SERMON TITLE: Angels from the Realms of Glory
TEXT: Psalm 85:1-3 (NLT)
SPEAKER: Josh Hanson
Watch the sermon here
It’s good to be back with all of you this weekend at Gateway Church. And there’s one thing I want you to know — and this is true if you’re worshiping with us for the first time or are joining us at our North Main Campus — I want you to know that God loves you and that I love you too.
We’re starting a brand new preaching series this weekend. And — believe it or not — we’re starting our Christmas series for this year. This Christmas we’re returning to an idea we looked at five years ago — and that’s how Christmas carols help tell the Christmas story. This year we’ll be looking at Christmas carols you’ll know and love — like Joy to the World, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and O Holy Night — but we’re starting our Christmas series by looking at a carol that’s not as popular as the ones I just mentioned — our carol for today is Angels from the Realms of Glory.
But — before we get to our carol — there’s a few other things that will be good for you to know. As I hope you’ve already seen — some of our worship and tech staff and volunteers have put together their own recordings of each of these carols that will be released each week during this series. So — by Christmas Eve — you’ll have recordings of all five of the carols in this series.
In addition to the Christmas carols — there are a few other items giving direction to this series. First, there’s the advent calendar. The advent calendar is a long tradition in the Christian church where each week — leading up to Christmas — there’s a focus on a specific theme — the themes being hope, love, joy, and peace. We’ve done our best to connect the words from a Christmas carol to the specific advent theme for each week.
Finally, our passage for this series — psalm eighty-five — admittedly isn’t what we usually think of when we think of Christmas. But — again — in church history — many passages have been used to tell the Christmas story. But we know that it doesn’t quite feel like Christmas if there’s no mention of Mary and Joseph or the shepherds, angels, and wisemen — so each week we’ll incorporate some of these classic Christmas passages in our services.
So — with that as our introduction to our Christmas series — if you have your Bible — please turn with me to Psalm eighty-five. I’m going to read the entire psalm — but we’ll only focus on the first three verses for today’s sermon. We’re in psalm eighty-five — beginning in verse one.
Psalm 85 (NLT)
1 Lord, you poured out blessings on your land! You restored the fortunes of Israel. 2 You forgave the guilt of your people — yes, you covered all their sins. 3 You held back your fury. You kept back your blazing anger. 4 Now restore us again, O God of our salvation. Put aside your anger against us once more. 5 Will you be angry with us always? Will you prolong your wrath to all generations? 6 Won’t you revive us again, so your people can rejoice in you? 7 Show us your unfailing love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation. 8 I listen carefully to what God the Lord is saying, for he speaks peace to his faithful people. But let them not return to their foolish ways. 9 Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him, so our land will be filled with his glory. 10 Unfailing love and truth have met together. Righteousness and peace have kissed! 11 Truth springs up from the earth, and righteousness smiles down from heaven. 12 Yes, the Lord pours down his blessings. Our land will yield its bountiful harvest. 13 Righteousness goes as a herald before him, preparing the way for his steps.
As I mentioned earlier — our carol for today is Angels from the Realms of Glory. One book — on the history of Christmas carols — states that this carol is “possibly the best-written sacred Christmas carol of all time.” The author of the carol — James Montgomery — was born in 1771 — to Irish parents who left their young son in a boarding school in Ireland while they left to be missionaries in the West Indies — both parents would die a few years later. So young James grew up without either of his parents, was never interested in school, and ended up flunking out and — for the next few years went from job to job with unemployment and homelessness mixed in.
James did have one academic interest — writing. He’d spend whatever money he had on pencils and paper to write poetry. He couldn’t get a publisher to take notice of him — but an editor — who was quite a radical — liked what he saw in Montgomery’s poetry and hired him to do what he loved most — to write for the paper. I called the editor a radical because he was eventually run out of town by powers that be — leaving the twenty-three year old James to keep the newspaper going.
Now — we Americans are familiar with US history — but Irish history — probably not so much. What was happening at this time was a stirring for Ireland to be free from England. And James used the paper to keep the revolution alive — which landed him in prison multiple times. He was also a big opponent to slavery which he wrote about often — also getting himself in trouble. And — it was during this time — that he studied the Bible to understand what had motivated his parents to move across the world and ultimately give their lives. And it seems that in 1816 he had discovered their motivation — their belief that Jesus was the Messiah.
On December 24th, 1816 — those who opened the paper hoping to read another fiery headline calling for revolution in the land — instead found a poem titled “Nativity” which would eventually become the Christmas carol Angels from the Realms of Glory. Some of the lines in the original poem have since been removed from the carol as we know it — but much of it remains the same.
Now this is where the story of our carol gets really interesting. If not for a — wait for it — Englishman — Montgomery’s poem would’ve most likely been forgotten and never become the carol that it is today. Remember, James wanted freedom from England — yet an Englishman has an important role in the story of our carol.
