Glory and Peace in Luke’s Gospel
All scripture references are from Luke in the NRSV unless otherwise indicated
One of the most well-known stories of Christmas is that of a singing army of angels coming to shepherds in the field on the night of Jesus’s birth. The climax of the story is in the joyous song of a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (2:13b-14)
Glory and peace. These are two words which highlight the revolutionary nature of this story of this “good news of great joy for all the people…” (2:10). Unfortunately, in our modern glamorization and commercialization of Luke’s majestic Christmas story, it is easy to miss the real revolution that he is trying to convey. Thus, if we look at Luke’s Gospel more carefully, maybe we can more fully comprehend what is really happening.
Luke’s story involves the birth of not one, but two baby boys. In addition to Jesus, the other is John, born of Elizabeth, a relative of Jesus’s mother, Mary. As a rather eccentric young adult prophet out in the desert, John is usually known as “John the Baptist.” Luke is the only Gospel that focuses on John’s birth which is only slightly less remarkable and miraculous than that of Jesus. While Jesus was born of a virgin before she even had the human possibility of conceiving, John was born of an older woman who had likely tried for decades and was now past the point of conceiving even though still intimate with her husband, a priest named Zechariah.
So remarkable is the news, delivered by the angel, that Zechariah cannot comprehend or believe that having a son is even a possibility. He is literally dumbfounded! He cannot speak again, that is, until the baby is born and “He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’” Luke 1:63 (NRSV). And thereupon, to everyone’s utter amazement, Zechariah’s own prophetic words spill out. Those words go beyond just the baby boy right in front of him. Zechariah talks about God’s redemption and God’s raising up of “a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David… that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. (1:69–71) Zechariah is clearly talking about the Messiah, the promised king from David’s line who will initiate God’s ultimate revolutionary movement known as the Kingdom of God.
Only after Zechariah has put this miraculous birth in context of God’s great revolutionary work in history does he turn to baby John and say these words:
76And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
78By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
The revolution brings “salvation,” “forgiveness,” and “tender mercy.” Yet even more notable is the imagery of “dawn” and “light” which is clearly reflecting the glory of God invading the darkness and “the shadow of death.” And the result of this glory? It is to guide our feet into the way of peace.
The prophecy concerning the one coming before the arrival of the Messiah is remarkable. Even more remarkable is the revolutionary language in the message of the angel and then the army of angels at Jesus’s birth. During an ordinary night-time watch of shepherds in the fields, Luke reports in no uncertain terms, 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” Talk about being dumbfounded! These shepherds were “terrified”! Yes, a revolution is terrifying.
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: In the ancient world, messengers from the emperor ran throughout the empire announcing “good news.” Rejoice! The battle has been won! The emperor has conquered the enemies of the empire and its citizens!” Or, “An heir to the imperial throne has been born!” The difference is that here the messenger (“angel” is the ordinary Greek and Latin word for messenger) is from heaven, a messenger of the true Lord of heaven, none other than the Creator God. And the good news is not just for citizens of the empire, vast as it was, but truly for “all the people.”
The good news is this: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. The news is not just of a battle won, but a king born to take up the mantle of the kingdom. He is called “Messiah,” a Jewish term meaning anointed one, for anointing is what was done to recognize kings in the line of David. He is called “Lord,” an imperial term meaning he is sovereign over all the other kings. This was the claim of Rome: “Caesar is Lord.” Now, it is applied to another, in a most startling way, through a sign.
But the sign is not what you would expect. The messenger does not say, “You will find him in the imperial palace wrapped in fine linens and surrounded by admiring courtiers. No, the angel says this, “12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” Again, talk about dumbfounding! The future King is wrapped in ordinary cloth bands and his bed is an ordinary cattle feeding trough! Who would have thought?!
It is at this point that the angel host appears. They do not appear in order to intimidate or coerce or to utter death threats or to wage war in any conventional sense 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!” (2:9–14) The multitude of the heavenly host or in simpler terms the vast army from heaven utters two key words that we have seen before, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace…Glory and peace…there are those two words, those two concepts highlighted by the writer Luke.
