Luke 2:8–10 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.
Weak with sadness a man uses a wall to hold himself up. He leans there and closes his eyes. He can’t look anymore at the life he’s created for himself. And then a voice rudely, but delicately interrupts the man’s despair only to deepen it. The voice commands him to look, but not at the life he has. It’s worse. The voice commands him to look at the life he’s missed. The scene dramatically softens as the sad, sad man looks on. He watches as music plays and a wife glows. He watches as children bound and dance around a beautiful Christmas tree. Then a husband and a father dashes into the room to a roar of joy. And that does it. Ebenezer Scrooge yells in despair to the Ghost of Christmas Past, “I cannot bear it. Haunt me no more!” That’s one of the most poignant scenes from Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol. It’s a book that has never once gone out of print in over 150 years and just a few years ago even came out as a Disney movie starring Jim Carrey.
It’s not hard to understand why the story is so relevant. Modern American Christmas expectations have a tendency to produce them. I’ve seen the pain Christmas causes when workaholic men slow down at the end of a year and begin to grasp what they’ve done to their wives and their kids. I’ve heard the sadness in the voices of widows who have told me, “I’m just going to try to get through Christmas without him. It was 45 years you know.” And apparently I’m not alone in seeing this. Early this week, I typed “Christmas causes…” into my Google search bar curious to see how searchers normally finished the phrase. And do you know what I saw? Three results. Interestingly, they seemed to descend in order of importance. The top three search results respectively were: Christmas causes depression; Christmas causes stress; and Christmas causes tree rash.
The results didn’t surprise me – except for maybe the tree rash part. They wouldn’t have surprised Luke either. He went to great lengths to show us that this is the normal even expected Christmas experience. Because Christmas starts with shepherds. And let me tell you something, nobody wants to grow up to be a shepherd. Nobody. You remember David, the one that killed Goliath, you know why he started out as a shepherd boy? You think it was because he went to the Ancient Near East’s Harvard graduating Summa Cum Laude? Not a chance. It was because he was the youngest of his brothers and when his older brothers didn’t want the shepherding gig he got stuck with it. I guarantee you it wasn’t any different for these men. I mean just listen to the way Luke writes about it. “There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” (v. 8) This isn’t camping by a creek on some beautiful mountain or nestling in on some sweet RV pad at a national park. This is living out in the fields. All the time. This is Ancient Near Eastern life at its worst and most difficult.
And I suppose that would be bad enough, but that hard scrabble life came with great reputational cost too. Not only did they have to deal with dumb and dirty sheep – and that from what I understand is its own special kind of punishment – but they also had to deal with the stereotyping and the prejudices of everyone they met. Every time they went out shopping they had to deal with the stares of the shop owners who thought for sure they would swipe a fig or with a deft hand movement make off with some of their wares. In fact, shepherds were considered so shifty, so unreliable, and so untrustworthy that they weren’t even allowed to offer testimony in the day’s courts. They were the most down on life, barely eeking it out, and down trodden folks you could find anywhere. And there they sat at night, which isn’t accidental. Like just coincidentally the clock just happened to be somewhere past 6 pm when this all went down. God is trying to help us understand the world that he was about to break into. It was a dark, black world not just in the sense that eyes were dark, but that hearts were too. And that’s where Christmas started. With shepherds sitting in the dark.
It still does. At least, that’s what Google’s statistics and Charles Dickens continuing relevance suggests. That deep down we see how Christmas still starts with shepherds – with people who can be so spiritually down on life, so barely eeking it out, and so spiritually down trodden. Ironically, its the glory of Christmas that puts that truth into stark relief. Because this time of year we finally seem to know how much better we could be. We can picture how we’re supposed to kiss our wives under the mistletoe; how our kids should dance and hug with thanks for the presents; how adult sibling relationships are supposed to hum; and how nationally we should all be contentedly sipping on a similarly designed Starbuck’s cup. And then my sister comes into town guardedly wondering if I’m still that twelve-year-old brother in the backyard who sent her to mom crying. And my wife is giving me the evil eye for forgetting to take out the garbage last night while the kids are remarking that I messed up and got the wrong Lego set. And nationally? We’re pounding cup designs down each other’s throats, more politically polarized than ever before, and shooting each other up. And that’s where Christmas starts. Christmas starts with the realization that we’re shepherds sitting in the spiritual dark.
And then the Lord breaks into our lives, but probably not in the way you might first expect. Luke’s not preaching a sermon here about angelic glory – how this angel of the Lord actually wasn’t some huggable, kissable little cherub holding grapes and a miniature harp. Luke’s not even really emphasizing the harsh, revealing glory of the Lord that left the shepherds feeling so terrifyingly revealed that they saw their lives practically passing before their eyes. Luke’s doesn’t even at first highlight the Christ of the angel’s message. Not at first. Did you catch what Luke emphasized as of first and premiere importance? “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people.” (v. 10) No mention of the Christ. Not yet. No mention of the Christ’s saving work either. That would come. What he first tells them is εὐαγγελίζομαι. It’s actually just one word in Greek. It means, “I’m going to gospel you,” or, “I’m going to good news you,” or, “I’m going to bring you a happy message.” And so emphatic is this angel and, for that matter Luke, that they even put the word, “behold,” before εὐαγγελίζομαι. The NIV didn’t translate it, but it’s there. The angel literally said, “Behold, I bring you good news.”