Henry Smart was one of England’s biggest revolutionaries — he wasn’t fighting for a revolution for Ireland — but for a revolution in church music. You see — Henry was one of the best organists and composers in all of England. And — at this point in history — the organ wasn’t accepted in the church of England. But Smart was pushing boundaries and writing new music styles for hymns in the church and trying to get them accepted by church leadership.
Twenty-years after James Montgomery had written his poem — Henry Smart composed music to go along with the words. And this began a partnership between the two men. They joined forces with Montgomery writing words for hundreds of hymns that Smart put to his new musical style and this ended up revolutionizing worship in England.
Now — I’ve mentioned that our carol for today is the least known of our series — here are some of its words.
Angels from the realms of glory, Wing your flight o'er all the earth; Ye who sang creation's story, Now proclaim Messiah's birth: Come and worship, Come and worship, Worship Christ, the newborn King!
Shepherds, in the fields abiding, Watching o'er your flocks by night, God with man is now residing, Yonder shines the infant Light; Come and worship, Come and worship, Worship Christ, the newborn King!
Sages, leave your contemplations, Brighter visions beam afar; Seek the great desire of nations, Ye have seen his natal star; Come and worship, Come and worship, Worship Christ, the newborn King!
Saints before the altar bending, Watching long in hope and fear, Suddenly the Lord, descending, In his temple shall appear: Come and worship, Come and worship, Worship Christ, the newborn King!
So — with that as the background to our carol — let’s allow our biblical text, our advent theme of hope, and our carol lead us all to worship Christ the newborn King.
LOOKING BACK TO GOD’S FAITHFULNESS
The psalms that come just before ours highlight the up and down relationship between God and his people. There are times when the people are rebellious and find themselves far from God and — during other times — they are faithful in gathering to worship him. Now — many scholars believe that our psalm was written as a prayer near the end of the Babylonian exile. So — this psalm was written after the consequence of their sin and rebellion — the people were conquered and exiled to live in Babylon for seventy years. And — now — the time of living in exile is coming to an end and our psalm is a prayer written on behalf of God’s people. Thus — it begins — by remembering God’s faithfulness to his people in the past.
Psalm 85:1–2 (NLT)
1 Lord, you poured out blessings on your land! You restored the fortunes of Israel. 2 You forgave the guilt of your people — yes, you covered all their sins.
Now — there’s nothing specific for us to go on to know exactly what’s being referred to here. There are many times — in the people’s history — where God pours out blessing on the land. There are many times when he restores the fortunes of the nation. There are many times that God forgives the guilt of his people and covers their sin. If you’ve been with us during our Finding Jesus series — then you’re very familiar with these themes because this is the history of God’s people which is repeated over and over again in the Old Testament.
The people demonstrate unfaithfulness, rebellion, and sin — with sporadic moments of faithfulness and devotion to God — all while God uses both discipline and mercy to draw the people back to him. They don’t deserve blessings on their land — they don’t deserve having their fortunes restored — they don’t even deserve being forgiven of their sins — and yet God — because he is loving, kind, gracious, and patient with his people — he blesses them, restores their fortunes, and forgives them of their sins.
When you look back over your life — can you see how God was at work in your life? Maybe you couldn’t see it then — and maybe — if right now is a particularly difficult season you may not see how he’s at work — but think back to a moment from years ago that seemed hopeless and dark — as if there was no light at the end of the tunnel — when you look back — can you see now God’s blessing even though you couldn’t see it then? Can you see his faithfulness? Can you see the restoration he was doing even though you were completely unaware of it at the time?
This doesn’t mean that there still isn’t heartache from that season of life — but heartache doesn’t mean God wasn’t being faithful to you. Remember — God’s people were most likely in exile when our psalm was written. I can’t even imagine what that must’ve been like. Conquered by a foreign nation. Kicked out of — not only my home — but my homeland. Forced to live in a country with foreign food, a foreign language, in a foreign culture, with foreign gods. I mean — I know some of you love to travel — but me — I like being home. And this kind of resettlement — being forced to live somewhere else and knowing that this was a consequence due to the sin of my people — well — that’d be a difficult season — to say the least — especially when it’s a seventy year long season.
LOOKING AHEAD WITH HOPE
Now what I love about the opening of our psalm — is how the writers held on to hope by looking back to God’s faithfulness to his people in the past. One writer says this about the opening of our psalm. It “functions as a hope for the future completion of the kingdom. It is a prayer that stands as a constant hope for the people to strive for the promises of God.” A constant hope for the people to strive for the promises of God. I love that quote. That’s what Christmas is all about, right? Looking back to God’s faithfulness to his people which gives us hope for the future.
God had made promises to his people — promises that weren’t fulfilled in the years after their exile was over. They returned to Jerusalem — but the temple was destroyed — I mean the entire city was destroyed. They try to rebuild things but the hope-filled expectation of our psalm — God pouring out his blessings on the lands, the restoration of Israel’s fortunes, the guilt of the people being forgiven and covered — they’re all left unfulfilled. The people know that God’s promised something more to them — and they’re holding on to hope that God — who’s been nothing but faithful to them in the past — will be nothing but faithful to them in the future.
