That first Christmas night, the shepherds on that Judean hillside were properly terrified by the Identified Flying Object blazing above them. They weren’t learned men steeped in the Hebrew scriptures, but any Jewish kid knew that when an angel shows up, things happen, and they aren’t always things we like.
It had been four hundred years since the prophetic voice had gone silent in Israel. And the last thing the last prophet had said is that when God did show up again in Israel’s history, it would be terrifying indeed:
“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty.
“Not a root or a branch will be left to them…. See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction” (Malachi 4:1, 5-6).
All the prophets sounded like that. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel…they all were forever shouting imprecations on Israel for its manifold sins in the most appalling language. Yes, there were some promising bits shining amid the spouting lava of prophetic fury. But they applied only to a remnant sometime in the future. And those four hundred intervening years had brought Israel mostly oppression and a lot of misery.
The shepherds themselves lived under Roman domination. But it was worse than that. Their immediate ruler was a Jew, King Herod the Not-So-Great, who collaborated with the Romans and oppressed his own people to build huge monuments to himself in the capital city, taxing the nation into poverty. Darkness layered on darkness, wickedness upon wickedness.
And now: an angel. Literally the word means “messenger,” and given what was going on in Jerusalem, the divine message was surely going to be bad news indeed: judgement again on Israel.
Yet the shepherds heard this, instead: “Fear not. For look! I bring you good news of great joy for everyone.”
Now that message was not what had been long expected. “Be afraid! God is about to rain down hell upon you” was more like it. But the angel went on: “Today, to you, is born a Saviour—Messiah, the Lord!”
(It’s too good to be true. Stay low, stay braced. Maybe he’ll go away and leave us alone.)
“And this shall be a sign to you.”
Ah, here it comes. Trees clapping their hands, hills skipping like lambs—which sounds kind of positive, even cute, until you realize that the only time that kind of thing happens is during a violent earthquake.
Here it comes. Flood. Fire. Pestilence. Plague. Invasion. We already have a portent in the sky, and he’s announcing the news of what’s to follow.
“This shall be a sign to you: You will find…a baby, swaddled, lying in…a manger.”
That. Doesn’t. Make. Any. Sense.
The sign of the great and awesome Day of the Lord is…a baby? Bundled up in a feeding trough? To be sure, lying in a manger would distinguish this baby from all the others in Bethlehem that night. But what a distinction! Abject poverty!
Emmanuel: God with us, not against us. Solidarity, rather than judgment. No one could fear that God was high above them, grabbing some thunderbolts to strike them down, if the Saviour was right here among us—at the humblest point humanly possible: a baby, a desperately poor baby.
And this baby was the one who would show us who God really is, which is what “glory” means: to be at one’s best, to be revealed as one’s true self. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth shalom to all on whom he shows favour.”
No blazing prophetic curse. No crushing list of sins. And no insistence that everyone shape up, pronto, or else.
Just the best good news ever of God giving to us as a Christmas present what we could not, and cannot, do for ourselves. Salvation: from everything that is wrong with us, from our insides out…to the uttermost reaches of the planet.
And here’s the laconic part I love:
“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’”
Well, no kidding. Good thinking, guys. Might be worth a stroll into town to see what’s what.
In the midst of our busy holiday, may we all take the time to hear the astounding word of the Lord and see this amazing thing that has happened. It’s more, far more, than we have any reason, or right, to expect.