We all have family traditions that we associate with Christmas: Maybe they are cherished childhood memories or things that we try and instill in our children or things that we watch our grandchildren enjoy. They give us a sense of connectedness between the past and our future. One of my childhood memories is a nativity scene that used to stand on our mantelpiece in the lounge. I remember it being unpacked sometime about the middle of December from its box with the blue lid with a plastic window in it. So this Christmas I want to invite you to join in this family tradition and unpack the nativity scene. No not just take it out of its box but allow ourselves to take the characters we associate with the nativity out of the idealised scene and have them speak to us afresh this Christmas.
Today we want to unpack Luke’s account of the birth of Christ and in particular its focus on shepherds and angels. Because they tell us that the birth of this child was good news for both great and small. We live in a time when angels have come in to vogue again. They are popular in films like ‘the city of angels and Michael even that rather sacrilegious movie Dogma. They adorn artwork and cards. But as Phillip Yancy says in ‘The Jesus I never Knew’ they have become rather cuddly creatures. Not quite celestial tele-tubbies or teddy bears but cute and cuddly. Likewise the shepherds in the nativity scene have become rather cute and if not cuddly sanitised. You have to admit the children’s Christmas pageants might have a bit to do with that, because well you know that all the young girls make beautiful angels and the boys make great shepherds, tripping over long dressing gowns and wrestling with towels and head bands as they troop down the isle. We need to step beyond these images to grasp something of their significance for us.
It seems that the appearance of angels was on the most part anything from cuddly, and when angels appear often the first words out of their mouths are fear not. Angels are spiritual beings in scripture, creatures of light, it tells us that they are God’s messengers. When Luke tells us a host of angels joined the one angel who announced the good news of Jesus birth to the shepherd it was a host or army. We may think of a choir of children or even a grand choir from a cathedral but perhaps we should think more the impact of facing the All Black’s Haka. Although the fearsomeness of the angels is not in their aggression but rather the radiance that comes from being in the presence of the most high God.
As I read this chapter in Luke I can’t help but think of the movie ‘the kingdom of heaven’, which I re-watched with one of my daughters the other day, about Saradin retaking Jerusalem there is a solitary horse man on the hill and then the camera pans up and behind the fold in the land there is a great army of men flags waving sun glinting off spears and shields. It’s awesome, it’s frightening.
The angel’s appearance in the story has several things to tell us.
Firstly it shows us how thin the veil between the realm of man and the spiritual realm is. These beings did not have to travel eons across the vast expanses of space rather the sky is rolled back like the curtain on the stage and there they are. The amount of angelic activity round this birth shows us that here at this place and at this point in history is the thinnest of points between the heavens and the realm of man. Where the creator of it all is born a human being. God draws near and his messengers and armies gather to see and give God praise.
It also shows us the dual way in which we are to view the reality we live in. Its a world of solid hills and mountains, vast distant stars, animals and human beings but beyond that we find ourselves in a greater cosmic reality where the purposes of God are worked out and as in the vivid and fantastic imagery of revelations we see that there is a battle raging between the forces of God and evil. Here in this Child's birth is Gods great move that will bring salvation and an end the reign of sin and death.
Thirdly, the angels are the beings that know what is going on, they are the ones who know beyond a shadow of doubt who the child in the manger is. They have heard God’s plan they have been sent to announce his birth and they give God praise for the way in which this birth will be good news to all people. Maybe they would have wondered at why they were there in a field arrayed in splendour before shepherds in the field instead of the temple in Jerusalem or the palaces of the world. It is the only time that they will have the privilege of making such an announcement because in the wisdom of God the proclamation of whom this child is and what he has done will be left not to angels but to people like the shepherds and people like us who have come to know Jesus. Two angels get the privilege of declaring to the women at the tomb who had come to anoint Jesus body that the one they seek is not longer there he has risen, but apart from that the telling of the good news of Jesus Christ is left in our hands. JB Phillips in his story ‘the visited planet’ has a senior angel telling a young angel the wonders of when the son had visited that small insignificant planet and as they look at the dark globe before them there is a great flash of light when the angelic army sing god’s praise and then an even greater flash as the power of God raises Jesus from the dead but after that like a series of small candles being lit at a vigil small light come on all round the world as one person tells another about the wonder of the God’s coming amongst us.
The shepherds do seem rather a strange group to be the ones who are told of this birth maybe one would consider the religious authorities in Jerusalem to the best people to hear or the king and the powerful people in the world. But maybe they were not willing to hear. The religious leaders while looking for a messiah were looking for a certain type of messiah a certain type of saviour and as Paul says to the Corinthians the wisdom of God was as foolishness to the wise. In fact in Luke's gospel, it is two elderly people humble people who pray at the temple who of the religious community sense the spirit's prompt that here is the one they long for (Simeon and Anna in Luke 2:22-39). Herod definitely knows the ramifications of the birth of and the disruption it could cause he sees Jesus as a threat. But the good news comes to shepherds out in the fields going about their work. People who because of their work were both held up as virtuous if they cared for their sheep but also because of their living rough as being outcasts from polite society. This sets the agenda for God’s amazing grace, that God’s good news was indeed for all people. That God was identifying with the humble and the powerless and the outcast. AS Phillip Yancy says Christmas shows us some profound things about God, the one who the angels worship is a humble God and an approachable God whose love is for all. So it is the shepherds who go and see what they were told of by the angelic host who have the privilege of declaring to people what they have seen and heard. They declare the coming of the kingdom of God. Later Fishermen and tax-collectors, women with questionable backgrounds prostitutes and lepers declare that in this person Jesus is God’s good news. It goes on to ordinary people like you and I. Last week in Church a women commented on a sermon I had preached that mentioned the shepherd's being at work and she said for her it was an aha moment that the call for us as witnesses to Christ was the market place, the work place that God's good news was to be revealed and heralded there rather than reserved for church. Amen I said.
God today looks to the humble and the weak to declare the good news. That the one who created it all, the one who is constantly praised and honoured by the angelic hosts loves us and became one of us. He seeks out the poor of spirit, the lost the lowly and broken and offers them healing and wholeness and then invites them to share the wondrous good news with a world he loves.