But Luke doesn’t stop there. Eight days later, at Jesus’s dedication, an old man named Simeon also recognized the glory and peace in the baby Jesus. For Simeon, the praise is personal and the peace is personal.
28 Simeon took him [the baby] in his arms and praised God, saying,
29“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word; / 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
But even though the effect is personal for Simeon, it is also universal. In fact, it goes beyond even the people of God as they have been defined up to that point. Simeon says very pointedly that this is a salvation…
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles (in other words, the nations, the non-Jews)
And then he adds, and for glory to your people Israel.”
The glory of Israel now shines forth to all peoples and all nations. This is a true revolution, for here we have not just a Messiah King of the Jews, but one who has co-opted Caesar’s title of Lord of the whole world! (2:28–32)
But Luke gives us one more pairing of glory and peace. It occurs at the beginning of the last week of Jesus’s earthly life. By this time, John the Baptist was out of the picture. The eccentric prophet who had proclaimed the need for repentance and preparation for the coming of God’s Kingdom has been beheaded by a man recognized by history as a petty king named Herod.
Luke has already made it plain where Jesus was going: 51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. (9:51) The real King is now headed to the capital city. Along the way, Jesus is rejected by some and acclaimed by others. In Luke 10, he sends out his own messengers to prepare the way. He tells them, 5 Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ 6 And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. (10:5–6) On the way, Jesus teaches and heals, confronts demons and self-righteous teachers, welcomes tax collectors and sinners, blesses little children, and alienates the rich and famous. And while the crowds grow for his coronation, he privately tells his disciples he is going to the capital to die.
Jesus sends two of his disciples into the city to fetch a donkey. 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying,
“Blessed is the king /who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Luke 19:35–38 (NRSV)
There it is again: Glory and Peace. This is the crowd that would crown him and bring in the Kingdom of God he is proclaiming. The revolution is here. Jesus has arrived as Messiah! Luke reports that some of the Pharisees were nervous. They …said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” Luke 19:39–40 (NRSV)
Yet, Jesus does not seize the moment as one would expect of a king taking his rightful throne. For Jesus, glory and peace have a different meaning than they do for the crowd. Instead, 41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Luke 19:41–42 (NRSV)
Jesus’s way of glory and peace is not brought about by military might and territorial conquest. Jesus wept and continues to weep when his people don’t recognize the true nature of his kingdom. The common assumptions of the world about glory and power and bringing “peace” through military conquest are just accepted so often and taken for granted for so long that the things that make for true glory and peace become unrecognizable and hidden from human eyes, from our eyes.
Yet, the unfolding of that last week of Jesus’s earthly life should make it plain. Jesus rejects again and again all of the opportunities to bring in the commonly assumed version of the Kingdom of God. He refuses to unleash the power of a charismatic leader and a powerful army, even heaven’s army to force “peace” upon a rebellious and sinful world. God’s kingdom is not like that. A forced peace is no peace at all. The glory of military might soon fades. Jesus’s week ends on the cross, demonstrating the true power of unconditional suffering love. It is this love that invites humanity to voluntarily embrace God’s glory and peace. God’s method of conquest, while seen as upside down and foolish, is nevertheless validated by the resurrection of Jesus.
Sadly, as Christians today celebrate the first Advent (“coming”) and anticipate the Second Advent, there is still far too often the assumption that when Jesus comes again, he will unleash a violent revolution with the glory of military might to take out God’s enemies. Too often, “believers” voice their “belief” in a different Jesus from the one who gave his life and who invited us to love all people, even our enemies. But there is no different Jesus. If we believe that Jesus is truly the Son of God, the one who shows in human form who God really is and what God is really like, then we too will stand in front of Jerusalem or Washington, of Moscow or Beijing, of Tel Aviv or Tehran, or any of the other capitals of this world and weep anew. “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. (19:42)
Where will we find glory and peace at Advent and Christmas this year? With whom will we rejoice? With whom will we weep?