And, honestly, when I was studying this passage I pictured my college English professor saying to Luke frustratedly, “Don’t tell them what you’re going to say, just say it. Why all this emphasis on the bringing or the proclamation or the messaging of the good news? Why don’t you just get to it?” And maybe I can help you get at why Luke does this by sharing with you another one of the thoughts I had about this passage. I wondered to myself how much that, “I,” in, “I bring you good news,” meant to that angel. Truthfully, that’s what I thought about. You know why I thought about that? Because angels almost never get to message humans about Jesus. Almost never. And that made me wonder a bit why we ever started calling angels messengers because they hardly ever are. I’ve never once had an angel message me about anything not even on Twitter.
And that’s the point. On the night of Jesus’ birth, this supernatural, angelic activity was totally justified. How else do you let the world know that the King is personally breaking into history as a human especially when he’s being born in backwater Bethlehem probably off in some dank cave? How else do you put an exclamation point on that kind of exclamation point? I think you might do something totally abnormal and completely out of the ordinary like, for example, let an angel bear the tidings. But Jesus was only born once. And I hate to disappoint you, but we missed this angelic preacher by – oh – about two thousands years or so. Now are you seeing it? Are you seeing why Luke is emphasizing the preaching in this account? Are you getting why the first and premiere thing the angel has to say is the one thing that wouldn’t go away once that night ended? Are you seeing why Luke doesn’t so much want us to think about how our pupils might have constricted because of glory in that moment, but really about how our hearts can still pulse with joy even today?
Because now that angel is back at whatever spiritual post he’s got. And now the glory of the Lord that cut a worm hole right into this spiritual dimension has receded back into the throne room of God. And now we can’t even go see our Savior wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. I actually went to Bethlehem and tried. I’m telling you the baby’s not there anymore. And yet. And yet, God still breaks in on us spiritual shepherds. The angel, the baby in the manger, and the glory of the Lord may be missing, but God still breaks into the night of modern shepherds with gospel preaching. That’s why the angel said, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” (v. 10) Luke is saying that when people get gospeled or good newsed or evangelized or whatever you want call it universal – for all – joy erupts. That’s how it always is. Let me talk about that, first, in sort of an academic way. I want to quote one of the most respected Greek lexicons available called the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament – TDNT for short – on the word εὐαγγελίζομαι. Here’s what it says, “Being proclamation of the good news of God, it carries with it both the offer and the power of salvation.” What that is saying is that through gospel preaching God not only offers salvation, but also works faith in it.
But don’t take my word for it or TDNT’s either. Take the angel’s. That’s exactly what he said. He said, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people.” (v. 10) Do you see the significance of that? When I evangelize you and tell you that you have a Savior and that he’s been born, I’m not telling you about some theoretical Jesus who likes you ok and will free up time in his schedule for you if you’ll only be his friend. I’m telling you about a real God-man who was born that night to be far more than your friend. I’m telling you about your Savior who is using the opportunity provided by these words to cut his cosmic throne right into the center of your heart. When I tell you that Christmas is all about a baby King with a majestic plan to take dirty, down and out shepherds and shepherdesses and turn them all into his heirs, his princes and princesses, do you realize it’s already way too late for you to do anything about that? It’s already been done. You’re already starting to feel the great joy the angel promised would come to us, his future hearers. And when on that basis I preach to you that your sins are forgiven, I’m not saying that forgiveness is conveniently available to you or that it’s merely being offered. I’m telling you it’s yours.
And that angel who talked about good news that will cause great joy? He was thinking about this future. And so was his King. It’s not too much to say that Peace was the King’s plan. You know why I know that? Because today happened. Just appreciate for a minute God’s intricacies, God’s premeditation, God’s planned cosmic twists and turns that all happened so that right here in this moment God could send his Spirit to douse us all with his gospel? How did I meet a guy at a certain gym at a particular time who had been praying for this church? How did I bump into another guy at an Aiken Young Professionals event who looked like an awful lot like all the Wisconsin deer hunters I had just left behind only with a sweet Carolina accent? How did it happen that my new insurance agent needed a church or the Spirit had a Rotary Club member by the shirt collar or a Christian looking for a church home asked me to have breakfast with him the minute I got into town? How did it happen that some skinny Wisconsin pastor who knew absolutely nothing about church planting was moved to leave behind his nice office and flourishing pastor job? How do any of us who have been here during any part of the past year think that Peace is anything less than God’s own work?
The truth is that God wanted this future. And why? Because his gospel isn’t some dead, orthodox teaching. It’s a dynamite dogma that takes shepherd-like people and makes them kings. It’s a truth that takes dark, sad human souls and sets inside of them a fire of faith so powerful that no sin, no guilt, not death itself can extinguish it. And the truth is that the same Jesus Christ who ordered all of world history so that he would be born in that manger ordered that same history to give birth to this church. Peace is that big a deal. It’s nothing less than Christ for you. Understand that. The God of heaven, the Lord of glory, spotted you, a sad shepherd, sitting in the dark and that reality bugged him so much that he sprang off his throne, laid himself down in a manger and then climbed onto a cross. And once he had risen, he used his might to reach right back into history and create this church not so that Peace could make you the offer of his salvation, but so that Peace could give you the gift itself: faith in Jesus. So that you might have a joy that would carry you not only through a potential Christmas doldrum, but right into an eternity of joy with him. And one year of that? Now that’s worth celebrating. Amen.