“THE ANGEL AND THE STARTLED SHEPHERDS”

SERIES: “ANGELS WE HAVE HEARD ON HIGH”

LUKE 2:8-20

DECEMBER 20, 2009

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            Once in a great while, as we are watching television, an announcer will suddenly break in and say, “We interrupt this program to bring you an important news bulletin,” and then he or she goes on to report some momentous event that has just taken place.

            Our Scripture reading reports such an occurrence.  Some shepherds weren’t watching television, rather they were watching over their flocks in a field near Bethlehem when suddenly an angel appeared and said, in effect, “We interrupt this night to bring you an urgent news bulletin: the Messiah has just been born a couple of miles away from here.”  Listen to the exact announcement .... Luke 2:8-20.

            The celebration of Christmas has been routinely handed down for centuries.  When it all began, however, it was hardly routine.  it was a startling intrusion into the life of the world, and this angelic visit differs in several ways from the other three visits we have studied in our Advent sermon series. 

            First of all, it is the only angelic appearance to a group of people, rather than just one individual.  In the Bible, it is unusual for angels to appear to several people at the same time.  In most cases, a solitary angel is seen and heard by a solitary individual.

            Second, this is the only time that there was more than one angel involved.  We have just one angelic spokesperson, but we have a multitude of angels accompanying the spokesperson.  Again, it is unusual in the Bible for a group of angels to visit someone.  In most cases, the angelic messenger is alone.  Here there is a “multitude of the heavenly host.”

            Third, this is the most spectacular, by far, of all the previous visits.  The statement, “The glory of the Lord shone about them,” was not made in the case of the other three visits we have studied.  In other words, these angels lit up the sky, and in addition to lighting up the sky, they also broke out into song.  It was a spectacular event.   Most angelic visits are startling; this one was super-startling, perhaps the greatest of all the divine interruptions recounted in the bible.

            So let’s take a closer look at the visit, and I want to divide the visit into three sections: the shepherds, the custom, the song.

            First, the shepherds.  Shepherds in first century Israel were at the very bottom of the social structure.  You've heard people say, "She cusses like a sailor."  In those days there was a saying, "He lies like a shepherd."  Fairly or unfairly, the character of a shepherd was not highly regarded.  Shepherds tended to be socially inept, hygienically-challenged, and culturally reviled.  Because their flocks made far too many demands upon them, they could not keep the detail of the ceremonial law; they could not observe all the meticulous hand-washings and rules and regulations, and so the good people of the day, the orthodox religious folk, despised them. 

            Taking this into consideration, can you imagine what that heavenly meeting was like at the DAA, the Department of Angelic Announcements?  I mean, throughout the years angels had made some pretty important announcements to some pretty important people, including prophets and kings and priests.  They had announced death, victory, defeat, judgment and mercy.  But the most important angelic announcement in the history of humankind was about to take place.  Angels had been called upon to announce the birth of God’s son.

            And I can imagine a strategy session at the Department of Angelic Announcements, where they begin brainstorming on how they want to make this particular announcement.  It seems like the most important announcement ought to be made to the most important people, in the most important place, at the most important time.  So the angels come up with a plan to make the announcement at high noon at the Temple in Jerusalem, during a great annual Jewish feast when people had swarmed the Temple grounds.  Of course, they decide to let the priests in on it first.

            And they are feeling pretty good about their plan until God walked into the room and made a few adjustments.  Instead of the Temple in Jerusalem, God chooses a hillside outside Bethlehem.  Instead of high noon during an annual feast, he chooses the nightshift.  Instead of priests, he chooses shepherds. 

            These particular shepherds, however, were very special shepherds.  You see, those in charge of the Tempe in Jerusalem had their own private flocks of sheep.  They needed the best sheep available because every morning and every evening an unblemished lamb was sacrificed to God, so they kept a private flock to ensure a quality sacrifice, and it was known that these flocks were pastured in nearby Bethlehem.  It is most likely, then, that these shepherds were in charge of the flocks from which the Temple offerings were chosen.  Think about it.  The shepherds who looked after the sacrificial Temple lambs were the first to see the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. 

            So these angels did not bring the wonderful message of Christ's birth to those who had influence.  They did not appear to the wealthy or to political or religious leaders.  Instead they came to the least significant, least respected, least likely people in the community.  So when God's messenger said he came to bring good news to all people, he demonstrated it by starting at the bottom, not the top.

            I like the way Max Lucado puts it.  He says,

 

            Had the angels gone to theologians, they would have first consulted their commentaries.  Had they gone to the elite, they would have looked around to see if anyone was watching.  Had they gone to the successful, they would have checked their calendars.  So they went to shepherds ... men who didn’t have a reputation to protect or an ax to grind or a ladder to climb.  Men who didn’t know enough to tell God that angels don’t sing to sheep and that messiahs aren’t found wrapped in rags and sleeping in a feed trough.