And that’s why the New Testament interrupts what turns out to be not just a seventy year exile — but an exile of waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled that went on for hundreds of years. But then — on that first Christmas morning — hope broke through.
The Christmas passage that was read earlier — from Matthew’s gospel — begins with the words: This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. Jesus is the One who was born to save his people from their sins — and he is the One who was born to show us that God is with us. Hope broke through that first Christmas morning and it began to spread in a dark and hopeless world. The Messiah — the Savior — was born. And — we know what he will accomplish: He will save his people — he will rescue them — not just from an oppressing nation — like the Egyptians or the Assyrians or the Babylonians — Jesus was born to save his people from their sin. He was born to offer forgiveness for our sins — he was born to cover our sins with his blood.
Which leads us back to our carol — Angels from the Realms of Glory. Think of how our carol — in few words — describes the hope we’ve been reflecting on. The carol begins by looking back to the time when God spoke all things into existence — the moment of creation. And the angels who witnessed God creating our first parents — Adam and Eve — thousands of years later witnessed the birth of God’s promised Messiah.
Next — we look back to the shepherds whose night was interrupted by an angelic host who tells them that God now dwells with man — that God is with us — which is how Matthew describes the birth of Jesus. Then our carol has us look back to the wise men who saw the star of Bethlehem which indicated the birth of the One who came to cover the sins of his people — which he would do so by his sacrifice on the cross. But this star not only indicated that he had been born — the star indicated where he had been born. For God had made a promise — hundreds of years earlier — a promise to his people — that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem — and the star pointed the wisemen to Bethlehem for that is where God’s King had been born.
Finally, there are the saints — of our carol — who’ve been watching long in hope and fear. History tells us that James Montgomery was thinking of Simeon and Anna here. The man and woman waiting for God’s Messiah to be born — waiting for the Lord to descend from Heaven and appear at the temple — which is what happens when they both see the Christ child whom they had been longing to appear.
So I hope you appreciate what James Montgomery has done in his carol. He’s had us look back, and look back again, and look back again and again to God’s faithfulness to his people while penning these words we now sing as a carol. But remember — we’re not only to look back to God’s faithfulness — we’re to look forward to his future faithfulness and do so with great hope — which brings me to one last observation about our carol.
Now — I don’t know if Montgomery intended to do this or not — but his last stanza does point us forward. “Wait, what? You just covered the last stanza and showed us how it points us back to Anna and Simeon.” Well I think that the last words of our carol both point us to God’s faithfulness in the past and fix our eyes on the future — to a promise not yet fulfilled — though it’s a promise guaranteed. And — this guaranteed future promise gives God’s people great hope. So — if you’re in need of some hope this Christmas season — if you’ve been in a season where hope has been sparse — know that — if you believe in Jesus — this promise is yours — it’s guaranteed — and it gives hope. So what’s the promise?
The promise is this: the babe born on that first Christmas morning is the King of kings and Lord of lords — he is the promised Messiah and Savior — the One whose blood would be the atonement — the covering — for the sins of all who turn to him in faith. And — after defeating Satan, sin, death, and Hell on the cross — and after rising from the grave — Jesus ascended to Heaven where he reigns and rules right now as King and Lord. And — the promise of hope that’s yet to be fulfilled — is the promise that Jesus will return. One day — one glorious day in the future — Jesus will descend from Heaven — this time not as a babe — but as the One to whom every knee will bow down and every tongue confess that he is the King of all kings and the Lord of all lords. And he will come to make all things new. And the invitation to all of us — the invitation repeated again and again in Angels from the Realms of Glory — is the invitation to come and worship. To come and worship. To come and worship Christ the newborn King.
We’re being invited to come and worship Christ the King. You’re being invited — right now — to come and worship Jesus Christ who is the King. To worship the One in whom hope is found. The One who made hope possible. The One who came to earth — and has promised to come again — so that your life and mine — will be full of hope. How will you respond to the hope being offered to you in Jesus Christ? He is offering you hope today — hope guaranteed to all who come and worship him.
Heavenly Father, what hope we have because of your faithfulness to your people. We rebel — you are faithful. We sin — you are merciful. We turn away from you — you draw us back. No matter the lengths we go to run — your great plan of salvation will not be thwarted. What hope we have.
Spirit of God, thank you for the wonderful promises that have been fulfilled for us. Undeserved blessings, restorations, forgiveness, and mercy. None of these are deserved — but what marvelous gifts they are. Thank you for being such a wonderful gift giver — help us to cherish your gifts.
And — Jesus — you are the promised Messiah, the Savior from Heaven, God’s great Rescuer. You are the child born — fulfilling promises of old — Immanuel — God with us — a truth that is astounding — the One who will return as King of kings and Lord of lords. We have heard your invitation today — to come and worship you. May you receive the worship of your grateful people — people who know they don’t deserve your forgiveness, mercy, and love — but have been promised that we are the recipients of your forgiveness, mercy, and love because we worship you — Christ the King. In your name we pray. Amen.
May you go with great hope as you worship Jesus Christ who is the King of all kings. Amen.
God loves you. I love you. You are sent.