Try to imagine that you are a shepherd. Day after day, night after night, year after year, your life consists of watching some sheep. And then, on one seemingly ordinary night, a night just like every other night, an angel appears. And Luke says that the “glory of the Lord shone around them.” I don’t know what the “glory of the Lord” quite looks like, but it appears to be an intense experience of light.
After all the darkness of the night, the men are temporarily blind. And in the midst of all that sudden brightness is a powerful, shining figure, one that leads you immediately to think, “This must be an angel” even though you’ve never seen one. The sight is so startling, indeed so terrifying, that you are literally shaking. And then the angel speaks, and tells you: 1) Don’t be afraid, because I’m bringing you good news; and 2) The good news is that the Messiah, the Christ, has been born, and you are one of the first people in all the world to know it. And then all of a sudden that single angel is surrounded by countless others, and they’re all shouting: “Glory to God in the highest! And on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
Can you imagine what you would think? (After you got your heart re-started and your breathing slowed down!). For hundreds and even thousands of years of Jewish history prior to this point, the nation has been looking for the coming of Messiah, the One sent from God to reveal his nature in unique ways, to deal with sin, and restore the nation to all that God promised Israel in His covenant with her. And finally, God has come. He has invaded the world, coming as Messiah. And the first people he decides to tell, via angelic messengers? A bunch of sleepy shepherds in the Judean hills outside the village of Bethlehem. After you got over the shock, I bet you’d do what these guys did: go and check out the angel’s words, to be sure you hadn’t just been having some sort of weird group hallucination, brought on by too many sheep and too many nights outdoors with a rock for a pillow.
The funny thing is, they find things exactly like the angel said-they find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger, a feed trough in a barn. And so they tell the baby’s parents what has happened to them and what the angel said. The shepherds couldn’t shut up about it, so many people in Bethlehem heard about their experience. And the Bible says that “all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.” Which I think is Luke’s way of saying that “folks weren’t quite sure whether to believe their wild story or not.” After all, if you were God, would you make your presence in the world known first and primarily to a group of shepherds? Why not a king who could announce your coming with a royal banquet in your honor or at least a journalist, who could take photos of the angelic announcement? But no, an angelic announcement to a bunch of shepherds, a couple appearances to the parents to let them in on what’s happening, and a bunch of swirling rumors is all that God allows, even though the birth of this baby was the hinge point of all of human history, the beginning of the times when God will bring an end to evil and restore the world to the way it’s supposed to be.
It seems almost ridiculous, doesn’t it, that God would announce the birth of His Son that way? But the same things that make it seem ridiculous also lends it elements of wonder and of awe. What kind of a God considers shepherds of all people worth being the only people to whom a direct angelic announcement of this importance comes? The kind of God who makes all men, women, and children in his image and considers them all equally important and equally in need of the Savior He sent. The kind of God who sends His Son to be born, not in a palace to a reigning king and queen, but to an unmarried peasant couple in a barn, whose only claim to royalty is the fact that they are descendants of a line of kings who last ruled over 600 years ago. The kind of God, incidentally, who is humble enough to not only be born in low, despised, questionable, and even scandalous circumstances, but who is also humble enough to die the same way-low, despised, questionable, and scandalous.
After all, a big part of the wonder of Christmas, properly understood, comes from knowing the rest of Luke’s Gospel story. This baby born in Bethlehem was a baby born with the shadow of death already hanging over his cradle. Baby Jesus was born into our world of filth, and sin, and death specifically so that he might conquer filth and sin and death in each of our lives by his death on a cross-the most despicable, low, and scandalous way a person can die. In other words, he was born, according to God’s purpose and plan, so that he might die according to God’s purpose and plan.
And God’s plan was always for Jesus, the God-man, to be born, to grow up to be a man of power, miracles, and magnificent teaching who was killed for our transgressions and pierced for our evil, just as Isaiah the prophet said 800 years before Jesus. In fact, the apostle Paul calls Jesus “the Lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world.” God always knew that once He created humans, they would rebel against him and need a Savior. So he planned far in advance for that Bethlehem night with Mary and Joseph.
And when it all finally came to pass, the Bible says that Mary “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” She wasn’t sure exactly what to think about all that had happened to her and Joseph, or about all that the shepherds told them about what they’d seen and heard. And some of you may be sitting there, like Mary, wondering the same thing: “What do I think about this Christmas story?” Is it really true that God came into the world like this? Could that really be so? And could it really be true that Jesus was born only to die for me on that Cross years later? And could I really find forgiveness for all the things I’ve ever done wrong by believing in a man who started out life in a barn?
Let me assure you that the answer to all of your questions like this is “Yes.” You really can find forgiveness for your sins by believing in the God-Man Jesus, born as a baby in a Bethlehem stable who grew up to become the Crucified God who rose from the dead three days after his execution. God Himself came into our world in just this way-without much fanfare and in the humblest of circumstances to save you from your slavery to yourself and your sin and the penalty of death forever in Hell.
Let me also assure you that everyone who believes that can experience the wonder and awe of Christmas in a fresh way, recognizing that it’s not about tinsel and lights and Santa and shopping, or even about family and food, but about a God who loves us too much to leave us to die in our sins. It’s about a God who invaded human history, becoming a man, dying at the sinful hands of evil men, to save all of us evil men from our sins and take us to live with Him in glory forever.