Summary: The story of the angels isn’t so much about a heavenly sing-song than God announcing the end to the war between himself and the human race.
I’m sure we’re all fairly familiar with this scene—a group of shepherds are in the field quietly minding their own businesses when an angel appears to them.
We don’t know the name of this angel. However, the only angel to be named in the gospels in connection with the birth of Jesus was Gabriel. What do we know about him? Not a lot. The word ‘angel’ means ‘messenger,’ and he came from God. We normally get the idea that he had wings and a harp, and probably looked like a little baby.
We do know that he was scary. How do I know that? Because people had a tendency to get scared whenever he showed up! Now this makes sense. The name ‘Gabriel’ means ‘God’s Soldier.’ So we don’t have a choir boy. Rather, we have a mean lookin’ soldier angel. He didn’t carry a harp, but perhaps a sword. He didn’t wear long flowing robes, but battle armour.
So an angel appeared to the shepherds. We don’t know that it was Gabriel. But the reaction of the shepherds suggests it may have been! (To be honest, it really doesn’t matter. If it did, Luke would have told us. We can’t let the truth get in the way of a good story! ;-)) Add to that the fact that the Glory of the Lord was shining around. The point is that whoever or whatever happened that night, the shepherds were more than a little worried.
What was the Glory of the Lord? The Jews understood God’s glory as something tangible. It wasn’t just a word they used to describe how good and magnificent God was. It was something real that you could see and touch!
In the Old Testament Moses saw the Glory of the Lord very briefly, and it affected him to the point where people couldn’t even look at him for six weeks afterward. So imagine how the shepherds felt. This scary looking warrior angel appears out of nowhere, and the Glory of the Lord was shining around everywhere. They were right to be scared!
The angel delivers a strange message about a baby being born, and then things really get interesting. A company of the heavenly host appeared, praising God and saying, ’Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests!’
Now notice again the angels. They were a company of the heavenly host. Not the tenor section of the heavenly choir. This is military language! What’s more, they spoke their message. They didn’t sing. How many of the songs we’ve sung today got that little point wrong? This wasn’t a choir singing Christmas carols. This was a battalion ready for war!
But look at their message:
’Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.’
They were prepared for war. Yet they brought a message of peace.
This is God’s way of saying, ’You deserve judgment, but I am offering mercy!’ The child born in Bethlehem will be the judge of the world, but through him you can escape harm.
The message of the angels is mercy. But there is a condition attached. This message of peace is only for those upon whom God’s favour rests.
Now here’s a scary thought. Does this include all of us? Who does God’s favour rest on?
Let’s look at the first part of the angel’s message. He said, ‘I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.’ Not just these few folk in the field. Not just the Amalgamated Shepherds and Animal Husbandry Union. Not just the Jews! All people.
He goes on. Who was Jesus born for? ‘Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you.’
Who was he born for? Again, not just the shepherds. As the Gospels progress we learn that he wasn’t just for the Jews. When the angels say, ‘to you,’ they mean to everybody! This baby was born for everybody, and his mercy is available to everybody.
This continues throughout the New Testament. Paul often begins and ends his letters with the words, ‘Grace, mercy and peace to you.’ Paul wishes us peace and mercy. Grace is God’s favour, given to those who don’t deserve it. So the angels don’t say ‘peace to those who deserve it.’ They say ‘peace to those on whom God’s favour rests.’ God loves us all, and wishes for none of us to perish. He wishes his favour on everyone. We simply have to accept it.
*So why do we need God’s grace?*
The world’s at war with God. Since the beginning of time we’ve been rebelling against God. Whenever we do anything that is against God’s design for this world, we are fighting him. Whenever we do anything that is contrary to God’s desire for ourselves, we are fighting him. Whenever we do anything not in accord with God’s character, we are fighting him.