Today we come to the end of our Christmas sermon series, “Angels Among Us”, looking at the role angels played in the Christmas story. We talked about how the angel Gabriel gave a message to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, and to Mary, the mother of Jesus. We talked about how an unnamed angel--might’ve been Gabriel, might not--gave a message to Joseph. Now, we come to the last appearance of an angel in the Christmas story, the story of the shepherds.
This is one of the stranger things about the Christmas story, that God would have the birth of the Savior be announced to a bunch of shepherds. See, “shepherd” was not an occupation that was very well thought of. In fact, shepherd was kind of down at the bottom of the list as far as honorable professions were concerned. Nobody wanted to hear their son say, “Dad, when I grow up, I want to be a shepherd.” Now don’t get me wrong. It was honest work and it was important and necessary work. But it was hard work, it was low pay, and it was not a job that very many people wanted to have.
One of the reasons for that is that somebody had to watch the sheep twenty-four/seven. Even in the middle of the night, you still had to watch them. In fact, that may have been the time you had to watch them the most, because night, of course, would be when animals would be on the prowl to try to kill the sheep. So it was natural that, in the familiar Bible phrase, shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night.
As far as the shepherds were concerned, of course, this was going to be a night like any other night. They were out there, keeping a lookout. They were probably a little tired. They were probably kind of grimy, too, because you know, there was probably no good way for them to keep themselves clean even if they wanted to. Then, as we read, “an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified”.
We’ve talked about how everyone in the Christmas story other than Joseph, was scared to death when they saw an angel. But I think it’s more understandable for the shepherds. After all, they not only saw an angel, but we’re told “the glory of the Lord shone around them”.
This is the first time in the Christmas story we’ve heard about the glory of the Lord shining around someone. But there are other places in the Bible that reference the glory of the Lord shining. We hear about it in Exodus when Moses talks to God. We hear about it again at the transfiguration, when Jesus meets with Moses and Elijah. We also hear about it in Revelation, when John gives a description of heaven. It’s described as this brilliant, dazzling, unearthly sort of light, brighter than anything we can imagine.
Maybe it sounds like it’d be kind of cool to see that, but the people who actually did see it did not think it was cool at all. They were scared to death. And I think there’s a good reason why. After all, think about this. Think about actually seeing the glory of the Lord. It’d be awesome, but you know what it would do? It would make us realize who we really are.
Most of us like to think we’re pretty good. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way, necessarily. But most of us like to think we’re doing okay. We know we’re not perfect, we know we have flaws, but we don’t like to think about them too much. We know we have things to work on, but by and large, we like to think we’re more or less all right.
And that’s not all bad. In fact, there’s an extent to which it’s good. I’m not saying we should go around miserable and depressed and beating ourselves up for our flaws all the time. That’d be a pretty lousy way to live.
But that’s why seeing the glory of the Lord is so frightening. Because when we see the glory of the Lord, we realize how holy and awesome and perfect God actually is. And when we see how holy and awesome and perfect God is, we then see how unholy and wretched and imperfect we are. All those sins and flaws and imperfections, all those things we’ve tried so hard to ignore, all of a sudden those come forward in our minds as big as life, if not bigger. The difference between us and God, that vast gulf between who we are and who God is, comes to the forefront in such a way that we have to deal with it. And it makes us miserable.
So take that, and then think about being a shepherd. Think about not having a very high opinion of yourself anyway, because society tells you all the time how low you are. And then think about seeing the glory of the Lord, and seeing that huge gulf between who you are and who God is. It’s no wonder the shepherds felt the way they did.
And then, the angel says those words. “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” All of the people. Including you. You, as low as you are, are going to get good news of great joy from an angel. “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
And while you’re still trying to take all that in, all of a sudden “a great company of the heavenly host” appears. More angels than you can even begin to count are all around you. And they’re praising God, and they’re saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
And then they leave. And you and the other shepherds just kind of look at each other. “Did you see that?” “Uh--maybe.” “What do you mean, ‘maybe’?” “Well, what did you see?” “Well, I’m not sure, but it looked kind of like an angel of the Lord.” “Yeah, I thought that, too. And did you see the glory of the Lord shining?” “I think so. And what about that other thing? Did you see that?” “You mean that thing that looked like a heavenly host? Yeah, I saw that!” “Yeah! Me, too!”
And the more you talk about it, the more excited you get. Because you realize that this was not just a dream. This was not just your imagination playing tricks on you. It really happened. God really sent angels to give an incredible message to you. You, the lowest of the low. You, who have no business even thinking you could be anywhere near the presence of God. God has sent a Savior to the world. To all of the world. Including you. And God specifically wanted you to know that.
And as Linus says in the Charlie Brown Christmas special, that’s what Christmas is all about. The Savior of the world coming into the world for you. Not just for the rich. Not just for the powerful. Not just for the popular. For you. And for me. As low and flawed and unworthy as we all are. God has sent the Savior into the world for us. And God specifically wants us to know that.
It really is incredible. You and I have no business being in God’s presence. And yet, we’re allowed by God to come into God’s presence. Not only are we allowed in, we’re invited in. God wants us to come into God’s presence. God is eager to have us come into God’s presence. There is nothing that makes God happier than when we come into God’s presence.
Why? Because God loves us. It’s a love that we don’t deserve. It’s a love that we can never earn. But then, that’s what love is. Love, real love, is never something we earn. Love is never something we deserve. Real love is always a gift, a complete and total gift, given with no expectation of anything in return.
God loves us so much that, as unworthy as we are, God sent the Savior into the world to save us. And then, God sent angels to make sure we all knew about it.“For God so loved the world that world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”