In Jesus’ day, shepherds were the working poor. They were considered to be uneducated and stood near the bottom of the social ladder. I suppose Mike Rowe would feature them on “Dirty Jobs.” Shepherds were the last people you would think of to give a significant, world-shattering, breaking news type of announcement. And yet Shepherds were the very people God spoke to through angels, announcing the birth of His Son.
If the flock was quiet, it would be easy to drift into sleep in the stillness of the night. But the still quiet of the night provides the backdrop for us to hear the voice of God most clearly. God chose to reveal the incarnation of His Son to humble shepherds in the quiet of the night. I wonder how often I have missed the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit in the hustle and bustle and noise that fills so much of my life?
Suddenly, an angel appeared to them and God’s glory was unleashed around them. And they were terrified. “Sore afraid” as it says in the King James Version. Have you ever been so frightened as to ache with tension? Angels are imposing and glorious beings when fully revealed in God’s glory. They are the “heavenly host” or “angel armies” that do the bidding of Almighty God. The first words spoken that night to the shepherds were words of reassurance.
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid…” (Luke 2:10 NIV)
When we stand in the presence of God’s glory, we are afraid. And rightfully so. In the presence of the Holy One, all of our unholiness raises the fear of judgment. What will a Holy God do with a most certainly unholy creature like me? Squash me like a spider? Speak me into nothingness as easily as He spoke the universe into existence from nothingness? What powerful, comforting words: Do not be afraid. God is Holy, but He is also Love. And because He loves us with unconditional, agape love, we who are covered by the Blood of His Son have nothing to fear in His presence.
The angel went on to announce incredibly good news:
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11 NIV)
Good news of great joy. That’s what Christmas is all about. Frosty and Rudolph and Santa and the Grinch are all okay in their context. But they do not get at the real meaning of Christmas. Giving gifts and family gatherings are all part of the celebration of Christmas, but the meaning of Christmas is far more than that. The good news of great joy is a birth announcement! Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord!
God’s people had received a prophetic promise centuries before of the coming of God’s Messiah (his Anointed One). This Messiah would establish God’s Kingdom for all time. This Messiah would right every wrong and usher in a Kingdom of shalom – of peace and well-being that restored the vision of the origins of creation itself. This Messiah would rule on David’s throne forever. Some in Israel still lived in the hope of the coming of the Anointed One, even after centuries had passed without the fulfillment of the promise. And this night was the night of its fulfillment.
The shepherds could not have comprehended what the birth of Jesus meant. God was breaking into His creation in flesh-and-blood to make redemption. This was an invasion of the kingdom of the prince of this world, a fallen angel named Lucifer. Even from this side of the cross and the empty tomb we have trouble fully understanding it all. The shepherds only knew that God was doing something amazing and wonderful. I hope and pray that I never lose the amazement and wonder of what Christmas means. A Savior has been born! For the whole world. And for me. Thanks be to God!
Suddenly, the angel who appeared to the shepherds was not alone.
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests.” (Luke 2:13-14 NIV)
A great company of the heavenly host appeared. A hundred other angels? A thousand? A million? It would be overwhelming. Their message was as significant as the message of the first angel: Glory to God. Peace on earth. Messiah is born to glorify God. I was created to glorify God. All the glory goes to God. Humanity lives in open rebellion against the God who created us. Jesus was born to make peace. Not to negotiate peace – we have more than a peace treaty with the Almighty. But to end the hostility completely and forever by destroying the peace-breaker, Satan, and all his works. To quell the rebellion by changing the hearts of the rebels, setting us free from our fallen sin nature and its effects. Glory to God. Peace on earth.
This is the message and meaning of the birth of Jesus. This is what Christmas really celebrates. Redemption. Forgiveness. Eternal life. Freedom from sin and guilt and addiction and brokenness and death. The manger leads to the foot of the cross. The cross is not the ending, though. The empty tomb rewrites the ending, for Jesus and for us. He is risen! He is ascended and sits at the right hand of the Father, ever interceding for us. Jesus is praying for you and for me. He will return one day to fully defeat the enemy of our souls and usher in the final, eternal Kingdom of God’s shalom.
The cross has no meaning for us if the manger didn’t happen. The death of a human, Jewish rabbi does not make the perfect sacrifice for sin. The death of the incarnate Son of God does. Christmas isn’t Christmas without Good Friday. But Good Friday isn’t Good Friday without Christmas, either. Our redemption – the birth, life, death, resurrection and eventual second coming of Jesus – is exactly what the angels announced to the shepherds that night. And it is good news that causes great joy, isn’t it?
Next Sunday is Christmas Day. The anticipation is building. Glory to God!