is perhaps why we still love to sing this old song of angels singing.
For the angels know that which we fear
does not and cannot ultimately harm or rule us,
for the King of Kings has been born.

Yes, that is why we will belt out this hymn on this last Sunday of Advent.

And perhaps, having been so mindful of Wesley’s words as we sing,
we’ll go from here,
careful with our own language.

Perhaps, church, we could be echoes of the angels
speaking careful words into the dark.
Perhaps we could be known as those who choose words quite intentionally.
Speaking in our own lives words like—
I love you. I’m sorry. Yes. I promise. No.
Help please. I’m here. Let’s try again. Thank you.

Yes, indeed, may we be those in this community that use words
words of peace, rare, elusive, much-needed peace
words of honest, humble hope
words of unexpected, delightful joy
words of authentic, unconditional, love

So that all generations will look at us, and say: Slay, church. Slay.