Why the angels sang…

Posted by on Dec 2, 2016 in Blog | 4 comments

With the Advent season officially upon us, I thought it would be worth turning our thoughts towards Christmas. In an Advent message a few years ago I asked the question if the angels were right to sing a song of joy the night Jesus was born. Would a dirge not have been more appropriate given the shameful response Jesus met with? Here are some of the things I said…

When at high school I was the chairman of the school debating team. I quickly learnt that there were two sides to just about any argument, and that it didn’t really matter if we were asked to propose or oppose a motion. There would always be something to say. I once had to propose the motion: “The daily newspapers do more harm than good.” I mustered some pretty strong arguments in favour of that… and then discovered I was supposed to be opposing the motion. It wasn’t a problem. In no time I had jotted down some telling points about the good the media did. When it was my turn to speak I argued my case every bit at passionately as I would have if I hadn’t changed sides.

So here is something we can debate about… Granted that the angels sang on the night of Jesus birth (Luke 2:13-14), should their song have been one of joy or sadness…

Now I know that you’ll all rush in and say: “But we know it was a song of joy. Just read the text. Luke 2:10 says ‘I bring you good news of great joy…’” Ah, but that’s the issue. Should the angels have sung a song of delight or a dirge of mourning and sadness?


Don’t answer too quickly. A strong case can be made for the dirge. Have you thought about these points…

  • A heavily pregnant woman after a long journey by donkey is about to go into labour. Seeking privacy for the birth, she and her husband try to find shelter at a local inn. But the innkeeper is totally indifferent to their plight. The best he can come up with is to allow them to sleep in the stable outside. Mary and Joseph were strangers to this part of the country and are treated as such. The complete lack of concern for her would be shameful at any time and whoever she was. How much more so that the woman who was carrying the Son of God should be humiliated in this way. Usually when babies are born we welcome them with wonderful nurseries and heaps of family support and encouragement. But Mary is shoved to the margins and told to be as invisible as possible. She must blend in with the cattle. There was no other place for her. So why should one sing a song for that?
  • Jesus might have been the King of the Universe, but He sure wasn’t treated like one. His family was poor and without influence. The “swaddling bands” he was wrapped in were just strips of cloth from clothes too old and tired to be mended again. They were then bandaged around the child to give him some warmth. Only the poorest families dressed their children like that. God might have been visiting our planet, but we certainly did our best to give him the most inhospitable of receptions. So why should we sing joyfully about that…
  • When Jesus is presented at the temple in Jerusalem, just a short distance from Bethlehem, wise old Simeon comes up and recognizes that this child is the Messiah. He makes his famous comments: “This child is destined to cause the rising and fall of many in Israel…” And then he looked intently at Mary and said: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” The shadow of the Cross hung over his birth. Would you have sung if you heard those words?
  • The ruling King of the region, Herod, hears that a child, born to be king, has come to his region. A despotic ruler of astonishing cruelty, Herod not only had enemies killed with monotonous regularity, but also members of his own family. One historian reflecting on how many of his own sons Herod killed wrote, “It was safer to be Herod’s pig, than Herod’s son.” No sooner is the child born than this power hungry ruler starts to seek his blood. Needing to flee the impending disaster, Jesus and his parents escape to Egypt. There they live as refugees until after Herod’s death. Why sing joyfully when that was just around the corner?
  • Herod may have missed out on killing the Christ child, but many other children in Bethlehem were killed in the unsuccessful effort to execute Jesus. Matthew 2:16-18 is the least popular part of the Christmas story. It tells how Herod organized for the execution of all boys under two years and living in Bethlehem. Verse 18 tells of the mothers who wept and wept and wept as a result of that terrible cruelty. If you were one of those mothers, would you have joined the angels in joyful song?

One of my favourite Christmas songs is “O Holy Night…” But you can sure understand why some can argue that it was a night of infamy…


Let’s change hats. Sure, everything wasn’t as it should have been that Holy night, but the Bible is very clear that the angels sang with joy and were adamant that the message they brought was one of great joy… (Luke 2:10) How can we make sense of this?

I can’t claim that either Rosemary or I know the great and famous of the world. No famous film stars have sought me out for wise counsel. Bill Gates has never asked for my advice on how to administer his billion dollar charity. And no sporting greats have asked me how they could improve their game. For all that, from time to time we have invited people to our home who by our standards seem pretty impressive. We have always done our best to make sure they feel comfortable and welcome.

In doing that we have felt, “Well, we’re glad they came. And we have done our part in trying to make them have a pleasant experience.”

The Christmas story moves in entirely the different direction. It tells us that the loftiest of all has graced this planet with his presence. It wasn’t that he had a Fawlty Towers type of reception. It wasn’t bumbling incompetence Jesus met with. It ranged from indifference to active hostility.

And I want to suggest that that is why the angels sang. Fancy God being willing to come to a world like this. No welcome mat out, no generous or gracious reception. “Just a ‘don’t have that baby by the rest of the guests. The cattle shed will do for the likes of you…” Or Herod’s more evil, “tell me where the child is that I might… kill him…”

The wonder of Christmas is that God came at all! But he did…

And so the angles sang that for us humans there was a cause to rejoice. Oh yes, we have turned this planet into a grubby kind of a place where kings kill and ordinary people are indifferent to the plight of others. It is a world where aeroplanes deliberately crash into buildings to do optimal damage. It is a world where in spite of more than enough food to go around, a billion people go to bed hungry every night. If Jesus was an early refugee as a result of Herod’s madness, he is one of many millions more as the years have rolled around.

The tardiness is not always so dramatically obvious. Sometimes it is simply the coldness and indifference of our hearts. Why should we find room for others? Our self-preoccupation takes all the available space.

And yet the Christmas story proclaims that God comes to such a world because He loves it, wants to restore it and wants to show us how we can have friendship with Him. Of course the angels told us they had a message of good news.

Perhaps this Christmas you’re conscious of the seediness of life. Too many arguments, too many promises broken, too much selfishness, not nearly enough love.

Christmas says that it’s at times like that, that Christ is born. Jesus doesn’t wait until the world is squeaky clean before he will grace it with His appearance. He arrives in the midst of its hostility and cruelty and invites us to celebrate that another way is open…

So yes, there was much to be sad about at the birth of Jesus. The innkeepers and Herod’s of this world do great harm. But the good news is that they don’t frighten Jesus away.

Ah, and don’t forget that the characters of Christmas included shepherds and wise men and faithful Anna and elderly Simeon and Zechariah and Elizabeth and Mary and Joseph. Sure, there were many who did not respond to the birth of the Christ child. But there were others who did…

And that’s why the angels sang for joy. In spite of all the odds, God has broken through. And those who seek him, like the wise men of old, still find him as they follow the star to the strangest of palaces… the stable of Bethlehem.


  1. Just brilliant Brian. Thank you for your helpful perspective.

    • Thanks Becky. Always wonderful to hear from you.

  2. Always helpful, fresh, and wonderful. Thanks Brian.

    • Thanks Stephen – both for your comment, and for all that you do for the Christian community in Australia.

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