Summary: God has come to you in a way you can see…in a way you can touch…in a way you can understand. God has come, not to overwhelm you with terror, but to reach out to you with gentleness. Come see the baby. He will show you the way.
Outside of Bethlehem, every night of the year, for thousands of years, there have been shepherds watching their flocks by night.
In that respect, this particular night was no different from any other. At least, it started out no different from any other. Sheep huddled in the cold night air. Shepherds keeping watch.
I don’t know how many shepherds were there that night. I don’t know what they were feeling. Perhaps some of them were bored. Perhaps one or two were anxious—about family situations or troubles at work. I wonder if one of them worried over a sick child at home, maybe one that wasn’t going to get well. Perhaps there were shepherds who were indifferent or angry or bitter or stressed. I wonder if some of them were just plain sleepy, worn out by too many late nights out in the fields.
I suspect that these shepherds weren’t all that much different from you and me.
Like most of us most of the time, the shepherds were on the alert for predators, but they were not expecting angels.
Think about it. On your average day, how much time do you spend on the alert for predators? I don’t mean wolves. I mean drivers consumed by road rage who threaten to cut you off on the highway. Or salesmen who try to sweet talk you into purchases you don’t really need and can’t really afford. Or co-workers who offer a cutting remark questioning your competence just as the boss walks by. Some of you might even have experience with predators in your own family—you know about being on the lookout for an angry word tossed like a grenade into the living room.
Now think about how much time, on your average day, you spend on the alert for angels? Not much, I bet.
Like most of us most of the time, the shepherds were on the alert for predators that night, but they were not expecting angels.
There were shepherds living in the fields nearby Bethlehem, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.
God likes to surprise us!
Luke writes that the shepherds were terrified. Well, of course they were terrified. That’s the normal response when the glory of God intrudes on our little world—terror.
Whispers from God as we come before him in prayer are one thing. Gentle nudges from God as we sleep are one thing. An angel appearing out of nowhere while the night sky suddenly shines bright with the glory of the Lord is a whole different thing entirely.
Whatever the shepherds were feeling before—boredom, anxiety, anger, sleepiness—they were now unified in feeling terrified.
The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid.” Of course, that’s what angels always say. Those are the first words they learn in any human language: do not be afraid.
If I were in that field with the shepherds I’m pretty sure that those comforting words would not be quite enough to stop my knees from knocking. Those words may not have been enough to quell all their trembling, but the words were enough that the shepherds removed their hands from over their faces. The words were enough to encourage the shepherds to listen to and hear the words that followed.
“I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
That’s a relief. If the shepherds knew their scripture, they knew that angels sometimes come with good news and sometimes come with bad news. The shepherds could probably relax just a little bit now. Still, they had to be wondering: why is this angel appearing to us? Angels appear to prophets and leaders and mothers-to-be. Angels don’t appear to shepherds.
“Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”
It’s a birth announcement!
Of course, the shepherds didn’t know about the angelic birth announcements that came to Mary and to Joseph just months earlier.
But angels have done birth announcements before, and surely the shepherds knew about these. It was an angel that brought the news to Hagar that she would bear a son and name him Ishmael (Genesis 16:7). It was an angel that brought the news to Abraham and Sarah that the birth of the promised son would soon happen (Genesis 18). It was an angel who announced the conception of Samson (Judges 13).
In all of those cases, though, the angelic birth announcement came to one or both of the parents, not to unrelated, unfamiliar shepherds who just happened to be working in the general neighborhood.
There must be something special about this birth announcement.
It’s interesting the way the angel phrases it: a Savior has been born to you. God sent his Son because he so loved the world. But Jesus didn’t just come for the world in general.