 

            Section two: the customs.  In Palestine the birth of a child was an occasion of great joy, especially if the child was a boy, and I’m not being sexist, I’m just reporting the historical fact,.  When the time of birth drew near at hand, friends and the local musicians gathered near the house.  When the birth was announced, if it was a boy, the musicians broke into music and song, and there was universal congratulations and rejoicing.  Unfortunately, if it was a girl the musicians would pack up and go silently away.

            But here’s Jesus, and he’s born away from his parents home, in a stable in Bethlehem, and therefore the friends and musicians could not gather.  So God makes the arrangements himself.  God provides the music, an angelic choir, and the angels sang songs for Jesus that it was impossible for earthly singers to sing. 

            I love just about everything about Christmas.  I love the music, the decorations, the food, Santa, elves, and cheesy movies.  I love presents and concerts and parties.  But first and foremost I love the carols, and I like to think every time we sing one of these carols, we follow in the footsteps or maybe better put  “the wing-prints” of the angels and gather with friends and musicians to announce to the world that Christ is born. 

            So, that was the custom.  Now, section three: the song.  The angelic spokesperson brought the news in verse 11:  To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah.  The great company of angels, however, brought the commentary on the news in a song.   Verse 14: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors. 

            This particular song has inspired composers for two thousand years.  Often called The Gloria after its first word in the Latin translation, it is the basis of modern choral works, traditional Christmas carols, and ancient liturgical chants.  The song is composed of two parts:  what it means for God, and what it means for us.  I want to focus on what it means for us.  For God it means glory, for us it means peace.

            Peace means a lot of things to a lot of people.  What does peace mean to a soldier in Afghanistan?  What does peace mean to a mother of a colicky child?  What does peace mean to a child whose parents won’t stop fighting?  It usually means the end of something, the end of a war, the end of non-stop crying, the end of heart-wrenching disputes. 

            So what kind of peace do the angels bring?  Is there a promise here for the soldier or the mother or the child?  Not really.  All those are temporary forms of peace.  Wars will break out again.  Babies will cry again.  Relationships will get strained again. And the world did not dramatically change after Jesus was born.  At least not outwardly.  Just look at the tragedy of Jesus’ life.  King Herod ordered the murder of dozens of baby boys because his own paranoia when he found out about the baby the wise men called, “The King of the Jews.”  That doesn’t sound all that peaceful.

            No, it’s a different kind of peace.  The Hebrews have a word for it:  shalom.  It refers to a blessedness, a fulness and it applies primarily to our relationship with God.  Because the Savior is born, we can fully experience peace with God, and because we are at peace with God we can eventually experience peace within ourselves and eventually peace with others.

            Leigh C. Bishop, a psychiatrist and military reservist, was stationed at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 2008. In the dim light of dusk, he watched as a procession of military vehicles approached the airfield, came to a stop, and carefully unloaded a flag-draped steel casket. He knew that somewhere in the U.S., a family was going to suffer a Christmas homecoming that no one wanted. It was a heartbreaking scene for Bishop to take in—and one all-too-familiar in war.

            But then, another scene from that same Christmas Eve.  In an article for Christianity Today magazine entitled "Christmas in Afghanistan," Bishop writes:

 

[After watching the casket be unloaded from the military vehicle], I find myself walking along … the main avenue of Bagram Airfield.  All is different …. Soldiers holding candles are belting out Christmas carols with gusto.  Down the street, luminaries brighten the walkway into the clamshell-shaped auditorium, where cheerful groups of uniformed men and women enter for a Christmas concert. Two blocks away, the chapel is filling for the six o'clock Christmas Eve service.

 

            C.S. Lewis wrote in an essay titled “Learning in War-Time” that war reveals a hunger in human beings for joy and meaning that will not be set aside for even the most difficult of circumstances.

            Jesus did not come just to provide an occasion to sing carols, drink toasts, feast, and exchange gifts.  But we are right to do these things, even as soldiers die and families grieve, because he came.  And in his coming, he brought joy and peace—the joy that overcomes our sorrows, and the only kind of peace that ultimately matters.  It's the peace of which the end of all wars, terrible as they are, is merely one token.  It's the peace that means the long war between the heart and its Maker is over. It's a peace treaty offered in Bethlehem and signed, in blood, on Calvary.

            Bishop concludes: "So joy to the world, and to every celebrating or grieving or hurting soul in it.  The Lord has come. Let heaven and earth—and even those who stand watch with lighted candles in the land of the shadow of death—sing."